You can learn amazing things about composition and storytelling with a mobile phone and a bit of plasticine. Aardman co-founder and Morph creator Peter Lord spoke to ACMI Content Producer Shelley Matulick about the creative adventures he has with Morph and his popular Instagram project Amazing Morph.
Shelley Matulick: How would you describe Morph's personality and how does that come through in the photos you take?
Peter Lord: Morph is a cheerful, sociable, outgoing kind of guy. He's happy with crowds - despite his size - and he enjoys good company. He also enjoys life - I would say he relishes it. Good food, good weather, spectacular scenery and travel generally are all really important to him. So mostly he looks happy, looks as if he's having a good time - because he is! He's also a bit of a daredevil (which I'm not) so I enjoy helping him to do some quite dangerous, high-risk activities.
SM: What do you look for in a shot?
PL: Well I find it a little boring if Morph is only being a tourist. Sometimes there's nothing else that occurs to me so Morph will just stand in front of some famous landmark, smiling and gesturing as if to say "here I am". But I try to do better! For example rather than just have him standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, I had him looking the wrong way, with a puzzled expression on his face and made a little joke along the lines of "I know it's around here somewhere". Beautiful landmarks in the distance behind him can look pretty great - like a classic tourist shot, but what I really look for is interaction with his world. I'm always looking for a chance for him to climb on, or get inside something, or simply to relax comfortably - usually in a way which would be impossible for a full-size person.
SM: How do you use scale to tell a story?
PL: Scale is really important. In many of the best shots, I have fun with scale. So its great that he's just the right size to use a champagne glass as a jacuzzi. Or one New Year, he had a party-popper full of streamers, which to him was like some amazing powerful bazooka that threw him on his back. But scale is a tricky thing. There are things which are really visually interesting, things like, for example, an old steam-engine, which you'd think would make a great shot. You find it looks great, but only if you can see the whole thing, and if you can see the whole thing, Morph is usually too small in shot. Some item which is his sort of size - a coffee cup, a shoe, a padlock, a croissant - is usually a better prop and can lead to a better gag. On another theme, if I'm posing him in the real world, I like to give him footprints in snow or in sand, to 'anchor' him in the scene.
SM: How do you pose Morph to show his personality?
PL: Posing him is certainly a fine art, and to be honest, it's mostly instinctive now. I have an idea of how he holds his body when he's tired, or bored, or over-excited and it's all to do with the angle of his shoulders, the tilt of his head and - very often - the position of his hands, which are really expressive. As I said, he's generally very cheerful, and he usually greets the world with a smile - but it's fun to put on his little eyelids which can give him a really great range of expression. He can easily go from angry to sad, to puzzled, to weary to absolutely astonished. Some of my all-time favourite shots are when he isn't too pleased with life. There's a great one of him standing in the rain with his shoulders hunched, squinting upwards at the falling rain and his hands shoved deep in his pockets. Yes pockets. It's relatively unusual, but I've used the old 'pocket' idea a few times over the years. He sort of discovers a pair of pockets in his legs, and he jams his hands in if he's especially grumpy. There's another one I love of Morph in Manhattan in black and white, doing the full "Mean streets" glare at the camera; "You lookin' at me?" To me, this is Morph playing a part, which he loves to do.
SM: What sort of things do you find yourself tweaking to find the perfect composition?
PL: The biggest issue for me is getting down to Morph's level. I don't want to look down on him from on high, I want the camera down at his height, with the Big World towering over him. This usually involves me getting down on my hands and knees, often in a busy public place. It's really embarrassing sometimes - you feel like a complete fool! It's also pretty difficult because you cant really get your head down there. I take my pictures on my phone, and you just have to shoot, then check, shoot and check the whole time. It's pretty difficult if you can't get your head down to the pavement (which I really don't want to do thank you) to make sure his eyes are looking exactly the right way. Also if you pace him on a pavement or a road where the surface is dusty or gritty, then he's liable to fall over which can be a total nightmare! He'll dent his nose or get gravel-rash and it's really tricky to fix him up for the next shot.
SM: Which are your favourite Morph pics?
PL: I was very happy with his didgeridoo pic which I took at Wilson's Prom, south of Melbourne. I was walking in the forest and I found this piece of curly bark, it was just perfect, less than 1cm in diameter and about 6cms long. It was just about perfectly round and it had some patterning on it made (I assume) by tiny insects. It was like a ready-made Morph-scale didgeridoo. So then I had to give him puffed-out cheeks- which takes a while - but in the end, I thought it made a great shot. There were a couple of good ones also which I took on a beach on the Great Ocean Road. I took a couple of shots of him in the sea. It was hilarious because the 'waves' were about 3cms high, but when they hit him it was truly spectacular. Several times he got himself totally wiped out by these tiny ripples, but there are some good fun shots in there.
And take a look at Peter and Morph in action when they dropped into Melbourne for the opening of Wallace & Gromit and Friends.