Guillermo del Toro hopes Netflix's Pinocchio will breathe new life into 'sacred' stop-motion art

Guillermo del Toro hopes Netflix’s Pinocchio will breathe new life into ‘sacred’ stop-motion art

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At a press event for Netflix’s upcoming movie Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio in London this week, I got to hold Pinocchio’s hand. I actually held him all. While The Labyrinth of Pan and The shape of water director Guillermo del Toro answered questions, the dolls for the wooden boy Pinocchio and his father and creator, Geppetto, were passed around the room and the audience was encouraged to handle and manipulate them.

They were smaller than I expected: Geppetto is about a foot tall, while Pinocchio was maybe eight inches. Pinocchio is quite light, Geppetto surprisingly heavy. They are extraordinarily detailed dolls and attendants can move not only their joints and fingers, but also their facial features. I adjusted Geppetto’s eyebrows to make him look suspicious, then marveled. I was worried the dolls would be delicate, but they were sturdy and easy to manipulate. It was a wonderfully tactile, personal experience.

This, Del Toro said, is why he chose stop-motion animation for his version of Pinocchiounlike Disney’s recent live-action remake, which went with a full CG lead character. Del Toro’s team, led by co-director Mark Gustafson, fought hard to avoid any kind of digital shortcut that could soften the look or sever the bond between animator and pop.

Up close and personal with the Geppetto doll in a London cinema.
Photo: Oli Welsh/Polygon

In particular, Del Toro insisted that the team use “main mechanics” — a system of tiny levers, gears, and gears inside the dolls’ heads — to animate the dolls’ facial expressions, rather than digital replacement. Small screwdriver holes in the heads of the dolls operate the mouths, eyes and other functions.

“I wanted to give control of animation back to the animators, and treat [the animators] as actors,” said del Toro. He encouraged his team to create “failed acts” – the little stumbling blocks and imperfections that make a live actor performance feel real – and resist what he called the “codification of animation in a ‘cool’ language that is almost like emojis.” (A particularly egregious example of this might be the DreamWorks face.)

“Stop motion has been a lost art since the beginning,” said del Toro. “Stop-motion is definitely the most unbelievably, exhaustively demanding animation, you know, and it’s only done by a group of completely and utterly strange people who support it over and over again. The reason is that the bond between the doll and the animator is so incredibly beautiful and sacred.

“It reminds me of a Japanese art called bunrakuthat’s an actor in black clothes [who] puts a doll in front and manipulates it with its own limbs. And they play against a black background, and the puppet only comes alive through the puppeteer’s life. And this is something you can see here.”

The wooden boy Pinocchio playfully presses Geppetto's nose.  Geppetto is holding some tools

Image: Netflix

Del Toro didn’t just want to resist CG – he fights the urge to make stop-motion too perfect. “Stop motion animation – there’s no good or bad, but in the last 20 years it’s gotten to a point technically and philosophically where it’s almost indistinguishable from CG animation. And we wanted the immediacy of a set that, you know you, was carved and sculpted, aged in a way that was done by hand.”

Del Toro said the film’s animation supervisor, Brian Leif Hansen, “fought hard for everything we could do, even if it was foolish and impractical, to do it in stop motion. And only when he had to give up did he give up.” Small objects like popcorn or ashes would practically be shot, held by tiny threads that would then be digitally erased; fire, water and snow were created with practical materials that were then digitally scaled and replicated. The hardest thing to do was the ocean, del Toro said. Here, the team resorted to digital effects, but still tried to make it look like it was shot in stop motion: “like a cross between a real ocean and a gelatin ocean.”

Judging by the preview of the film that was shown to us, del Toro’s team (split across three studios in Portland, Oregon; Manchester, UK; and Guadalajara, Mexico) have created a remarkably structured and expressive piece of film animation. Pinocchio will premiere at the London Film Festival on October 15th and we’ll be posting a review for you soon after. The film will debut on Netflix on December 9.

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