Looking at your Director’s reel via Aardman’s site, one notices a lot of really cool commercials that you have done, but IMDB lists The Pearce Sisters as only your second short animation. What caused you to venture toward creating a short narrative film?
Commercials are fun but limiting. Doing commercials for years, a short offers so much more: length, character development, a calmer pace, a more complex story, more layers, and no product shots. Directors at Aardman are always trying to get short films off the ground—the difficulty is funding them. As a studio we have been painfully aware of late that we haven’t made a short film for over 10 years. So after deciding that we should make one and shoulder the cost, an internal competition was set up. I put in The Pearce Sisters almost as a joke. I didn’t think it had a hope in hell. To my amazement, it was selected.
Initially, I wanted to make it with ugly live action men dressed as women but Peter Lord and Miles Bullough (head of development) very wisely wouldn’t let me. So we had to come up with something else. The only objective I had was to avoid claymation. I thought a film that came out of Aardman that didn’t touch clay would be a good thing.
Mick had written a wonderful book of stories called 10 Sorry Tales. I was immediately drawn to The Pearce Sisters, because of the grim tone and miserable weather. I tried to stay true to the tone of the story whilst taking some liberties with the characters and the narrative. In the book, the sisters are twins and behave identically. I wanted physical and character differences, a kind of mother and daughter relationship. In the book, they kill the man and throw him back in the sea. I loved this but couldn’t make it work. It would have been the end of the story in the middle of the film and we would have lost any crumb of sympathy we may have had with the sisters. The whole gruesome tea party at the end wasn’t in the book. Actually, we changed it quite a bit.
The Pearce Sisters is novel compared to what we expect from an Aardman production, both for its macabre content and for its use of digital animation technologies. Is this diversion more your influence—the inspiration to experiment visually, and the demands of the story— or does it also represent a broadening of what we can expect from the company in the future?
I suppose it was my influence. I knew it was an opportunity to try something new—to me, at least. I knew I wanted to do something that was the antithesis of what Aardman is known for (family-friendly clay animation). So it was 2D and 3D computers, ugly and macabre. I also knew that I wanted to rough up CGI somehow—personalise it. The story was about a sailor being washed up, and I wanted the film itself to feel as if it had been washed up by the sea.
It all took about a year and a half. I spent a long time in pre-production. Lots of drawing, planning, designing etc. we built the characters in clay as maquettes, then in CG. Generally speaking we animated the CG characters, then printed it all out and animated all the details, expressions etc in 2D, then glued it back together in After Effects. We tried lots of other techniques. It was all an experiment, we didn’t really know what we were doing, we hadn’t done anything like it before. The designing (a full colour rendering of every shot,) CG and 2D all overlapped, I can’t really break it down. But it took quite a while.
We are always trying to broaden the studio aesthetically and in terms of story. I would love for this film to be a pointer to the future of Aardman, but it is unlikely. Beyond shorts, animation is still seen as a childrens/family marketplace. Grim, miserable, ugly cynicism is not big out there. I can’t imagine why.
It was surprising to read about the complex process behind the making of the film. It looks so natural on the screen. The distinctive style you had in mind has clearly driven the design of this process. But did the opposite also happen? Are there parts of the film that were unexpectedly shaped by the technology used?
Everything was driven by the design. I did 180 colour designs—one for each shot. It was the only way of keeping on top of it—compositionally and in terms of pulling together the 2D and 3D. It minimised conversation. I could just point at a picture and say it needs to look like that. It also allowed us to experiment within tight visual parameters. We tried lots of experiments in mixing 2D and 3D within the film, as long as it was relevant and didn’t overshadow the narrative. It’s quite a delicate balance.
Aardman has gone very aggressively into online avenues recently. Its partnership with Atom Films is certainly one of the more significant studio/online partnerships in addition to a deal with iTunesUK. Are online video exhibition deals with AtomFilms and others a significant source of income for a film like The Pearce Sisters?
Significant income—I don’t know. Films like this one are expensive to make. We may recoup a little, but it’s unlikely it will cover its costs. Having said that, it is great that iTunes and AtomFilms are out there effectively distributing the film. So many shorts pre-internet seemed to disappear completely. Its just a brilliant way to get all that hard work out there and seen.
Having won a Special Jury prize, the Cartoon D’or and now BAFTA, you have achieved essentially the peak of what a short animation can through the festival circuit. What are your thoughts about the digital distribution of short films, and how do you feel about The Pearce Sisters being out there for free on the internet?
I’m really pleased our work is on the internet. Anyone, anywhere can watch it whenever they like. That is an amazing thought. Otherwise it’s down to film and animation festivals, who show the film nice and big and 35mm. Lovely. But only once. I love the internet—it’s reinvigorated short film.
Do you have online sites you like to visit either for viewing short films/videos or inspiration?