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Book Review: 'The Making of The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!'

Fred Patten looks at Brian Sibley’s book chronicling the making of Aardman’s exquisite Oscar-nominated stop-motion feature.

The Making of The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!: With Questions and Answers by Hugh Grant. Written by Brian Sibley.  Welcome (foreword) from Peter Lord.  London, Bloomsbury, November 2012, hardcover $41.99 (144 pages).

They couldn’t do anything right, including publishing this book!  (Ahem!)  Most coffee-table “making of” art books about the production of an animated feature film are timed for publication simultaneously (give or take a few days) with the theatrical release of the film.  This book was published closer to the release of the film on DVD, in August in America and in September in Britain.  Also, since it is a British book, it uses the film’s British title.  The film appeared in Britain on March 28, 2012 as The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, and in America on April 27 as The Pirates! Band of Misfits.

It is still an extremely funny movie, and an exquisite stop-motion production, from a studio famous for this technique.  It seems like all of Aardman Animations’ “Wallace & Gromit” films could have been leading up to this: 88 minutes of sheer stop-motion plasticine glory.  For those who enjoyed the movie and regretted that there was no detailed art book about it, here it is!  Better late than never, as they say.

Although Hugh Grant’s (voice of the Pirate Captain) questions & answers get a title billing, they are only two pages in the book.  “Question 3: Are there any similarities between you and the Pirate Captain?  Answer: I do love to run people through.” (p. 8)

For all of the quintessentially British snarky humor of the movie, familiar to fans of such British comedies as The Goon Show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Blackadder, and captured excellently in this book, it is just like one of the lavish art books of production art of the making of an American CGI animated feature, only with clay or plasticine models instead of computer digital imagery.  Author Brian Sibley has worked for thirty years as a BBC radio adapter of such fantasy classics as The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, and has written the official books on the making of other film adaptations of British fantasy classics such as The Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter films, and such other Aardman features as Chicken Run.  

Chapter 1, A Cracking Good Yarn, describes The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, the comedic pirate novel by Gideon Dafoe on which the movie is based.  This is actually the first of a series of Bloomsbury paperbacks much better known in Britain than in America; the four sequels include the Pirates’ encounters with Moby Dick, Karl Marx, Napoleon, and the Romantics (Lord Byron, Percy Shelly, and Mary Wollstonecraft).  This chapter tells how Aardman Animations in Bristol, England, decided to film this novel, licensed the rights from author Dafoe and made him a part of the Aardman team, then persuaded Sony Columbia in Hollywood to become a partner in its production, financing, and distribution.

Chapter 2, It’s A Wonderful Life, describes the tradition of romantic pirate fiction such as Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance and Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and the process of adapting Dafoe’s novel into a screenplay.  Chapter 3, The Pirates Awake, details how the complete cast was designed and modeled.  Further chapters (there are ten) break down the five-year production into the key pirates (and Polly the dodo); the key Victorian characters (Charles Darwin, Mr. Bobo his man-panzee, Queen Victoria) and the famous Londoners who appear briefly (Charles Dickens, Jane Austin, Michael Faraday, etc.); the sets (mainly the pirate’s ship and Victorian London); “pirate paraphernalia” (the background signs, charts, and other details that flash past so quickly in the movie); and the Aardman production team at work.

The book is a visual feast of character model designs (most by lead designer Johnny Doddle), model sheets, storyboards, metal armatures, finished plasticine puppets, the sets, finished scenes in the movie, and the Aardman stop-motion puppeteers. There are discarded preliminary character designs.  Changes from the novel to the movie are described.  For example, the movie was made with the American audience in mind.  The filmmakers were afraid that not enough Americans would be familiar with Darwin’s real-life opponent in the evolution debate, the Bishop of Oxford (who becomes an exaggerated villain in Dafoe’s novel), so they substituted Queen Victoria herself – an evil sword-swinging, super-ninja Queen Victoria.  The series’ wallowing in anachronisms is spotlighted: the setting is ostensibly 1837, but the Pirate Captain has a pet dodo which were extinct since the late 17th century; there is a Pirate King who wears a parody of Elvis Presley’s glittery costume; and Queen Victoria has a super steamship that is an exaggerated parody of the Great Eastern from twenty years later.

Even if you have not seen this stop-motion masterpiece, this “making of” book is great fun.  If you have, you will enjoy The Making of The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! even more.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first Americanfan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 forintroducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing aboutanime for Animation WorldMagazine sinceits #5, August 1996.  Amajor stroke in 2005 sidelined him for severalyears, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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