In 2007, word had it that The Pirates!, based on the books by Gideon Defoe, would be developed as a CGI movie under the direction of Aardman’s Peter Lord. “I did an initial [clay] sculpt of Pirate Captain for Pete, for when it was going to be the CG version, and Pete got the cabin built to help in terms of the look of it as a CG thing… to give the modellers and everyone an idea of what the look was going to be,” explains Loyd Price, animation supervisor on The Pirates!.
To show Sony Pictures Animation stills of the clay cabin, photographer Frank Passingham was hired in the October to take care of the shoot. “Sony saw the pictures and visited the studio [to see] the model of the cabin for themselves firsthand,” says Frank, who was cast as director of photography on The Pirates! several months later. “On the strength of what they saw, they decided it should be a stop-frame animation film. From that moment, we were all very excited that the film could be made in the medium that is Aardman studio’s true strength.”
A combination of stop motion and CG gave way to more options for problem solving the complexities of traditional stop-frame animation. Where it’s technically easier to handle water dripping off characters on a 5:1 scale set, vast expanses of sea with all the atmospheric effects is far easier to accomplish in CG. Read on to discover how rapid prototyping lent a helping hand to speed up the animation of character expressions on set, while CG software provided smoke, fire and foam with a classic Aardman twist.
The Pirates! is a unique film. Where else could you shoot 20 Hugh Grant scenes simultaneously, and employ hundreds of 3D-printed mouths to perfectly annunciate an actor’s dialogue, if not on the set of an Aardman production?
Work on The Pirates! far surpassed the studio’s earlier projects, requiring one of its biggest animation teams yet. “We’ve brought some people over from Canada and from various parts of Europe… by the time we finished the film, we had 32 animators on the team and then another five assistant animators,” says Loyd Price, recruiter of the talented force.
Unlike any other Aardman stop motion that has come before, 3D printing was brought in on The Pirates! to create hard mouth replacements for the many characters – as used in Henry Selick’s 2009 stop-motion fantasy, Coraline. “The characters were more complex on this film than what we’ve done previously – a character like Queen Victoria has very fine lips, and very fine teeth, and to get all your animators being able to sculpt that accurately [is] really difficult,” Loyd adds. “So that’s why we went down the rapid- prototyping route.”
With three 3D printers and a 3D scanner in tow, the animation team took the initial clay sculpts, removed the heads, cleaned off all their hair and scanned them all individually. “If we were just going to print objects off it’d be fine, but because we needed to actually be able to manipulate those objects, we then had to translate everything into Maya,” Loyd explains.
“Helen Duckworth, our CG modeller [would] build her framework over that, and it would attach to all the contours. Because what we were trying to get was something that still looked like it was hand-built, rather than built in a computer… She would spend about a week building the head in CG, also sorting out where all the cut lines were going to go for how the mouth was going to fit on, and all the internal geometry… so that when the skull was printed, it would take the fittings for the metal armature… It was a real mixture of model making and CG.”
While this may sound like a drawn-out process to most button-pushers, this laborious stage in fact sped up the shoot, because the lip-syncing was being worked out beforehand. “Generally, when we’re working with a character with a full Plasticine head, we’re probably spending half our working day sitting at our desks just changing the mouth – tweaking and adjusting the mouth shapes,” Loyd goes on. “With this movie, there are a lot more multiple character shots, there are a lot more characters moving around [and is] a lot more action. We’ve still got Plasticine on the forehead – so you’ve still got it around the eyes where you really need it for the acting and the performance. It just meant that we were able to animate quicker.”
Using hard mouth replacements came at the cost of ugly cut lines at the joins, which needed removing in post. But with those gone, you’d have no idea their faces weren’t entirely of Plasticine makeup! “I don’t think people should be aware of it,” says Loyd. “Nathan, who was our TD on the rapid-prototyping team, was able to make it so that we could put little fingerprints on the characters’ ears and textures on their noses, so that when you get in close on them, you have this textural feel.”
When asked if he missed the traditional way of sculpting expressions, Loyd responded, “I’ve been sculpting since I was very small, so you do miss the thing of re-sculpting the mouth shapes to some degree… We’ve still got Plasticine around the forehead and the eyebrows [because] when you’re watching somebody talk you’re always watching their eyes anyway… Really, once everybody gets [onboard]… it just frees you up!”
Shooting in stop motion differs from CG filmmaking in that your characters’ performances only happen in front of the camera. So rather than the many layers that will be laboured over in an all-CG production, the goal with stop motion is to get each shot in one take, like in live- action. But where live-action films generally tackle one or two scenes per day, Aardman will shoot up to 42 and from that an animator will achieve on average five and a half seconds of footage a week. It’s a slow process.
Adding to the complexities of stop-motion filmmaking, The Pirates! has also been shot in stereo. “In January 2009… it was not considered that it would be shot stereoscopic, as I had originally hoped,” director of photography Frank Passingham comments. “It took the release of Avatar to convince the producers that it should be shot [in] stereo, and after initial tests in mono we moved to shooting in stereo.”
This slowed things down on the set floor, however. “Your camera is on a little slider so basically it takes the left eye, moves across, takes the right eye, and then moves back,” Loyd says. “So you’ve got to do a lot of work making sure that the inter-optics are actually right… We had to do quite a lot of testing and we’d view stuff on our big screen upstairs… Because what happens is, when it’s in 3D, some of the stuff that you’d normally get away with in 2D, in terms of movements and things like that, become too strobe-y.” Scenes had to be carefully composed. This involved avoiding scenarios where light against dark objects at the edge of a frame might scramble the audience’s eyes in 3D.
Filming Aardman quality is a slick operation that aims to bring everything together right first time, starting with a pre-vis guide. “A great team of artists was put together to pre-vis every single shot in the film,” says CG supervisor Chris King. “This was hugely valuable to the entire production crew to be able to accurately see what made up each shot, from cameras and sets, to props and casting.”
Photographers use this pre-vis guide to set up the lighting ready for the animators to do a pop- through. “If a character is moving through the set he may be shown in sequential positions by shooting blocks of four, six or eight frames – a quick way to see the action is working and lighting is working with that action,” Frank says.
At Aardman, everything is performance driven. The director and the animator also do what they call a LAV (Live-Action Video), where the director acts out the shot with the animator. “You’re playing the actor’s dialogue, but basically you’re acting along to it,” Loyd offers. “We do that because, what we need to know is… what performance and what emotions we are going for… You’re really using it as a guide to where your key acting points are.”
Testing the puppets in a few key positions with the lighting and camera turned on ensures there are no odd shadows, and that foreground characters stand out well against the background. “After the pop through there may be a block – really a more detailed pop through,” Frank goes on. “After that comes a rehearsal, and finally shooting and animating for the shot proper. So after all these preparations and rehearsals we hope that when we get to the actual shot all the elements will come together and we’ll get it right the first time.“
Aardman has a proven track record in stop motion, with an ability to create and populate complex worlds that’s first class. But when huge landscapes and epic sea environments beckoned, having a VFX department at hand was very useful.
Before any sequence is begun, a process meeting would decide how each shot should be tackled – some of the more complex action scenes were better suited to CG. “There was an abundance of green screen work, with heavy use of 3D and 2.5D CGI extensions,” says VFX supervisor Andy Morley. “A pirate film is not a pirate film without galleons, and where there are galleons, you need water. In this case, lots of it! The water would not have been achievable in-camera, at least to the level of complexity required for the story.”
Water was the biggest challenge for the VFX team. “Today’s CGI software always wants to try to give the tools to make it possible to achieve real and lifelike renditions of natural phenomena,” Andy comments. Whereas Aardman water has to appear real, feeling sculpted at times with a stop frame feel to its movements. Additional CG work included flying creatures, atmospheric effects, explosions, expanding foam on a gigantic scale and digital doubles that helped support the live-action puppet cast.
“In stop motion you are limited to an actual physical space that you can get into, which is why we did the crowd scenes in CG,” explains FX supervisor Rod McFall. “It’s impossible to manipulate that many characters in one go, but with CG you take away the limits… Of course, now that you’ve done that in CG, you have to match the imperfections of the real puppets, such as lighting flickering and surface aberrations!”
Less noticeable but equally as important was the use of CG to remove cut lines created by the 3D-printed mouths. “It was discussed that it might be worth keeping this cut line to add to the handcrafted feel of the film, but it was eventually decided that it was too distracting and it fell to the VFX department to paint them out. All 129,600 frames of them – and that’s just with one character in shot!” Chris King, CG supervisor offers. “Some great tools were designed in NUKE to simplify and speed up the process, and by the end of the project cut lines were being painted out quickly.”
The Pirates! is not a normal film. All departments were working on it for many years, even before the story and script were locked down. Post-production summed around 18 months of work on 1,500 shots – plenty to keep busy with. “The very last shot of the film – the longest and most expensive of all of them – was delivered last,” Andy wraps up. “When you see the film, you will see why – a huge VFX monster shot!”