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What Does ‘Pinocchio’ Have in Common with ‘The Godfather’? It’s All in the Lighting

Cinematographer Frank Passingham tells IndieWire about being inspired by Gordon Willis and Russell Metty, and bringing a naturalism to a stop-motion world.

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio - (Pictured) Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann). Cr: Netflix © 2022

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”

Netflix

Animation.

Where do you look when trying to reinvent “Pinocchio?” How do you bring Carlo Collodi’s novel to the modern world when another, beloved animated version has existed for over 80 years? You look outside of animation, of course. For “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” cinematographer Frank Passingham (“Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Chicken Run”) took inspiration from live-action to give a brand new look to the the tale of a wooden boy brought to life.

“There was one film in particular I wanted my lighting camera people to watch, and that was ‘The Godfather,'” Passingham told IndieWire. “I’m a big fan of Gordon Willis because he has a very naturalistic approach that emphasizes and brings out drama.” For Passingham, Willis’ work on Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” and its sequel became the key to subverting what audiences expect “Pinocchio” to look and feel like. Though the film still features a talking cricket, magical beings, and a giant sea beast that swallows an entire adult whole, del Toro’s “Pinocchio” is far less fantastical than most adaptations of the original story — down to its eschewing of Disney’s “happily ever after” ending.

Making a film look naturalistic is not easy, but it is particularly harder in stop-motion, a medium where every single frame is meticulously planned out and crafted, where there is little to no room for improvisation. Still, “Pinocchio” looks as if the crew just stumbled upon a location one day and decided to shoot the scenes before the light changed, and that was Passingham’s main goal. “I want people to accept these characters as real people and not puppets.”

Another big influence, particularly when it came to the performances of the puppets, was Russell Metty, the cinematographer of “Spartacus” and “Man of a Thousand Faces.” Metty’s approach to lighting people’s faces to amp up the drama, particularly around their eyes, became a touchstone for Passingham. The result is a film that is far from a noir, but shares the genre’s way of drawing focus to the subtleties of the facial expressions in the performances. More than any other animated film this year, “Pinocchio” emphasizes animators’ role as actors, not just in listing their names in the credits before the cast’s, but in making sure the puppets didn’t move perfectly, but rather had imperfections and flaws like humans. You feel the pain in Geppetto’s face as he trembles following the death of his son, and the pleasure in Pinocchio as he experiences the  and sorrows of life.

Moving light helped Passingham achieve this look, bringing a sense of realism and naturalism to the father-son relationship in the process. “Just on that first shot of Geppetto going to the church, I wanted us to feel the sun rising,” Passingham explained. “So I have a key light which is my sunlight moving, rising above between nine and 10 feet. There’s a lot of moving light in ‘Pinocchio,’ just as light moves in real life.”

In order to ensure the light would aid in the storytelling throughout “Pinocchio,” Passingham made sure to have a clear color script from the beginning to guide the look of the film. In the earliest scenes in “Pinocchio” — when we meet Geppetto with his son Carlo — Passinhgam lights the film using warm amber-like colors. But when we jump forward in time and see Pinocchio go into the town for the first time, Passingham reverses his key and fill lights, “I now use a cold blue light for the key and a warm fill,” Passingham said. “The world is growing colder and dangerous, but I still bring out a little warmth in the body of Pinocchio.”

Having planned out the color palette for the film from the beginning, there was one color that director del Toro wanted to be very careful with — red. It makes sense, of course, given its association with fascism, and how much the film plays with that as a theme. According to Passingham, the lighting team was very specific about when to use red, and most times it was to accompany the character of Podestà, a fascist government official who wants to turn Pinocchio into a soldier. “We use this kind of rosy redness with him,” Passingham said. “Because Podestà always has this sort of background. There’s a little bit of fascism going on with him all the time, so he brings in the red.”

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