This article about “Isle of Dogs” first appeared in the TheWrap Magazine’s Oscar Nominations Preview issue.
For his second stop-motion film, “Isle of Dogs,” Wes Anderson reunited with many of the designers and animators he partnered with nearly a decade ago to make 2009’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.” But this time they weren’t doing a story about anthropomorphic animals. They were making four-legged dogs, and that allowed them to do things a little differently.
“For past films I’ve done involving four-legged critters, their shape meant we had to create multiple versions of the same character because the normal versions had movement limitations,” head puppet designer Andy Gent said.
“But the dogs that we made for Isle of Dogs had a design that was very tall and long-limbed,” he said. “They could do everything, so all we had to do was create puppets that could lie down, sit still, scratch and run, and they were the perfect shape to do all of that.”
In total, 1,105 dog puppets were created for the film, many of them designed to allow the animators to bend them in any way needed. But the demands of Jason Stalman and his animation team put Gent’s puppets to the test.
“Even the most sturdy puppets are going to break, because we’re bending and twisting these things and constantly moving their fur,” Stalman said. “So we had this section of the studio called the Puppet Hospital, where the designers could quickly take the broken puppets and mend or modify them so we could use them again.”
Through all the experimentation, Stalman was able to find a way to turn Gent’s puppets into characters that move with their own inner life. Their combined efforts are really put on display in a scene where the beautiful show dog Nutmeg (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) twirls on her hind paws and mimics balancing a bowling ball on her nose.
“The puppet designers gave Nutmeg this beautiful fur that’s kinda flowy, and I really wanted to show that off,” Stalman said. “The technique where we move the fur to create the sense of movement is called ‘fur boil,’ and it’s tricky because you have to constantly monitor and control the fur with each frame. With Nutmeg, I realized I could use a brush to sculpt the hair out from her body at certain angles. So it created this great blurring effect that really made it look like she was twirling around.”
On the other end of the fur-tidiness spectrum, there’s Bryan Cranston’s Chief, who looks like a scraggly mess of a stray for the first half of the film. But even with the most unkempt dogs, Stalman found that he needed a light touch. “I’d have to be careful not to leave this big thumb mark on the puppet after I finished moving it,” he said. “Even with Chief, I tried to minimize the fur and brush it so it was all in one general direction.”
Watching the final film, Gent and Stalman had different reactions. “When I watch it, I very quickly stop thinking about the countless hours of work I put into making those puppets,” Gent said. “I don’t even think of them as puppets at all. I just see fully formed, expressive characters, and that’s just magic.”
But for Stalman, the process never leaves his head. “Every time I watch a scene, I just want another crack at it!” he said. “I’m always thinking about what could have been done differently or what could be better. That’s just part of animating.”
To read more of the TheWrap’s Oscar Nominations Preview magazine issue, click here.