Animator Peter Lord, director of “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” which opened Friday, has seen his job change dramatically since the early days of Aardman Animations, the revered English studio he co-founded in 1972 with David Sproxton. Aardman has brought us Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep, and other kids’ characters equally beloved by adults. (For his contributions, Lord was made a commander of the British Empire in 2006.)
Lord used to animate his characters himself, moving Plasticine clay models in thousands of tiny increments and photographing each to create stop-motion magic. But on a feature with the scope of “Pirates,” that’s impossible. “Probably 25 different animators animated the Captain at some stage,” he says, speaking of the bearded goofball who leads the movie’s band of more-sweet-than-snarly marauders. “The grand illusion is to make it seem like one performance.”
It may seem strange to describe moving a piece of clay as a “performance.” But those unseen hands do most of the things that constitute acting: They decide how high to cock an eyebrow, how wide a grin should be, when shoulders should slump in disappointment. With cheerful resignation, Lord says he has given all that up.
“It was difficult,” at first, he admits. “I was used to ultimate control. I was always trying to make [the animators] do exactly what I would do. And that’s a pretty unhealthy situation, really. You’re going to drive yourself crazy, and you’re not getting the best out of people, not using their strengths.”
He says his crew is talented enough to “do things that I would die if I was asked to do,” and that now he knows when to encourage them to follow someone else’s lead. Lord recalls a scene early in the production, in which a crew member’s tweaking of the clay “just found all these things in the Captain’s face — I never, honestly, could have done that. I could say to all the animators, ‘Look at what Dan has done here, try to capture that.’ ”
Of course, a face’s movement isn’t the whole of acting. While early Aardman films were mostly wordless, and later shorts were built around documentary audio recordings made in places such as probation meetings, these days professional actors give them voice. The stars of the two features that Lord has directed, Mel Gibson (in 2000’s “Chicken Run”) and Hugh Grant (who plays the Pirate Captain), had limited experience voicing animated films. This brought Lord the challenge of having to comfort leading men whose physicality is key to their appeal.
“I try to explain that they don’t have to do it all with the voice,” Lord says. “I say to the actors, ‘Don’t be afraid to use your face while you’re performing, because we will later animate your face. It will be there.’ There are things people do in comedy — you react with your face. I always encourage the actor to give me that, because we can do the facial thing, as well.”
Lord, who has never been on the set of a live-action film (and, unlike animation peers Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton, never had the ambition to make one), might occasionally be guilty of treating his high-dollar thespians like they were just more clay to be fiddled with. “I’m often slightly embarrassed,” he confesses, “because I’ll say to the actor, ‘Make him sound angrier. Now a bit more angry. Now really furious. [He pauses.] Now could you make him sound not angry at all?’ And the actor thinks, ‘What the hell is he thinking?’ And the real truth is I don’t actually know for sure how that scene’s going to play, and I’m trying to leave my options open.”
But it’s difficult to imagine actors getting too annoyed with Lord. Almost 60, the filmmaker still projects boyish enthusiasm, keenly eager to explore the fantasy worlds he creates. He laments not having more time in “Pirates” to take viewers into deeply imaginative sets that register only for seconds onscreen. Like the one for Blood Island, a place of refuge for the movie’s assorted villains: “I kind of regret we didn’t spend longer there,” he says, “because it’s full of fun. Every store is beautifully designed and full of — not just jokes, because that would be silly — just intriguing references to the pirate world.”
“There’s one that’s got wooden legs, and hooks for hands,” he continues, and “one that’s got cannons and cannonballs. You can expect that — but there’s one on the seafront there that’s got, like, beach balls and postcards and little spades for digging in the sand. It’s just fun to think that pirates do those things.”
Intricate, whimsy-stuffed sets are par for the Aardman course, but this time Lord and company expanded the world with a tasteful helping of computer-generated imagery. “I can imagine there’ll probably be some purists out there tut-tutting a bit,” he says of mixing pixels with Plasticine, “but I have no worries about it at all. We’ve just made the world bigger, is all.”
And although it took five years to make from start to finish, Aardman will likely not regret investing in the bigness of that world. The book on which “The Pirates” is based was just one of a popular English series, in which swashbucklers cross paths with everyone from Charles Darwin (featured in this film) to Napoleon and Karl Marx. The studio saw long-term potential in the series, and the movie’s warm reception in countries where it has already opened suggests moviegoers feel the same way. “I would love to do a ‘Pirates’ sequel, yes,” Lord says. “I’m working on the storyline now.”
Maybe next time around, all those unused storefronts on Blood Island will get their moment to shine.
opens Friday at area theaters.