Creating seamless synergy between traditional stop-motion animation and cutting-edge VFX
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro joined forces with Emmy Award-winning stop-motion veteran Mark Gustafson to direct a stunning new reimagining of Pinocchio set in Mussolini-era Italy. Based on Carlo Collodi’s classic tale of a wooden doll that comes to life, the film is a breathtaking adventure that explores the depths of grief and the transcendent power of love. Created in a richly-detailed stop-motion style with a stellar ensemble voice cast, the production creates a seamless synergy between classic handcrafted animation and cutting-edge visual effects.
Production designer Guy Davis, a frequent del Toro creative collaborator, designed expressive character puppets that would meet the demands of a stop-motion animation workflow. Director of character fabrication Georgina Hayns worked closely with Mackinnon & Saunders, an industry leader in stop-motion puppet production, to transform Davis’ designs into workable figures with robust attributes. “Throughout the process, Guillermo was heavily involved in the look of the puppets on all levels,” Hayns recalls. Centro Internacional de Animación, a Guadalajara-based animation studio founded by del Toro, also functioned as a second unit puppet department.
Each character began as a clay maquette, which evolved into a full working puppet sculpt with detailed features and costume elements. The fabrication team referenced painters from around the turn of the 20th century, particularly the work of Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth. Animation supervisor Brian Leif Hansen began developing the puppets’ movements with a series of preliminary tests of Geppetto’s hands on ball-and-socket rigs interacting with props. “I think it really opened Guillermo’s mind about what this might be,” he recalls.
Puppet maker Richard Pickersgill led the development of Pinocchio’s unique design. “His body is his armature,” Hayns explains. The puppet’s construction combines ball-and-socket joints first developed for King Kong (1933), modern 3D-printed metal joints and plates, and a painted plastic shell. “With him being just a skeleton, there are lots of things that you normally would hide underneath,” Hansen notes. “I would say that what Richard did with Pinocchio was an engineering masterpiece,” Hayns adds.
The faces of the film’s puppets were primarily constructed with complex systems of interlocking paddles and gears beneath a layer of silicone skin, allowing animators to manipulate their features with meticulous precision. The Pinocchio puppet, however, utilized a “rapid prototyping” expression system rather than mechanical elements. A collection of swappable 3D-printed plastic facial plates allowed the character to appear as if carved from wood.
ESTABLISHING AN AESTHETIC
A sample fabric swatch for Spazzatura’s red-and-white striped pants led to a breakthrough in the film’s design process. After reviewing samples created with various painting, printing, and stitching techniques, this particular piece struck a chord with Hayns and art director Robert DeSue. “The lines of the makeup of how the colors were put together in the stitch lines was perfectly imperfect,” Hayns recalls. “That became the signature of what our movie was going to be…all from a little swatch of fabric.”
The film’s story includes a wide range of sequences ranging from choreographed musical numbers to intimate emotional moments, all requiring a tremendous amount of planning. During pre-production, del Toro and Gustafson met with the animation team to outline a set of guidelines that emphasized a meticulously-handcrafted aesthetic while rejecting an overreliance on computer-generated animation. “We all agreed that we shouldn’t hide the stop-motion. We didn’t want to hide the fact that they were puppets,” notes Hansen. “In stop-motion nowadays, you can easily make it so fluid that it could be mistaken for any computer simulation.”
SEAMLESS VFX INTEGRATION
With a distinctive visual style in place, it was essential for the film’s visual effects to be seamlessly integrated into the overarching handcrafted vision. VFX studio Mr. X, now a part of MPC, came aboard to deliver the digital components that would bring the entire vision together. It was important to decide what could be achieved practically and what would be best delegated to the visual effects team. “The mantra going into the stop-motion shoot from Mark and Guillermo was, ‘If we can build it, if there’s a way to do this practically, we’re going to figure it out,’” visual effects supervisor Aaron Weintraub recalls.
Ultimately, it was more important for all of the visuals to stay true to the style of the film, rather than insisting on achieving everything practically. Visual effects producer Jeffrey Schaper worked closely with Weintraub during the production process. “We had an in-house VFX supervisor, Cameron [Carson], who was the person who oversaw all of the shoot days and made sure things were shot correctly for visual effects to be integrated in post,” Schaper explains. He also collaborated with the art department to maintain a consistent look across the extensive set extension and matte-painting work.
PRACTICAL REFERENCES FOR DIGITAL DELIVERY
The VFX team handled simulations of any elements with tiny details that would be impossible to replicate practically frame by frame. “We knew that there was a world that existed that we had to match,” Weintraub explains. “We couldn’t just do photoreal smoke, photoreal explosions, or a photoreal ocean. That wasn’t going to cut it because there were no truly photoreal elements in the rest of the film.”
Art director Robert DeSue and his team designed miniature references for the VFX artists, helping them maintain a consistent stop-motion feel across practical and digital elements. "I think it worked really well when there was a physical element that the digital VFX team could look at,” Hansen adds. “We made something in the stop-motion style and then they were able to repeat it and scale it up.”
A stop-motion test for Geppetto’s fireplace was a particularly useful reference. “They took pieces of cheesecloth wrapped around armature wire and lit it with a lot of creative lighting effects,” Weintraub explains. The animation team created a frame-by-frame flicker effect using a motion-controlled gobo device they called a “time machine,” and cinematographer Frank Passingham completed the effect with a veneer lens filter that applied a soft Pro-Mist look. “Our fire simulations were not in any way like pyro fire sims that you would normally expect when you’re doing live action visual effects,” he adds. “The fire was actually a cloth sim.” This became the basis for all of the film’s flame sequences, from small fireplaces to massive explosions.
Simulating the film’s ocean sequences was a pivotal challenge for the VFX team. “We took a lot of inspiration from a sequence in a stop-motion film called Two Balloons ,” Weintraub explains. “They built an ocean, and it was a rubber sheet surface with these plungers underneath that would go up and down.” The team completed the ocean simulations in Houdini, post-processing the geometry to remove the lateral flow so it became static and matched the style of the practical reference. “We then applied a bunch of displacement and bump maps to create a texture, which gives it this kind of static, rubbery feel on the surface,” Weintraub notes.
Photoreal raindrops are typically fast fluid simulations, but Pinocchio’s raindrops were designed to resemble little individual spikes built from practical materials. “We created these little shards that expanded at the head and dropped them down. So it became like a storm of needles as opposed to a fluid simulation,” Weintraub explains. This blended well with the stop-motion glycerin water elements that were captured practically on-set.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Encompassing 60 working stages with a total of 99 sets, the Pinocchio shoot was a massive feat of production. Designed to best suit the needs of the animators, the sets included removable walls and various access points for optimal puppet control. A few of the major environments, such as the interior of the dogfish, were almost completely digital.
“Wherever there’s critical contact, where the characters had to touch something or walk on something, that bit was built. But the rest of the environment, that’s all digital,” Weintraub explains. “We had a data wrangler team on the ground, Jon [Weigand] and Mia [Sires], who were responsible for scanning the objects. We LIDAR scanned every set, every prop, every character, and every puppet to have digital models that we would use in our simulations or to animate. And then back at Mr. X, we had our producer, Emma Gorbey; Warren Lawtey, our CG supervisor; Perrine Michel, our compositing supervisor; and just a massive team of hundreds of artists here who worked on it.”
“We used ShotGrid to integrate all our notes and submissions,” Schaper explains. “Mr. X was using ShotGrid for over ten years to keep us on track. It was great that the production was using it as well,” Weintraub adds. “We wrote some tools that would keep their ShotGrid in sync with ours or vice versa.” Schaper adds, “We started off using Evercast as a tool for screening or viewing shots, and we then moved into ClearView Flex as our review tool with Guillermo and the team. That was the software we used primarily to help deliver this project.”
Both the practical animation and the VFX crews were impressed by the passion and teamwork that guided the entire project from start to finish. “Every department head was really on top of their game, understood the process, and was a pleasure to deal with,” Schaper recalls. “The collaboration was very special on this one, and the look is something very unique that we may never see again.”
Kendra Ruczak is the Managing Editor of CGW.
Images courtesy of Netflix
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