There isn’t anyone on the planet that I know who hasn’t heard of WALLACE AND GROMIT. What they might not know is the man who has practically lived and breathed these claymation characters for some time now.
Ian Whitlock works in the animation and arts department of Aardman. He has worked through CHICKEN RUN, CORALINE, FLUSHED AWAY and the WALLACE AND GROMIT films. In THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS he is the lead animator for the Darwin character.
Tell us about the planning you did for this film?
With PIRATES I’ve been on it for about three years and was the phase where you take the illustrations that are approved and start to sculpt up the characters. You can look at the group of characters with the director and until you see them physically and all together there about four of us that sculpted from the design and spent the three months making them.
As I’m looking at the puppet now, what are the dimensions of The Captain here?
The dimensions are about 8 or 9 inches. The lead sculpture had to do five or six of them to make it right. After that phase was completed they would go into the model making and making production sculpts of each puppet. They would take them apart because each part is made separately and parts are made. There are a few things using traditional clay before but because of the design we felt it was a better way to go with foam latex so you could put more detail into the costume and still handle it in the animation without ruining everything. These pieces are rubber latex so they are more durable. The most important part for the animator is the face. We kept the eyes and such in clay because of the ability to make them more expressionable.
The hands are amazing, especially the Queens because they look so dainty. Did you know there were going to be so many molds for every aspect of the face?
We got them the way we wanted the characters to look and you’ll see with the Queen’s hands they are, yes, dainty and the fingers are very small. After this phase was done we went into model making where they would make molds so they could make multiple parts for the characters. We knew with the sheer amount of details for the character we would take the heads that come off and keep the body on set and change the face and such without moving the character from the set. You can change quite a lot; he even has eyelids that are different sizes.
Everything is moveable and exchangeable?
Yes, absolutely. This is the first time that we have worked like this. With this we would take the Pirate Captain and cast expressions that get scanned into the computer so someone could make ten different shapes of the mouth and we could hand them over and make sets of mouths. For the Pirate Captain there are about 257 mouths made for just the Captain but there are over 7,000 mouths made for all the character!
And you start with the computer renderings?
Yes, on the computer side of it is just to build these things, once you’ve decided on what the director wants you can make sure everything is doing what you want. Once they are approved they go off to be physically made. It’s a resin but a liquid resin with a plate on the top and as it comes out there is a laser that fires to cure it and make its shape. It is definitely something you have to see. The lines you see are digitally erased to make it clean.
Could you have done this without the new techniques?
I don’t know how we would have managed to shoot this had we not done it with the new technique. We probably would still be shooting it! I probably spent close to a year working on different characters for these mouths and the process continued after I went to the floor with the puppets. With the development of animation it was three or four months working with different characters. We have to wait for the dialogue to come back to us so we would know how to make things move. Once we see that we know how things are going to be animated. We use the live action reference to and get the idea of how we want to do it and it cuts down on the test shots. It’s a quicker way to get where we wanted to be.
What was the difference in shooting time?
Probably not a great deal difference. In WALLACE AND GROMMIT it was three seconds and with PIRATES its 45 seconds. The sheer amount of puppets in this is so much more than WALLACE AND GROMMIT. This is our biggest movie production so far. There were 41 sets and crew wise the maximum is 340. That doesn’t mean there are that many on the set but the max we use to get the job done. We didn’t think we would top WALLACE AND GROMMIT but we did.
You used a digital camera as well?
Yes, that really helps actually. It reduced our reshoot rate obviously with film you have to get it developed and if there is a problem you can’t adjust anything you have to start from scratch. With digital you could finish a shot, it would go upstairs to be viewed and if there was a problem because the set hadn’t been touched, the animator could redo that piece. There was more of a cutting back and the director had more freedom to get the shot absolutely right. It meant you didn’t have to start from scratch.
Which was your most intricate character of all?
There was a slightly more animated sections with Cutlass Liz’ (Selma Hayek) puppet but she’s not in the film as much as the Pirate Captain. His beard has a mechanism inside it that can wind his beard as well just to get extra weight. You wind it and you’ve got the mustache and everything is moving around. I would say that the Pirate Captain has a lot more because even his coat tails are animated and the tops of his boots so I think he’s quite a lot of work really.
How much CGI did you use?
A lot more than we’ve ever used before. What this meant was that we could create a bigger world. It is something we hadn’t had a chance to do before. For the first time ever we did all the digital effects. Usually it would go up to Soho in London but everything was done there and then which helped the film a lot. Even a couple of weeks into the film it was in there. The director acts out the scene to the animators and Pete is expecting them to put a real performance into what he’s asking. I have license to go further than Pete asks for. We have to make a performance out of the character.
Do you have a lot to do with like Bobo because he doesn’t talk?
We acted out every character; even Polly will act that out.
Did you watch silent films to get an idea for Bobo?
We looked initially at different performances from films just to get an idea which way we wanted the characters to go. There is a really strange chimpanzee from the 60’s and its really odd but had great performances so we used some of that for physical movements and keep him more monkey like. Generally, Pete had an idea of how he wanted him to be played.
And with that Ian was swept away to finish the final touches on THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS. Every little nuance and every little detail is obviously important to this master of puppetry. There is so much to this film that in the short amount of time spent with Ian can’t even begin to cover it. However, for fans of WALLACE AND GROMIT, this new work of Aardman’s is going to please them even more.
Opening in April from Sony Animations and Aardman is THE PIRATE! BAND OF MISFITS. Look for the review soon!