Aardman and Double Negative deliver a stop-motion comedy to treasure in The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. By Mark Ramshaw
With a diversion down a digital plughole in Flushed Away and recent CG offering Arthur Christmas, animation fans would be forgiven for thinking that Aardman had given stop-motion the (laboriously animated) elbow. Thankfully, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (aka The Pirates! Band of Misfits) demonstrates that the Bristol studio is not only back in the ‘banana mouth’ business, but that it’s also on top form to boot.
With studio co-founder Peter Lord at the helm (directing for the first time since Chicken Run), the film is another seemingly effortless blend of self-deprecating British humour, slapstick and action movie homage.
And yet, while Pirates clearly shares its DNA with Wallace & Gromit, this is a very modern take on stop-motion filmmaking, with every frame captured digitally, digital techniques used for model-making, and CG teams at both Aardman and Double Negative working to clean up, flesh out, augment and composite every scene. A puppet-based film on this scale simply wouldn’t have been possible without the aid of computer graphics.
“Our team consisted of people at all levels of production, from roto/matchmovers to modellers, animators, TDs, effects people and compositors,” says Lesley Headrick, who headed up the CG animation crew at Aardman. All told there were around 80 people working on the CG side, while the entire film required 1,552 visual effects shots. These included everything from digital syncs and set extensions, rig and mouth line removals, and fire, smoke and explosion effects to digital versions of characters such as the whale and sea monster, and the choppy seas upon which the Pirate Captain and his crew set sail.
Aardman developed its own simulation system to create the ocean in the open water shots
By and large, CG characters were used to fill out stop-motion scenes, rather than to hog the limelight. “Some shots were ‘dressed’ with background characters in order to give them a more natural feeling, such as in alleyways, bustling ports, or in wide shots such as the whale one, where we needed some tiny panicking pirates,” says Headrick.
“Then other shots were simply too daunting, with literally hundreds of puppets to deal with, such as with the Assembly of Scientists and the Pirate of the Year sequences. Finally, anything airborne also came to the CG department, simply because it’s much easier to deal with those sorts of shots digitally than with puppets.
“The rigging department were genius at establishing controls that manipulate the models in a similar way to the real puppet rigs. Similarly, the rule of thumb for animating was to adopt the procedure for stop-motion, mainly shooting on twos.”
The film marked the first collaboration between Aardman and Double Negative, which was drafted in to work on some 393 shots, primarily dealing with the rendering of the CG characters, but also working on sky replacements, wire and rig removals, facial cleanup and compositing.
“We had regular meetings with Aardman VFX supervisor Andrew Morley, who was incredibly helpful and was able to brief us very clearly on all the requirements of our sequences,” says Double Negative’s 3D supervisor David Vickery. “We actually had a lot of creative freedom and were encouraged to develop a strong look for each sequence before presenting it to Aardman for feedback. If we ever had any questions, we’d just pick up the phone.”
For the facial animation, Aardman used a new technique based around interchangeable resin parts. Designed on computer and then produced using an in-house 3D printer, this massively sped up the whole process and enabled a¬far greater range of mouth poses. It did, however, leave a noticeable join when applied to the puppet heads.
While much of the set augmentation for The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists involved simple background and sky additions, some locations, such as Blood Island, required more complex extensions
“Rather than try to blend the join between the two head pieces before shooting, the removal of the seams was left to post-production,” explains Vickery. “This meant that every shot in the movie required visual effects, and so our first task in any shot was to remove these cut lines. Some characters also had joins where the head attached to the neck. Aardman was always very careful to disguise cut lines and joins behind beards, glasses and clothing wherever possible, but it was still rare to find a character that didn’t have some join or seam. The organic nature of Aardman’s stop-motion animation and the sheer variety of rigs they used constantly provided us with new clean-up challenges, which had to be done by hand.”
Vickery says that Aardman’s signature handmade style threw up some interesting challenges, with visible thumbprints, set shifts and even glue visible in just about every shot. “Double Negative VFX supervisor Jody Johnson would study each frame and decide which of these errors to selectively leave and which to remove. It was important to Aardman that the work was finished to an incredibly high standard but still retained the signature look. It was simple yet time-consuming work.”
Double Negative may be best known for its front-and-centre visual effects work on tentpole releases, but Vickery says there was something special about jumping aboard a miniature-scaled Aardman production. “It was a pleasure to work on a film that obviously had so much soul and love poured into it,” he admits. “The beautifully hand-crafted sets and characters in The Pirates! served as a constant reminder of how much work goes on before we even see anything. It’s not always about the effects!”
Title The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists Released UK: 10 September, US: 28 August Formats Blu-ray/Blu-ray 3D/DVD Distributor Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (UK), Sony Pictures (US) Watch out for… The whale, the sea monster, the Pirate of the Year competition, the battle with Queen Victoria… pretty much everything!