For Artisans Behind Stop-Motion Features, It’s a Small World After All

Early Man Isle of Dogs Stopmotion
Courtesy of Focus Features/StudioCanal

The earworm song “It’s a Small World” may be a Disneyland staple, but stop motion moviemaking gives other meanings to the phrase. That’s not just a description of the doll-sized cavemen that stomp through “Early Man” by Aardman Animation’s Nick Park, or the miniature canines populating Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” — when you look at the select cadre of people who make stop-motion puppets seem alive, you realize that yes, it’s a small world indeed.

“There are very few people who do this,” says Tristan Oliver, who photographed Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” as well as Laika’s “ParaNorman” and Aardman’s “Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit.” “Our paths cross a lot. So we can bypass lots of explanation, which is a great advantage. When someone comes in who doesn’t quite understand the technique there’s a huge amount of catching up to be done.”

That’s ironic, given that stop-motion techniques are as old as filmmaking itself. Positioning a puppet, shooting a frame and slightly re-positioning it to shoot the next frame was the method used by stop-motion pioneers Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen to animate “King Kong” and “Jason and the Argonauts.” “Early Man” director Park even says he called the dinosaurs in “Early Man” Ray and Harry in honor of that tradition.

To capture Park’s Chaplinesque tale of Stone Age cavemen competing against Bronze Age footballers, Aardman had to expand its toolbox.
“This was an epic world of prehistoric landscapes with lots of fire and explosions,” says Park, a four-time Oscar winner for shorts starring the Wallace & Gromit characters as well as the animated feature “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.” “We embraced a hybrid of digital technology mixed with stop-motion. We kept real models, and used real fabric and hair — even if it twitches a bit, that’s part of the charm.”

But Aardman also engaged the digital experts at Axis VFX to generate atmospheric effects and a triple-tier sports stadium filled with cheering fans.
As vfx supervisor Howard Jones recalls, “We worked on 1,357 shots. That number will be stuck in my head for years.”

Digital techniques are employed regularly in post-production to erase the rigs and wires that animators use to manipulate puppets. But Jones notes, “Years ago, they had to be really careful because they couldn’t afford to paint out too many rigs.”

Given the athletic puppet feats in “Early Man,” the Axis team had copious amounts of cleanup to do. But they also created 300 to 400 shots of the stadium and its crowds. “Aardman’s puppets were scanned as a starting point for the crowds,” Jones says.
Since he had previously worked on Aardman’s “Pirates!” and “Shaun the Sheep,” Jones says, “I was conscious to stay in the style of the ‘Aardman world.’ ”

Different permutations and combinations of scanned puppets by Axis eventually yielded a cast of thousands.
Despite a reputation for making handcrafted movies, Aardman actually adopted virtual reality technology to plan the stadium action via simple CG models.

“We experimented with VR as a way of seeing how much of the set we needed to build,” Park says. “I put on the headset and it was amazing walking around as if I was in the stadium.”

The creative decisions made by Park guided the 3D-CG stadium that Jones’ would construct using Maya software. “By the time we got everything in it, rendering it all took an hour a frame,” Jones says.

When it came to the process of communicating with Aardman’s 35 animators, however, Park’s process was decidedly low-tech. “I’d get on the studio floor in front of a video camera and mime a scene, using an actor’s voice track as a guide.”

Park’s approach is similar to Anderson’s in directing “Isle of Dogs,” says Oliver. “Wes tends to act out everything himself as well. He mimes to the actors’ voice tracks and films himself on his iPhone. It’s occasionally beyond hilarious.”

Anderson also communicated his ideas by developing a list of movies that he felt captured the Japanese aesthetic he wanted for “Isle of Dogs.”
His darkly humorous tale of dogs that have been deported to a trash-filled island was based on an original idea.

“We had the viewing list of 40 Japanese movies that emulated the Hollywood of the ’40s and ’50s,” Oliver says. “It also referenced Sergio Leone, an Italian director emulating a Japanese movie.”

“Isle of Dogs” puppet master Andy Gent, who also viewed Anderson’s movie list, says: “There were layers upon layers. It’s mesmerizing how many movies Wes knows.”

Gent had worked on “Fantastic Mr. Fox” as well as Henry Selick’s “Coraline” and Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride.” He and his 12-person sculpting team from Arch Model Studio were pushed to do wilder, crazier things.

“We come from slick forms of stop-motion. But Wes is so different from other stop-motion directors. He’ll say things like, ‘Let’s try and make the hair out of painted wire.’ He’s not afraid of any boundaries.”

The sheer volume of characters in “Isle of Dogs” was challenging, admits Gent. “On ‘Fox’ we had about 377 puppets, but on this film we had 1,105 puppets in five scales. Most of the talking dogs in the film have heads the size of ping-pong balls. But you could sit the smallest puppet on your thumbnail. Those were used for the big shots where Wes wanted to create a sense of huge scale. The ambition of this film was beyond what anyone has tried without using help from computers.”

Like Park on “Early Man,” Anderson’s game plan did not include using 3D-printed human faces that could be readily replaced when characters spoke different lines. Everything was handmade.

“Our human characters had semi-translucent skin, which gave them a different light quality,” Gent says. “We couldn’t have 3D-printed them. We had to hand-paint over 300 freckles on 90 faces. In Wes’ immortal words: ‘I think we need a few more freckles.’”

The huge numbers of furred characters was daunting for the puppet makers (who hand-sewed alpaca and mohair onto the dogs) and especially for DP Oliver, who oversaw 50 stages shooting at once. “Miniature fur is a hell of a problem. When you get close, it can produce strange rainbow artifacts that we had to get rid of. The better we can make it look, the fewer hurdles the audience has to get to the story.”

Since Anderson wanted to avoid digital effects, his team simulated organic shapes like smoke and water using cotton wool and acres of cellophane. Oliver notes, “There was some digital help here and there, but most of what you see is photographically derived.”
When “Isle of Dogs” won Anderson the director’s prize at the Berlinale, it validated the vitality of stop-motion. “There’s a flourishing of stop-motion now,” says Park.

Gent agrees, and cites Guillermo Del Toro’s upcoming “Pinocchio” as an example of the medium’s timeless appeal. “Kids now shoot stop-motion with Legos using mobile phones,” says Gent. “All of sudden we have variety. We’re entering an unknown territory.”