Thursday 21 June 2012

Interview: Peter Lord, Co-founder of Aardman and Director of The Pirates!

Today I had the fantastic opportunity to speak to the very kind, very friendly and very, very talented Peter Lord on the phone, from Aardman's headquarters in Bristol. Peter, who is a co-founder of Aardman, co-directed their first feature film, Chicken Run, and directed their most recent film, The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists. Despite his very busy schedule as one of the famed studio's top-brass, Peter was kind enough to speak to me for just over half an hour about all things Aardman.

I'd also like to take this time to extend my sincerest thanks to Emily Metcalfe, Julie Lockhart and Amy Wood from the Aardman publicity and production team for helping to set this up. As a huge fan of Aardman, it was a great honour to interview Peter.

Topics covered in our conversation include the history of Aardman, critical reaction to the studio, why their films have never caught on in a big way in America, working with DreamWorks and Sony and The Pirates! and The Pirates! 2. Be wary though, there is some (very) mild language used. Check out the full interview after the jump break:

A113Animation: Firstly, thanks so much for taking the time to do this, I know how very, very busy you must be – busier than me I assume.
Peter Lord: I am a busy man yes [laughs] always busy, yeah.

A113Animation: Okay, so, I’ll launch straight into it. To start off with, you work at, and are a co-founder of, Aardman Animations. Aardman, obviously, Academy Award winning studio, one of the best animation studios on the planet; behind Wallace and Gromit and other great films, most recently The Pirates! You founded Aardman in 1972, I think, with Dave Sproxton; can you give us a little insight into the early days of Aardman?
Peter Lord: Oh blimey, yeah, well, most simply, we were at school together. So we, we met when we were 12, really. And, one day we did some animation for fun, for a hobby, to kill some time; never particularly, not particularly interested in it before then, any more than any other kid. But we tried it, on film of course, back then, and, it’s very exciting, you know, animation is a very exciting thing to do – it’s so magical, to make something come to life, so, even if what comes to life is complete… rubbish [both laugh] you know, it doesn’t really matter, it’s quite magical when you first see it, so that was good. Then we practised for a bit, not very much, just for fun. And, we’d not done much – what we’d done was very, very primitive; early days – and with the aid of a bit of a nudge and a bit of nepotism, we got to show our work to a guy at the BBC. And the world was so different then, I can’t say how different the world was. You had just three terrestrial channels, but in a way that kind of worked to our advantage, we found this little, little, tiny little gap in the market where we could, where we sold one short film, one twenty second film, and it wasn’t even very good, but it was something, you know? We sold that, and, you know, having got that little tiny foot in the door, we just kept it there, kept that foot in the door. And, the first thing we ever did was drawn animation, 2D animation, and that was a bit of animation about a character that we called Aardman, which is why we’ve got this ridiculous name – and it’s how this stupid name came about [laughs]. And after a couple of years, we got bored of 2D animation – we weren’t very good at it – so we experimented with 3D, which is actually where it all took off.

Aardman head honchos (Left - Right) Nick Park, Peter Lord, David Sproxton at the Arthur Christmas premiere.

A113: Okay, and following that you did a little bit of work with the Wallace and Gromit shorts and with the Creature Comforts as well. But to really establish Aardman en masse with the wider audience, you decided to create a feature film which you did with Chicken Run, which you directed.
PL: Yeah, yeah, me and Nick [Park] together, yeah.

A113: Obviously, brilliant film, and that was what really started you on your way, you got a Golden Globe Best Picture nomination I think for it as well.
PL: Yes we did, yes we did.

A113: Which, really, was a sign of things to come, in terms of the critical adoration that’s always really surrounded Aardman.
PL: I always think, I – this sounds very arrogant – I always think that we would have got the Oscar, but they didn’t have one that year! They hadn’t invented the Animated Feature Oscar that year, they created it the year after; I was very pissed off at that!

[both laugh]

A113: Understandably, although, from so far, I think you’re a shoe in this year with The Pirates!
PL: [laughs] Oh well, I don’t know, I hope so!

A113: Fingers crossed for you.
PL: Thank you!

A113: Mm, yeah, but, because you’re so critically adored, it must, surely, just amp up the pressure, to try and live up to the expectations each time.
PL: Well, I mean, yes, it does, it does, yeah, there is, you’ve got an audience, you know, you’ve got an audience that want to like you, want to like what you do, as a studio, and you have an obligation to them, don’t you, really. You don’t want to let them down, you know; it’s just human nature I think. It’s difficult, you know, it’s difficult, because, it’s like bands, or, releasing records, it’s hard, it’s tricky. Because, you’ve got to do what you believe in, he says. It’s true, you do. If you start thinking ‘oh, I’ll do what the public want to see’ or ‘I’ll do what, I know, what sells’, and that kind of thing, I think that’s a really dangerous way to go. So, I think the important thing, is to try and do what you believe in, and hoping [laughs], hoping that the audience will go along with you; will in fact enjoy it. So, that’s what we do, we don’t… and we try not to think about it too much, you know what I mean? About what the audience is thinking, we try not to think about that, which sounds arrogant, sounds arrogant, but I think there’s a certain sort of odyssey there, that you, you do what you believe in. And, a tonne of thinking goes into it, into a film, it’s hard to exaggerate quite how much creative thought goes into one single film, it’s amazing, the amount of brain power that goes into it.

A113: Yeah, because, absolutely right, you’re saying you do what you do, what feels right to you, and that definitely comes across when watching the films, because Aardman films are very particular of themselves. When you’re watching an Aardman film, you always know by the humour, by the animation, that you’re watching an Aardman film. And that really sets you apart from the rest of the market.
PL: It does, I think it does, I mean, a large portion of that is being British of course – which we just are, we don’t have to try [laughs]. We just are British, we do what works for us, works for our culture, you know.

A113: Which leads me perfectly into my next question! Because you are typically British, Aardman’s a national institution over here – forget the Jubilee, this is what makes you proud to be British! Because everyone loves Wallace and Gromit and as well with all your feature films; they’re always big hits over here. How important, integral to the story, would you say that the Britishness of Aardman is to the story and to the comedy of your films?
PL: Yes, very important to the comedy, absolutely! And, and very important to the story as well, when you asked the question: like, for example, if for some bizarre reason we chose – I can’t think why – we chose to make a film based on old Eskimo, for example, which I can say is not the plan, we’d still do it with the British sensibilities; we couldn’t help it. We might try to be respectful to the, to the kind of locals, to the old Inuits there, but, basically, it would have a British sensibility. Because we are, we certainly don’t work at it, we just are, you know. It’s so profound isn’t it? It’s the things that you know, the things you know now, the things you knew when you were a kid, the things your parents know, the stuff that’s around you every day. Every day, you live in England, you walk around, you’re picking up the British, English, sense of humour, sensibilities, the things we say to each other in the pub; it’s just so profound! The more I visit America, I’m just hugely, I’m always more and more aware of just how different the two countries are. We really are two very, very, very different countries. And it’s not some, yeah, people joke about the language, it’s not a question of language, it’s a question of sensibilities and culture. So we do, what amuses us, it’s very simple. But what amuses us, we’re not all the same, you know, everyone has slightly different takes; Nick [Park] for example, is very fond of puns, that’s a very English thing. I don’t like puns so much, so we didn’t use them so much in The Pirates! You know, if someone’s a huge fan of Father Ted or a huge fan of The Mighty Boosh, and somebody else if a fan of, you know, old, comedies, we have a lot of cultural links sloshing around in there. But we, we don’t think about that, let me tell you that, we never think, the only things we ever think about or discuss is, sometimes we say to each other, ‘oh, can anybody else in the world even understand this?’, which is, after a couple of bits, ‘yeah, it’ll be fine, they’ll get it’. That’s normally what we include; we normally think ‘will anyone else in the world get this? Oh, it doesn’t really matter’. Because, being true to yourself is the most important thing, I know that sounds awfully kind of solemn thing to say. But that’s it, don’t edit, don’t self-edit because you’re afraid that some people in California won’t get it, or some people in, you know, France won’t get it. Don’t self-edit, just do what you think is right, and they’ll come to you, the audience will come to you – or not – as they choose.

A113: Yeah, that was one of the things that absolutely come across watching The Pirates!, how quirky, how original it was. You wouldn’t see that kind of thing coming out of any other animation studio, not really for better or worse either way.
PL: No you wouldn’t, no you wouldn’t.

A113: But, it’s great, because it’s particularly particular to you, and to the studio, which is fantastic.
PL: Yeah, yeah, that’s absolutely right. I must say, in passing, that Sony, who commissioned it – paid for it – they were very, very, really supportive, which was great, you know. They sort of, they knew we were doing something quite weird, really, compared to – not mainstream, you know, not mainstream – they knew that, there was no secret about it, we didn’t hide it from them. They knew it was quite weird, and they said, well, go for it, do it.

A113: It’s almost like you’re telegraphing my questions.
PL: Oh sorry.

[both laugh]

Peter Lord (left) with DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg (centre) and Nick Park (right) on the set of Chicken Run.

A113: Oh no, it’s good. Because before Sony with Chicken Run through to Flushed Away, you worked with DreamWorks, on your films, which kind of tapered out I think, towards the end of Flushed Away didn’t it?
PL: Yes it did, it did, I mean, it was very mutual, you know; they didn’t really think we were right for them, and we didn’t think they were right for us. I’m afraid that’s the very natural, mutual end, yeah.

A113: Yeah, that’s, that’s a fair thing. Nothing against DreamWorks, they make very good films, but it’s
PL: Yeah they do, yeah they do.

A113: But it’s a very, very different style of comedy.
PL: Yes, yes, everything’s different. Different style of comedy, different style of storytelling even. And, you know, all the fussing is with The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which of course was a huge success, big success, won the Oscar. But it was never going to be a big blockbuster success. So, that’s what they wanted, they wanted big blockbuster successes.

A113: Yeah, because that’s one of the things that grates with me a bit as well, sometimes you go into HMV or whatever, you see Curse of the Were-Rabbit or Chicken Run branded as a DreamWorks film. Which, obviously I’m not saying that they didn’t have a hand in it, but it’s your film, and when watching it, you can tell it’s not a DreamWorks film.
PL: Yeah, yes, that’s true. I know it’s a pain, but that’s fair enough, they did pay a lot of money for it, financed us for all those years after all. I mean, what gets me, I must say, is that, we have, we’re successful in America, but, it’s not exciting financially – we’re not setting the world on fire in America. And okay, yeah, I accept that. But then, really lame films do really well, and it’s just, you know. Culturally they are, the American public, is very slow to come over our way.

A113: I think it’s really the same as with some of the Studio Ghibli films, never really caught on in the west. Whereas – I did an article on the blog about it the other day – I just, I can’t put my finger on why, but I think just the difference between the comic stylings that Aardman films never really caught on in a huge way in America.
PL: Yes, and that’s actually all it is. I mean, it’s always been that, that’s a big deal, but that’s all it is. It’s fundamental, it’s strangely fundamental. They just, there’s something about the two cultures, we just don’t quite see eye to eye, you know. And of course we all know, because everyone will say, ‘oh but such and such a film did well in the States’, you know, like it might be a Hugh Grant film will do well in the states, or a; things will do okay in the states, but, okay. It’s always to a slightly…

A113: Less extent?
PL: Yeah, it’s really, it’s all to a small audience really, which is annoying. Because, I think, very simply, that a big audience, should love our films, actually.

[both laugh]

A113: Yeah, because they will flock to see all manner of tat…
PL: Yeah, that is, they will, and I think the reason it annoys me is because, as you say, they’ll flock to see absolute cack, and they do, that’s fine, God bless them. That’s why dreadful films, films that no one thinks is good, will make a lot of money, because they’ll open well. Because, opening weekend everyone goes to see it. That’s the sort of thing, I’ve got to be careful what I insult, but that – I haven’t seen it – but, what was it called? The new… The Wrath of the Titans? Yeah? So, you know.

A113: It’s a matter of star power as well isn’t it, who’s in it, who’s directing it. Whereas the British names that give Aardman such, its originality and its brilliance over here, may not attract such, so many people over there.
PL: Yeah, yeah, okay, so in America, 10 million people go see this brand X film, and 20% of them like it, you know, but only 1 million go and see the Aardman film, and 80% of them like it. In fact, they are going to enjoy it far more, they just don’t go in the first place, because of the way it’s going to seem strange to them, it seems sort of alien somehow.

A113: Yeah, but, Sony seem to have been doing a good job of trying to promote your films now, they seem to be getting whole-heartedly behind them.
PL: They have indeed. Yes, they’ve been great, yeah.

A113: Is it more amicable would you say, than working with DreamWorks, working with Sony?
PL: Oh it’s been great actually. I mean, DreamWorks was fine, I won’t knock DreamWorks at all; they were great for us. But, it’s been very exciting being with Sony, they give us a lot of artistic freedom, which is great, which is what we love of course.

A113: Yeah, that’s always – I know you wouldn’t let Hollywood go to your head or anything – but that’s always been a concern with me, obviously because you work with these big studios: are they going to try and tamper with it? Are they going to try and Americanise it?
PL: Yes, well, no, they may try, but they’ll fail.

[both laugh]

PL: Yes, no, we’re just not interested. We’re not interested, and I can’t believe we ever will be. Presumably there’s a model, where you go to a studio and say ‘listen, we want to make a lot of money, tell us what to do, and we’ll make the movie your way’, and they might do some crappy, crappy kids version. I can’t describe it, I can’t think of anything so bad. Get the voices, and a load of script writers, and we’ll just do the animation, and you tell us what to do. Well we could do that, but, there’s nothing in that for us. [laughs]

A113: Are you a fan of what Sony are doing with their own animation department? Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs?
PL: I liked Cloudy very much actually, I really did like Cloudy. I haven’t seen, I don’t really know where they’re up to with Hotel Transylvania now.

A113: It’s October I think it’s out. I can’t make heads or tails of it just yet, I mean, I’m sure it will be good, because Cloudy didn’t have the best advertising in the world, but a very, very good film, very Aardman-esque even!
PL: Yeah, actually I loved Cloudy. I didn’t have particularly high hopes for it when I went to see it, but actually I completely loved it, I thought it was completely crazy. Yeah, really brave and crazy. I met the directors and they were both mad guys!

A113: You see something of yourself in them?
PL: Well, not particularly, but I thought, something I really liked. That was interesting actually, you bring it up, because, that was very American wasn’t it? Very American. But not mainstream, which is why, probably, it didn’t make a mountain load of money. It was a branch, it was kind of zany, mad-cap American humour. It wasn’t corny – it had its corny moments – which is pretty well necessary in this game, but not much. Just a very genuine sense of a kind of mad enthusiasm, like, you could see these guys were really into what they were doing. And they’d found a funny a funny tone on their own, that’s the key thing, it can’t be anything else.

A113: Very original! Alright, and we’ve mentioned it in passing, but your most recent film, which saw you return to the director’s chair, was The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists, based on the series of books by Gideon Defoe. Absolutely brilliant.
PL: Thank you!

A113: I really can’t fault it. Great scale, great acting, great script, very, very, very funny. You proud of how it turned out over all?
PL: Oh I’m delighted, yeah. I’m delighted how it turned out. I’m delighted by the making of it; it was such a blast to make it, it’s such a great team. It went very smoothly, and, you know, that’s not essential, but that helps a lot; I’m very happy if it goes smoothly. You know, we had a vision, it started with the book really, the book set this very high bar for comedy, and I had a vision for the sort of film that would be, that’d be a bit crazy. Kind of gleeful, mischievous, enthusiastic, not solemn, because I didn’t sit down to turn it into a life lesson in the medium of plasticine puppets, that’s not my game. I thought, I want my puppets to entertain, it’s got a nice, there’s a nice sort of morality to it. I felt that we made what we set out to make, which is, no small achievement, you spend so bloody long making these things, that holding your train of thought, holding an idea, for all of 5 years, is quite an achievement in itself.

A113: Yeah, you could definitely see that, you weren’t forcing the emotion. It was a very warm-hearted, good film, but you weren’t shoving moral messages down the viewers’ throats, which is always refreshing.
PL: Yeah, yeah, again, very English.

Peter Lord with Hugh Grant at the premiere of The Pirates!

A113: Yeah, so what was it like then, to work with all of these fantastic British voices? For a British institution like Aardman, to work with fellow British institutions like Hugh Grant, must’ve been great!
PL: It was amazing, completely amazing. I do love working with actors; I love working with actors, because it’s the most glamorous part of what we do in animation. It always scares me because I’m not, I’m not very experienced, like if I was a theatre or TV director, you need to work with actors every day. And I don’t know that very well, so it slightly scares me, but that’s probably not a bad thing in itself. I’m very respectful of actors; I hugely admire what they do. And when it goes well, it’s the most quick – because, you know, so many bits of animation are so slow; it’s slow and careful. But then you go to the studio for an afternoon, 3 or 4 hours, and suddenly everyone’s racing ahead, suddenly tonnes of performances, tonnes of character, tonnes of comedy to work with. So that’s of course supremely exciting when that happens. The sequence just comes flying, in your head you know it one way; you’ve written it, you’ve storyboarded it, you’ve maybe done the voice yourself – because I’d often do the Captain’s voice myself, to stand in – you think you know the scene backwards. But, it’s barely alive, you know. And then you get actors in and it’s like woah, suddenly its Technicolor, like audio Technicolor, which I love. And everyone’s very pleased, you know, everyone says they’re happy to work with us, they’re happy to work with Aardman. I guess they know that we won’t let them down either. Because the performances they give will be good performances: funny, yes. I think Hugh Grant was really genuinely really genuinely proud of what he did with The Pirate Captain.

A113: Mm, he did a fantastic job. You actually managed to pull him out of semi-retirement for the film as well.
PL: [laughs] Yes, that’s right. Because, he came in, and he was always – he’s just such a funny bloke, he just doesn’t want to act, you know, he doesn’t want to act! He says things like ‘oh acting is a ridiculous thing for a 50 year old man to be doing’. He’s always miffing it and talking it down, in a funny way. But then he turns it on, you know. And he really cares, he is an actor, he just doesn’t want to be.

A113: Yeah, he’s naturally talented in something he has no interest in. [laughs]
PL: Yeah, something like that, yeah, well, claims he has no interest in.

A113: Yeah, and as well, although the voice is without a doubt important, more important in a way is obviously the animation. Aardman most famous obviously for your stop-motion like with Wallace and Gromit, like with this. But you have used CGI in the past, with Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas. But you’re personally a big advocate of stop-motion.
PL: I love stop-motion, yes. It’s what I care about, it’s what I love, and I’m proud of it. I just believe in it, you know, I so believe in it. Sometimes, like when I was in the States, talking about the film, some journalist would say to me, sort of, ‘so how can you can do this old fashioned stuff? Are you like looking backwards, it’s all very retro?’ I don’t think of that way. You know, I’m working with young people, new animators the whole time, new ideas, new technologies to help it.

A113: Yeah, it’s just an original thing, it’s your thing.
PL: Yeah, yeah, it doesn’t feel backwards looking at all to me, it feels very forward looking. Like anybody can do computer animation now, that’s the easiest thing in the world [laughs]! But, puppet animation requires bravery and a lot of talent. And another thing is, the big thing about puppets, is that making stop-motion films is such fun, because you get to be in the studio – it’s a fabulous environment. You know, the kind of thing about Pixar or ILM, DreamWorks and Blue Sky, they’re all kind of the same. You know, apart from some Star Wars toys round the edge, and people just working on computers. Whereas, at our place, you’ve got beautiful handmade sets and puppets, you’ve got people carrying things around, hammering and sawing, and screwing things together. And you’ve got engineers working, and you’ve got artists working, you’ve got people coming in with paint and plaster, it’s just a real, proper, proper artistic environment.

A113: Yeah, and we’re quickly running out of time, so just a couple of quick questions. You spoke a while back of developing a sequel to The Pirates! Given what you said, that it hasn’t maybe set the world on fire financially, but it’s still done quite well, do those plans still stand?
PL: The plans still stand, but I cannot say that, I think we need to see. We’re working on it, we’re working on it.

A113: Confident you’ve got a decent story hashed out then?
PL: Yes, that is an important thing, yes. Yeah, that we have got. We’ve got the story, all we need now is the backing.

A113: Well, fingers crossed!
PL: Yeah, thank you! It’s just such a great cast; we just want to do more!

A113: I think that’s why you see sequels, not so much to grab money, but it’s just that the people who make the films love the characters and the world so much, it’s hard not to.
PL: Yeah, exactly.

A113: And finally, given the theme of your blog, what’s your favourite animated film?
PL: Ooohoohoh, my favourite animated film? My favourite? Oh, I will say, today – it might be different tomorrow – but today, I’ll say I will say, My Neighbour Totoro.

A113: You’re actually the second person I’ve interviewed to say that! Enrico Casarosa, director of Pixar’s La Luna, said the same again. I really need to rent it!
PL: Have you not seen it?

A113: No, I haven’t seen any of the Ghibli films actually.
PL: Oh, they’re so interesting, so interesting! Actually, there’s something about them. I mean Spirited Away, the action scenes are mind-blowing, but Totoro has a kind of beautiful, delicate warmth to it.

A113: Mm, when I’ve watched the trailers and the adverts, that’s what I’ve seen. It just looks so – like The Illusionist a couple of years ago – it looks so calm and so restrained.
PL: There’s funny things about it as well, if you haven’t seen it, maybe if you just see a picture of Totoro, that’s really cutesy, you might think. But actually what’s really interesting is, when the creature appears, it’s quite ambiguous, is it evil or good? Is it scary of friendly? It’s ambiguous. Which kind of captures this kind of beautiful sense of childishness, as there should be.

A113: Yeah, he even cameod in Toy Story 3!
PL: Yeah, you’re right, I saw that, I did see that!

A113: It was nice to see the reference, that was one of the things I loved most about Flushed Away, all the Wallace and Gromit references.
PL: Yeah, that was funny. [laughs]

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