Stop-motion is back again this year with three animated releases: Aardman's "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" (opening tomorrow), Laika's "ParaNorman" (Aug. 17), and Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie" (October 5). And from what I've seen of all three, the bar has been significantly raised technologically to keep up with CG but at the same time staying true to the tactile nature of the technique. In the case of "The Pirates," Aardman has especially come a long way since its signature "Wallace & Gromit" franchise. The puppets are slicker, the sets more extensive, the overall look more vibrant, and the VFX more authentic. But, of course, the wacky British humor is still delightfully Aardmanesque: social misfits and idealistic dreamers longing for fantastical adventures to escape their humdrum lives. Whether or not the droll pirate shenanigans on the high seas will connect with a U.S. audience is hard to tell, but it will surely be an Oscar contender for its scope, wit, and craft.
Indeed, craft has always been what it's all about for director and Aardman co-founder Peter Lord. He discovered Gideon Defoe's book ("The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists") lying on a table during a development meeting and latched onto it immediately for its gleeful, mischievous tone about pirates and Darwin (evolution clashing with devolution). Naturally, the highly evolved chimpmanzee, Mr. Bobo, steals the movie from Hugh Grant's vain Pirate Captain, who wants more than anything to win the Pirate of the Year award, even if it means parting with his precious dodo, Polly.
"Obviously, it's a very different look than Wallace & Gromit," Lord contends. "With pirates they need gold braid, belts, buckles, sashes, scabbards, lace. And you couldn't do that in clay or anything like it. So I didn't try to pretend that it was clay. I went for a different aesthetic entirely."
And the most proficient way to achieve the new stop-motion aesthetic in the digital age these days is through rapid prototyping (introduced on "Coraline" but now much more advanced). Replaceable puppet mouths along with heads are made by an in-house department at Aardman. These are computer designed and printed in resin (complete with teeth and tongue) via a 3D printer. Thus, the animators make the characters speak by using mouth replacements that are attached to the head by magnets. More than 6,818 puppet mouths were created for "The Pirates," including 1,364 for the Pirate Captain alone, along with 257 mouth shapes to convey his speech and reactions.