“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” was conceived as a stop-motion production from the early stages of its development over 15 years ago. “I realized that the film had to be made in stop-motion to serve the story about a puppet living in a world inhabited by other puppets who thought they weren’t puppets,” the director said.
He also knew that key members of the cast had to be built by British studio Mackinnon and Saunders. “They’re the best in the world,” he said in a recent video interview. “The protagonists of the movie had to be made up by them.” As producer Lisa Henson puts it, “They do things that other puppet makers don’t have the patience or expertise of.”
“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is the latest example of stop-motion animation in bloom. For decades, the technique was eclipsed by more expressive drawn animation and later computer-generated imagery. But new technologies have allowed artists to create live performances to rival other media.
The artists and technicians at Mackinnon and Saunders pushed stop-motion technology in a whole new direction for “Corpse Bride” (2005) by inventing small gear systems that fit the puppets’ heads. The animators adjusted the gears between frames to create subtle expressions: The title character’s son-in-law, Victor, could raise an eyebrow or lift the corner of his lip as he began to smile. This technique is also called “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009) and “Frankenweenie” (2012).
“Tim Burton or Guillermo del Toro will bring us the story, then ‘What can we do with these puppet characters? “Let’s find something new to do,” said Ian Mackinnon, co-founder of the firm.
Between the credits of Mackinnon and Saunders from left to right “Corpse Bride”, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Frankenweenie”. Credit… Warner Bros.; Fox Projector; disney
He likened the mechanics inside the puppet heads to the components of a Swiss watch. “These heads aren’t much bigger than a ping pong ball or a walnut,” he said, explaining that the animator moves the gears by sticking a small tool in the character’s ear or on the top of his head. “The gears are attached to the puppet’s silicone skin and allow the animator to create the nuances you see on a big movie screen,” he said.
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The release of the gear heads was part of a series of overlapping waves of innovation that brought visuals never before possible to the screen in stop-motion. Nick Park and artists at British Aardman Animations added new sophistication to clay animation in “Creature Comforts” (1989) and “The Wrong Pants” (1993). Meanwhile, Disney’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) showcased new face-swapping technology. A library of three-dimensional expressions was created and molded for each character; an animator ripped off part of the face and replaced it with a slightly different part between poses. Later Portland, Ore. based Laika Studios has taken this technique even further by using 3D printing to create faces, starting with “Coraline” (2009).
Most of the puppets for “Pinocchio,” which debuted on Netflix a few months after Disney’s Robert Zemeckis released a partially animated version of the story, were made at the ShadowMachine in Portland, where most of the movie was shot. Candlewick, the boy Pinocchio befriends in the film, “has strings attached to a double-barreled gear system at the corners of his mouth,” explains Georgina Hayns, an alumnus of Mackinnon and Saunders. Shadow Machine. “If you turn the gear inside the ear clockwise, it pulls the upper thread and creates a smile. If you turn it counterclockwise, it will pull the lower thread, which will cause a frown. This is really awesome.”
This was the result of a process that began in 2008 when the team of Mackinnon and Saunders built some early prototypes. “We were ready and waiting when Netflix greenlit the film in 2018,” Mackinnon said. “If we had tried to make Pinocchio 10 or 15 years ago, the technology wouldn’t have been there.”
While mechanical heads are used for many of the key characters in the movie, Pinocchio himself is also portrayed with spare faces. Animation supervisor Brian Leif Hansen explained that 3,000 of the faces were printed, saying it should have a hard surface because it should look like it was made of wood. “His expressions are quick; mechanical faces look softer and more fluid compared to Pinocchio. It was built differently and animated differently to make it different.”
Hansen said the character was the first metal 3D-printed puppet. Because he was weak, “the only way they could make him strong enough was to press the puppet against metal. He is a strong little man, quite hard to break. The animators loved animating it.”
Thanks to a team of engineers and puppet designer Richard Pickersgill, “we’ve taken the replacement technology a bit further,” said Mackinnon. The designer “gave Pinocchio rickety limbs and joints that looked like Geppetto had carved by hand.”
The studio spent a year and a half prototyping Pinocchio before making the first production model. In the end, more than 20 puppets were made to ensure the animators had enough.
The studio made figures as large as the “life-size” Martians in “Mars Attacks” (1996), but most of the stop-motion puppets are about the size of Barbie dolls – Pinocchio is 9.5 inches tall. Sophisticated creations meant that del Toro and his assistant director, Mark Gustafson, could get the performances they needed. They sought inspiration in Hayao Miyazaki’s films that thought, paused, and changed minds as their characters moved.
“I had a road trip to Damascus when I watched ‘My Neighbor Totoro,’ where your dad is trying to put on his shoes: He misses the shoe twice, then gets it on the third try,” del Toro explained. “Miyazaki says that if you bring the ordinary to life, it will be extraordinary. So because we wanted to bring these characters to life, we went to unsuccessful acts.”
He estimated that 35 shots would have to be redone because “We said, ‘The character is moving, but I don’t see what the character is thinking or feeling.’ Little unsuccessful gestures or hesitation before a move tells you, ‘This is a living character.
Failed gestures are particularly difficult, Gustafson said, “because the intent has to be visible—it’s not actually a mistake. I think our brains are somehow programmed to recognize when an action is wrong, so we’ve worked really hard to make these kinds of things feel as natural as we can.”
Artists can modify or rework computer-generated and 2D animation during production, but when stop-motion animators start moving a puppet, they must continue to the end of the scene or start over. They can’t change what they’ve already filmed, just as an actor can stop halfway through and walk back a few steps and cross the set differently.
“Stop-motion is the art of animation that most closely resembles live-action because you’re doing actual movement from point A to point B,” Del Toro said. “You can’t edit. You’re dealing with real sets and real accessories illuminated by real light. Stop-motion is to live shooting what Ginger Rogers is to Fred Astaire: We’re doing the same steps backwards in high heels.”