Guillermo del Toro and the film’s heads of department discuss crafting the stop-motion version of the classic fable
For his version of the classic fable in which a magical boy is carved out of wood, Guillermo del Toro has decided to lean into the hand-crafted quality of stop motion animation.
The director’s animated musical made for Netflix and featuring the voices of Ewan McGregor, Christoph Waltz and Tilda Swinton, intentionally embraces the “imperfections” of the medium.
“Most people are accustomed to pantomime in animation, poses that are almost emojis and everything looks smart and clean and hip,” he told a virtual press event attended by IBC365. “We wanted life in our design and execution. If we do our job right then 15 minutes in and you are watching actors not puppets.”
He promised an “artisanal exercise in carving, painting, sculpting” but with a sophistication of movement thanks to advances in rigs and puppetry.
“Stop motion takes a lot of effort,” he said. “Everything is physical. There are trap doors in the sets for the animators. We should be able to see the fabric moving and feel everything a little jittery. I want to reveal as much as we can about how it was made because the more you know the more you enjoy the world.”
Beginning in 2019, the production shot for 1000 days and involved 40 animators working across 60 stages.
Animating the performance
“We approached it like a live action film,” explained the film’s co-director Mark Gustafson. “There are accidents that happen in live action that give you something real.”
Of course, accidents don’t just happen when filming 24 individual frames a second. The team attempted to build in this naturalism from concept art all the way to performance.
“One of our guiding principles was, if we could physically produce it, then we would,” said Gustafson. “Pinocchio is the most fantastical element in our story, nothing else should be whimsical.”
One way of ‘breathing life’ into the process was to brief the puppeteers in much the same way a director would brief actors on a live action set. Essentially, giving the animators greater agency over interpreting performance.
“We wanted the movie to be unlike any other animation,” Del Toro said. “The actors (puppets) have throw away micro gestures, they age, they are weakened, they are tired.”
The animators acted out scenes in live action videos as a way of interpreting how character interactions would work. It worked to such an extent that some scenes in the film were cut to match these original videos.
“It’s about harvesting those little nuances that humans are not necessarily aware of doing and putting those into the puppet to give it a realistic characterisation,” said Animation Supervisor, Brian Leif Hansen.
To aid this process they decided to film 12 frames every second, half the conventional 24 fps, in a process known as ‘twos’. “From the beginning I thought that the performance was the most important and I didn’t want the animators to struggle with shooting the film,” Hansen explained.
He shot several proof of concept videos to demonstrate that animation shot in twos wouldn’t exhibit “stuttering” or break the suspension of disbelief.
Production designer Guy Davis took the same utilitarian approach to constructing the story world which in this telling is rural Italy during the 1930s.
“The buildings shouldn’t be too fanciful or crooked. It should feel like a real place,” he said.
Red lines on the costume for Sprezzatura (the mistreated monkey who befriends Pinocchio) were a clue to the design.
“We liked lines that aren’t exactly parallel, straight lines without a straight edge, with slight tapers,” he said. “They implied subtle movement without wonky-ness. We applied this characteristic to the edges of streets and orientation of buildings. More global applications could be a horizon line, shapes of clouds and trees in a forest.”
The build of the town began during the pandemic where artists would tinker with the flat compressed perspective of buildings using cereal boxes.
Making the puppets
Puppet making was led by Altringham-based Mackinnon & Saunders coordinating with studios in Portland and Guadalajara, Mexico.
“One of the first meetings we had with Guillermo was to discuss different forms of facial animation techniques - replacement, mechanical or claymation,” explained Georgina Hayns, the project’s head of character fabrication. “Guillermo loved the organic quality of head mechanics of which Mackinnon & Saunders are masters so we all agreed to employ that for the major characters.”
She described the head builds as “like a Swiss Swatch” with tiny ball and socket joints that allow animators to articulate the silicon skin for facial performance.
Pinocchio was different. His design is intentionally a little rough around the edges, his mouth angular and chiselled. They decided that a stretched silicon face would not work for a character who is made out of a much harder substance, so for him they employed replacement faces.
“We 3D printed the whole of Pinocchio’s body and skeleton as well as all face replacement which is the only puppet I know that has been made entirely this way,” said Hayns.
The main role of the fabricators is to take 2D concept art into 3D characters complete with costume and paint, built many times and in different scales. The first stage in this process was historical research to find fabrics and textures appropriate to the period.
“We always look to great masters of fine art,” said Hayns. “This time we found ourselves drawn to painters like Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyatt who have a realism with an abstract brush stroke. They use a lot of stippling and abstract lines that when you step away from the canvas look like a photograph of a human but there is so much more depth there.”
Next they built maquettes (small 3D models) “as a discussion point” for reviewing with the directors before proceeding to make the final puppets complete with costume and paint, repeated many times and to different scales.
“We always look to the great masters of fine art in research,” said Hayns. “This time we found ourselves drawn to painters like Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyatt who have a realism with an abstract brush stroke. They use a lot of stippling and abstract lines that when you step away from the canvas look like a photograph of a human but there is so much more depth there.”
Fire and liquid stop motion
In keeping with the hand crafted brief, the animators aimed to keep as much of the visual effects on the animation stage. “As long as they don’t look like a school project then we’ll animate it,” Hansen said.
Rain, mist and smoke were too tricky, so that went to VFX. They did however animate droplets of water on windows and on Cricket using KY and other viscous substances.
“Animating droplets on a character is something you normally shy away from in stop motion so we were quite daring. Another insane thing to do was to push sand around while animating, frame by frame”…
When tea is poured from a kettle – that’s animated plasticine. All the candle lights are stop motion too. They did this by hanging a piece of gauze upside down, lit it to appear like a flame, then pushed around to fluctuate its volume.
The art of lighting
DOP Frank Passingham has worked on Aardman’s stop motion feature debut Chicken Run, several Creature Comforts shots, Flushed Away and Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings.
He was wary, though, of treading on del Toro’s toes. “I know how particular he is about colour in his movies and for me also colour is so intrinsic to cinematography I like to get closely involved in it.”
The director however trusted Passingham to make the right choices.
“He lets you experiment and wants to see what you come up with,” he told IBC365 in a unique interview. “There was a great spirit of collaboration on this film. I don’t think other directors would have gone so far.”
For recurring scenes set in the realm of death the art department had built a black sand arena surrounded by hour glasses filled with sand and inhabited by a majestic ‘other worldly’ winged creature.
“I wanted to have movement in the light to reflect the idea of the shifting sands of time,” Passingham explained. Inspiration came from geometric patterns generated by numerology he’d seen at the Alhambra (in Spain).
He created some similar patterns, printed two onto acetate and ran them on tracks horizontally in front of a 5K blue gelled light in such a way as to illuminate the set and characters with a strange almost watery movement. He also raked arabesques in the sand lit by pulsing magenta and cyan light for another ethereal effect.
Passingham encouraged all his camera team to rewatch The Godfather (and Part II), watching how cinematographer Gordon Wills used lighting.
“Willis was known as the ‘prince of darkness’ because he let part of a frame go completely dark. I’m a big fan. Some of our scenes are geared around his lighting in The Godfather. For instance, a scene in a doctor’s surgery is lit overhead in the way Willis pioneered.”
He began with 34 camera units but quickly doubled as the project expanded, yet he had to equip the lot with lights from the same budget.
He bought tungsten lights for a bargain from studios selling them off and modified them for use as key lights. He put LED emitters in steel buckets “ideal for bounce lights” and bought 8ft long gutters from an ironmongers and put four strips of LED in those to create another set of lighting rigs “at a fraction of the cost it would take to buy the equivalent commercially.”
He said, “Stop frame is very fiddley with lighting because you’re shooting on such a small scale. A lot of interiors are done with small low voltage 150w lights. But I don’t think the BSC and ASC even recognise animation cinematographers for the skill that they possess.”
Passingham worked with Jason Fabbro colorist at Technicolor Hollywood to grade the film.
Animation is not for kids
In contrast to Disney’s recently released live action update starring Tom Hanks, del Toro insisted the only way to tell this story is with puppets.
“There is an inherent uncanny valley [in the hero character] so the only way to make it animated. The material nature of the wood made it perfect for stop motion.”
Like Tim Burton or Wes Anderson, the director sees no difference in animation and live action as a form of storytelling.
“Animation is art. Animation is not a genre and nor is it for kids,” he declared. “This movie is about childhood and war and belongs in a trilogy with Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone.”
He began his career in physical effects and had planned a claymation feature as his first feature.
“We’d built 100 puppets and sets and went to dinner one night and unfortunately someone burglarised the studio and destroyed the puppets,” he relayed. “That made me start with live action (Chronos, 1993) – but about ten years ago I vowed to get more involved in animation.”
With DreamWorks Animation he executive produced Puss in Boots (2011), Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), Rise of the Guardians (2012) and created the Netflix animated series Trollhunters.
“I’ve had ten years of intensive training to get into this,” he said.
Pinocchio as metaphor
Along with Frankenstein, the fable defined his childhood.
“They are of primal importance for me. Pinocchio is one of a handful of characters that are capable of being universal and completely adaptable to anything. Therefore, you can use Pinocchio as metaphor for all sorts of human emotions.”
While other versions of the story, he said, are about obedience, this one is about disobedience.
“It is about the difference between ideas and ideology. Ideas you construct from experience and passion. Ideology is given to you and you obey it blindly. Those things helped us craft the tale.”
It is set during the rise of Mussolini, a time of war and of “a lethal form of control and paternity.”
“There’s something beautiful about a story of a puppet that refuses to obey – told with puppets”, he concluded.
Read more Behind the scenes – the best of the best