For Guillermo del Toro, it wasn’t a question of why stop-motion fit his new version of “Pinocchio,” but why it had never been attempted before. After all, Carlo Collodi’s enduring fable about a wooden puppet who longs to be a real boy cries out for the tactile, handmade technique.
“It’s the perfect way to tell the story,” del Toro told IndieWire, following a sneak peek of the first 38 minutes of his Netflix movie (premiering this weekend at the London Film Festival ahead of its closing-night special presentation at L.A.’s Animation Is Film Festival on October 29). “Everyone is a puppet. Being animated makes the existence of Pinocchio completely naturalistic the way you’re telling the tale. I’m surprised, happy, that it hasn’t been tackled like that before. It comes so naturally to the tale.”
But it’s taken more than 15 years to realize del Toro’s passion project, the first animated feature he’s ever directed. (“Pinocchio” was co-helmed by stop-motion vet Mark Gustafson of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” fame.) What sparked it was glimpsing famed illustrator Gris Grimly’s work for a 2003 edition of “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” “His Pinocchio has an unruly, almost force of nature, an undomesticated essence,” del Toro said. “That drawing was it for me. Form is function and story.”
Del Toro’s version takes place in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy of the 1930s, where everyone acts like wooden puppets. The alcoholic woodcarver, Geppetto (David Bradley), grieves over the death of his son, Carlo. Years later he carves a replacement from the trunk of a pine tree beside his son’s grave. But this disturbs Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), the conceited narrator, who’s been living in the tree writing his memoirs. He takes a sudden interest in the wooden boy come to life, and looks after him during his strange adventures. Only Pinocchio (newcomer Gregory Mann) is no Carlo: He’s rebellious, casually cruel, and overly inquisitive, which gets him into constant trouble.
“Most every other [‘Pinocchio’] is about obedience and ours is about disobedience because it’s a primary factor in becoming human,” del Toro added. “And how becoming human doesn’t mean changing yourself or others, but understanding. The first step toward conscience and the soul for me is disobedience. It’s the difference between ideas and ideology. And idea is constructed from experience and compassion and understanding. And ideology is something that is given to you and you are told to obey it blindly.”
This cautionary tale of authoritarianism was very important to del Toro, completing a “war trilogy” that began with “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” — which makes it all the more timely given our global political situation. But his fascination with “Pinocchio” dates back to childhood, when, together with “Frankenstein,” he fell under the spell of texts’ about toxic father-son relationships. “They are both brought into the world by uncaring fathers, which helps explain the relationship with my father,” he said. The passing of del Toro’s father after his Best Picture Oscar win for “The Shape of Water” had a profound impact on “Pinocchio.” “You’re thrown into a world that you barely understand,” he said. “Father-son stories are of such primal importance. [Stop-motion] became the tool to talk about how precious and fragile we are as humans and how much we need each other.”
This is also conveyed musically through songs composed by Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat (“The Shape of Water,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) with lyrics by the director and Roeban Katz. While Desplat requested a professional singer for Pinocchio, del Toro was adamant that Mann should also sing because his fragile voice complemented the stop-motion.
Stop-motion has long been a powerful force in the director’s life, beginning with his adoration for Willis O’Brien’s animation in “King Kong” and Ray Harryhausen’s in “Jason and the Argonauts.” Del Toro revels in the “perfectly imperfect” artistry of the puppetry and world building, and wanted to capture that in “Pinocchio.” But he also wanted to be boldly naturalistic in making stop-motion more like live action.
“You have Laika, which, let’s be very clear, pushed the technical tools of the medium, and now you can be more expressive a decade into the future,” said del Toro. “And that’s why I wanted from the very beginning to do something that is equally daring — to stage the camera and the action like live action, following the puppets with the camera and the lighting the way you would the actors. And we have to let this animation breathe and be less fluid. That’s why we shot on 2s [two frames]. The acting is naturalistic and not pantomime. We jokingly said let’s not do silent acting but Actor’s Studio level, where you watch them thinking.”
This consisted of micro-gestures, failed acts, and quiet moments of just listening. The director marveled at Geppetto’s lower lip quivering, or a puppet taking three attempts to close a door. He called this the beautiful volatility of stop-motion.
“And one of the principles was: Animation is to infuse anima into the characters,” del Toro said, referring to the philosophical concept of the soul. “It’s not about hitting key poses that are cool. It’s about delivering the emotion and directing the animators as actors. We aggressively built in accidents. But you have to reproduce those accidents 24 frames-per-second with the puppeteer.”
The animation was done at ShadowMachine in Portland, Oregon, on a 1,000-day shoot, with supplemental sequences shot at the director’s Centro Internacional de Animación stop-motion studio in his home of Guadalajara, Mexico. Legendary English animation studio Mackinnon & Saunders created the puppets using old-school ball-and-socket body armatures and head armatures with gears like a Swiss watch. Georgina Hayns (a staple at Laika) served as director of character fabrication. This brought the artist closer to the puppet by subtly controlling the eyes and mouth.
However, the Pinocchio puppet was made in more high-tech fashion with 3D-printed body and face replacements. The entire body was made of titanium and constructed with plenty of joints by Mackinnon & Saunders. This allowed the puppet to move like a wooden boy and have expressive gestures. “We wanted him to stand out from all the other puppets,” del Toro said.
There are additionally two fantastical creatures inspired by Mexican art that are winged and masked: the Wood Sprite and her sister Death (both voiced by Tilda Swinton). The Wood Sprite serves as a re-imagined Blue Fairy who brings Pinocchio to life, while her sister has more devious plans for the wooden boy. Del Toro promised that their presence elevates the emotion in the third act.
Overall, the director was pleased with his first foray into stop-motion, suggesting that it’s the closest thing to a carnival troupe he’s experienced. “The other thing was that many animators were coming in junior positions and we agreed to give them a chance and a shot at the main characters and to see them grow,” he added. “And to jump start the studio in Mexico for the great moment that is happening with stop-motion in Guadalajara.”
Del Toro believes it’s a fabulous year for stop-motion. While “Pinocchio” (which will have a theatrical release in November before streaming December 9) is a strong contender for the animated feature Oscar , there are two other hopefuls: Henry Selick’s “Wendell & Wild” (Netflix, co-written and produced with Jordan Peele) and, if eligible, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” the hybrid mockumentary from director Dean Fleischer Camp (A24). Del Toro also touted legendary Phil Tippett’s adult horror passion project, “Mad God” (Shudder), as “a wild Freudian/Jungian descendant.”
The director senses a renewed, international interest in stop-motion, particularly from younger animators. “And they’re all coming to it with this clear notion that animation is film and not a genre, and that it is an incredibly powerful, expressive, and emotional tool. What you wanna do is put some flowers for the next generation to pick up. And that’s what we’re doing.”