Director Guillermo del Toro spent seven years trying to persuade Hollywood studios to film his unorthodox take on the Pinocchio folk tale.
The renowned filmmaker pictured Pinocchio as a bratty kid making his way in Mussolini’s fascist Italy, a striking departure from Disney’s cartoon. And del Toro envisioned Pinocchio as a puppet not just in the story, but on screen – brought to life with the artisan technique of stop-motion animation.
It was all too strange for a succession of studios who turned del Toro away, despite his A-list pedigree, until Netflix finally signed on to “Pinocchio” in 2018. So del Toro brought in veteran Oregon animator Mark Gustafson to co-direct, and they gathered hundreds of animators and crew in a Northwest Portland industrial shop for a mammoth, four-year production that kept filming right through the pandemic.
The result was the kind of underdog story Hollywood always enjoys: Last weekend, del Toro, Gustafson and their team won the Oscar for best animated feature. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is just the second stop-motion film to win that category, and it’s revived interest in the distinctive form of hand-crafted animation.
Stop-motion is a Portland specialty, dating to the 1970s when the late Will Vinton employed the technique to create his signature Claymation. But stop-motion has never been a favorite in Hollywood, which usually rewards the grandeur of hand-drawn animation or the gloss of computer-generated blockbusters.
“Seven or eight stop-motion films have been nominated for an Oscar, but it’s always been snatched away from us,” laments Brian Hansen, a Danish filmmaker who served as animation supervisor for “Pinocchio” after working on several Oregon productions.
No longer. The success of “Pinocchio” on the awards circuit — it also won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA — is helping spur a revival in stop motion, and Portland stands to reap the benefits.
ShadowMachine, the studio behind “Pinocchio,” is making two stop-motion TV shows in Portland and is preparing to start production on another feature film from del Toro. And Laika, Phil Knight’s Hillsboro movie studio, is well into production on its sixth stop-motion film.
So Portland animators celebrating their Oscar win are also cheering the fresh appreciation for their art, which blends real puppets and fantastic settings to create images that look like nothing else on screen.
“Now everybody wants to make a stop motion film,” Hansen said, “because why wouldn’t they?”
A PORTLAND SPECIALTY
Stop-motion animators travel the world to ply their trade, from Hollywood to London, San Francisco to New York.
But Portland has been stop motion’s nexus for nearly 50 years, since Vinton won an Oscar for an animated short called “Closed Mondays” and then became a sensation with his studio’s famous California Raisins commercials. His Northwest Portland studio attracted animators from around the world and developed generations of new talent.
The pop-culture success the California Raisins enjoyed in the ‘80s was an outlier, however. Stop motion is often associated with independent filmmakers and offbeat ideas that are more likely to develop a cultish following than sell tickets at the multiplex.
“When people hear stop-motion they don’t flock to the theaters. And it could look exactly like a Pixar movie, but still there’s some inherent mindset,” said Chuck Duke, who cut his teeth animating at Vinton Studios 45 years ago.
“Stop-motion just never makes the weekly blockbuster,” said Duke, who moved back to Portland from Seattle to join “Pinocchio.”
Oregon is home to four studios specializing in stop motion. Laika and a Portland studio, HouseSpecial, are descended from Vinton Studios. ShadowMachine arrived in Northwest Portland several years ago, expanding from its base in Los Angeles. And Bent Image Lab does commercial and TV work in Southeast Portland.
ShadowMachine finished work on “Pinocchio” months ago, but some of the elaborate settings remain, fully built, at its Portland workshop. The puppets are still there, too: Pinocchio, Geppetto, the antagonist Count Volpe and a big purple insect that went by the name Sebastian J. Cricket in del Toro’s movie, voiced by Ewan McGregor.
They’re all idle now, but the Portland Art Museum will feature them in an exhibit beginning June 10, accompanied by classes and programs featuring stop-motion animation.
Stop-motion animators bring characters to life one frame at a time, manipulating puppets millimeter by millimeter to simulate movement on the screen. They get no more than a few seconds of footage out of a day’s work, and productions take years to complete.
But Duke said that’s why del Toro chose stop motion, because he wanted something carefully calibrated with characters as vivid as those in del Toro’s live-action films. “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Shape of Water” are both Oscar winners, and the latter won both best director and best picture.
“That’s what helped ‘Pinocchio,’ is he reined us back from doing too much cartoony stuff,” Duke said. “He wanted realism.”
Del Toro’s “Pinocchio” invokes religious motifs and suggests parallels between the wooden puppet and Christian iconography. It lampoons Mussolini and his fascist henchmen. Pinocchio himself is a rascal who spends much of the film getting himself into trouble and relying on his friends and father, Geppetto, to bail him out.
Savannah Steiner hadn’t worked on a feature film before ShadowMachine brought her in to help animate Pinocchio. She moved to Portland from Los Angeles and began filming the puppet’s antics.
“I know one of my strengths in animation is timing,” Steiner said, so she asked for Pinocchio’s bratty scenes to bring out the comedy in his behavior, including a key scene were he sets his wood feet alight.
“I did feel like, I think I can nail this,” Steiner said.
Gustafson, the Portland animator who was co-director on “Pinocchio,” encouraged Steiner to ask questions and clarify what the directors were seeking. And in time, she felt more freedom to take risks in her animation and have fun.
Though del Toro was rarely on set, he reviewed the Portland footage every day and talked with Steiner and other animators by video call to give his feedback and hear their interpretations of each scene.
Initially, Steiner said she was too intimidated to say anything other than “Yes,” to everything del Toro suggested. Their exchanges gradually became more conversational.
“He sees you as an actor and an individual,” she said.
“Pinocchio” was one of three stop-motion features shooting simultaneously in Oregon. Henry Selick, who directed “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Coraline,” was shooting a Netflix film called “Wendell & Wild.”
The crews from “Wendell” and “Pinocchio” fielded soccer teams to blow off steam after a day of filming.
“They won all the time. They kicked Pinocchio’s butt,” Steiner lamented. “However, we got the Oscar.”
Meanwhile, Laika has been filming “Wildwood” in Hillsboro, adapted from the fantasy novel by musician Colin Meloy, from the Portland rock band The Decemberists.
“As you start to recognize the creative talent force … that Portland and Oregon has, it starts to add up,” said Tim Williams, director of the Oregon Film office.
“Pinocchio” spent about $46 million on its Oregon production (additional work took place in England and Mexico) and received $5.6 million in state incentives, according to Williams. Five hundred people worked on the production at various times over four years.
The Oscar raises the profile of stop-motion animation and Portland filmmaking, Williams said, because it demonstrates the city has the capacity for large productions and big artistic success.
“It highlights a talent pool, crew-based infrastructure that a lot of people didn’t know we had,” Williams said. “‘Pinocchio’ was up against Disney and other really big animation studios. So winning against that competition really is a step up.”
ShadowMachine’s Portland animators are now filming “In the Know,” a stop-motion comedy for the Peacock streaming service from Mike Judge, who is known for the animated hits “Beavis and Butt-Head” and “King of the Hill,” the live-action film “Office Space” and the HBO show “Silicon Valley.”
The studio is teaming with Gustafson again for “Milepost 88,” a stop-motion mystery series. And ShadowMachine and del Toro are beginning work on another Portland feature for Netflix, a stop-motion adaptation of the novel “The Buried Giant.”
The projects will draw on the talents of hundreds of Portlanders and others who come here from across the globe to join the productions.
But stop-motion filmmakers don’t bring the Hollywood flash or glamor. They typically spend their days in curtained-off rooms, alone with their puppets.
Outside the studio, they’re are mostly anonymous, the people standing next to you in the Timbers Army or in line behind you at a food cart, said Alex Bulkley, ShadowMachine’s co-founder.
“People aren’t as intrigued by celebrity. It’s like everybody does their work and does it with heads down and with incredible skill,” Bulkley said. “It’s not the bright lights and red carpets of Hollywood, which makes it that much cooler.”
That’s not to say the “Pinocchio” filmmakers aren’t delighted with their Academy Award. Bulkley was up on stage with del Toro and Gustafson last Sunday to collect his Oscar, which is now sitting on a desk in ShadowMachine’s Portland workshop, alongside three other major awards for “Pinocchio.”
“The whole event is, surreal to say the least,” Bulkley said. He spent a night celebrating in Hollywood, then flew back to Portland to collect a pile of hugs from his kids.
“This is a big moment for stop motion,” Bulkley said. “I think it’s a big moment for animation as a whole.”
Hansen was at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood for the ceremony, too, mingling with A-list celebrities and soaking in the spectacle while thinking about the long road his career had taken from Denmark.
“Even though you’re there with all the stars, you don’t really feel out of place,” the Danish filmmaker said, “because they’re so excited, too.”
Steiner is working in Bristol, England, now on a sequel to “Chicken Run,” a stop-motion film from the year 2000. She’ll be back in Portland for another stop-motion production here in the spring, but on Oscar night she and her boyfriend — another “Pinocchio” animator — were on a train, watching the award ceremony on her phone and drawing strange looks from other passengers as they hooted and hollered.
“Pinocchio” filmmakers in Portland held a party to watch and celebrate, but Duke was running late — the animation Oscar was the first one handed out Sunday night. So the animator stopped into a favorite bar, Cassidy’s, near downtown, to catch the broadcast and celebrate by himself.
“There was just me and the bartender. No one else was in the bar,” Duke said. “He took my picture. Then I had some French fries.”
Even if the Academy Awards pageantry gets to be a little over the top, Duke said there is a real, tangible benefit from winning: more work for filmmakers like him, doing the thing they love.
“That’s one good reason to win an Oscar,” he said, “is to have people still want to give you money.”
— Mike Rogoway | [email protected] | 503-294-7699
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