For “Isle of Dogs,” Wes Anderson created an epic love letter to Japanese cinema of the ’60s wrapped in a canine buddy movie. And like “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” the quirky, detail-oriented director once again embraced the old-school roots of stop-motion animation, luxuriating in its crude, analog charms (the antithesis of Laika’s acclaimed polish).
“Isle of Dogs” was conceived by Anderson and his screenwriting collaborators (Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura) as a pack of alpha dogs exiled to a garbage-dump as a result of a political conspiracy in Japan. So they cross-bred the urban milieu of Kurosawa’s “High and Low” with the tech surroundings of “Godzilla.”
The adventure they fashioned involved 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin) and intrepid teenage reporter Tracy (Greta Gerwig) taking on corrupt and intolerant Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), and rescuing their city and the dogs (voiced by Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel, and Bob Balaban).
The initial challenge was incorporating Kurosawa’s urban ’60s milieu with 19th century, Edo-period woodblock print works from Hiroshige and Hokusai into a cohesive whole. That was the task for the two production designers: Oscar-winner Adam Stockhausen (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and Paul Harrod (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”). They created the entire universe with 240 micro sets, from the red lacquered Municipal Dome to the monochromatic science lab to a sake bar with tiny bottles to the ashen ruins of Trash Island with its overhead tram. Everything was built by hand, including dust clouds made of cotton wool (in homage to “Looney Tunes” cartoons) and waves of water derived from sheets of plastic wrap. Yet, overall, it was a more desaturated palette than the autumnal lushness of “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
“I began in April 2015 and worked for six months and then briefed Paul in London and he was up and running,” said Stockhausen, who left to work on Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” a very different animated experience. “My role was this broad stroke early discussion part and getting some of the early formations, with Paul coming on and getting so specific with tiny labels on things and graphics and refinements as the sets were built.”
But because Anderson was so particular about wide framing and sharp focus, it was necessary to break up larger sets into individual pieces. “We did foam core mock-ups for nearly every set,” said Harrod. “That way, we could put a camera on the set, Wes could choose a lens, and we could start re-configuring things from there. “But horizon lines and character placement needed to be adjusted, so we ended up cutting the sets lengthwise to accommodate that.”
Most of the movie occurred on Trash Island with the dogs and that took up around 90% of the sets. The island was divided into color-coded zones like “The Wizard of Oz” with different kinds of trash. “When we’re first introduced to the hero pack, that’s all classic wasteland junkyard with ferrous metals forming a landscape of rust,” said Harrod.
“From there you go to a white land of newspapers. That leads to the beach where they encounter the dog catchers, which is totally black. We hit upon the idea that it would be made up entirely of broken cathode ray tubes and car batteries. Then we go through ‘The 22 Views of Trash Island,’ which had 12 sets. Then we go to the golf course, which was comprised of silver-gray wire bristles for the grass. Kobayashi Park, the next stop, had faded and rusted colors from Fruit Stripe gum.”
Animating Dogs and Humans
Like “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” production once again took place at the legendary 3 Mills Studios in East London. The stop-motion animation of both dogs and humans was much more complicated and ambitious. The dog puppets were created as emotional types rather than breeds and the fur was re-purposed alpaca and merino wool used for making teddy bears. They used resin for the human puppets to provide warm, translucent skin (Laika introduced this on “ParaNorman”). The rough animation style, as with “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” was attained by shooting on twos (meaning every other frame).
There were 1,000 puppets: 500 dogs and 500 humans. For each individual character, a range of puppets was made in five different scales and each hero puppet took about 16 weeks to build. Every crowd puppet was hand-made as well, using multiple camera passes. Notably, Mayor Kobayashi was based on Toshiro Mifune’s Gondo from “High and Low” (as a further reference, Keitel’s dog is named Gondo). However, there were only about a dozen different mouth shapes. “If a character changed expression, it would literally pop from one face to another with no in-betweens,” said Mark Waring (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”), the animation director.
Unlike foxes, which acted like humans in the previous Anderson movie, the dogs behaved as canines in a human world (aside from speaking). “They had to sit, run, walk, scratch their nose and hind legs, and so the armatures were built to facilitate all of that,” Waring added. “But they talk and that required them to snarl, frown, cry, or be sad.”
The longest single-take was nearly a minute when the black hound, Chief (Cranston), gets existential about his favorite food (chili), the loneliness of being a stray, and his regretful penchant for biting. But the most intricate scene involved the making of sushi, which took six months to shoot after lots of research.
“Wes wanted it to look like real sushi that had never been done before,” said Waring. “How do you kill, gut, and skin a fish? How do you go into the next stage with an octopus? How do you chop it up? How do you divide it? How do you use the knife? All these different nuances we had to work out and then as a choreography, we had to animate it all by hand for a scene that lasts only 45 seconds.”
Shooting a More Graphic Style
Anderson’s visual style here was more graphic, more like an illustrated book, incorporating the woodblock influence for texture and for incorporating Mount Fuji in the distance. But that also meant mostly flat lighting for exteriors. “There was very little directional light, it was heavily overcast, and pretty much shadow free,” said cinematographer Tristan Oliver (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”), who shot with the Canon 1DX digital still camera. “It was almost anti-photographic.” And they only shot green screen when they couldn’t fit all of the puppets in the same shot and retain sharp focus.
In terms of constructing sets for the lens, it was unavoidable for framing and lighting. “Quite often, we would shoot the entirety of the sets without any animation on it and then pull out the bits we didn’t need and put back the puppets in and the rest of the set would be plated in afterwards,” Oliver said. “An animator can’t be climbing onto the set and fall into these environments.”
One experiment that didn’t work out was trying to incorporate the distorted, fish-eye lens effect by James Wong Howe in John Frankenheimer’s underrated “Seconds.” Anderson adored the way they stretched Rock Hudson’s tormented face along with the other characters in a room. “The problem was we were framed everything so symmetrically that you weren’t reading distortion,” said Oliver. “We ended up bending out the edges a bit but never got that punching, Frankenheimer feel to it.”
The most creative fun for Oliver came with the interiors, where there was contrast and texture. And the lab was one of the more fascinating sets to shoot. “It’s about 35-feet long and very narrow and the camera tracks long and stops and tracks long and stops,” added Oliver. “There were 600 practical fixtures, every one of which was dimmable and controlled. In order to create all that light change and flashing, we had a fairly complicated script for the practical lighting.”
A Close-Up View of Graphics
Meanwhile, graphic designer Erica Dorn was tasked by Anderson with coming up with more than a thousand pieces of graphics based on an already established style yet with as much variation as possible in terms of color and typography. During the busiest months, her team juggled 10 to 15 different graphics each day, in various stages of fabrication, from tickets to posters to remotes to photographs (rendered as woodblocks) to newspaper clippings to English and Japanese subtitles (each with different fonts).
“Some sets had 200 individual pieces of graphics, including Tracy’s bedroom, which is filled with newspaper articles and Post-Its,” said Dorn. “Each wall had a different set up. For the sushi bar, it was covered from the floor to the ceiling with posters of scientists, molecules, and sake labels.”
But the computer punch cards were the most harrowing for Dorn. “We had to make three different sizes for three cards to correspond with the puppets,” she said. “But every time Wes changed his mind about the size of the text or the sharpness, we had to fabricate them again. For the larger ones, we had to hand cut the holes and it took an insane about of time to make. I have an envelope with dozens of failed cards,”