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Wes Anderson’s ‘Isle of Dogs’ exhibition

30 March 2018 Suzanne Frost

Wes Anderson latest film Isle of Dogs, his second animated film after Fantastic Mr. Fox, hits London cinemas on 30 March and since it was shot entirely in this city’s Mills Studios, we lucky Londoners have the privilege to get up close to the original sets and characters in a very special exhibition currently on show at The Store X on the Strand. Even luckier, London Calling got the chance to talk to the production team and get some real insight into the labour of love that is stop frame animation.



Curated by Anderson himself, the exhibition presents 17 of the intricate sets that make up the fictional city of Megasaki where the film plays, plus a life-size full functioning recreation of the film’s noodle bar, serving ramen and sake cocktails by Akira Shimizu, executive chef at Soho’s Engawa restaurant.
 
Mark Waring, the Animation director, first got involved in 2015 for a year of pre-production before the first frame was even shot. Everything has to be built, the characters have to be designed and made. “We started from scratch”, he says, “there is absolutely nothing, just empty space. We had to build this world.” Once shooting starts, it is a labour intensive job. On average an animator would do 2 seconds of footage per day. “On our best weekend, I think we got about 2 minutes of footage. On average a minute a week.” In the end, Isle of Dogs took 445 days of shooting for 144,000 still frames. But the end result is something truly special. “CGI is fantastic but the tendency is to smooth everything out to make it absolutely perfect.” says Waring. “That’s not what we want. What we do here is about embracing the fact that it is handmade. You can see the weave in the costumes, you can see the fur move, you can see dirt and dust. It’s like your toys have come to life, it’s a childish feeling, a magical world. If it’s too slick and too perfect, that’s beautiful, but it’s a completely different language and a different way of telling a story. Wes could have taken it that way, easily, but he deliberately didn’t, he tried to get something that had imperfections, the little bumps and knocks that just give it a little extra live.”


Photography: Jack Hems, The Store X, 2018

Wes Anderson is an auteur with an individual, instantly recognizable look. “You can see from just one frame that it’s a Wes Anderson film: his love of symmetry, the use of certain voice artists, the humour. This one happens to be stop frame but I think in his head he is just making a film.”
 
Angela Kiely was one of 70 people working in the puppet department creating 1097 puppets. They all start with a metal armature with sockets and joints, almost like a little skeleton. “It has to move just like a real person or a real dog would move”, she explains. Then a foam skin and, for the dogs, fur on top, which is actually mohair and alpaca wool from teddy bear manufacturing. The humans have a metal skeleton, silicon on top and a raisin face. “Wes requested a glowy look so we used translucent tinted raisin for the skin, and then the detail gets painted on top of that. Atari has 10 different tiny shrapnel wounds on his face and the exact placement of those is all Wes. The black eye here and the exact bruising on his other side is all Wes’s design.”



All the little eyebrow hairs are punched in individually, hair is punched in and then trimmed. It takes weeks and weeks to make a puppet and then it takes weeks and weeks to animate them and bring them to live. “For the dogs you can actually move the mouth and the eyebrows and you can get all the expressions just from the animator moving it” Kiely explains. The eyes are moved with a little cocktail stick to make them look in the right direction. All puppets have tiny little eye blinks that are put on for each level of blinking. “We painted into the dog fur, to get the shading and the dirt. Some of the dogs are really dirty and messy. The costumes all have shading. Wes wanted tiny little nail crescents and nail tips to be there. Even if you don’t really see it on film, we know it is there.”



The end product of this much detail and love is something that looks really handmade and precious. “Seeing it in the cinema you probably don’t understand the scale of what has gone into the making process. Some of the props for instance, little tie pins, a little name badge, a wristwatch, scientific instruments, a pen... every detail has been thought of. We often have to use tiny tweezers and magnifying glasses to paint something the fraction of your fingernail.”



Something that isn’t instantly obvious is that each puppet had to be made multiple times in different scales. The puppets on show in the exhibition are the large scale. Small and precious as they are, it goes down to even tinier, with the smallest puppet about 15 millimetres high for really wide shots. It seems impossible. The costumes are all done by hand as machines wouldn’t even work at this scale. “With normal suit fabric the weave doesn’t work, it would look awful. But you still want that structure and that look of an expensive Italian suit, so the costume department really had to search to find fabrics that work on this scale.” Would it be easier to make everything a bit bigger? Definitely, but then the sets would be the size of a house and no studio is big enough. So this is the best scale compromise: “The sets are of a size that is manageable, with puppets we can just about make things for”, she laughs.


When a scene is being shot, the puppets often have to be kept overnight in their exact position; a scene is never finished in a day because the animation process is so slow. So after a weekend, there might be a bit of dust or they might be shiny. There is a whole maintenance team on set all the time to look after the puppets and repair them: the fingernails might break, or a wire might poke out. They matt them down, check their hair and make sure the fur hasn’t moved. When they are not in use, the puppets have foam lined boxes, almost like little coffins, to store them in.


For the facial expressions, the humans have a whole gallery of replacement faces that come on and off.  Mark Waring explains: “There are ways of doing it that will make it look super smooth and very very expressive, but again, Wes doesn’t want that. He wants to make it noticeable that the faces change, so rather than having a sequence of 20 faces to get from one expression to another, he wants them to actually pop, and he wants you to see the pop, so we made it out of 5. It gives it that handcrafted look.”



It is amazing to get the chance to get this close to the work of one of the most distinct film directors of our time, to take in the almost obsessive detail of his imagination and witness how much love and dedication he ignites in his team. The time might be ripe for a complete Wes Anderson retrospective.
 
Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs exhibition and Noodle Bar runs from 23 March to 5 April 2018 at The Store X, 180 The Strand and is free.
 

Images: Suzanne Frost

 
 
 
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