I’m beginning a piece on the Aardman animation The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! or Pirates! Band of Misfits, as it is known in the US. The Pirates!, though primarily a hand-crafted stop-motion animation, uses a lot of CGI, with some 80% of shots involving a digital touch too. Where the figures are stop-motion puppets crafted from clay (or silicon or even foam), and the sets are physically built in the Aardman studio in Bristol, a lot of details were removed using digital tools (rigs used for the complex acrobatics of action scenes, joins between the 3D printed and hand-sculpted elements of the figures’ faces, as well as glitches from dead pixels in the cameras). The partying pirate crowd and rows of seated scientists were populated with digital extras, Blood Island was digitally enhanced and the roofs of London sometimes digitally finished. From this list it’s clear that in The Pirates! physical and digital elements are consistently intertwined and nothing is ever quite as it seems on the surface.
So far so good, but where to go with this? Well, the idea of entanglement is something I’ve been wanting to explore more for a while. My starting point is Tim Ingold who has a fascinating way of describing how objects are different to things. Where objects are already described, solidified into categories, things are more fluid, knots of constituent threads trailing beyond the surface boundaries of a thing and becoming caught up with other threads. Things are entangled, ‘a meshwork of interwoven lines of growth and movement,’ changeable configurations of knots and threads.
Ingold is talking about things generally, and grounds his more abstract thinking with examples of things in the world, such as kites or trees. Kites are one thing when constructed inside a room, and become another when taken outside to fly or not, as the case may be. As I read about ‘kites-in-the-air,’ I think I grasp the point about things but find it hard not to let it slip again when musing about the possibilities the idea offers for moving image studies. Even so, Ingold’s description of things being entangled, of things having interwoven lines of growth and movement remains attractive when looking at how physical and digital elements are entwined in The Pirates!
These very preliminary thoughts throw up an issue when using entanglement to think about entities in moving images already made. In one sense they are in keeping with a description of objects as completed works, already given categories, and often thought backwards – traced back to the intentions of their makers. Take the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate, a cross dressed woman who seems to have either escaped everyone’s notice or whose obvious pretence simply goes unmentioned. Thought backwards, Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate’s origins lie in the five novel series on whose stories The Pirates! is based, but taken to a different level in the animation with the curves of her body and patently fake beard all part of the joke. In contrast to thinking backwards, Ingold encourages a process of thinking forwards, of trying to anticipate what might emerge in what he calls a gathering together of the threads of life, and be attentive to all the goings on that come together as a thing is made.
How might this work for the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate, or anything else in The Pirates!? One of things that intrigues me about the animation is its playfulness around disguise. But instead of trying to settle on what something is or isn’t, I’m going to look beneath the surface, to the knotted strings that pull together. The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate’s face is never revealed, but all the knots are there. In the same way, even though the boundaries of digital and physical elements of the image might appear settled, there are many knots to unpick.