The Pirates! Key Animator speaks: Claymation machines forward

This week we've had a talk with Key Animator Ian Whitlock from the brand new film The Pirates! Band of Misfits, he giving us the lowdown on why this claymation epic sticks to its roots while exploring a new scale for the genre. The Pirates! Band of Misfits is directed by Peter Lord, features Hugh Grant in his first animated role as the Pirate Captain, and has superstars like Salma Hayek and Jeremy Piven voicing the bad guys. What we're interested in though isn't the voices, it's the technology behind the film itself – how does a next-generation claymation movie compete with the high-definition environment of special effects here in our modern Hollywood world?Ian Whitlock, Key Animator, in the Evil Lair with the Pirate Captain, Polly, Darwin and Bobo on the set of The Pirates! Band of Misfits

This pirate movie is made to take such past hits (made by bits of the same crew) like Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit and move the art there to a whole new level. What you'll find here, and when you check out the film, is that not only did the crew here take the next step in detail and scale for Pirates!, they did it keeping much of the organic look and charm of past stop-motion/claymation film hits. Whitlock spoke with us about some of the limitations that come in even here in the modern world of claymation-based films.

Whitlock: "When we started making pictures, the one thing we always struggled with was scale of the worlds and what we were limited by – the size of the building being one of them. To get a film shot you've got a lot amount of miniatures and a lot amount of model makers and everything. You have to get the footage in, every week, that you need. You end up making multiple sets and multiple characters to get what you need – and when you do that you end up very quickly running out of space. Especially when you want to big environments, big wide shots, it swallows up a lot of studio space. For Pirates, the visual effects to expand our world has been a real bonus for us. It's really helped to open up the world and scale and everything."

Whitlock helping the Pirate Captain dance up the stairs in his dream sequence on the set of The Pirates! Band of Misfits

The Pirates! Band of Misfits sculptors and animators made use of CNC machines to create masses of sculpts based on single models, this Rapid Prototyping technique allowing them new avenues for scale for the film. Even with green screen technology and the Rapid Prototyping techniques used here on The Pirates!, work for the animators and sculptors on this film ended up being quite similar to work they've always done. Whitlock noted especially that the technology used in Pirates! ended up coming in a bit before filming for all the people parts, then mostly after, with green screen technology tied with background effects.

Whitlock: "For us it's pretty much the same [as in past stop-motion films]. You're in your unit 8-10 hours a day, you're on the set with the puppets and working away on it. You may come into situations now where there may be a bit more green screen in the background, but we still shoot with all puppets on set in some way even if the backgrounds and skies may be added later on – pretty much [otherwise] it's really similar to the way we've always shot. "

The scale of Pirates! will for those viewing the film be able to be measured simply by how many individually sculpted and animated characters there are in every scene. Pirates! takes what claymation films had done before with a few characters and, with the help of modern reproduction techniques, were able to duplicate and scale up!

Whitlock: "We saw right away that we'd have a lot more characters than we'd had ever before, and also the complexity in their faces [has become more complicated] – the tiny detail in their faces has become more than say, Wallace and Gromit for example. With CNC machines we felt it would be a good way to speed things up a bit, here we'd be able to create shots with more characters by using the Rapid Prototype technique – particularly in the mouths."

Whitlock mentioned that in all about 7,000 mouths were made for the film, with about 250 of them being just for the Pirate Captain himself. These mouths allowed production to not only go faster than it had in the past with movies like Wallace and Gromit, it was done in a way that would also allow the crew to keep the classic look and feel to the film. This look and feel of course shows up as a warm feeling in your stomach, the feel you get when you watch a claymation film you know has been animated and sculpted frame by frame by frame.

With the ability to create hundreds of different expressions that could be used and re-used, Pirates! becomes more diverse than claymation films of the past simply due to its ability to have its filmmakers work with a lot less fatigue – and now that they've got hundreds of faces for the Pirate Captain, for example, they could realistically use his character again for a future film. Create your own actor forever!

Whitlock: "I first worked with that technique on Coraline – doing full face replacement. Separate hair, separate mouths. It's worked well because of the nature of clay work, we've been able to retain much of the reality particularly in the mouths with this Rapid Prototyping method from our traditional clay brand. We've been able to retain the control of it. With our method we've been able to retain the detail and put in some of the little imperfections and keep it a little more organic looking and like the clay we've normally used."

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The Pirates! Band of Misfits is out in theaters starting today, April 27th, wherever fabulous movies are being shown! You'll be able to check it out in 2D as well as 3D for ultimate in-your-face clay scallywagging action! Note also that this is just one of our newly blossoming Entertainment hub that you'll see blowing up over the next few weeks and months – stay tuned!