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'Pirates!' plunder in local artist's digital skies

With a masterpiece of stop-motion animation like "The Pirates! Band of Misfits," there is usually some point -- either an emotional moment when one of the plasticine figures is making you want to cry, or a breathtakingly stunning scenic shot that takes you to another world -- when you can't help but wonder, "How do they do that?"

Andy Cunningham, a graduate of Kenmore East High School and the University at Buffalo, knows how they do it. That's because he does it with them.

Cunningham, who returned to Western New York after studying in San Francisco and working for the Walt Disney Company, is one of the many artists who created "The Pirates!" He is a digital matte painter, a person who makes the scenes behind the action, filling in buildings for actors performing on green screens, painting the sunsets into which pirates may sail.

"On 'The Pirates! Band of Misfits,' I painted a lot of clouds and skies, and some brick textures for the buildings," Cunningham said by phone recently from New York City, where he was doing a publicity appearance for the movie with some designers.

He said he probably was hired by Aardman Animations for the film, which is set in 1837, because of another movie he worked on for Disney.

"I think they needed somebody who could paint Victorian England, and, on 'Disney's A Christmas Carol' -- the one with Jim Carrey -- I painted Victorian England -- like, the whole city [of London]," Cunningham said.

Which is impressive, since he had never been to England. (He did go to England for "Pirates;" Aardman is the British company that made the Wallace and Gromit films and "Chicken Run.")

"[Disney] would send me photos of what England looked like," he said. He laughs when recalling the research that went into the work: "There was a lot of texturing of bricks. We got to know bricks very well, like how many bricks make up a doorway -- and I think it was 28. You get to learn about professions, like bricklaying, that you would never know otherwise."

But for "Pirates," most of London Town -- along with the pirate ship and other locations -- was built on the mammoth Aardman sets in Bristol, England. The intricacy of the workmanship, Cunningham said, was impressive and inspiring.

"I was just blown away with the amount of detail and props involved in this production," he said. "On the pirate boat, you could stick your head in and see the interior ... Pirate Captain [Hugh Grant's character] even had his own bathroom ... and he even had his own toilet paper, which was funny because they didn't have toilet paper back then."

The scenes around the ship are the ones that show off Cunningham's work.

"My department, matte painting, consisted of four painters ... Not a lot of people do digital matte painting," he said. "[We] were working on the clouds and all the skies -- we had a huge library of clouds (we call them digital assets, but they're clouds). You add more volume and light them -- you have to know how to paint every time of the day, and the way light affects form. You really need to have a traditional background in art to do this."

The result is painterly and perfectly in sync with the style of the movie.

Cunningham was interested in art for many years, but found his way into movies through a book.

"I've always loved film and animation, and when I was in high school I came across a book in a bookstore -- 'Industrial Light and Magic: The Art of Special Effects' [about George Lucas' company]. I loved the 'Star Wars' movies and I wanted to see how they made them. This was before computer-generated stuff. This focused on the old techniques, like animation and roto-scope. I opened the book right up to the section on matte painting, and I said, 'This is what I want to do.' "

While in California, he said, "I met some of the matte painters in that book, and they were so encouraging. I couldn't have done it [built a career] without them."

With "Pirates" under his belt, Cunningham is looking forward to his next project. But, since animated and special-effect-driven films take quite some time to make, you can see more samples of his work now at his website,