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Why Queen Victoria Has a Steam Engine Under Her Skirts in Pirates! Band of Misfits

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Aardman Animations has paid tribute to weird gadgets and strange machinations with the Wallace and Gromit series and the movie Chicken Run. And Pirates! Band of Misfits, which opens tomorrow, sees a pirate crew running up against Charles Darwin and other scientists, in Victorian England.

So just how steampunk does it get? We had to ask director Peter Lord.

Before we get started, though, this movie should really be called by its British title: Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. It's a cool title that actually, you know, reflects what the movie is about. Instead of just coming from the "random assortment of words" school of movie titles, like the U.S. version.


In Pirates!, a pirate crew meets Charles Darwin (David Tennant!), and this leads to them going to a gathering of Victorian scientists who have invented airships and all sorts of other insane stuff. But despite all of this strange Victorian technology, the movie never fully goes steampunk. Says Lord:

We refer to steampunk, we often looked at it, but we didn't ever go there. It wasn't quite our aesthetic... We had this designer called Norman Garwood, who had worked with Terry Gilliam on Brazil and Spielberg on Hook. Brazil is kind of steampunk. [As to why they didn't go fully steampunk], you steer a line [and] it's hard to define that line. It's only defined by the choices you make, how far you go in any one direction. And we didn't go all the way towards steampunk.


There is a moment, though, where Queen Victoria's elaborate, voluminous skirts open up. And for a moment, you wonder if you're going to see a kind of robotic exoskeleton or something. Instead, you just see a small steam engine for a moment. "That was quite a late-breaking idea," says Lord. "There is actually a small steam engine inside her skirt, which must make it really hot to wear. But it's not really an elaborate one. There's a little flywheel and piston going in the back of her skirt."


The contrast between the tradition-bound world of piracy and the more sterile world of scientists is at the heart of the film, and Lord said they worked hard to make this come across:

It was a contrast between a romanticized world — an idealized, an almost storybook world, which is the pirates. They dress, they live, they're almost self consciously playing pirates almost — that was the joke, the romantic swashbuckling and so forth. [And then there's] science, which I greatly respect. But for the purposes of comedy, it was treated as humorless. It was grave, humorless, serious, maybe faintly threatening. Not very colorful. The people dress austerely. The men certainly, all in shades of black and gray. The women had some more color in them. It was about pomposity, formality, [and] a general lack of love for life.


One of the big misconceptions about Pirates! is that it's fully computer-animated, like last year's Arthur Christmas. It's true that some of the backgrounds and things are CGI, but 90 percent of the film is done in Aardman's traditional stop-motion animation style. Lord actually brought one of the twenty or so figures of the Pirate Captain, the movie's main character, that were used on screen, and showed us how he worked.

Says Lord:

He's a beautifully engineered working puppet. He's got a metal skeleton inside, and the whole point of the skeleton is you can pose the model very precisely and very accurately, and it stays where you put it. You can move all the joints, even part of the thumb has a joint. And the point of it is that you can convey any emotion you want in the movie. The coat tails are just kind of wire, so if he's in a gale or a high wind they can flap around, or when he's walking they can flap around. He's a very complicated kind of puppet. He's a very flexible puppet. Everybody loved working with him. The body is jointed — there are clear ball-and-socket joints in the shoulder and the wrist. He just moves in every dimension. The animators would move him into a new position in every frame. They're performing through the puppet.


And when the Pirate Captain has to change costume — like when he's disguised as a girl scout — he needed to be a whole different puppet. He's made of about 30 different parts, but each part had to be made in a special mold, so there are probably about 200 elements that go into making him.

The main difference between the Pirate Captain and Wallace from Wallace and Gromit is that the Captain is much bigger, and he's not made out of clay. Pirates love to wear incredibly elaborate stuff, such as his "luxuriant beard" and his braid and gold ribbon, which you just couldn't make work in clay, says Lord.


Some of the simplest things in the movie were the hardest to animate, he adds — like a horse pulling a carriage, which isn't supposed to be a funny movement. We've all seen a horse trotting, and we all know what that looks like, but it's really hard to reproduce in stop-motion. And then there was the Pirate With Prosthetics, who has a fake nose and two wooden legs — one of which has a wheel on the bottom, so they had to screw him down to keep him from rolling around everywhere, when he's supposed to be standing still. He doesn't have much to do in the film, but he's in the movie a lot.

As for the pirate ship, it was completely hand-crafted. It's made out of 44,569 different parts. The ship took 5,000 hours of development, and wound up weighing 770 pounds.