As someone who grew up watching Wallace and Gromit shorts, and later their feature films like Chicken Run, you can imagine my excitement when I was asked by my taskmaster Brendon to do a tour of one of Aardman's studios down in Bristol.
I was slightly less excited when I was told that as part of the tour I'd have to do several pieces to camera for the video report that we'll be publishing soon. I haven't seen the footage but from experience I know that every time I'm on camera I maintain the air of someone looking down the barrel of a loaded gun…
Aardman is still led by its founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton who first established the company in 1972. Their reach and style extends much further than you might think, as demonstrated by a sizzle reel shown during my tour. Using a combination of hand-drawn, computer-generated and stop-motion animation, they've produced dozens of commercials from the well-known Creature Comfort ads for Heat Electric to the most recent run of NPower spots.
A couple of years back, Aardman signed a deal with Sony Pictures Animation to collaborate on a number of feature films. The first of these was Arthur Christmas, released earlier this month, but my tour took me onto the set of their next big project, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists, which is being directed by co-founder Peter Lord.
This film stars the voices of Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Lenny Henry, and Ashley Jensen as a ragtag band of pirates who take part in, as you will probably have guessed, an adventure with scientists. One of these scientists is David Tennant, disguising his Scotch accent again to play Charles Darwin.
Pirates! will be the first Aardman feature to use a combination of stop motion animation and CGI environments. The stop motion component remains as labour intensive as ever, however. A crew of approximately 300 people worked on the film during production, divided up into approximately 41 units, often with all of them operating simultaneously. I was told that each animator will turn out approximately four seconds of footage per week.
The sets range in size from a pirate ship the size of a slightly underfed walrus to an elaborate reproduction of Queen Victoria's kitchen, which is about the size of a room in cheap student accommodation.
At one point I was holding a model of Hugh Grant's character, The Pirate Captain – a 30cm tall construct of elaborately painted silicone over a flexible wire frame – and was casually told by the lead modeller that it was worth approximately £20,000.
I put it down quite carefully.
Nearby, like something you'd find in the house from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was a case full of Pirate Captain mouths, about fifty of them, and designed to be switched in and out of the model with relative ease.
The level of detail and ingenuity in both the sets and the models is astounding, from a frog being inserted head-first into a mincer in Queen Victoria's kitchen to the machinery used inside a model carriage to make it rock realistically as it moves.
The expense, scale, time and sheer hard work that goes into hand-crafting a stop-motion production from start to finish is hard to believe, and it's even harder to conceive what the animation process must have been like in Aardman's early days of hand-sculpted clay figurines, a smaller team of animators and hand-built environments.
While there are lots of new techniques and technologies to make some of the process easier, it's obvious that Aardman still take great care and make their films with love.
I can't wait to see the finished product.
The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists will be released in the UK on March 28th 2011.
The video tour, with footage of some of the sets mentioned, will go live on Bleeding Cool nearer to release.