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January 03
2023

ISSUE

Winter 2023

STOP-MOTION BREATHES NEW LIFE INTO GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO

By TREVOR HOGG

Animator Peggy Arel repositions the Geppetto puppet on the doctor’s office set.

Animator Peggy Arel repositions the Geppetto puppet on the doctor’s office set.

Images courtesy of Netflix.

When Italian writer Carlo Collodi published the novel The Adventures of Pinocchio in 1883 about a wooden marionette who desires to become a real boy, the movie industry did not exist. The story has taken a life of its own on the big screen with the most famous being the 1940 Disney animated classic, but this did not deter filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) to put forth his own version of the fairy tale utilizing stop-motion animation, and partnering with co-director Mark Gustafson (The PJs) and Netflix. “The biggest challenge is that it took almost two decades to get this made,” del Toro notes. “It was a completely new approach to the material that made the pilgrimage through the world of financing and logistics difficult.”

In Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, the title character does not transform into flesh and blood. “That was clear to me from the start,” del Toro explains. “In a way, it’s about subverting and finding new meaning on the themes of Pinocchio. One is that disobedience is actually the beginning of thought and conscience, which goes against the idea that a good boy is a boy who obeys. The second one is the idea that you don’t have to transform yourself to be loved. You can be loved for exactly who you are.”

Character traits influenced the design of the puppets. “There are practical considerations because they do physically exist,”
Gustafson notes. “Some of those limitations can play to your advantage. Pinocchio is a perfect character to do in stop-motion because he is a puppet. There is something simpler about Pinocchio that makes the audience lean in and connect with him. His face isn’t all over the place. We wanted him to be made of wood, and that brings a power once you figure out this language.”

Handling the production design duties were Guy Davis and Curt Enderle. “One of my favorite characters I got to design with Guillermo was Death,” Davis reveals. “Death was fun because she was mythic like the Wood Sprite, and we designed both of them as sisters. Death and the Wood Sprite are mythology come to life. They’re their own thing. We originally thought of Death being portrayed as a Chimera mythical beast, and then she was more sphinx-like as far as the body, not as the culture. We started with the idea of the Greek mask for her face. It gave us a lot of freedom to come up with our own mythology. The Wood Sprite went through a couple of changes, too. Guillermo had a definite idea in mind as far as angels with the eyes on the wings. Death went through a lot of iterations getting her to where she was ready to be a puppet, and the same with the Wood Sprite. Even Pinocchio, as we first had him, was based on the original Gris Grimly design, but then there are other things, like Black Rabbits, that clicked from the first design pass and carried over from 2012 with not any changes to the concept art.”

Surrealism prevailed with the skies. “We went through the show and asked, ‘How many unique skies do we need?’” Art Director Robert DeSue remarks. “There is a journey montage, night and day requirements, and considerations for mood to help reinforce happier times versus somber times. It ended up being in the neighborhood of 38, maybe 40 unique skies. We decided to do a keyframe painting for each one of those skies, and we made these sheets: ‘Here is the storyboard and the shot this applies to,’ so we had the composition information. The director of photography, production designer and myself went through to decide upon the type of sky, like cloud forms and color.” Del Toro did a course correction. “He said, ‘I want you to look at the skies by Grant Wood, Georgia O’Keeffe and the Group of Seven,’” DeSue describes.

“‘The Italian ones, I like the colors and atmosphere, but that style is too realistic.’ We had keyframes, two images and a painting. That helped the skies get a nice runway. The first time Guillermo would see a sky, he might make a color correction. But in terms of style, fluffy clouds should look like that cotton batting that you use in pillows because they have a level of artificiality that looks handmade.”

TOP TO BOTTOM: A color concept of Death and the realm of Limbo, practical Death sculpture, and Pinocchio in Limbo where he goes upon dying and is subsequently revived by Death.

TOP TO BOTTOM: A color concept of Death and the realm of Limbo, practical Death sculpture, and Pinocchio in Limbo where he goes upon dying and is subsequently revived by Death.

Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) becomes a performer at a carnival run by Volpe (voiced by Christoph Waltz), which plays upon the idea of Pinocchio being an actual puppet.

Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) becomes a performer at a carnival run by Volpe (voiced by Christoph Waltz), which plays upon the idea of Pinocchio being an actual puppet.

A memo was circulated consisting of eight rules of animation. “Mark and I discussed, ‘What are we going to do differently?’” del Toro recalls. “We said, ‘We’re going to try to give a depth to the acting style of this puppet that makes them become human.’ The goal is this: 15 to 20 minutes into the movie, you would forget that they are puppets. You’re just watching actors act and humans think and feel. We always emphasized with the animators to do micro-gestures, things that are brief and changing, because most of the animation is key poses and pantomime. It’s characters looking defiant, skeptical and happy. It’s all about emojis! Hayao Miyazaki said, ‘If you animate the ordinary, it will be extraordinary.’ It’s about stopping the plot and allowing life to enter the film.” Animators were cast. “We found that some of them were much better at doing characters or they had a real affinity for it,” Gustafson states. “That was useful to get some sort of consistency out of them, too. We tried to keep them in scenes as much as possible, as a sense of ownership is important. They can come away from this film going, ‘That sequence is mine.’ That feels really good.”

Printed faces for the puppets were something that Animation Supervisor Brian Leif Hansen wanted to avoid. “When you are working with the printed face, you’ve got a limited stack of money and a limited stack of faces, therefore your facial expressions would probably be on the stiffer side of things, with the budget that we had,” Hansen notes. “A silicone face you can move around all of the time. All of our main characters had the mechanical silicone face, but Pinocchio has a printed face, which is a stroke of genius because it keeps him in the hard world.”

ABOVE THREE: A color study of the village, set build and the final frame.

ABOVE THREE: A color study of the village, set build and the final frame.

Various puppets were built for Sebastian J. Cricket to get the proper size and scale for each shot.

Various puppets were built for Sebastian J. Cricket to get the proper size and scale for each shot.

TOP AND BOTTOM: Concept art for Volpe’s wagon and the practical prop.

TOP AND BOTTOM: Concept art for Volpe’s wagon and the practical prop.

Sebastian J. Cricket getting captured in glass by Pinocchio was accomplished practically. “It’s so wild,” Hansen describes. “There are seven different composite layers in it, because the paper is big and because Cricket needs to walk on it. Pinocchio draws a sun on the paper. Pinocchio’s hand size was shot in a different plate. The drawing itself was a different plate. The glass is a different plate as well. Cricket needed to be animated inside the glass. We couldn’t have the glass there. We animated Cricket first and animated the glass afterwards. Cricket is pounding on the glass. It works brilliantly. It was fun to put the shot together without [anything] other than the technology of stop-motion.”

Visual effects were mainly utilized for atmospherics. “It’s easier to do some of the smoke, skies, fire embers, and even then, we did a lot of it with physical embers, miniatures, and silk to recreate a physical haze in the forest,” del Toro states. “When it’s a landscape made of water, that’s going to be rendered faster in CG. Then the trick is to art direct it not like a real piece of water. You have to make it artificial in order to match the world.”

There were 1,374 visual effects shots created by MR. X, an in-house team, with additional support provided by BOT VFX. “The benefit of stop-motion is the fact that there is not another take,” observes Visual Effects Producer Jeffrey Schaper. “You basically have the shot and have passes for it. We all used ShotGrid as our shot-tracking software, from the stages all the way through post, editorial and effects. We would generally speak with our first AD scheduler and make sure that everything was approved. As soon as it was approved, we would pile the shots and try to turn it over. At first, it was once every month, but then it became every two weeks to every week, to try to get shots out the door as quickly as we could. The good thing is that you have a shot that is turned over to the full length, and we work with 10 frame handles and let editorial decide what they’re going to use of those handles.”

Geppetto and Pinocchio trapped inside of the dogfish, which was a digital environment.

Geppetto and Pinocchio trapped inside of the dogfish, which was a digital environment.

Two major visual effects environments were the interior of the dogfish and the realm of Limbo inhabited by Death. “There was a practical boat and half of a lighthouse,” Visual Effects Supervisor Aaron Weintraub reveals. “Those were the pieces of the set that the characters would interact with, and everything else was always planned to be digital inside of a dogfish. The idea was to create a feeling of this dank, wet cavern. The dogfish swallows them, and they do this water-slide trip down the throat and come out into the inside and fall down these various levels, trudge through the goo, find the ship and make their camp there.” The inside of the aquatic creature had to feel tactile. “We had little organic, fungal growths and things like that scattered throughout,” Weintraub adds. “There was a hanging mist in there too, as well as streams of standing water and weird temperature changes. Because it’s organic, like skin, when the light hits it, it had to feel like there is a subsurface scattering. It was always a question of how thick the skin is to the outside world, so there is a red glow from the sun that is coming from the outside that breathes through some of the diffused ambient light in there when the lighthouse isn’t shining directly on something.”

Originally, Limbo was not intended to be CG. “They were going to build these shelves that were filled with hundreds of hourglasses made out of laser-cut acrylic, but then COVID-19 hit and there was a massive acrylic shortage because it became sneeze guards in banks and post offices,” Weintraub explains. “We were always doing the sky dome in there, which is like planetarium-type space.”

TOP AND BOTTOM: A lightning shape study and the composited digital effect.

TOP AND BOTTOM: A lightning shape study and the composited digital effect.

“[Co-director] Mark [Gustafson] and I discussed, ‘What are we going to do differently?’ We said, ‘We’re going to try to give a depth to the acting style of this puppet that makes them become human.’ The goal is this: 15 to 20 minutes into the movie, you would forget that they are puppets. You’re just watching actors act and humans think and feel.”
—Guillermo del Toro

TOP TWO: Lead Animator Jan-Erik Maas works with Pinocchio on the Birch Woods set, and the final result.

TOP TWO: Lead Animator Jan-Erik Maas works with Pinocchio on the Birch Woods set, and the final result.


A greenscreen test of Geppetto’s boathouse set.

A greenscreen test of Geppetto’s boathouse set.


Many of the sets made use of motion-control cameras, such as this scene between Volpe and Spazzatura.

Many of the sets made use of motion-control cameras, such as this scene between Volpe and Spazzatura.

Early tests were conducted to get the look of the flowing sand. “We figured out the right speed and frame rate,” Weintraub recounts. “What they had on set was the wood frame of the hourglass, and we would do the glass insert, composite it inside, and render all of the reflections of the environment and characters moving around. We had a CG version of Pinocchio for all of the collisions and reflections.” The Death puppet had ping pong balls placed where the eyes were supposed to go. “We replaced each of those with animated eyeballs,” Weintraub says, “so we had to rotomate the wings so that our models would line up exactly and the eyeballs would track in, do the animation, and match the performance for pupils following [the action] and blinking at the right moment.”

One character is fully digital. “Before the Wood Sprite becomes a form, she has small eyes, and they essentially make up her wings,” reveals On-set and In-house Visual Effects Supervisor Cameron Carson. “The eyes float through a couple of scenes and interact with things. We wanted them to feel as close to our stop-motion puppets as we could. We built a couple of practical eyes out of polyurethane and did a couple of different things, which we then scanned and sent over to MR. X to try to replicate that, as well as add the ethereal trail that follows behind them. There was a lot of back and forth with that in terms of the look and how that is supposed to feel in the movie. That was probably one of our biggest ones in terms of designing because it was a little more of an unknown.” The fully-formed Wood Sprite is luminescent. “She has practical lights behind her eyes, which is helping to cause that glow,” Carson states. “In most of her shots, the Wood Sprite is captured on greenscreen, and that enabled us to separate her out and give some digital glow and atmospherics to her so it feels like she is ethereal and moving through the space.”

As many as 56 sets were shot simultaneously, though not all of them had motion control cameras. “When our camera is six inches away from the set, the smallest motion reads massively onstage,’ Carson remarks. “We will shoot for the day, come back in the morning and the camera would have moved. Just the slightest atmospheric change of temperature, or the lights coming on and warming up the set, will actually swell or shrink the wood, and it creates micro-stutters in our tracks. Almost every single shot in our production had to be stabilized, and we have to worry about light flicker.” Dust is a big problem. “It’s small particles that are on the set that when an animator touches something on the puppet, all of the chatters, or moves around. You see that in Fantastic Mr. Fox, characters with fur chatter. That movement comes from animators touching the puppet and moving their finger, and the pieces don’t get back to the same spot,” Carson adds. “We’re trying to strike a balance of removing things that are distracting to the viewer while leaving as much charm or stop-motion aesthetic as possible.”


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