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Aardman gets 3D printing savvy with The Pirates!

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Discover how 3D printing helped Aardman’s most adventurous and expansive stop-motion film to hit the big screens, ‘The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists’

On the set of The Pirates! at Aardman Animations

‘The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists’ is the new animated comedy feature from Aardman Animations and Sony Pictures Animation that takes us on a surreal quest through a beautifully created – albeit slightly anachronistic – world, where larger-than-life characters in larger-than-life situations prove Aardman capable of far more than the traditional character designs it’s become known and loved for.

The Pirates! features a greater range of characters – still as loveable and natural as their predecessors – that entertain with plenty of slapstick. Following the mishaps of a group of fairly hopeless male characters in their quest for fame and fortune, we revel in the hilarious consequences of their exploits, from unexpected chase scenes in a bathtub through Charles Darwin’s house in Victorian London, to the surprising sinking of the Beagle. “You’ve got pirates straight out of the Caribbean [in the] 1700s coming up against Queen Victoria,” laughs Loyd Price, supervising animator on The Pirates!

Pirate Captain featuring 3D-printed mouth replacements

Far surpassing Aardman’s earlier stop-motion projects, The Pirates! required one of the studio’s biggest animation teams yet – and, for the first time, a 3D printer. The problem with Plasticene is that the more detail you add, the easier it is to smudge! As a workaround, 3D printing was used to create hard mouth replacements for the film’s characters: the animation took the initial clay sculpts, removed the heads, cleaned off the hair and scanned them using a 3D scanner – taking them into Maya to prepare the models for 3D printing.

Maya was used to model replacement mouths for The Pirates!

Loyd explains: “We went for the EnvisionTEC printers because they were capable of doing very fine detail. They used to make jewellery and things like that as well. And what we liked about them is the fact that you could get very good surface detail and you didn’t have to sand them… because the things have supports behind them, you would have to cut off and sand the support, but the whole thing we wanted was to try and get texture onto the surfaces.”

A library system of mouths was created for The Pirates!The number of mouth shapes per character varied depending on how many lines each spoke: Pirate Captain had about 260; Queen Victoria and Charles Darwin around 220 each; with minor characters having anywhere from 40 made up. “You can cover most of your basic stuff with about 50 mouths [and] we’d also make specials – there’s a bit where [Pirate Captain] goes to kiss somebody, so he’s got to pucker his mouth up… that was the big advantage about having built the things in computer initially,” says Loyd.

Each animator would make a box of mouths for a specific shot. “Sometimes in your box you might get a mouth that says “Ian, Unit 2”, and you’d know that it was in a unit nearby [with] one of the other animators, and you just had to borrow that mouth from him and give it back,” Loyd says, laughing. “In the end I think we ended up building about 5000 different mouths. There was a lot of sanding, painting, and cleaning up!”






Pirate Captain shows what he's made ofDelve deeper!

For an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at Aardman’s latest flick The Pirates!, check out the new issue of 3D Artist magazine, available to buy now from all good newsagents, supermarkets and at the official Imagine Publishing online store.

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  • This is VERY cool, it’s great to see 3D printers getting closer to the detail they all claim to have!

    I’m a bit on the fence though with this process for a stop motion animated film. Modelling and then 3D printing… it’s kind of cheating. I mean, you’ve eliminated at least half of the “hands on” part. Why not just keep the models in the computer and animate them there?

    What’s next, computer controlled robotic arms to move each piece?

    Sorry… it’s still cool, just doesn’t seem quite right.

  • You have to rea more carefully

    :”As a workaround, 3D printing was used to create hard mouth replacements for the film’s characters: the animation took the initial clay sculpts, removed the heads, cleaned off the hair and scanned them using a 3D scanner – taking them into Maya to prepare the models for 3D printing.”

  • Hi Chris, this blog entry offers just a glimpse at the making of the film – I think when you see the film, and if you get chance to check out the feature in full, you’ll quickly realise that 3D printing isn’t a method of cheating on something of this scale – especially when you consider just how many complex characters and scenes are involved.

    Bear in mind that on a stop-motion film of this magnitude, animators will shoot on average five and a half seconds a week. Hard for us to imagine, right? I personally don’t see CG and 3D printing as ‘cheating’ on The Pirates!; it’s quite simply been used tastefully to help create a classic stop-motion on a ridiculously huge scale.

    It’s also worth remembering that Henry Selick’s 2009 masterpiece ‘Coraline’ used this same 3D-printed technique.

    P.S. The film is absolutely incredible 🙂