Director of “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” visits Columbia

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I recently had the opportunity to attend a unique presentation, one that many of the students (and even faculty here) were salivating over.  Peter Lord, the famed stop motion director best known for creating the Wallace & Gromit series, visited Columbia to discuss his new movie “The Pirates! Band of Misfits.”

Hearing him speak with us about the approach he uses when creating films like “Pirates!” gave me an entirely new appreciation for the dedication and artistry that goes into making a stop-motion feature.

Lord explained his production process by leading us through the creation of one small segment of a scene (perhaps 5 to 10 seconds long of actual screen time), explaining each of the stages necessary to create that bit.  While production does still entail the “old school” approach of actually creating and molding figurines and then moving them slightly shot by shot to capture their motion, much goes into the process before that stage is reached.

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First there are a number of iterations of the scene that are created completely digitally, beginning with storyboards, then a “wire” version with the characters basic motion plotted out, followed by a fuller CGI version.  Lord actually created a completely CGI rendering of each slice of the movie before he would go in and start shooting.  What’s amazing about this is that for most of the animated movies we see today (think Disney), their production process ends with a computer generated, animated version of the movie: for Lord this just begins the process.

A lot of the character elements (and scene elements) are physically hewn based on these digital renderings: for example, when one of the characters speaks, the motion of their mouth moving up and down is already plotted out in the digital version of the scene, so when it’s time to pull out the camera, the motions are already nailed down with exactness.

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The level of detail that went into creating characters, scenes, and props is simply jaw dropping.  Everything is created by hand, to scale. For example, Lord showed us a video of a tiny miniature wine glass being hand-blown by a glass blower who is specifically trained to create tiny glass objects.  The scenes themselves were also hand created by a team of fiendishly talented artists: Lord showed us pictures of artists squatting in scenery they were creating, appearing Godlike given the scale they were working with (in one scene that took place in an old theater, the human artist took up the entire stage).

Creating the characters’ mouths also took time and precision. In production, mouths have to be changed whenever a character speaks, and Lord’s production team created a library of over 8,000 mouths by the time production wrapped.

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Before hearing Peter Lord’s presentation, I knew that stop motion animation was a difficult process, but I had no idea how much talent, creativity, and heart went in to creating movies like “Pirates!”  It was truly a pleasure to hear from someone who is not only successful in his work, but who clearly walks the path he does as a labor of love.