After becoming beloved for its inventive (and Oscar-winning) approach to stop-motion animation with films like Chicken Run and the “Wallace & Gromit” franchise and an entry into the CG format with 2006’s Flushed Away, Aardman Animations is about the re-emerge, phoenix-like, from a few quiet years to launch not one but two new high-profile projects now teamed with Sony Pictures Imageworks after the end of its long association with DreamWorks Animation.
After Aardman founder/producer/director Peter Lord unveiled a wildly well-received sneak peek at the company’s two upcoming films–the scurvy, seafaring satire The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and Arthur Christmas, the holiday adventure amid the lineage of Santa Claus–at the San Diego Comic-Con, he sat down alongside Arthur Christmas screenwriter Peter Baynham (of Bruno and Borat renown) to provide the details behind Aardman’s appropriately outrageous return.
ComingSoon.net: It seems as if there’s a mini-renaissance happening with your work with “Arthur’s Christmas” and “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” on their way to the screen. Why is now the time that we’re seeing a major new output from Aardman? Peter Lord: Well, we worked with DreamWorks for like ten years and that was great and that reached an actual end, which was fine. That was a restart date, I suppose you would say. It was kind of natural, and then following that restart we just had a great creative burst and came up with five pretty damn fine ideas and two of those were swiftly pushed ahead by our mates at Sony. So that’s how it’s happened now with this timing. The fact that they’re making them both at the same time is kind of ridiculous actually, to be honest. But there you go, it just happened really. We said, “Well, okay, we can do it. Somehow we’ll do it,” and we managed it.
CS: Have you mastered this kind of intense output rate, and are you intending to sustain it? Lord: I think that we’ll do two a year for the rest of time No, No. [Laughs] The serious ambition would be to level out these ridiculous fluctuations, but still I must say that from out point of view the studio and both of us as creative people, the fact that they kind of generate warmth and buzz for each is only a lovely thing. That’s great.
CS: Where did the genesis of your project, “Arthur Christmas,” come from? What inspired that? Peter Baynham: Well, it’s one of those things where literally one day I had an idea, and sometimes you don’t even remember where it came from. You just were noodling around with things. I was just thinking about it–and I certainly wasn’t trying to think of a Christmas movie–and then I just had an idea that I think was probably soon after Christmas. I just had this notion. I’m quite pedantic when I go and see films, and I will get annoyingly, like, “That couldn’t happen,” and it might be a small detail and I started to think, like, “Well, literally, how does Santa do it? How does he deliver? How does he eat two billion cookies left out just in America and all the stuff that’s left around the world? How does he get around the world? Wouldn’t he burn up if he goes that fast in a sleigh with six reindeer?” Once that germ of an idea came, it just exploded out into all kinds of other roads, just literally “How does Santa do it?” Then I started playing around with ideas, like, maybe he’s not got a sleigh. Maybe he’s got a mile-wide ship that’s a bit like the ship in “Independence Day” but it’s got elves instead of evil aliens, and it’d have to be invisible and it’s got some sort of invisibility shield, like the USS Enterprise. Then it becomes, like, “Well, is it the same Santa?” Is it Saint Nicholas or a different guy or is there a line of them, that maybe at one point it become like royalty, this lineage, once you start asking this world how. Obviously that was the background, and then I started thinking, “Well, what’s the story, because that’s a lovely backdrop, but that’s a backdrop and not the story.” Then it was like then I had to think of a family that you could center this in. The key thing for me, and then I went to Sarah Smith, who’s somebody that I’ve been working with for a long time in Britain in TV and she had gone to work in Aardman in developing movies there, and then it became our goal to create something that was literally, like, we did all the maths. We worked out that if you had a million elves working in teams of three they’ll get 18.14 seconds per household. You’ll have field elves. You’ll have IT elves. You’ll have listening elves. You’ll have elves that can muffle a child’s head. Maybe you’ve got to do a total rewrap next to a child while a child is sleeping, all this crazy stuff. It just becomes this giant, high tech, “Mission: Impossible” army. Then we just then thought, “Right We want a family at the heart of this,” because it’s Aardman and I come from a comedy writing background and so does Sarah. We just went crazy with it.
CS: I imagine that “Pirates!” was quite a different story, right? Lord: Yeah. “Pirates!” has a different story because there’s a book. In Britain there’s a series of books entitled “The Pirates!” and the first one in the series is called “The Pirates! An Adventure with Scientists” and then later “An Adventure with Whaling,” “An Adventure with Communists,” “An Adventure with Napoleon.”So, they’re not like conventional books. We had one of those meetings that you have in development departments where there’s 30 books on the table, people discussing if any of them will make a TV series or a movie, and I picked this thing up off the table and I read five pages. It made me laugh so much. Seldom, indeed, have I read anything that’s had so much fun in it so quickly. So I thought, “Well, we’ll do that!” That’s just the start of a very long process because it wasn’t really as much of a story in the book, so that was two years to get the draft together.
CS: Tell me about adapting the recognizable Aardman style to using the technology that’s available now with CG and 3D. Philosophically, how did you approach these ideas? Lord: Yes. We’d done CG work before with “Flushed Away” for DreamWorks and there are a lot of people at the studio who are very good at CG. With “Pirates!,” I must say that the new technology has made “Pirates!” really liberating to make, easy to make because the fact that you can shoot a lot of green screen stuff, the fact that you can easily extend the sets with CG, the fact that you can put the sea in there and a beautiful wooden boat that, frankly, would never sail in a million years, you can take that and put it into a beautiful CG scene and believe it. So as a filmmaker it’s liberating, really delightful. You get this excellent vibe that there’s nothing you can ask for that that the team can’t do. So back in Bristol in the UK where we work we’ve had for a long time, for 35 years, we’ve had the studio doing traditional stop-frame animation, and then we’ve added onto the side of that a substantial team of FX artists and CG artists. It’s just great. Then with “Arthur Christmas,” it was taking on two films at once and there was no way that we could do it in the UK. It wasn’t possible, or at least in Bristol anyway, and so we needed to team up with a company that makes CG films. We looked all around the world. We very seriously thought about people in London of course, in Paris, in Sydney, in Vancouver. We had meetings and discussions and did deals with them all, but Sony Imageworks were just the best fit ultimately and that was the very natural thing to do.
CS: Knowing the 3D process was going to happen, did you write certain elements to play off of the strengths of that? Lord: Funnily enough, when I initially had the idea before I went to Sarah Smith with it, I envisioned it as a live-action movie. I can’t believe how happy I am that it didn’t end up that. I got interest from it, for sure, but Sarah persuaded me to come to animation and I think what it means is that you can achieve that scale that you couldn’t achieve in live action unless you spent a billion dollars making the film, and also, if you did it live action you would end up with a well known actor in a Santa beard. It might be a very expensive Santa beard, but it’s someone dressed as Santa. Whereas I think with ours I think you can put across, the thing that’s interesting with CG is you can actually give it that. It’s a funny movie. It’s high tech, but also you’re trying to have some of the magic, without getting cheesy, the magic of Christmas and the warmth of Christmas. Once I saw early designs for the S1, Santa’s massive [sleigh] and the graphics that are on the screens, there’s like a thousand screens; mission control is absolutely enormous and it does employ 25,000 elves and there are shots where there are 25,000 elves. You see shots where it looks like literally a million elves repelling down into one town in Denmark and it looks like it. That’s one of the big things, because think that’s key to the comedy we’re doing. Baynham: I’m glad that we’re not doing a stop frame. That would take several lifetimes.
CS: How would you say that both of these projects are carrying on the Aardman tradition as far as what we can expect from them and what new ground would you say they’re breaking? Lord: Well, I don’t know – that’s interesting. I just feel that it’s an instinctive call as to whether a story or project is right for us. That’s all one can say. We see, like any movie company, hundreds a year and very, very few of them are right. You feel it. That’s all I can say: you feel it. We persist in liking funny movies. Good stories, of course, but I love it when there’s comedy at the heart of it. Some movies take what seems to be quite a serious story and decorate it with jokes and we look for something that has a comedic heart. Performance is what we really care about, but in any medium animated performance is what we care about. I guess we think that you get good actors, a good script and perform it properly, with integrity and not just empty gestures. With integrity. That’s what both films try to do in different ways. So, that’s great. I’m delighted that they look different from each other, and I’m delighted that they look different from “Wallace & Gromit” because it’s important to us to keep developing and God knows that there are plenty of fabulous designers out there that we’d like to work with. So, I hope that going forward we can films that look all different kinds of ways. It’s important to us, practically, to design characters that can act well. That’s what we’re looking for, and then beyond that I don’t care what they look like. I think I said to somebody, and it proved to be a useful line, but we don’t ever have a style except in spirit and I think that’s the important thing. That’s to say a good-hearted movie. Not a cynical movie. Intelligent. Extremely funny. Good-hearted and not cynical. If we can get those, that’s what I look for. So armed with those things then we can look at other projects, other directors, other designers, absolutely.
CS: And maybe still revisit “Wallace & Gromit”? Lord: Oh, yes, don’t worry. Nick [Park] is back in Bristol. He’s probably asleep now, but if he wasn’t asleep he’d probably be doodling “Wallace & Gromit,” because he does that all the damn time. But actually right now he has a project for Sony, which is his own movie which he’s just developing. That’s not “Wallace & Gromit” that’s something new!