Asked to explain the Aardman Animations sensibility, asked if he could put a finger on the house style of the idiosyncratic little studio he co-founded in England 40 years ago, Peter Lord, left, dithered, then finally blurted: . There's really no other word — the man dithered. Then he stammered. Then he did the full Hugh Grant. Until finally, pleadingly, he blurted: "I can't explain the Aardman sensibility any better than I can explain my accent!" Then, after a bit, he added: "Here, in the States, critics just tend to explain us in terms of Monty Python."
Yes, they do.
How to explain to an American audience a British animation studio that, smack in the middle of its newest film, tosses out a line as wonderfully illogical as, "Don't just stand there like porpoises"? How else to relate the glee of a small band of Brits who came together at the end of the 1960s and made lifelong targets of preening and pomposity and authority figures who, as Lord describes, "never fail to stay gravely formal"?
Subtract the political subtext of Python, and it's short leap to the "Wallace & Gromit" shorts and cinephile homage of "Chicken Run." Aardman's latest movie, "The Pirates! Band of Misfits,"made as always using puppets painstakingly posed on elaborate, miniature sets, is an even shorter leap. If you can hold your nose at the odd capitulations made in the name of generic Hollywood conformity — an unnecessary 3-D palate, a brashly anachronistic soundtrack — you still have a story of a pirate who has a dodo bird instead of a parrot and finds himself butting heads with Charles Darwin. In Chicago recently, we asked Lord to explain everything going on in a single production still.
"The camera here is looking past the cage, past Captain and toward Darwin. It's deep (focus) shot."
"Darwin is trying to capture Dodo, Pirate Captain's bird. Captain is angry with Darwin, and puzzled and suspicious. He doesn't know what's coming, then his suspicions are confirmed by this cage, which, if you look closely, has the shape of a dodo on it and dramatizes that Dodo is going to be captured."
"I relate to Pirate Captain a lot, actually. He is the boss of this crew of misfits, just as I was the director of this crew of misfits. I acted out a lot of the film through him. In the early days of production, before Hugh Grant came on board to do the voice, I did the voice so we had some working sketches to use. I would act it out to show how I want the line performed physically, the cadence of the line and the gestures. In this scene, Captain is saying, 'Well, come on, explain yourself.' He is actually saying the 'well' of 'well, go on.' The shape of the mouth is more derived from Hugh's delivery."
"The guy there is Ian Whitlock, and he is literally animating a character. Ian is currently working in San Francisco on the new film from ("Coraline"animator) Henry Selick. There are a small number of really good puppet animators in the world. It's not a big tribe. They kind of travel production to production. It's not a small tribe because you need a lot of patience to do it. It's just a specialized skill. I have always maintained that our people take no longer than the people behind a film by Pixar. All animation productions are slow. They just are. It's a slow business. The difference between puppet animation and the typical kind, and what this picture shows, is that it is all handmade and physical. You are literally moving characters by hand, frame by frame. Which is an intimate, human style of filmmaking. When it works, humanity comes across ... and yes, puppet animators, through they develop amazing spatial awareness, do knock stuff over at times."
"This is the Tower of London. The real Tower is an ancient castle. Our Tower includes an elevator, which does not exist, or rather didn't during Queen Victoria's time. The set is about 10 feet square. It's a symmetrical set. There is a square of pillars in the middle. The shape of (the room) is octagonal, and there is a large chandelier hanging above it though you can't see that in this picture. It's also a very heavy set. The stonework — which isn't stone, of course — is plaster but weighs a ton. To get the camera in there, you eventually tear away the pillars. You start with this elaborate set and, in the course of filming, murder it."
"That's a youthful Darwin, and kind of a caricature, though there is a painting of him at that age, and he does look like that. We give him a hard time in the movie. I am personally very respectful of Darwin, but you wouldn't think it. Creationists will love this movie! The script always had him written as hapless, weak, ineffective, unlucky, quite ridiculous. We thought, 'Let's just milk that.' He has rather poor morals. He is kind of a schemer. He's lousy with women. Basically, we made a shameless mockery of a very important man."
"He's Darwin's monkey butler. He is a chimpanzee, but they call him a monkey, without any respect. Darwin actually refers to him a man-panzeee. He doesn't speak, just like Gromit doesn't speak. He's a little Gromit-like. He's much more knowing than his master. In this very scene, he does a lot of sarcastic eye-rolling. Which was also Gromit's preferred mode of expression. He's also, like Gromit, smarter than everyone else."
The Tiny Armor
"That's an inside joke. It's a suit of armor for a dog. But not just any dog! it is a suit of armor for the Queen's corgi dog. That's a pretty inside thing from us, because most audiences will never notice that at all."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times