06/01/2012 15:52 GMT

The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists: Behind The Scenes At Aardman Animations (VIDEO, PHOTOS)

"Any animator who comes to work at Aardman has to make Morph. Pete and Dave give them a lump of brown plasticine and see what they can do," says head of communications for Aardman Animations, Arthur Sheriff.

Sheriff is taking us on a walk around the expansive former office block on a Bristol industrial estate, transformed into the magical place where Aardman's models are brought to life for the big screen.

The Oscar-winning film studio, best known for its Morph and Wallace and Gromit productions, but which over the past 30 years has produced music videos for the Spice Girls and Peter Gabriel and some well-loved adverts, is nearing the end of its biggest project yet.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (released 23 March) sees Aardman return to its stop-motion roots with a tale of piracy, after a successful foray into CGI with Arthur Christmas.

Voiced by a strong British cast, including Martin Freeman as Pirate With A Scarf, Ashley Jensen as Curvaceous Pirate, Hugh Grant as Pirate Captain, David Tennant as Charles Darwin and Imelda Staunton as Queen Victoria, the film sees the pirates embark on a quest to win an X Factor-style competition, Pirate of the Year.

Aardman's first feature film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, released in 2005, which topped box office charts and won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film and a BAFTA for Best British Film, had 220 people working on it.

Pirates, comparatively, has 340 animation aficionados labouring over it and has been five years in the making.

Even the sets, filled with tropical islands, pirates ships and grand houses, are bigger than anything Aardman has created before, with 41 units being used at any one time - in comparison with Were-Rabbit, which spanned across 28 sets.

One animator, who has been toiling away on the film for the past five years, spent so long perfecting one short scene set in a pub that he met a woman, got married and had a child, in the same time it took him to complete work on the scene.

"Boffins" from the Rolls Royce factory down the road have even been hired to get the movement in their model cars and ships perfect, Sheriff explains.

Anyone who thought Aardman's heyday is in the past needs to think again.

The company, formed by Peter Lord and David Sproxton in 1972 and which moved to Bristol in 1976 where they created Morp for the children's programme Take Hart, is responsible for Arthur Christmas (released last month) and The Pirates In An Adventure With Scientists, meaning plasticine - or, as it mainly is these days, silicon moulds - are very much back on our screens.

Sheriff explains: "The world of Aardman is like buses - we haven't had any films for two years and now two come along at once."

One of the model-makers working on Pirates is Andrew Bloxham who, with his West Country accent and long hair, would make a good pirate himself.

Bloxham has worked almost exclusively on Aardman's feature films including Chicken Run and Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

And his latest task has been turning sketches of little pirate people into flexible Pirate models. No mean feat, when Hugh Grant's character - the Pirate Captain - has over 250 mouths in his 'mouth library' alone and each character has about 25 different models to represent different outfits, actions and positions.

Running us through the lengthy process of creating just one model, Bloxham mentions 3D sculpts, technical sculpts, silicon hand-making, armature frameworks to create movable joints, moulds, silicon injections and casts. It's enough to make your head hurt.

He estimates each model costs about £20,000, once the labour and material is taken into account. As he hands us the Pirate Captain to hold, complete with majestic hat, cape and sword, we delicately observe its spongey texture and give it straight back.

On to the art department, where, as the supervising art director Matt Perry puts it, "everything other than the puppets is made".

Perry brings out a London taxi cab that he's created, complete with suspension engineering, so that when it features in just 25 shots in the film, it will look like it's authentically driving along.

No corners are cut, and for the passionate artist that is the best thing about the stock animation industry. "It's all made by hand, the textures and detail make it feel real," Perry enthuses.

From first glimpses of the film, it seems Grant pulls off the role as a pirate surprisingly well and Aardman have once again created a blend of comedy which is silly enough for kids to enjoy but with undertones to amuse adults.

Grant may perform some well timed "ooh arr, me 'earties", but without animators like Bloxham, who perfect his cape-swishing and calculate the right angle for Pirate Captain's fist to be clenched at, then none of it would be convincing.

The real stars, after spending a day on set at the film studios, are the people who spend a whole week capturing just four seconds of material.

SLIDESHOW: The stars of The Pirates In An Adventure With Scientists...