The Pirates

Captain's Log Production Blog


From humble beginnings dunking a custard cream in a cup of tea, I now find myself a year and a half later stumbling around the streets of London. Well, when I say me, I mean my alter ego and that of 30 other animators; The Pirate Captain.

"Too much ambient noise in the studio ruins lives…" That’s a sign I made to keep the camera department quiet - it didn’t work, and the camera department’s "Ukulele club" is multiplying! As animators we get used to a certain amount of background noise. Normally it’s little snippets of dialogue from the film playing over and over again. On any given shot in the film, we might hear the same clip several hundred times - always viewing and reviewing the shot as it grows frame by frame. So we all know the voice cast very well. Add to that the sounds of a busy studio; runners moving sets and building units, set dressers constructing scenes, and motion control operators driving huge camera cranes from one studio to another.

Today I spent 30 minutes looking on the floor for an eyelid (this happens surprisingly often). And when you realise how small they are - you can understand why it takes so long.

Now as soon as I see one fall to the floor I listen really carefully and just sometimes I can locate it with my ears! We’ve even tried painting the eyelids with UV pens, but they always end up facing the wrong way.

In the Live Action Video unit (used for reference) Peter Lord steers me towards the Camera as we rehearse the next shot. In this scene the Pirate Captain is being guided by Darwin and Mr Bobo through the London Streets after a late night celebrating.

Here is a snapshot of an animators eye view – you can see the reference footage on my computer screen with Pete and I – we like to get into character as much as possible and the pirate hat is a great help! I use a programme called stop motion pro to grab the frames and review the motion.

Animating is a slow process, but it’s even slower when you animate a character who has spent some time in a pub. When I started this particular sequence it was midsummer. Not the best time of year to be animating a scene entirely at night… Now as we approach winter there is only one shot remaining to animate. It’s taken 3 long months for the Captain and Darwin amble down the cobbled street and into a side alley. And when you watch it in the cinema it’ll be over in ninety seconds. It might seem like a very strange thing for a crew of 200 people to do with their summer, but for us the job satisfaction comes from knowing that when you watch this film you care about these little puppets as if they were real actors. That’s what we hope anyway.

Here is a panorama from where I’m standing. The set I’m working on is very detailed. Tall buildings loom impressively over a cobbled Victorian street. Miniature posters cling to the sandy brickwork. Small lights loom above my head and are dotted around the set. I’m at one end of the street with my computer and desk (which holds some of the 200 different mouth shapes I need). The camera, recording every movement, is high above attached to a motorised crane.

And in the middle of all of this, the stars of the show are balanced mid step and totally motionless… And with that, I’d better get back to it - they won’t animate themselves!

Will Becher, Lead Animator

Arriving on the production of Pirates! at such a late stage has provided many challenges for me as an animator. Firstly, there were the intimidating efforts of my fellow animation colleagues. An incredible body of world class animation had been produced, and this was the standard to be met. My shots have been mostly coming out of the third act. Typically a high-paced and action-driven part of the film, it can only mean one thing for my shots; a lot goes on in a short amount of time and this calls for single frame animation. In a predominantly two frame stop motion animation film, there are a lot of single frame action sequences due to the amount of fast-paced camera work in the shot.Single frame enables you to produce a bit more action in the time you have got in one shot, which is usually around 1 to 3 seconds in length. I’ve also been handling a lot more logistical issues such as momentum, gravity and robotics. These three types of animation call for frame accurate of how objects actually move in real time. Unlike a character emotion where the animation can be a lot more organic and sometimes spontaneous, a rock bouncing down stairs, a flying sword, a swinging rope calls for realism. So basically the animator has nowhere to hide… no wonder I don’t have any hair left. It’s been a blast guys… see you on the next one! Daz Burgess xx

Darren Burgess, Animator

I noticed that a number of aluminium trays were populating Lloyd’s desk and spreading onto the desk adjacent. You know the kind that you get Chinese takeaways in. For us guys in the CG department, Lloyd’s quiet sculpting in the corner of the room had become a daily occurrence. It was strangely hypnotic watching him work – palming the clay as you stood over his shoulder. He was making these tiny heads out of a kind of modeling clay, no taller than my thumb, and then placing them in these trays to keep them tidy. They would eventually become characters in the film, or phonemes (mouth shapes) that we could use as reference in our digital work.As summer arrived, the trays had spread all the way onto the window sill and the heads were now sun-bathing. The modeling clay Lloyd uses is wax-based, and softens when warm. Like a candle, I could see these ornate faces drooping in the heat. With Loyd in a meeting and out of the room, I started a small rescue operation.

I took a handful of these melting heads and popped them in the Staff Fridge, which was regularly used by model makers to store their pack lunches. At the base of the fridge now lived a small family of heads. I reported this to Lloyd and he liked the idea of keeping them cool.By winter time Lloyd must have sculpted hundreds of these heads and facial expressions. I remember placing my lunchbox in the fridge one day to be greeted by a plethora of tiny heads all looking up at me with wide eyes and big ‘Oooh’ trumpet lips. There was now barely enough room for my lunch!Thanks!

David Brooks, CG Character Rigger

One Pirate Ship… One studio… One problem… no water! How do we make the pirate ship sail with no water? I needed to find a solution. First things first, and it may be shocking but ships don’t just rock. They rock, they roll, and they rise and fall, they undulate and billow, and move about in characteristic yet unpredictable ways. Creating a method of moving a 700Kg (1500lb) ship naturally was not such an easy task, especially as its length, from the tip of the bowsprit to the tail-end of the rudder is about 4.2m long (14’) as well as the height reaching nearly 4.5m (15’).One solution was to just ‘do it in camera’ as we say on set. This involves moving the camera during the shot which can make the ship look like its moving when in fact it’s stationary; however creating a camera move to make the ship’s movement look natural is challenging and time-consuming. Also, as the ship is stationary then the shadows in the scene which would normally move are also stationary.

Eventually we came to a compromise. I designed and built a rig which could rock and roll, rise and fall as well as track forwards and back. The rest of the motion, such as the rotation could be catered for in the motion of the camera during the shot. My design involved 4 electric motors, gearboxes, screw jacks, pinions and a whole host of metalwork, all plugged into a computer which controls everything to precise frame-by-frame accuracy for the animation to be produced in wonderful detail.The resulting rig allows the ship to tilt and roll up to 10 degrees from horizontal; now this may not sound much but standing next to it at this angle had me sweating, although I’m confident it’s not going to topple it still worries me, yet it looks pretty awesome! Thankfully it is only able to travel at a maximum speed of 0.5 degrees per second so there is no way it’s going to run away with itself. The rig also extended the height to 5.5m (18’) when also on track, which, after snapping off the very tip of the main mast we found was too high for the studio. Oops!So when you watch the movie check out the pirate ship crashing through the waves and you will know, just below the computer generated ocean is a mechanical beast working hard to shift the beautifully crafted vessel onto the silver screen. Now that’s one problem solved, what’s next?

Morgan Roe, Mechanical Engineer

Welcome to the Pirates! crew blog.  My name is Beeky and I am the Unit Production Manager.  My role is to ensure the production is organised in an efficient manner to help the Director make the film they want but at the same time make sure that it is completed on time and budget (ooo la-dee-da).  Outside of work I enjoy baking and the music of Michael Buble.  But enough about me, the purpose of this blog is to give you an insight into the production process and updates about what’s going at our studio in sunny Bristol!

So where are we?

As of today we are in week 72 of a 79 week shoot.  OK.  THAT’S LESS THAN 8 WEEKS TO COMPLETE PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY! This fact does make me quite nervous, almost to the point I’d like to lie down under my desk with a cold flannel on my face.  Sadly this isn’t an option.

To give a sense of the scale of the Pirates production, we have a crew of around 300 people, including 33 animator and 41 shooting units in 4 studios!  To date we have shot 79 mins 47 seconds and 6 frames of the finished film, this equates to 1245 shots.  Our current estimate is that we have about 15 mins / 250 shots before the end of the shoot.  As fascinating as these production statistics are the most surprising thing is (and I’m about to curse it by saying it) that we are more or less, just about on schedule.

“WHAT!” I hear you shout “but major motion pictures are meant to be awash with creative and production clashes, actors storming off and sets being destroyed by storms!”

Well, that’s where we are incredibly lucky at Aardman.  We work on a business park near Bristol which is rarely troubled by tropical storms and our actors are made of silicon and modelling clay and kept in boxes; but most importantly we have the most talented and experienced team of people working on Pirates who have allowed us to bring this extremely ambitious project to life with incredibly little in the way of fuss and panic.  And this gets me to the real point of my introduction, each blog post will be from a different member of the Pirates crew giving you an insider’s view on what it’s like and what’s involved in making Pirates!

Hope you all enjoy the crew blog and if you’ve found my blog the most interesting and hilarious thing you’ve ever read then don’t panic, I’ll be back.  Popping up from time to time to give you updates on how the production is going.


Richard ‘Beeky’ Beek, Production Manager

Have you ever been to a beard meeting? No? well you’ve missed out, I can tell you! I’ve been to loads. You wouldn’t believe the amount of beard action on this film! It’s beard this and beard that some days.

It all started a few years back sometime in 2008 when we were designing the Pirate Captain.

“It’s got to big and bold and luxuriant and curly” were the first enthusiastic beard instructions from Pete. So we got cracking and sculpted up a proud yet subtle beard, full of curls.

“That looks great” Said Pete. “Whack it in a mould and let’s test it”.

The animators took it away in November 2009 and did their magic stuff and came back saying “It looks nice but it’s got to fit tightly around big wide mouth shapes and just as tightly around a small thin mouth shapes” . (Hereafter animators are referred to as ‘they’ and modelmakers as ‘ we’.)

So we scratched our heads and doodled on the corner of our pads whilst in other meetings in December 2009 and we came up with the unimpressively simple idea of a band of silicone passing through the head joining the beard sides and pulling them in, and a beard core to locate the mouth shapes accurately in the beard.

“Ace!” they said, “But it stops moving too sharply when we’re not swapping the mouth shapes. It’s got no weight, It needs to keep moving when the head stops”.

“OK “ we said, and tried a bit of twisted aluminium wire, which attached the beard core to allow the end of the beard to move around.

“Too weak!” they said. “We keep moving it by accident!”

“Here’s a ball joint instead of the twisted wire then”.

“Too hard to move and the beard comes away from the mouth shapes when we try to animate it”.

“OK then” we said in February 2010 “here’s a lever-based mechanism, that you move with an allen key”.

“That’s nice” they said “but it’s not so easy to find the access point with the allen key”.

“OK, here’s a different type of lever mechanism with an easier to find access point”, We said.

“Erm… It’s good, yes…. but still not really quite what we need to be honest… sorry”.

So then a bit more chin rubbing and doodling and…

“OK ! here’s a nice, small, solid worm gear mechanism (made from a guitar tuning head) with an easy to find access point in the front of the beard!”.

“Brilliant! Yes that’s it”, they said with relief in April 2010, “Now can we talk about the moustache?……….”


Andrew Bloxham, Puppet Designer