Film: Peter Lord had fun helming ‘The Pirates! Band of Misfits’

Peter Lord missed the boat — pirate, cruise or sail — when he researched buccaneers by watching movies such as “Treasure Island,” “The Crimson Pirate” and Errol Flynn swashbucklers—Barbara Vancheri reports in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“What I didn’t do, which I now regret, is I should have probably gone for a long study trip to the Caribbean, but that never happened. I just stayed in the U.K.”

As co-founder of Aardman Animations studio and director of “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” the British filmmaker probably could have justified the expense.

“I was longing to get back to directing because I found myself producing, which I don’t really enjoy so much at all. I love to direct, it’s the best thing,” he said in a recent phone call.

“And I found this project in the form of a book, which I thought was the funniest book I’d read for decades. Just exceptionally laugh-out-loud funny.”

It was the tone more than the story. “I thought, ‘Wow, if we can put that on the screen, that would be a great achievement.’ I guess my first thought was, ‘We should make a movie out of this,’ and then, about 10 minutes later, ‘No, hang on, I should make a movie out of this.’ ”

Gideon Defoe’s “The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists” novel had been brought to a meeting and then abandoned as a possible source for a TV series or movie. “I picked it up, I read it, I laughed, I took it over and I underlined what was funny and the book is now black with underlines.”

The animated adventure features the voices of Hugh Grant, whom Lord admired in “About a Boy,” and David Tennant, Imelda Staunton, Martin Freeman, Jeremy Piven and others.

“It’s 90 percent stop motion. All the stuff that you really care about, all the foreground stuff, is stop motion and we used CG for lots of special effects, most obviously the sea, which is hard to do any other way. I have made it a bigger world by using special effects, which I think was right because a swashbuckling movie needs some ambition, needs some scale.”

This is the most ambitious project ever tackled by Aardman Animations, founded by Lord and boyhood pal David Sproxton as a low-budget, backyard studio producing shorts and trailers for publicity.

In the early 1980s, Nick Park joined the group, and they perfected their style of detailed clay animation, which eventually led to “Chicken Run,” “Flushed Away,” the Oscar-winning “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and “Arthur Christmas.”

The puppets for “Pirates” are about 12 inches high and, inside, have very finely engineered steel skeletons that can be moved and precisely posed. The clothing and flesh are made out of silicone rubber and latex.

“Finally, there’s just a little bit of old-style clay around the upper half of the face, from the nose to the hat, because it gives my animators a chance to do very, very subtle things with the eyes and the eyebrows, which is where — when you think about it — most of the acting really is.”

Grant has called “Pirates” incredibly British, telling an interviewer overseas “it’s sort of right in the dead center of Monty Python: surreal, predominantly silly, dotty humor.”

Asked about the British flavor, Lord says, “We made it, absolutely, for an international audience. We totally did, but we made it for ourselves, as well. … We didn’t put stuff in that we didn’t think was funny.”

If moviegoers don’t know who Queen Victoria is, Lord assumes they will gather she is the queen of England and, in this movie, “clearly a very bad woman.” Like all good villains, she is exaggerated for effect.

Lord relegated himself to an audio cameo, speaking a single line as the first Victorian policeman, who cautions, “Mind how you go, ladies.”

Unlike the pirates who celebrate “Ham Nite” on their ship, there is no such thing at Aardman, although the co-founder says, “We do like to party, it’s true we do. It’s such a big crew now, it comes and goes, but the crew for ‘The Pirates’ was 350.

“It’s quite difficult with that size, we get everyone together in the commissary, the canteen, and, yes, we would occasionally go so far as to drink some grog and just celebrate the week’s or the month’s achievements.”

When the project was completed, Aardman staged “the biggest and best pirate party ever.” With costumes?

“Costumes were absolutely essential. You never saw so many pirates crammed into one space. I was wearing an exact copy of the Pirate Captain’s costume; it was very hot by the end of the evening.” And the luxuriant beard made it hard to drink, grog or not.

Aardman, located out of the mainstream in western England, has seen its share of triumph and tragedy. In 2006, a warehouse fire destroyed sets and props, including figures of Wallace, Gromit and Shaun the Sheep.

“It wasn’t as bad as people think. It was in a big storage facility, and so it didn’t affect day-to-day operations at all. But I’m sad about it, because we had some beautiful things, especially from ‘Chicken Run,’ models and objects,” such as pie-making and flying machines.

“Pirates,” which took five years to make, is being released in 2-D and 3-D.

“When we started, five years ago, it wasn’t quite so obvious then that 3-D was going to rule in the way it now does. So when we first started, there was still some uncertainty. In the first meetings, we were saying, ‘This could be 3-D, or maybe not.’ As we got closer to the shoot, this became just really a no-brainer, it must be 3-D.”

As for how Aardman, in these days of instant gratification, keeps employees motivated for five years, Lord says, “I know people need encouragement, they need praise, they need to feel a sense of achievement, they need to feel they’re getting somewhere. We just try to give that personally, in the moment, and to the crew at large in public meetings.”

In the end, it was smooth sailing for the project.

“This film has gone very sweetly, from an inspiring beginning — from picking up the book and thinking, ‘This is terrific,’ through to the end. … Its own sense of itself, its sense of what it should be as a movie has been very strong and carried us all along, not just me but the writer, of course, the story artists, the animators, all the team who make it look beautiful were very behind it, very convinced by it, and I think it shows onscreen.”

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