‘Imperfectly perfect’

The secrets behind the stop-motion animation of Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Pinocchio’.

In the third part of befores & afters’ coverage of the stop-motion Pinocchio–now streaming on Netflix–we chat to animation supervisor Brian Leif Hansen about the hand-crafted feel of the film.

He details how animators orchestrated the intricate motions of the stop-motion puppets, some of them with mechanical heads fitted underneath silicone skin, and some as replacement head animation using rapid prototyped 3D printed pieces.

There’s also some fun detail here about animating Pinocchio’s body, and even about how his nose was made to grow.

b&a: When I was watching the film, I really noticed what I might call a more handcrafted animation feel.

Brian Leif Hansen: Absolutely. That was definitely the intention. My intention was, I wanted it to look great still, but I didn’t want to obsess too much about that. We didn’t want to obsess about getting everything perfect. We had a goal of imperfectly perfect.

I always had the idea of, it doesn’t really matter what kind of story you tell, if you hold up a piece of paper with drawings on it, if your story can’t live with just that, then you shouldn’t really make a story. So, of course you need to work to a high standard and you’re trying to push things forward and make things better. But it’s all about emotion and the story. So that’s what we were focused on big time and we deliberately left some of the stuff in that happens when you’re dealing with stop-motion, things moving around, for example. We did clean some up but other things we didn’t want to clean it up too much.

b&a: It’s beautiful to see sometimes where you see the chatter of some cloth, say.

Brian Leif Hansen: Yes, I mean, it’s because you touch the puppet every frame or every second frame for probably a hundred times in between the frames. So even though the puppets are made in a way that they keep all the little creases showing on the costume, I had a feeling that we would land in between Wes Anderson and Kubo.

For example, we didn’t do any smoke in cotton wool because it didn’t really gel with the production design in the way that it gelled in on Wes Anderson’s film. The production design of that particular film, it fit that. But in our film, because the rest of the production design and the puppets themselves were of such fine detail that cotton wool wouldn’t really cut it. On the other hand, all the raindrops on the windows when Geppetto is building Pinocchio are stop-motion, because it lends itself really well to it and we can make it look really great. And then we still have VFX rain, as well.

The chocolate poured into the cup is plasticine, heated up so it keeps the shine. The tea in Cricket’s tea cup is just a piece of camera gel in a brown color, so it has a little bit of transparency to it but it’s just moving around in a little tiny cup.

Photo © Michel Amado Carpio / Netflix 2021

b&a: I’m curious about your early conversations with del Toro on the mix of replacement animation and mechanical animation for the faces on the puppets. What were your early conversations about these?

Brian Leif Hansen: When you are ‘world creating’, you really have to think everything up and decide every single thing. We went the mechanical way with so many characters, because the character design lent itself better to a mechanical head, that is, with the silicone skin and the mechanical manipulation points underneath.

For Pinocchio, which is a replacement face, that came out of, ‘Well, he’s made out of wood so his exterior should still be hard.’ There’s previous Pinocchios where his face is, say when humans play Pinocchio, their skin moves around and therefore all the wood grains move around and it just becomes a little bit creepy and freaky. So, we deliberately designed Pinocchio so he keeps his exterior completely solid at all time. We had a little bit of jaw moving because we needed that.

We set up really clear rules for Pinocchio. We broke them a little bit on the jaw because we need his mouth to be bigger. We moved his eyes around as little as possible because we didn’t want these fleshy, gooey things to happen to him. The eye sockets are moving around a little bit but not too much. We’re using the eye rings, the little notches rings around his eyes to emote him, to furrow his brow, for example.

His lip sync is also quick and short, because when you’re doing lip sync, you could easily be led down a path where it becomes too gooey. My brief to the animators was, the mouth was chiseled with a hammer, and we also deliberately made the mouth quite angler. It has sharp edges, there’s nearly no rounds.

Actually, in the beginning we had round mouths and there was a long process of making Pinocchio’s face. There was a long time where we didn’t have anything but paper and pen. We did a lot of the tests in 2D before we actually had a 3D puppet to put it on.

And all these things, I really think that it plays really well with the other characters, because they have silicone and mechanical parts and therefore have an infinite amount of timing and spacing opportunity. You could decide where the brow should be at all times and you can keep on pushing it. Of course there’s going to be a hard end when you push the metal up against metal and it can’t go any further, but you just have to plan for that, and then you could keep on moving the face of Geppetto endlessly, whereas Pinocchio is more set in his, because he’s a hard material. And I really think that those two worlds play really well together, so he becomes a puppet in a puppet world in a better way than if everything was made out of silicone.

Cr: GILBERTO TORRES/Netflix © 2022

b&a: I now see that, it’s a great contrast with Geppetto who has the mechanical head and silicone.

Brian Leif Hansen: Exactly. These mechanical heads have got a head core and then there’s manipulation points, little joints with little pallets or paddles on them, so you could move the lips up forward and backwards. There’s a jaw that has a jaw back here where a human’s is. And then we’ve got a secondary jaw to do other kind of movement.

Depending on where the puppet is on the food chain, you can have four pallets up in the upper lip and four down further, some of them only have two or maybe three, one in the middle, so you manipulate the whole mouth. Quite a few of the main characters have cheek paddles which you can move up and down, so you could shape a frown and a smile as well.

And then you’ve got the eyebrows. They can be joined at the side. There’s a stick going outwards with metal eyebrows sitting underneath the skin, or they can be placed in the middle. And then all of that is glued to the silicone skin. When you move the metal around inside the face, the silicone skin is moving as well. A little bit like you see in animatronics, but there’s no server motors in there because the head is too little.

b&a: How does the animator actually move things around a mechanical head puppet?

Brian Leif Hansen: Quite a few of the hero characters do have Allen keys to pull stuff around, on top of the manual joints you move around. It’s quite nice to have a geared jaw because then you can do fine tuning. If it’s an Allen key mechanism, there’s a little screw in the top of the head and that goes into a gear inside the head that then moves the jaw and down and you can very fine tune your jaw movement. You can push the lips around a little and create a shape, which is great for lip sync.

Photo © Michel Amado Carpio / Netflix 2021

b&a: For Pinnochio, one thing I loved was when you see full body shots of him walking around or running, at first he is really off balance. How did you approach full body shots and the right movement and behavior for Pinocchio?

Brian Leif Hansen: del Toro had told us that Pinocchio starts as a very naive nine year old. And then by the end of the film he’s a young teenager, 14 or something like that. When he first comes to life, he is very disjointed in the way he moves around. As he then becomes more confident, we’ve slowly tapered that out, so in the end he has none of it because he’s fully grown at the end of the film, he’s come into himself completely.

Once he comes out from behind the box in the attic, he moves in a different way, does the back flip and sits in a really weird way when he first meets Geppetto. And then he falls down the stairs and then he goes into the song, so we leave it behind because we had to make him do the song. He’s very coordinated when he’s doing the song, but then after that when he then goes to church, we deliberately put a little bit in there again.

b&a: One thing I really loved was the singing. What does singing bring as an extra challenge to animation?

Brian Leif Hansen: Actually, it’s kind of funny how when you sing, the lip sync becomes simpler and easier in a way. You keep your shapes up for a long time and I think Pinocchio worked really well singing and we didn’t any particular special shapes for that, we just used the open mouth for longer.

The dancing was more of a challenge, I think, to keep him active enough to really mean he’s in the song, which is a lot of work for an animator. We had some choreographed dancers do reference for us. There were a few animators who had a little bit of dance experience and also used a lot of the younger animators, because all my fellow animators are 50 and above, and they’re great for doing Geppetto, but it sort of needs a different energy when you’re animating Pinocchio. So we used the personalities of the animators as well to stick into the characters.

b&a: You’re obviously overseeing a whole bunch of people. Tell me, how many animators were on it and how did it actually work day to day in the studio?

Brian Leif Hansen: At one point we had 41 animators on about 65 stages. And in total, I think we had nearly 60 animators. When you have 40 animators, you have probably 20 of them animating, you have 10 of them rehearsing or prep’ing, and then you have another 10 or 15 being briefed.

Every day you had 15 or 20 animators who needed editorial time. They could come in with, say, a live action video that they would shoot, that we cut into the reel, looked at it, maybe sent them away with new direction or maybe their thing was so great that we just said, ‘Yeah, this is what we want.’ The animator starts to know their characters and of course they know the story and the mood. Deep into the film, the animator knew what we wanted from them.

We had weekly briefs with Guillermo and then of course he was sent every rehearsal and every live action video and all the shots. Every time a new shot came in, it goes to the pipeline, we cut it in, look at it, and then we send it to Guillermo.

It’s the most animators I’ve ever worked with. In the middle of the film, we actually decided to build more puppets, we built another six Pinocchios and a few more Geppettos.

Cr: Mark Eifert/Netflix © 2022

b&a: I have one really brief question about Pinocchio’s nose. Was that a lot of replacement pieces or animation, or was it also CG?

Brian Leif Hansen: Most of them are animated in 2D and then sculpted in 3D and then printed out on the same printer that we printed his face on. They are old fashioned replacement animation.

When it grows really big in the dogfish, that shot where we look up on the nose, that is a digital nose because the material was not strong enough to print a big nose, and it was also extremely expensive. So, 3D CG was a better way to go there. But the rest of them are replacement noses.

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