The Pirates

Captain's Log Production Blog

Fanfare please.

AFTER TWENTY MONTHS OF CONTINUOUS HARD WORK AND INTENSE, FOCUSSED ACTIVITY. AFTER MORE THAN 500 DAYS OF CREATIVE EFFORT, AFTER COUNTLESS HOURS OF ANIMATING, ORGANISING, LIFTING,  SWEATING, PERFORMING, FRETTING, CAJOLING, RIGGING, LIGHTING, BUILDING, PAINTING, PROGRAMMING AND PERFECTIONISM  - - - - - - TODAY IS THE LAST DAY.

Which means that at the end of today we’ll have finished the stop-motion shoot. The beautiful sets will have done their work. The lights are switched off and returned to store, the props are filed away (for the sequel of course!) the puppets are bathed, tucked up in their beds and kissed goodnight. Our amazing, amazing animation studio briefly returns to its former incarnation as a warehouse.

Already the studio is being cleared at astonishing speed. Walls come tumbling down and bits of tavern, ship, castle, cabin and kitchen are spirited away into storage. Meanwhile, the crew all stand around shocked and excited - they look like the victims of some mind-boggling (but non-threatening) natural disaster  - a rain of frogs for example.

For the past year and a half, the studio floor has been crazy-busy – a maze of different units, each one fired-up with energy and purpose. It’s normally pretty quiet except for the repeated recorded voices of Hugh Grant and the rest of the cast shouting out strange orders or pirate curses – “Sweet Neptune’s briny pants!” or “Kraken’s biscuits!” But it’s not quiet today. It’s as noisy and bustling as Blood Island on a Saturday night.

You can imagine the scene: it’s a bit like the Last Day of School.  Lots of giggling, photograph-taking and hanging out. I haven’t hung out for the entire shoot for goodness sake! But today! Ah, today I’ve got time to chat, reminisce AND hang out – all before noon. It’s uncanny.

Later this afternoon and especially this evening, I expect to move on to a whole new and important phase of the production viz:  the weeping, hugging, kissing and getting incredibly drunk part. Really looking forward to it!

-Cap’n Pete

Ahoy swabs,

They tell me we’re approaching the end of the shoot.

To be exact, they tell me, we have just three more weeks of shooting on the studio floor. Astounding. I find this rather hard to believe. Where has the last five years gone?

Of course, it doesn’t mean the film will be finished at the end of three weeks. Oh no, not by many a mile - because when the studio shoot does finish, there’s still a mountain of VFX work to complete, and then there’s the little matter of editing, sound and music. So there’s no danger of me dossing about or taking it easy until sometime in late February next year.

But still, the scary fact remains: only three more weeks on the studio floor.

I feel very ambiguous about this statistic. I mean, there’s really not much point in making a film unless you:

a) Finish it.
b) Have a huge Premiere and a wild party and everyone tells each other how much they love them and
c) Get it into cinemas for people to enjoy.

So from all these excellent points of view I really want to finish the Pirates!

On the other hand, this film has certainly been the most fun I’ve had in my career and I’m not at all happy about reaching the end of it.

There’s been something about it right from the start - some kind of energy, something to do with the set-up of our whole pirate world which has been special and liberating. It seems to me that everyone involved has sort of been extra-motivated and excited. There’s a spirit around The Pirates! of ambition and experiment and sheer creative fun which is a real delight to be around.

It’s been my main focus for five years - totally full-time for the past three - I’m planning serious withdrawal when it finishes. Basically I don’t want it to end.

On a practical level, what on Earth will I do all day without my Pirates to look after? Take this moment right now, for an example: Here I am, sat at my desk for the only time during the day. It’s lunch-time, so I’m eating lunch - roast pork today (thanks canteen team) - and writing this between bites. There is indeed gravy on the keyboard. Eating lunch while blogging, while looking over my shoulder because I’m meant to be in another meeting right now - this is about as close to ‘Free Time’ as I’ve had for a year. Occasionally, by mistake, a small gap opens up in my day. Five minutes is good. Fifteen minutes is not unknown and sometimes, let’s be honest here, I do actually get a lunch-break. But mostly it’s just pirates pirates pirates all day so that I’ve just about lost the power of independent thought and action.

When the movie is finished, I imagine myself stepping out over the threshold of the studio, pale skinned, wearing a very dated suit and accompanied by a friendly Warden who tells me to stay out of trouble.

Still, all that’s theoretical right now. For now, the only task is to get on with it and finish this baby off. Three more weeks - three hundred more meetings, three million more tiny decisions. And then finally the little matter of launching our pirate adventure out into the wide world.

That’ll keep me busy, then.

-Peter Lord

Thought I’d just report after back after the recording session with the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) and Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton).

I think it went terribly well. I got everything I hoped for and most importantly some extra stuff too that I didn’t know I needed, and didn’t ask for - always extremely satisfying.

We didn’t actually have a huge amount to do this time. Both the actors are well into their roles by now, so it’s relatively plain sailing. Also, it’s much easier for everybody because we’ve shot so much of the film now - almost half.

And I can show a rough-cut of a completed scene, which makes it much easier for the actors. They can see exactly how their performance works out when it’s transported to the screen. 

I could kick off the session by showing the great scene - which is now half finished - where the Captain and Victoria fist meet. They both laughed a lot (well, I guess you do when the director’s sitting behind you looking anxious) and it got everybody in the mood.

In animated films there is this tendency to record all the actors separately.  I won’t pretend it’s the ideal arrangement, but it does actually work out in the end. If you get the actors together, if they’re playing off each other, you get spontaneity, energy, chemistry - maybe a little healthy competition. In this session we had that - a real bonus. 

In a more typical session, I can only get one actor at a time. In that case, up steps Ben Whitehead who ‘reads in’ - that’s to say he acts all the other parts. Ben is an actor in his own right, who has become a crucial part of the Pirates team. He’s been ‘reading-in’ for what? More than two years on this movie I should think. He’s an absolute pillar of the production, knows the script and story as well as anybody, and in addition to his read-in role, also plays The Fusty Scientist, a Beefeater, the Burly Pirate… and probably more people whose names I can’t recall. He’s all over this movie!

His job is to remember the way all the other actors have played the scene in the past, and try to inject speed, energy and the correct emotion. It’s a really important job.

So if only one of the main actors is present, then of course they’re only doing their half of the scene. When Victoria first met the Captain - - -  well they didn’t actually meet at all. Both halves of the scene were recorded separately.

For a director - well for everyone - this makes things pretty tough. I don’t really know how the scene is going to play out - not exactly. I’ve got an idea of course - honest but I don’t know exactly. (And by the way if I did know exactly, I don’t believe I’d get the best out of the actors.) So I need to ask them to try it different ways. I’m kind of searching / feeling for the comedy or the drama.

The bottom line for a director is: you tend to end up sounding pretty stupid and uncertain of yourself - just possibly an accurate picture. You find yourself saying “OK you’re really furious in this scene, just let all the anger flow out” and then 5 minutes later you’re saying “OK, maybe the anger is all under control after all, you’re suppressing it” and the 5 minutes later “How about with a laugh in your voice, you’re not really taking this scene too seriously” - and then in desperation “Could you do it I a high squeaky voice?” or “Could you possibly sound a little more Swedish?”

The truth is, I don’t know exactly how this scene is going to play. I don’t know what the other actor’s going to do yet. So can you do it in different ways and I’ll work it out in edit afterwards.

There’s much more to it than that of course. Ideas don’t come all at once. It’s great if you’ve got the time, and the actor’s got the skill, and you’ve got some helpful suggestions to make to let a scene play out and find the fun in it as you go along.  You explore the scene, finding out things about it you never realized when it was only on paper.

I love it when actors play with a line, improvise a bit (or in some cases a lot). Very often, the spontaneous, improvised take or the off-the-cuff comic aside is the one you end up using. There are several good comedic lines in the movie which have been improvised by the actors. 

But naturally, I’ll take all the credit if I can.

-Peter Lord

I’m on the train just now, heading for London (I should mention, in case you don’t know, that our animation studios are in Bristol a hundred miles to the west). So going to London is like an exciting day out for me - an exciting day out in which I’ll spend all day in a windowless studio and maybe get a sandwich from Pret a Manger if I’m lucky.

Anyway, it’s not a tourist trip - -  no no. Strictly business. I’m off to record the wonderful and talented Mister Hugh Grant, who plays the Pirate Captain! And the equally wonderfully talented Ms. Imelda Staunton who plays Queen Victoria.

Yes, this is my opportunity - and they’re few and far between in animation - my opportunity to grab a little show-biz glamour by mingling with the stars, swapping yarns (over a sandwich) - and of course trying to capture the very best of their acting talent for the movie.

In animated films, the voice always comes before the picture. Before that of course there’s the little matter of the script, but script-writing for animation is a whole other topic of conversation.

Let’s say you’ve got your script, you’re ready to start shooting the film: the first thing you need is the voice-performance. Most of the visual performance, the character and the emotion that comes across on screen is derived from the actors’ voice. Choosing a random line from the script: the Pirate Captain is going to say, “I’ve had enough of piracy, I’m hanging up my cutlass.” How does he say that? He sounds pretty resigned, but is he really?  Does he mean it? Is he fishing for a reaction? Is he self-dramatising to get sympathy? And if he ¬does mean it, does he say it in a small defeated voice, or with a sigh, or with forced cheerfulness as if he thinks it’s a good idea? Or as if he couldn’t care less?

The way the actor performs the line, totally leads the way that the animator will perform it later. 

Now today I’m very lucky - and very delighted - to have two actors actually together, playing off each other as they perform a scene. Common sense tells you that every recording session should be this way - that’s the way most films / theatre / radio is done. Oddly, in animation, you very often end up recording actors separately and assembling a scene in an edit suite after the event. 

OK back to Hugh and Imelda. Today they’re really putting the finishing touches to the Pirate Captain and the Queen. We’ve already recorded most of their roles. Basically they have a considerable comedy/action showdown at the end of the movie and we haven’t recorded that yet. Like actors in any sort of film, they’ll do various takes (they may possibly say I ask for too many). There are always embarrassing moments when you realize that, for example, you’ve asked Hugh Grant to read the line “And?” in excess of 40 times. That is a little embarrassing. 

My real job  - apart from winding the actors up - is to make sure they know exactly the emotion and energy of the scene in question. Their job is to be lively, brilliant, funny, surprising, sincere …  and everything else I ask of them. It’s a cliché, but absolutely true, these actors - all of them - bring the film to life. They’re the burst of elemental energy that makes the script suddenly spark into life, burst the leather straps holding it down, jump up off the operating table and then run out into the world outside wreaking havoc. (Apologies for ridiculously contrived metaphor there).

Anyway, enough of this guff. I should be preparing for the session, not sitting here driveling.

More later.

-Peter Lord

AHOY THERE ME HEARTIES!

Actually - - - no. Stop right there.

I’m really not going to do me Pirate blogs in ‘Pirate’ language.

It just gets really annoying really fast. And there’s very little ‘Piratespeak’ in the movie anyway, so let’s just quietly forget about it and move smoothly on.

Hello.

Peter Lord here. I’m one of the co-founders of Aardman, and I’m currently among the luckiest people alive, because I’m directing a movie. And not any old movie, but THE PIRATES! A magnificent animated comedy adventure loosely based on the series of Pirates! books by Gideon Defoe.

The movie is due for release in March next year, so there’s still over ten months hard work in store. Ten months may sound a long way off to many people, but to me it’s scarily close. There’s still a small mountain of work to be done, and a huge team of people working on it. Having said that, I do have a great sense that we’ve achieved the hardest parts of the job, which I’ve been working on for over four years already. Luckily for me, I have a really awful memory, and so I can’t accurately recall when I actually started on THE PIRATES! - but it was long, long ago.

So first off, just to recall how it started. At Aardman, we often look at books to see if they have potential to be developed into movies or TV series. Occasionally we hold meetings where possible projects are discussed. On the table –literally – are picture books, novels, comics, scripts, treatments – and cups of tea, obviously. We are British after all.

Anyway at one of these meetings, I picked up a copy of The Pirates! Band Of Misfits, and read a few pages, and laughed out loud several times.

Basically I thought ‘wow’ (or maybe ‘crikey’ - - I do say ‘crikey’ sometimes) ‘this is terrific, I’d love to do something based on this book, in this world.’ I’d seldom seen anything so distinctively funny and playful. You could immediately see that the world, the characters, the situations, and the tone added up to something joyous and special. I thought: ‘I’m going to do that.’ And four-and-a-bit years later, he we are doing it. And it’s looking brilliant.

Result! Ahaaaaaarh! Sorry.

-Peter Lord

My name is Eiko, I’m an assistant editor on Pirates.

So whilst the film is being cut and molded into what it will be on the screen, I’ve been assigned the duty to sweep the grubby floors around it with a little digital dustpan and brush. Luckily I’m not alone, we’re a team of seven (at times more) editors and assistants.

For a start, there are silly quantities of actor’s dialogue to look after - the tip of this iceberg consists of no less than 97 ever so slightly different renditions of the small word ‘ahaa’ by Hugh Grant. There are more storyboard drawings than anyone could feasibly count. There’s lots of importing footage and exporting it just moments later. Naturally, there’s much coffee and tea. And sometimes rather large amounts of cursing at technology.

But above all, the cutting rooms are a good spot to see the plot thicken and the characters first come to life. It’s where a lot of the little pieces that make up the film come together.

In animated films most of the editing happens long before a camera is in sight - it’s quite the reverse from life action. Much time and care goes into assembling the animatic, a first version of the film made from recorded dialogue, storyboards, sound effects and music. Camera angles are tried, dialogue takes chosen, details of the storyline carved out, storyboards refined and their order changed around.

It can take some time to select the funniest or best fitting part of a voice performance, or for a sentence to be assembled from different takes. “Now that’s interesting!” Pete will say, “But how about you take the Pirate Captain’s ‘Oh pah!’ from take 17, put it in front of this ‘We laugh in the face of danger, remember?’ and then use the third take of ‘Um, I don’t…’ for the response from the Pirate with a Gout.” You try different options until it’s really the characters who are speaking.

So - as with many things in stop-motion animation - it can take a little while, but eventually that first version of the film will emerge. The ingredients at hand have started to meld and now form the frame that holds the animation. It’s ready for shooting!

Now picture and sound quickly need to find their way to the film sets to be the guide for the animation. Quicktimes need making, sound is cut out and the dialogue is broken down into tiny little syllables.

CUT TO: A few days later.

The puppets were moved (just a tiny amount) and a picture was taken, they were moved some more (just a tiny amount) and more pictures were taken.

So those same few seconds are back in edit - they’re full of colour, motion and expression. And of course in need to be viewed, approved, chopped down and sped up. They have to be cut into the film, made into trailers, DVDs, Quicktimes and formats nobody can spell. Some people wear 3D glasses.

An average day in edit can be a lot of things. But normally, it’s all of the above happening at the same time. Then there’s more coffee and tea. Pub lunches outside at The Bowl if the West Country sun is out. Then potentially more curses at technology.

Oh, and of course there’s the bit where the jigsaw puzzle is done and there’s a film. But before that will have happened, there’s a little more sweeping to do.

Eiko Emersleben, Edit Assistant

What are pirates made from? Sugar and spice and all things nice? Or maggots, and weevils and all things evil? In the case of the Pirate with Prosthetics, he’s made of an interesting assortment of antique furniture, which meant I could finally make use of the very heavy book that I’d been lugging from house to house for twenty years, ‘The Millers Antique Price Guide 1994’. My wife doesn’t share my enthusiasm for my ever-growing book collection, and worries about my studio collapsing into our kitchen, so it was good to show her the assortment of table legs on my first Prosthetic concept that would surely justify the structural risks.

The Pirate with Prosthetics was one of the first characters I worked on, and unlike most of the other characters I helped design, he wasn’t based on any existing drawings, and evolved from the first concept to finished design reasonably quickly. So he’s probably a good choice for explaining the role of a character designer.

fig.A

The first thing that happens is Peter Lord gives me a brief. Sometimes this is at the studio in Bristol, and sometimes Pete would brief me over the phone (because I’m a freelance illustrator I did a lot of the concept work in my home studio in Wales). Pete briefed me for the Pirate with Prosthetics during my first work visit to Bristol. He described him as a particularly unlucky pirate, with a variety of prosthetic additions, and that was about it. So I started off with a very scrawly sheet of ideas (see fig.A), from the practical (like a ‘fishing rod attachment’) to the downright silly (erm, ‘ship biscuit ear’?).

Then Pete and Jeff looked over the first sketches with their wonderful eyes (the lucky blighters have more than one each which is testament to the relative safety of animation when compared to pirating), and sent me an email with lots of feedback, such as “Wooden teeth are a great idea”, “I wonder if you could design a head that has both the innocent simplicity of the first head, with some of the craziness of the second” and “I like his hook and the sort of wooden hinged arm that goes with it. No idea how it’s meant to move, but somehow I don’t think anybody’s going to worry about that!”

fig.B

I read the feedback and got on with another sheet of drawings (see fig.B).  This time I could pick the bits I liked from the first sheet, mix them up, and work with Pete and Jeff’s feedback and what they liked to create something which gets us a bit closer to a suitable design. Pete looked at the new sheet, and said the body was looking good and his favourite head was the one in the middle.

fig.C

So then I did a colour one (see fig.C) in Adobe Photoshop, combining the body and the head that Pete liked. The proportions are a bit awry,  and the colours changed for the finished puppet, but amazingly the Pirate with Prosthetics was pretty much done. 

fig.D

fig.E

All that was left to do was a turnaround (fig.D), showing him from the front, back and side, and then the drawings were sent off to the model-making rooms, where the sculptors work their magic to make everything all 3D and real, using clay (fig.E) and metal and antique furniture to bring it all to life.

-Jonny Duddle, Character Designer

Hello, my name is Peter and I am the Schedule Assistant on Pirates! It is my job to assist Beeky the Production Manager with the scheduling of the film and answer any questions the crew have on where and when things are being shot. I also keep the schedules up to date with all the daily changes and help organise the Director’s diaries. Outside of work I enjoy going to gigs and have just started jogging, although I’m finding it boring to be honest.

The thing that takes up most of my time at work is updating the scheduling boards – gigantic 7 feet tall boards bolted all along a wall in the Production Office. On these boards Beeky has mapped out each day of shooting, the units, and then allocated every shot in the film accordingly with which animator will be animating them. I then input this into the company software for everyone to have a look at from the comfort of their desks and this is usually when the problems come to the surface. The Art Department could be the first to get in touch and might a case of a set or prop not being ready in time for specific shots. They therefore needs to be pushed back which could then lead onto more issues – eg with the Model Making department. These could be the same problems in that a puppet is still being worked on and isn’t ready to start shooting yet, but more often than not it’s puppet clashes – not enough of a certain puppet on a certain week, eg Pirate Captain, therefore shots need to be moved around. Once this is sorted you occasionally get the odd visit from the Rapid Protoyping and Technical, and toward the end more and more Visual FX Department (VFX) requests – in these instances mainly to move the more VFX heavy shots forward to give them a bit more time to work on them.

Overall it’s a really fun, interesting job working with Beeky and all the great people from the other departments. Sorting out all the scheduling problems can be really tricky but as everyone is so accommodating and approachable it makes it a really fun job to do!

-Peter Evans, Schedule Assistant

Some production statistics…

6818 mouths so far in the RP library with a further 3500 printed and ready to be painted etc.  

• There are 140 sets of eyelids for the key pirate crew.

• The Pirates schedule boards required (approx) 118,147.5 cm of black wool to mark out the days and units.

• Weight of the pirate ship is 350 kg

• So far the art department has used 19,456 square metres of foam board. That is the same area as 5 full size pirate brigantines, 7 sloops, 9 East Asian junks or 74 tennis courts. 

• 636 meters of aluminium wire have been used. This will be more than trebled in order to wire the 2000 metres of rope being used to create the pirate ship’s various sails and rigging. 

• There are 1364 Pirate Captain mouths.

• There are 340 puppets in total.

• And - most importantly - the food stats for the crew so far:

Sandwiches made: 28,000
Sausages eaten: 6,884
Croissants consumed: 20,000
Hot lunches cooked: 56,000
Potatoes peeled: 5,100kg
Chips fried: 120,000
Squash drunk: 10,700 litres (undiluted!!!)
Teabags brewed: 120,200

Emily Metcalfe, PA to the Producer

Hello,

Its Pip here,

First time blogger, long time RP Librarian.

At the moment Kelly and I (Rapid Prototyping ‘RP’ Library Production Assistants) are packing down the library for the end of the film. There is now a library of over 8,000 mouths which has grown rapidly over the 18 months since I’ve been working here. Each character has a vast range of expression and this allows the animators to have as much flexibility as they did with clay mouths. For those who don’t know what Rapid Prototyping means to Aardman, we now have a new way of making the mouths. Rather than the animators working with a set of 12 clay mouths which they mould for each frame, our mouths are now made in a hard substance through a 3D printer which gives us a separate mouth for each frame of dialogue. 

As they take so long to make, we all take great care of the mouths as they come in and out of the Library. Not only do they take 6 hours to print they then have to be sanded to create a smooth finish and then painted, not just with colour, but with a final coat to make them matt so they will look like clay in the final film. We also make eye lids for the main characters and these can be as small as half a grain of rice. Sometimes we have to take them back to the work shop, for example if they get dirty from transfer of paint from the puppets clothes or just general dirt from being taken on and off the puppet. Some of the mouths have been used for the whole shoot (over 18 months) so I think they have survived very well considering how hard they have worked! 

This has been a very new process and it has been very exciting to work within the RP department exploring this new technique and seeing the final results of this process. It will be sad to collect the last few mouths on the final day and lock up the office for the final time. But it has been amazing just to work on an Aardman film and I think the new department proves that Aardman are trying to develop the model animation process so that we can deliver more and better films in the future. It’s also very nice to have pictures to show what I do. That way, I can finally explain it to my mum!

I hope you enjoy the film as much as I will (if that’s possible)

Pip, RP Librarian

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