Education

Connected World magazine

 
IssueMarch/April 2012
DepartmentCover Story
AuthorPeggy Smedley, Editorial Director, and Bethanie Hestermann, Associate Editor
 ARTICLE
 
Behind the Scenes with Stop-Motion Animation
At Connected World magazine, we heart technology. So, naturally, we jumped at the chance to place a call across the pond to learn more about the tech behind stop-motion animation. Although one could argue that we just wanted to talk to Peter Lord and David Sproxton—cofounders of Aardman Animations, the brain trust behind such stop-motion classics as “Chicken Run,” “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” and their newest creation “The Pirates! Band of Misfits”—we’ll stick to our story that it’s all about the technology.
At Connected World magazine, we heart technology. So, naturally, we jumped at the chance to place a call across the pond to learn more about the tech behind stop-motion animation. Although one could argue that we just wanted to talk to Peter Lord and David Sproxton—cofounders of Aardman Animations, the brain trust behind such stop-motion classics as “Chicken Run,” “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” and their newest creation “The Pirates! Band of Misfits”—we’ll stick to our story that it’s all about the technology.

Aardman Animations

The Aardman Animations studio—which has four Academy Awards, multiple BAFTAs (British Academy Film Awards), and a 2011 Golden Globe nod for “Arthur Christmas” under its belt—is considered a trend setter and a world leader in model animation. The Aardman adventure began in 1972, when Peter Lord and David Sproxton graduated from college and decided to channel their talents into the medium.

The two believed there was an opportunity to address an adult audience by infusing elements of real life—especially wit and humor (some might even say a lot a British humor)—into stop-motion films. Technology, it seems, has played a big role in their ability to do this. Lord and Sproxton’s latest collaboration, “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” is the most technologically advanced film the pair has undertaken to date. Incidentally, it was also our golden ticket into Aardman Animations.

Meet the Band of Misfits

Starring Hugh Grant as the cheerful and optimistic Pirate Captain, “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” tells the story of a hapless pirate who is dead set on defeating his rivals, Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), for the Pirate of the Year award. Comic mayhem ensues as the Pirate Captain, with a rag-tag crew at his side, heads off from the exciting shores of Blood Island to the foggy streets of Victorian London.

“It’s sort of the antithesis of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’” says Sproxton, referring to the Walt Disney franchise of films starring Johnny Depp. “It’s basically a crew of people that are disparate, but they love their captain, despite the fact that their captain actually sometimes makes the wrong decisions on their behalf.”

Lord directed the film, which is based on Gideon Defoe’s novel “The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists,” and he seems to relish the fact he created “a truly ridiculous and funny pirate film.” Aardman Animations has teamed up with Sony Pictures Animation to bring the story to life in 3D with meticulous stop-motion techniques and a host of special effects unlike ever before.

“The Pirates! Band of Misfits” is Aardman’s first stop-motion feature film shot entirely digitally—although Sproxton says other, shorter pieces such as the Wallace and Gromit short, “A Matter of Loaf and Death,” preceded the undertaking. “The joys of shooting (a film) digitally are that you can see straight away what you’re getting, and approve things much more quickly,” Sproxton explains.

Technologies that can help to speed up the process are welcomed with open arms in this field, since stop-motion animation is notoriously time consuming. Sproxton explained to Connected World magazine the process used to shoot the film in 3D stop action: “We actually only shoot with one camera (at a time) and (then) we just shuffle the camera a little bit to one side to take the other eye view. So we’re basically taking one frame, moving the camera to take another frame, and that gives you both eyes, which we then store and sort out later.”

High-Tech Pirates

While Sproxton refers to this stop-motion technique as “quite straightforward,” there are a number of aspects about the Pirates! film that are novel. In fact, Band of Misfits will be the first Aardman Animations feature to use labor-intensive, stop-motion animation and computer-generated graphics environments this extensively, as well as to have all the CG (computer graphics) work done inhouse.

“Stop-motion animation is one of the oldest and most classic techniques around,” says Lord. “A lot has changed since we first introduced the clay character ‘Morph’ in the ‘70s! Our puppets are made in a completely different way, but the way we animate remains the same. We have a bigger toolbox to play with, and highly skilled people, which makes making these movies so exciting.”

A crew of about 320 people worked on the film during production, divided up into more than 40 shooting units that often operated simultaneously. Once the story boards are completed, the sequences are handed over to the previsualization team, who take the storyboards and put them onto the computer to provide a 3D computer-generated black-and-white layout version of the film. This gives the directing crew a much clearer idea of how shots are going to work and which sets are required. It also allows them to work out camera moves and angles.

“First off, there is no hand-drawn animation in the film … that’s not what we do at Aardman. We have been doing stop-frame animation for over 30 years, and with Pirates!, the combination of stop-frame and CG made total sense,” Lord explains. “We have a full CG department, and by using computer graphics and effects in the film, it helps to expand the world we’ve created. I find it wonderfully exciting and liberating. I feel we’re absolutely using the best of both technologies, the best of what we do … the joy of stop frame, then setting our story in a bigger, more spectacular world.”

So far we’ve just scratched the surface. The film uses other creative methods, such as a substitute-mouth technique; a centralized data-management system; and a beefed-up, in-house visual-effects unit. More than 6,818 puppet mouths were created for this movie, including 1,364 for the Pirate Captain alone, with 257 mouth shapes to convey his speech and reactions. Each mouth, complete with teeth and tongue, was first designed on a personal computer. Each mouth was then pre-posed in various shapes that express the vowels most often used in everyday speech.

These mouth shapes were then printed out via a 3D rapid-prototyping printer, which is where some pretty cool machine technology takes over. In generic terms, rapid prototyping refers to the process of joining together different materials in order to create physical objects from 3D modeling data. Rather than a traditional modeling process, rapid prototyping is using layer upon thin-sliced layer of 3D data to create a physical object, while the machine chooses from a variety of different materials. Given the proliferation of 3D data in the world of stop-motion animation, the ability to create these models quickly and efficiently becomes very valuable.

“Animators shoot up to about three seconds a day on a good day,” Sproxton explains. “The dialogue process is speeded up with the substitute mouth, but the animation is pretty highly finessed. So on a good day an animator will get through about three seconds, but they might get through a lot less than that if it’s a more complex scene, (i.e.,) if there are a lot more characters, more action.”

He continues: “But somewhere between 1.5 and three seconds a day is a pretty good average for the animators when they’re on set. We have about 40 sets on the go at any one time. Not all of those will be animated on, but we have something like 16 or 24 prime animators on it, so (it’s) quite a big crew.”

Visual Effects

Aardman maximizes the benefits of digital, enjoying full creative control by integrating the visual effects and previsualization departments into all stages of production—a crew already approaching 80 members.

Sproxton explains part of the process: “There was a fair bit of green-screen work for various reasons and a lot of rigging in terms of mod
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