One of the highlights of the animated section at the Encounters festival was a Masterclass on feature filmmaking from Aardman Animations Creative Director Peter Lord, known mostly for directing “Chicken Run” and the more recent “Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists”. Aardman is arguably the most successful animation studio in Europe, not to mention one of my favourites, so I couldn’t miss the chance of hearing a talk from one of its founders. Lord used “Pirates” as working material to guide the audience through the process of making an animated feature film from concept to the final product, explaining all the steps and illustrating them with behind-the-scenes clips.
Now, if you didn’t already know a few things about how an animated film is made, it’s unlikely that you would have understood much from Lord’s one hour speech, especially since he also seemed to take it for granted, to a certain degree, that he was talking to connoisseurs (I recognized some of the directors of the competition shorts in the audience). The session was, however, a great opportunity for Aardman fans to know more- not about Making Films in general, but about how films are made at Aardman Studios, in particular, and get some insights into their work process and ethic, as well as gather various little anecdotes along the way. For example, in case you didn’t know already, the name of the studio comes from a superhero character that Lord and the other founder of the studio, David Sproxton, created for a (successful) BBC pitch, and the “aard” part of the word stands for “aardvark”. “If we had called the studio Lord&Sproxton, now we would be famous”, said Lord with humorous (or genuine?) regret.
Aardman’s co-founder explained that directing for animation is a very different business from live-action filmmaking and that “there is no glamour in it”. Perhaps Stanley Kubrick could afford to wait for a script to come along, but an animation director needs to get involved in the storytelling, although feature work is a change from short films in the sense that you have to trust a team of people with work you would usually do yourself on a short, such as storyboarding. Lord believes in the classic storytelling formula, at least as far as commercial films are concerned, but shaping the story for a feature is a lengthy process: from a deleted scene shot only in animatic form, we found out that “Pirates” was initially supposed to be a quest of returning Polly the dodo, the Pirate Captain’s pet, to her land of origin. We were able to take a peek at the step-by-step development of the film through clips that showed the evolution of a scene from storyboards to CGI preevies, to 3d printing mouth shapes for the puppets, to recording voices and the final studio shoot. We also found out that Hugh Grant, the voice of the Pirate Captain, had trouble with the more exuberant aspects of his pirate duty (but that’s no surprise for anybody who’s seen Hugh Grant in a movie) and that the original title music for the film was “Friggin’ in the Riggin’” from the Sex Pistols, but alas, they were not able to get away with such an obscene opening for a family movie. The director of photography for the “Pirates”, Frank Passingham, was also present, and he took the microphone for a few moments to answer questions about the film’s cinematography, in particular its use of CGI and green screen backgrounds (Passingham explained that since the film was shot in 3D, they were unable to use forced perspective and other tricks that had worked on Chicken Run).
While we’re being honest, Lord’s insight about making a feature animation, using “Pirates” as a study case, is not probably exceptionally relevant to the experience of the indie or small studio filmmakers who make most of Europe’s animators and who don’t enjoy the funding and number of working hands that Aardman, as one of the big players in animation, does at the moment. In these recession times, film funding has been melting away like snow in the sun, and animators nowadays will find it harder to gain funding from sources like Channel 4 or BBC, who funded many of Aardman’s early short films. Lord admitted throughout the session that he was focusing on commercial, “family” films, although even for a big name like Aardman the times are changing: “We want to make cheaper films”, he said, and even answered with “possibly” an audience member’s question about going to Kickstarter. Lord doesn’t think European films should be straining to be a big thing in America, necessarily: it’s a noble purpose that he isn’t very optimistic about. Aardman would definitely know about that, having went through a partnership with Dreamworks Studios. By the way, did you know that the idea for “The Croods” originated at Aardman? Of course, between the concept and the release of the finished film 8 years later, the partnership of the studios had dissolved already, and the only thing that was kept from the Aardman days was the haircut of one of the characters.
In the end, it was a pleasant afternoon with a great animator, if not necessarily a great public speaker, but definitely an honest one- asked by an audience member how upset he was, on a scale of 1 to 10, that “Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists” didn’t win a BAFTA award, Lord replied immediately: “Oh, 11! I was SO pissed! Not about not winning, but not even a nomination? Such a British film, full of British-ness!” A description which sums up quite well Aardman, their work and their people: completely and delightfully British.
Photo: IMDb and thepirates-movie.tumblr.com