It’s a genuinely strange feeling to be holding a film star in your hand. It’s odder still when the star in question is an elegantly sculpted 14in-tall pirate. I’m in the model-making department of world-renowned film-makers Aardman Animations in Bristol, where they are putting the finishing touches to their next feature-length production, The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists! (released in cinemas nationwide on Wednesday 28 March).
An assortment of incredibly detailed cast members have been spread out on the desk in front of me and I am as nervous as I would be had I been granted an audience with George Clooney – although, to be fair, there’s little chance of me snapping off Clooney’s head by accident.
Somewhat unprofessionally, I start giggling, but I imagine that Aardman staff have become accustomed to such reactions from fully grown men on seeing their work. You see, despite being sent here in a very professional capacity representing Radio Times, I also have to admit to being a huge fan of Aardman’s work.
Several years ago I found myself in a large conference room in Bristol chatting to an avuncular, bearded man, idly tinkering with a lump of plasticine. The conference room belonged to Aardman and the man was Peter Lord, the creator of Morph. I’ve kept in touch with the team from that moment on, even on one occasion providing some voices for their hilarious series Rex the Runt. So when I received an invitation to look at what they had been up to for the past five years, they didn’t have to ask me twice.
Andrew Bloxham, the senior supervisor in the model-making department, lifts up the surprisingly flexible and luxuriant beard of Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) and explains how they addressed the problem of moving the beard around with his various facial expressions. My impression of Aardman’s work has always been informed by childhood memories of Morph and the early Wallace and Gromit films. The image of dextrous and patient animators slowly moulding and repositioning lumps of plasticine over many long months has always been how I imagine their work.
But today, things have moved on. Models are made of flexible resins and plastics. I look at a huge box of grinning, leering and scowling mouths for the Pirate Captain, which cover every possible word and facial expression he could make. There are a stunning 897 of these lower jaws and the foam beard moves with them. This kind of pre-preparation enables animators to work faster than in the past.
Like most places where fantastic visions are created, the studio building is surprisingly ordinary, located on an industrial estate. I am ushered down long grey corridors. It’s only when we dash past hastily scribbled signs hung on black curtains saying, “Shooting. No admittance” that I actually feel I’m in a film studio.
We pause outside one room and after a brief whispered conversation, the curtains part and I am confronted with a vast, stunningly realised street scene from Victorian London. The street itself is about 40ft long, the various buildings standing between four and six feet high. The attention to detail is quite breathtaking. Glossy cobbles, grimy window panes and filthy brick- work all draw the eye. A sign reading “Doctor Lance Boyle’s Tonics & Elixirs” makes me laugh out loud with its contrived corniness. It’s incredible to think that some of the things I am seeing, which have been painstakingly created over months, may only be glimpsed on screen for a fraction of a second. But that is what makes Aardman productions so unique and watchable.
After my tour, I sit down for lunch with Peter and he idly bothers a prawn salad and smiles. “Yes, it’s all going rather well.”
He is a master of understatement. The last time we spoke was towards the end of the post-production work on The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Despite its roaring success, I got the impression that it was quite tricky working with the senior producers at DreamWorks, with whom Aardman had signed a hugely profitable but somewhat inhibiting deal. This time, however, they are working with another company and things are very different. “We’ve hardly seen them to be honest, they’re leaving us to get on with it. Which is quite nice.”
Peter talks about how all 320 staff have been working on Pirates, but the end of their five years of toil is now in sight. “Everything’s starting to wind down now.” He looks up and gestures at three young men who look like a cross between roadies and the cast of The IT Crowd. “Those boys are probably three of the best animators in the world. They’re all off to LA in three weeks to start working with Pixar.” And that is what I love, and have always loved, about Aardman folk. Despite four Oscars and Hollywood acclaim, they are not Hollywood people. In interviews, they mumble and scratch their heads and aren’t sure what the fuss is about. In other words, they are quintessentially British.
At the end of our chat, Peter asks what I’ve been up to. “Oh, you know, mate, all the usual. I did a stand-up show at the Edinburgh Fringe.” His eyes widen. “Oh, I wish I could do stand-up!” he enthuses. I point out that his life’s work has brought joy and laughter to millions. “Yes, I know,” he says, “but I have to wait five years for my laugh.” Trust me, I assure him, it’s well worth the wait.