Aardman Animations are most known for the quintessentially British duo, Wallis and Grommit, but their most recent film, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, has moved away from rolling green pastures to the rolling seas. Flex Online caught up with Will Harding, a senior puppet maker at Aardman to discuss his work.
Although most recently Will has been responsible for creating Black Bellamy, Mr bobo, The Pirate King and a number of other characters for the Pirates movie he started at the bottom at Aardman after studying at Edinburgh, “I started at Aardman 8 years ago, as a runner. It is a great way to start. You get to see everything and be involved with all aspects of the process.”
In his career at Aardman Will’s worked on a number of adverts and the series Shaun the Sheep as well as a number of features, including the Wallace and Grommit films Curse of the Warerabbit, Loaf and Death and now Pirates, “I enjoyed working on pirates the most, it was the project I was most involved in and I got a real sense of achievement out of it.”
Will’s role as a puppet maker means he is responsible for creating the characters that populate Aardman’s films, “We are given a 2d drawing from that we make a plasticine sculpture to give the directors a rough idea of what the character will look like. When they’ve fiddled around with it we make another sculpture in plasticine to their specifications. Then, for the final model we make the puppet in parts, according to the materials they are made out of. After that we make an armature, the skeleton of the model. Then we fit it all together to make the character. Then we paint it and light test it, we often have to dirty the models a little too, so they don’t look brand new.”
Will is part of a larger team at Aardman. About 60 puppet makers worked on the Pirates film in five teams. The puppets were then animated by 30 animators working across forty miniature sets, “each animator would produce about four seconds of film footage a week. So in a week we would make around two minutes of film.”
Aardman used a new form of animation for Pirates, “previously animators would have a series of soft mouths that they would mould to make the shapes needed. Whereas with Rapid Prototyping (RP) we have one hard mouth for each mouth shape and they are changed accordingly, it’s a much quicker process.”
To make this process work though the script first has to be broken down in to the exact mouth shapes needed, “so one person’s job was to break down all the dialogue in the whole film and work out what mouth shapes were needed, out of this they make what’s called a dope sheet, which will tell the animator what mouths are needed in the scene.”
It does mean that a lot of mouths are created though 10318, to be exact. 1364 of these were for the pirate captain, voiced by Hugh Grant.
There have always been fairly big names in Aardman productions like Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes in Curse of the Ware Rabbit. However the cast for Pirates includes a lot of recognisable voices, Brian Blessed, David Tennant, Hugh Grant and Martin Freeman to name a few. “The character designer decides what the characters will look like and, for example, the character Pirate King does look a lot like Brian Blessed so there is an element of making the characters look like their voice actor.”
Aardman films seem like logistical miracles for the most part, the numbers involved in the productions seems impossible. “For Pirates we made 342 puppets of a total of 173 characters. The main character, the captain, had 28 different models with 5 different costumes.
“Although miniature the pirate ship still weighed 350kg. We had one main model of it then various different cross sections.”
Even with all this the budget for one of Aardman’s stop motion films is similar, and often less than their live motion counterparts.
Although Will is currently freelancing as a web designer he hopes to get another contract at Aardman soon. “Pirates 2 is what I’m hoping to do next. It hasn’t been green lit yet, we’ve got to wait and see how it does in America. We’re contracted to do at-least another movie with Sony and all going well it would make sense for it to be a Pirates sequel.”