No one in recent decades has contributed to giving claymation, or animation made from plasticine sculptures, fame and dignity as form of art as Peter Lord has done. It seems a paradox that Aardman Animations takes its name from a character made in traditional 2D animation, namely a sort of Superman made for the BBC’s Vision On series that in a short comic sketch managed to grab the edges of a circular hole in the floor, moving it as if it were a mat. Even though his career would later take a different turn, Lord had already identified a taste for gags focused on the interaction between three-dimensional solids.
Similarly, the protagonist The Amazing Adventures of Morph (1980-1981) moves in a minimalist environment in which the characters seem to “offer themselves” to the perception of the viewer, rather than being endowed with their own autonomous concreteness. The surface of a table can be a solid floor on which the character walks, but also a body of water from which the arms of a swimmer emerge. Some gags are centred on physical laws which – paradoxically – do not apply to all the characters at the same time; the body of water can be transformed into solid wood again where Morph will hit his head after diving. We can say that the world of The Amazing Adventures of Morph seems to have been created by the same teaser deity co-starring Adam (1991), a Jehovah belonging to a more complex level of reality than the one of the unfortunate protagonist. If Adam is in fact a creation in claymation, “God” is a human being in flesh and blood, from whose will (and creative taste) Adam cannot, unfortunately, escape.
The path taken in Down and Out (1977) is completely different, whose the character design seems to be taken up in Babylon (1986). Here Lord, consistent with the “adult” content of the films, does not exploit the childish essentiality of Morph, and creates characters perfectly outlined from the physical point of view, with eyes, wrinkles and clothes. Consistent with the principle of the uncanny valley (more it resembles a human being in its features, all the more difficult it is to feel instinctive empathy for an anthropomorphic creation), the viewer senses the psychological drama and, in the case of Babylon, the unpleasantness of these “human beings”.
Finally, there is a third path, which is the one that Lord seems to have programmatically followed in his later works, including My Baby Just Cares for Me (1987) and Wat’s Pig (1996). Here the characters are again very detailed and plausible, but at the same time characterized by a rounded and caricatured aesthetic, therefore very enjoyable. In short, Lord reaches a sort of meeting point between Morph’s light-heartedness and the realism of Down and Out: the humorous moments do not stem from the physical interactions of the characters, but from the rules of their universe, which is markedly and explicitly cinematic, as demonstrated by the musical sets of My Baby Just Cares for Me or the use of split-screen in Wat’s Pig. An striking feature also in the feature films Chicken Run and The Pirates, in which Lord also turns to the parody of American cinema clichés and quotes, managing to create a complicity with the viewer and therefore to involve him in the creation of a (hilarious!) Filmic world of plasticine.
Peter Lord is a key figure in stop-motion animation, being the co-owner of Aardman Animations, one of the most important clay animation companies in the world. In 1972, during his first year at the University of York, where he later graduated in English Literature, he co-founded Aardman Animation with his colleague David Sproxton. After some first advertising and television jobs, in 1976 they moved the company to Bristol and achieved success with the plasticine character Morph, beloved protagonist of the series The Amazing Adventures of Morph, which aired from 1980 to 1981 on the BBC. Developed in episodes of five minutes each, a narrator takes us into the world of Morph, telling us how he spends his days with his group of friends. As previously mentioned, Aardman Animations soon specialized in clay animation, creating characters with essential aesthetic characteristics, but whose strengths are a strong personality and, above all, a great sense of humour. Among the various short films he directed since the 1980s, Adam (1991) is one of the most important. Peter Lord proposes a somewhat alternative story of the creation of man, in which Adam is shaped starting from the lunar surface. A hand that enters the field from above, coordinating the actions of the character seems to recall the work of the animator itself. The short earned him a BAFTA Award and an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short Film. In 1996, Lord was nominated for another Academy Award in the same category for the short film Wat’s Pig. In this work, he puts together two different narrative schemes in which the story of two brothers, the king’s sons, takes place. One of the two brothers had been kidnapped as a newborn and abandoned in the countryside, where he was grown by a pig, leading a humble life, while the other had remained at the castle and was brought up in the chivalric tradition. However, the humble brother turned out to be nobler then the second one, to which he teaches good manners.
Although formally known as an animator, Lord also dedicates himself to other types of works not necessarily aimed at a childish audience. In fact, he is also the director of some music videos, including Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer (1986) and Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares for Me, produced the following year (1987). In the latter video, the main character is a cat with anthropomorphic features who goes to a nightclub to attend the performance of Nina Simone, here represented as a plasticine cat version of the singer.
In slightly more sophisticated works, however, Peter Lord and his colleague David Sproxton decided to address an adult audience. The Animated Coversations collection testifies this; in this series, the dialogues are taken from real conversations, recorded by Lord himself in various public situations. In Down and Out (1977), for example, a man seeking help in a social service center fails to communicate what he needs to the employee, forcing him to leave empty-handed. Another animated piece that follows this style is the short Babylon (1986), included in the Sweet Disaster series of short films produced for Channel 4. In line with the other productions of the series, Babylon presents an apocalyptic scenario in which a group of aristocrats have taken all the power and become overwhelmed by their own greed. The rendering of the plasticine puppets and the expressions they manage to convey is extraordinary; this testifies that stop-motion animation can be used in various contexts and not only to amuse children.
In 2000, Lord co-directed Aardman’s first feature film, Chicken Run, the story of a group of English chicken who are led by an American rooster in an adventurous attempt to escape from their farm. Released by DreamWorks after five years of production, the film was a box office and critical success, so much so that it is still the highest-grossing stop-motion animated film in history. Lord returned to directing a feature film in 2012 for the film The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, distributed by Aardman Animation in collaboration with Sony Picture Animation. Set in the first half of the nineteenth century, the protagonists of this film are a crew of amateur pirates in their attempt to win the Pirate of the Year competition. However, the meeting with the scientist Charles Darwin will change the course of events. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Film.
Besides directing, Lord mainly works as artistic director and producer; he produced the award-winning feature film of the Wallace & Gromit series, titled Wallace & Gromit – The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), as well as Flushed Away (2006), Arthur Christmas (2011), Shaun the Sheep – The Movie (2015), Early Man (2018) and Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2019). For his commitment, dedication and artistic achievements during his career, Peter was made a Commander of the British Empire in June 2006.
Down and Out (1977)
The short film features a homeless man trying to get a place to sleep at the Salvation Army shelter.
A short film in which the climate of terror emerges when faced with the nuclear threat of the Cold War. Babylon delivers a strong anti-war message, a dark-comedy which, through the reunion of top government officials, reflects on the thin line between human definitions of war and peace.
My Baby Just Cares For Me (1987)
Wonderful claymation music video clip with cats as protagonists that develops on the notes of the famous and homonymous song by Nina Simone.
In this short, the biblical creation of man is reinterpreted in a humorous way. Adam is the only inhabitant of a tiny planet. His loneliness drives him to despair and attracts the attention of the “creator” who, moved by compassion, decides to make him a friend. Adam will soon find out his new friend is a penguin.
Wat’s Pig (1996)
Short film set in the Middle Ages. Wat is a peasant totally unaware that he is the twin of the greedy king from whom he was separated at birth. Forced to enlist in the troops to defend the kingdom from an invasion, he ends up meeting his brother and mother again.
Chicken Run – Galline in fuga (2000) [excerpt]
In the henhouse of the creepy and tyrannical Mrs Tweedy, the chickens live a monotonous life under constant production control. Those that do not produce enough eggs are eliminated. One of them, Ginger, realises their precarious situation and repeatedly tries to escape. Her hope of escape is boosted by a “flying rooster” called Rocky Rhodes, whose sudden appearance upsets the entire farm.
Pirates (2012) [excerpt]
Captain Pirate is determined to win the Pirate of the Year competition. Accompanied by his goliardic and extravagant crew and their mascot, Polly the “parrot”, he embarks on an adventure in which he not only meets Charles Darwin, but also has to deal with the pirates’ bitter enemy, Queen Victoria!