Peter Lord: Movies by the millimetre

Originally published in the Trinidad Guardian on November 11, 2013

Peter Lord with a working model of The Pirate Captain. Photographed at the Hyatt by Mark Lyndersay.
Peter Lord with a working model of The Pirate Captain. Photographed at the Hyatt by Mark Lyndersay.

It isn’t something that you’d notice at first, but there’s a lot of Peter Lord in The Pirate Captain, the hapless hero of Aardman’s The Pirates – Band of Misfits, the remarkable stopmotion animation film that represents the company’s newest addition to its collection of malleable marionettes.

Aardman is most famous for the remarkable and almost continuously viral Wallace and Grommit, the warm hearted pairing of a straightforward and adamantly dull Englishman and his much smarter dog. As he was wrapping up his presentation on Pirates at NAPA to a small but intensely appreciative audience of animators and animation hopefuls,

Lord screened a progressive series of developmental clips showing how the film was visualised and executed over the five years it took to create. First came the storyboards, loose drawings that describe the scene visually. Then comes the storyreel, tighter illustrations run together as cel animations that show how the characters move within the frame.

Then the progressive modelling of the actors right through to the final film. Along the way, Lord explained how a stopmotion animator directs the dozens of people who actually move the characters 24 times per second to make the movie. In a series of increasingly hilarious clips, animators led by Lord perform scenes from the movie, their wild gestures and slightly lunatic expressions settling agreeably into the faces of the cartoonish puppets in side by side clips pairing the backroom readings with finished film scenes.

In the question and answer session after his talk Peter Lord fielded the increasingly keen questions of his audience. How do I get to work at Aardman? “I’m afraid I have to be professionally discouraging here,” he responded. “We take in only a few interns, and I’m not the person who chooses them. Still, you should apply.” Can you make a career from this? “I began when I was a kid, and now I’m a grandfather, so that’s a good run.”

What software do you prefer to use? “Oh, you’re asking the wrong person. I’m not good with business, and I’m not good at technology. I’m an animator!” So who is Peter Lord then? He’s the guy who began making things move on film at the age of 16 and teamed up with David Sproxton while they were still at school to create an animation partnership that continues until today. In 1972 they registered Aardman Animations and in 1976, scored their first hit, the modelling clay character Morph.

Lord flirted briefly with traditional drawn cel animation but quickly embraced the possibilities of modelling clay, then sold under the brand name Plasticine. “Until then we were small in a big pond,” Lord explained. “With stopmotion we were in a much smaller pond, but once we began working with modelling clay, were were pretty much in a pond of our own.”

“To this day we still use off-the-shelf modelling clay,” Lord said. “We have an industrial mixer to blend colour and consistency, but otherwise it’s the same stuff anyone can buy and work with.” The night before his NAPA presentation, he whipped up a quick Morph figure to show from a lump of modelling clay. He reached for the character after a question from the audience about the 150 people the company employed to create Pirates. “All these people we employ do things I couldn’t do.

I can do this (holds up the Morph maquette), and that’s as far as it goes.” From the start, Lord and Sproxton divided their responsibilities at the company according to their talents and when they didn’t have the talent, they found someone who did. That openness to new talent and youthful enthusiasm served the company well in its earliest days when they spotted Nick Park, then a student at the National Film and Television School.

Park would join Aardman in 1985, bringing along his wonderfully expressive Wallace and Grommit characters who would quickly become a flashpoint for the company. Wallace with his startlingly expressive mouth and Grommit who acted method style with brooding twitches of his forehead and eyes would become a mainstay of Channel Four, a new UK station in the 1980’s which arrived with a remit to commission animation work. “That was like having a patron for ten years,”

Peter Lord says with a relieved glance at the heavens. “It was a great boon to animation in the UK. There isn’t much industry in Trinidad and Tobago, but then there wasn’t in England until the 1980’s when Channel Four came along.” Despite the coming of digital technologies, and Lord loves the new capabilities it brings, even if he avows not to understand a bit of it, the Aardman founder remains a big supporter of the capabilities of stopmotion animation.

“Stopmotion animation is great for character,” he explained. “If you want to do spectacle, computer animation is better, but to create work that people relate to and love, it’s a remarkable way to work.” “Gesture and motion becomes very much a hands-on thing. It becomes easier to create something expressive.”

“If you’re outside the work,” Lord cautioned, “it might seem like a lot to do, but when you’re inside it, it’s very compelling.” “If you want to get better at it, you just need to practice. Animation is a lot like playing a musical instrument, you have to animate a lot to really get comfortable with it. Everytime you shoot; you should learn something.”

Peter Lord may be a bit old to go crawling around miniature sets adjusting characters in quirky, often hard-to-reach positions in 24 increments for each second’s worth of film, but he has a lot of experience in making sense of the business. The film’s story, he insists, is the core to any hope of success. “Getting the story right is amazingly difficult,” Lord admitted.

“Pirates went quite quickly from story to script; it took just a year and a half.” “Aardman is very British. We’d probably have more success if we were more attentive to the US and the global market, but I don’t know how to do it any other way.” “I think it’s an important thing to be true to yourself and your culture.”