From the earliest stages of development more than 15 years ago, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” was intended to be a stop motion production. The director explained, “It was clear to me that the film had to be made in stop motion to serve the story of a doll living in a world populated by other dolls who think they are not dolls.”
He also knew that the main cast members 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 main roles of the film had to be made up by them.” As producer Lisa Henson put it, “They do things other doll makers don’t have the patience or expertise to do.”
“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is the latest example of the efflorescence of stop-motion animation. For decades, the technique was overshadowed by the more expressive drawn animation and later by computer-generated imagery. But new technologies have enabled artists to create vibrant performances that rival other mediums.
Artists and engineers from Mackinnon and Saunders pushed stop-motion technology in an entirely new direction for “Corpse Bride” (2005) by inventing systems of small gears that fit inside dolls’ heads. The animators adjusted the gears between the frames to create subtle expressions: Victor, the title character’s groom, could raise an eyebrow or lift the edge of his lip in the beginning of a smile. This technique also brought ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ (2009) and ‘Frankenweenie’ (2012) to life.
“Tim Burton or Guillermo del Toro will bring us the story and then give us space to say, ‘What can we do with these puppeteers? Let’s find something new to do,” said Ian Mackinnon, one of the company’s founders.
He compared the mechanics in doll heads to parts of a Swiss watch. “Those heads aren’t much bigger than a ping pong ball or a walnut,” he said, explaining that the animator moves the gears by inserting a small tool into the character’s ear or the top of his head. “The gears are linked to the doll’s silicone skin, which allows the animator to create the nuances you see on a big movie screen,” he said.
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The introduction of geared heads was part of a series of overlapping waves of innovation in stop motion that brought images to the screen that were never possible. Nick Park and the artists of the British Aardman Animations sculpted new subtleties in clay animation in “Creature Comforts” (1989) and “The Wrong Trousers” (1993). Meanwhile, Disney’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) showcased the new technology of face replacement. A library of three-dimensional expressions was sculpted and molded for each character; an animator broke out part of the face and replaced it with a slightly different part between exposures. Then Portland, Oregon-based Laika Studios pushed this technique further by using 3D printing to create faces, starting with “Coraline” (2009).
For “Pinocchio,” which debuted on Netflix a few months after Disney released Robert Zemeckis’ partially animated version of the story, most of the puppets were built at ShadowMachine in Portland, where most of the film was shot. Candlewick, the human boy Pinocchio befriends in the film, “has wires in the corners of his mouth that are attached to a double barreled gear system,” explains Georgina Hayns, a Mackinnon and Saunders alumna who was director of character creation at ShadowMachine. “When you turn the gear in the ear clockwise, it pulls the top thread and makes you smile. If you turn it counterclockwise, it pulls on a bobbin thread, causing a frown. It’s really great.”
That was the result of a process that started in 2008, when the Mackinnon and Saunders team made some early prototypes. “By the time Netflix greenlit the movie in 2018, we were ready,” 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 most of the main characters in the film, Pinocchio himself was animated with replacement faces. Because he needs to look like he’s made of wood, he had to have a hard surface, said animation supervisor Brian Leif Hansen, who explained that 3,000 of the faces were printed. “His expressions are punchy; the mechanical faces look softer and smoother compared to Pinocchio. He’s built differently and animated in a different way to set him apart.”
The character is the first metal 3D-printed doll, Hansen said. Because he’s skinny, “the only way they could make him strong enough was to print the doll in metal.” He’s a strong little boy, pretty hard to break. The animators loved animating him.”
Thanks to a team of engineers and the puppet designer Richard Pickersgill, “we’ve pushed replacement technology forward a little bit,” Mackinnon said. The designer “gave Pinocchio spindly limbs and joints that look like Geppetto carved them by hand.”
The studio spent a year and a half prototyping Pinocchio before making the first production model. In the end, over 20 puppets were built to ensure the animators had enough.
The studio has made figures as tall 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 centimeters tall. The refined creations allowed Del Toro and his co-director, Mark Gustafson, to get the gigs they needed. They looked to the films of Hayao Miyazaki for inspiration, whose characters think, pause and change their minds as they move.
“I had a road-to-Damascus moment watching ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ where the dad tries to put on his shoe: he misses it twice and then gets it on the third try,” del Toro explained . “Miyazaki says if you animate the ordinary, it will be extraordinary. So we went for failed acts because we wanted to bring these characters to life.
He estimated that 35 shots had to be redone because “we said, ‘The character moves, but I don’t see the character thinking or feeling.’ The little failed gestures or hesitations before a move tells you, ‘This is a living character.’”
Gustafson said failed gestures were particularly difficult “because the intent has to be visible – it’s not a mistake, really. I think our brains are really wired to recognize when a gesture is somehow false, so we worked really hard to make those things feel as natural as possible.
Performers can change or rework computer-generated and 2D animations during production, but once stop-motion animators start moving a puppet, they have to move on to the end of the scene – or start over. They can’t change what they’ve already filmed, any more than an actor can stop halfway through, take a few steps back, and cross the set otherwise.
“Stop motion is the art form in animation most analogous to live action, because you’re doing real motion, from point A to point B,” del Toro said. “You can’t edit. You are dealing with real sets and real props, illuminated by real light. Stop-motion is to live-action what Ginger Rogers is to Fred Astaire: we do the same steps, backwards in high heels.”