Aardman director Peter Peake talks to 3D Artist magazine about ‘Pythagasaurus’, a short that started as a throwaway idea down the pub more than four years ago
3D Artist: Hi Peter! Can you tell us a little about how the concept for Pythagasaurus came about? (It’s genius, by the way!)
Peter Peake: (Thanks very much!) I actually came up with the idea for Pythagasaurus in the pub. Don’t exactly know why I started going on about a dinosaur who was good at maths but I knew straight away that he had to be called Pythagasaurus. It was that throwaway but the next day it was still stuck in my head and seemed to have potential. A rare occurrence.
3DA: And can you tell us about the team at Aardman that worked on the short – how many people/departments were involved?
PP: We had a small team of up to about half a dozen people at any one time depending on what stage we were at and crew availability. It was made by the CG department at Aardman based at the Gas Ferry Road site who largely produce commercials.
3DA: Are you able to tell us about Aardman’s self-funded projects – how do they work alongside client projects, and what are their main roles for the company?
PP: Basically the films that have been made through the self-funded scheme so far have all been ‘downtime’ projects. This means that crew can work on them in their spare time if they have no other commercial work to do. As soon as a commercial project comes in the film has to be shelved until crew are freed up again.
The original brief for these films was to allow commercial directors at Aardman the opportunity to create something outside of the recognised Aardman ‘house style’. This would help to broaden their range and hopefully bring in new work to the commercials department.
3DA: And how did you land the voices for the short – did you have them in mind from the start? How did your team match the character’s expressions to the voices so perfectly?
PP: Whenever I write a script I usually have the voice of a particular actor in my head for each character. Even if we don’t wind up getting that particular actor it’s a great help when fleshing out a character’s personality to have someone to base it on. With Ig the caveman I had Bill Bailey’s voice in my head from the start. I was dead lucky that our producer, Steph Owen, had a connection with Bill’s agent and he agreed to take the role. I had always imagined that the two cavemen would have a very blokey, down to earth relationship and Martin Trenaman was perfect casting in this sense as he knows Bill well and the two of them have a great rapport. Simon Greenall was recommended to us and being very familiar with his work on I’m Alan Partridge I jumped at the chance to work with him. His versatility was invaluable in nailing the character of Pythagasaurus.
All the animation on the film was by Pascale Bories who is a joy to direct. She has an uncanny knack of knowing exactly what I want from a character and if she doesn’t hit it straight away is very willing to try different approaches. We were lucky to have such great voices as they suggested a lot of the subtle performance nuances to Pascale and I but particularly with Ig we studied Bill Bailey’s performances as Manny in Black Books and also surreptitiously spied on people around the studio!
3DA: Can you tell us what software was used on the short? Were there any notable technical hitches along the way?
PP: I did all the initial design work and equations in Flash but mainly we used Maya. I suppose the main technical hitch was down to the fact that being a spare time project Pythagasaurus spent a fair bit of time sitting on a shelf whilst everyone was busy on other things. At one point in mid production the entire CG department changed over to a new operating system and Martin Blunden, one of our CG supervisors had to convert the whole project to Linux. Not so much a technical hitch but fairly arduous I’m sure.
Another factor of the long production process is that someone may start developing a plug in for instance and then two years down the line someone else has to pick it up. The cavemen’s hair was a point in case. This is obviously a little bit tricky in terms of continuity but again I was really lucky that the crew were so talented and patient and seemed to take it all in their stride.
3DA: And how about the fantastic post-production – what software was used and how long did the short spend in post?
PP: The post was all done in Nuke by Jim Lewis who did an amazing job of not only capturing the look and mood of the film from the initial designs but also ensuring that the whole 3D world and 2D equations meshed together in a way that wasn’t distracting. That was the main thing that I was concerned might not work with the film. It was easy enough for me to come up with 2D artwork incorporating loads of crazy equations floating around but to make that work convincingly in a 3D environment was quite a feat. Due to his inordinate talent Jim is one of the busiest people in the company so there was quite a wait for his availability but once he had a chance to get his teeth into the project the post was completed in a few weeks.
3DA: How long did the entire production take, from start to finish?
PP: Don’t ask. I did an email search the other day to see when I first used the word ‘Pythagasaurus’ and it was about four and a half years ago. That’s not to say it actually took us that long to make the film. As mentioned a lot of that time was spent with the film on hold waiting for crew to become available. I think if you added up the time that people actually spent working on the film it would perhaps be about three or four months in total.
3DA: And has it lived up to your original expectations, or even surpassed them? What kind of feedback have you had so far?
PP: I’m dead pleased with the final result. Usually I can’t watch a film for a few months after I’ve finished it but I was pretty excited to watch Pythagasaurus as soon as it was completed. I think the individual elements of the film have turned out very close to how I imagined them but the sum of the parts have come together to create something better than I’d hoped. Feedback has been really encouraging so far. Quite a few sites have featured the film favourably and there’s been a healthy number of hits on YouTube. Someone (and it wasn’t me, honest) actually left the following comment: ‘Inspired; love this Thank you for making it! Life is complete now :-)’. That kind of praise makes the last four and a half years seem worthwhile.