Peter Lord on Aardman’s ‘The Pirates’
Like a modern-day Prometheus, Peter Lord, co-founder of the Bristol-based animation company Aardman, is known as a maker of men, fashioning their forms from clay.
From Morph, through Creature Comforts and Shaun the Sheep, to Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit, Lord has had a hand in shaping some of the most beloved screen characters of recent times. He founded the stop-motion animation studio with his schoolfriend David Sproxton back in 1972 and now, 40 years on, his adventures in Plasticine are becoming ever more ambitious.
Lord is back in the director’s chair for the first time since 2000’s Chicken Run, putting aside his producing duties to set sail on Aardman’s latest feature, the animated 3D film The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. which features the voice of Hugh Grant in the role of a brash and blustering pirate captain.
The film’s true stars, however, are the lovingly crafted models. Such is Aardman’s dedication, that the studio created more than 6,800 different puppet mouths, for example, including 1,364 for the captain alone. The pirate ship, meanwhile, was completely hand-crafted and is made up of almost 45,000 parts. It took 5,000 hours of development time and weighs 770lb.
These days the final models may be plastic and rubber, but at the development stage Plasticine is still used. “I remember playing with Plasticine at a very early age,” says Lord. “I love the material, the cold, strange smelly stuff! I also found it a very instinctive way of working, animating with your hands with a little clay figure, moving the arm and then seeing the shoulders move.
“I found drawing entirely technical,” he adds, “but this was instinctive. And of course people have always loved to sculpt. Neolithic man piddled about with clay. There is something godlike about it.”
Lord remembers his first film made with clay models and stop-motion camera work, which he shot at secondary school with Sproxton, creating a plate of food – sausages, peas and potatoes – that squidged together to form a muddy brown glob.
“That then grew four legs, it was faintly hippo-like, and then Dave’s hand came into shot and the creature bit him and walked off,” Lord recalls. “It would look awful and very primitive, with this stumpy four-legged creature.”
Yet Lord and Sproxton took heart, quickly learning that they’d found a commercially viable creative niche.
Born in 1953, Lord “enjoyed a nice middle-class upbringing” and went on to study English at the University of York. “But David and I carried on doing animation during our holidays at university, and then by the end of university we started to define ourselves as the people who did this kind of animation.”
Both Lord’s and Sproxton’s fathers worked for the BBC, “so there is a bit of nepotism in the story”, he concedes, and the pair began creating pieces for Vision On, a programme for deaf children, before creating the popular Heath Robinson-inspired opening credits to the BBC’s The Great Egg Race.
One Vision On film featured pointy-nosed four-legged creatures that lived on a tabletop. “And that,” says Lord, “was the inspiration for Morph – the fact we had small, mischievous creatures that were meant to be the size that they were.”
Indeed, Morph went on to become the main star on the BBC children’s art programme Take Hart, where the lovable, initially innocent but always-impish tabletop hero interfered with presenter Tony Hart’s worthy artistic endeavours.
Morph would go on to star in his own series of shows. “Tony had a great flair for tabletop art and we would try and fake up what he was doing with Morph, who’d mess it up,” says Lord. “The hardest part was copying the artwork!
“And it was funny socially because no one our age had ever seen it. Only kids and young mothers had seen it, so for the longest time it really meant nothing to people when we mentioned it. Now it’s quite different and we’re finally getting some respect for it.”
Lord, who was made a CBE in 2006, comes across as humble and self-deprecating, recalling with discomfort his first meeting with the musician Peter Gabriel, whose ground-breaking video for the 1986 hit Sledgehammer was shot at Aardman’s studios.
“I didn’t know who Peter was; I wasn’t into Genesis even though it was my period,” he says. “And yet Peter came in and was very well-informed about animation! That was a bit embarrassing.”
Lord is quick to deflect praise onto the video’s director, Stephen R Johnson. “We were just hired as the animators,” he says. Sledgehammer won nine MTV Video Music Awards and stands as the most-played music video in MTV history.
Aardman, of course, is no stranger to awards. The studio has had nine Academy Award nominations of its own, scooping four wins, with Lord himself earning nominations for his short films Wat’s Pig, in 1992, and 1996’s Adam. Meanwhile, Chicken Run, his first feature film as a director, took flight with almost £150 million at the box office.
Aardman is still most celebrated, however, for Wallace and Gromit, who have delighted TV audiences with their 30-minute capers A Grand Day Out (1989), The Wrong Trousers (1993), A Close Shave (1995) and A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008), along with their 2005 feature-length escapade, The Curse of the Wererabbit.
The Lancastrian inventor-cum-cheese enthusiast and his faithful if frustrated dog are the creations of Nick Park, who joined Aardman in 1985 and worked on the Sledgehammer video.
“There was a brief period after Sledgehammer when I was the most famous stop-motion animator around,” says Lord, “but Nick very swiftly took that prize. We’re friends, though, and he’s such a nice guy and he’s been so good for us as a company that I really don’t mind. He’s such a generous fellow himself, a real gentleman and very talented.”
In the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Review’ tomorrow: how ‘The Pirates!’ was created. ‘The Pirates!’ is released on March 28
film makers on film,film,culture:Peter Lord tells Will Lawrence how a boyhood obsession led to him co-founding Aardman and directing 'The Pirates!’, its latest feature film.