Every design element of Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” his second stop-motion animated film after 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” started with an authentic reference point.
Set in a dystopian Japan, the Fox Searchlight picture, to be released March 23, imagines a world in which flu-stricken canines have been quarantined on a remote island. A boy, Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin), travels there to search for his pet, Spots (Liev Schreiber).
Co-production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod scoured Japanese artifacts — from clothing to light switches to sink faucets — for inspiration. While the film pays homage to Japanese art and culture, the designers allowed themselves some latitude to convey Anderson’s vision.
“For me,” says Harrod, a veteran stop-motion guru with extensive work in sculpting and modeling, “the main design touchstone was [director Yasujirō] Ozu, whose films [“Tokyo Story,” “Late Spring”] I’ve always loved. I’m not alone in seeing a kinship between his and Wes’ work. Ozu’s use of set design and architecture served as a huge inspiration for a lot of our interiors and domestic scenes.”
Early on, Stockhausen, who designed Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “Ready Player One” and also worked on Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” for which he won an Oscar (shared with set decorator Anna Pinnock), dug into ukiyo-e prints — Japanese genre art that was popular beginning in the 17th century.
“It was wonderful and overwhelming to see so many at one time,” says Stockhausen, referring to the visit he and Anderson paid to the Met archive. “We started categorizing our favorites and tagging them for sequences or moments. Often it was the [whole] composition that Wes wanted to bring from the print to the film, but also details, like rain or water.”
Trash Island is where most of the film takes place, while the pic’s beginning and end are set in Megasaki City, a fictional metropolis. A different Japanese auteur was the inspiration there. “Two of Wes’ principal references were Akira Kurosawa’s noirs from the early ’60s, ‘The Bad Sleep Well’ and ‘High and Low,’” says Harrod. “For Megasaki City, our task was to project a futuristic Japan while avoiding a lot of what have become retro-futuristic clichés.”
With stop-motion, every element has to be designed and fabricated. And when artists design handheld props for a character that is 10 inches tall, minute details become challenging.
“Often in stop-motion, when you have a close-up of a prop, you overscale it with a larger hand so you can capture all the detail,” explains Harrod, who works on stop-motion features produced out of London. “Wes wanted to keep things within three basic scales we were working in, so our model-making team, led by Roddy MacDonald, and our painters, led by Roy Bell, had to come up with tiny, detailed props.”
Harrod and Stockhausen both had some sleepless nights as they tried to make sure they weren’t compromising Anderson’s vision. When they sent the director progress images, they put their money where their art was: They placed a one-pound coin next to the images to show just how exquisitely precise they were for their size