Isle of Dogs. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

 

Animator Discusses Wes Anderson’s Journey to the Isle of Dogs

Premiere of latest Wes Anderson movie to close SXSW Film

Somewhere in Japan, in the not-too-distant future, the canine flu has transformed Man’s Best Friend into an enemy. A corrupt mayor issues a decree that all dogs must be rounded up and exiled to Trash Island, an aptly named offshore dump. The mayor’s 12-year-old nephew, Atari Kobayashi, embarks on a solo mission to reunite with his beloved guard dog. There, the tiny pilot is accompanied by a pack of endearingly neurotic canines on an odyssey through the hills of garbage and valleys of waste. This is the Isle of Dogs.

It looks and feels like a Wes Anderson film, yet it’s unlike anything the acclaimed director has ever done — including his previous stop-motion effort, Fantastic Mr. Fox. Perhaps that difference is due to a more subdued palette of grays and browns that saturate Trash Island, where the vibrant colors of Megasaki City prove increasingly elusive. Perhaps it’s because dogs tend to meet violent ends in Wes Anderson films, or because a movie primarily set in and around mountains of garbage isn’t what you’d expect from a filmmaker known for his precise compositions and attention to detail.

It’s a quality, along with an instantly recognizable idiosyncratic style, that Anderson shares with stop-motion animators, like Jason Stalman, the lead animator on Isle of Dogs. “He keeps things very clean,” Stalman says of the visionary director. “The beauty of working on this film is he will do anything it takes to get that particular shot to work.”

And Anderson is nothing if not incredibly particular. “You have to keep a very open mind when you try to see what he’s visualizing,” says Stalman. However, “he’s very good at giving you what he wants.”
Like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s love of the old Rankin/Bass Christmas specials is apparent in the look and feel of Isle of Dogs, but more overt is his affection for Suzie Templeton’s Peter and the Wolf – a title familiar to fans of Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, which incorporated the narrated version of Sergei Profokiev’s classic composition.

Isle of Dogs. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Isle of Dogs. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

 

But Anderson’s influences extend beyond the world of stop-motion children’s stories. As evidenced by a handful of striking sequences in Atari’s odyssey through Trash Island, Anderson’s references include Akira Kurosawa films: “…specifically, High and Low and The Bad Sleep Well,” says Stalman. Unsurprisingly, Anderson also enjoys the iconic animation work of Hayao Miyazaki.

As lead animator, Stalman’s job was to help bring Anderson’s vision to life, to “bring a richness and depth” to character development. That depth is translated via the detailed articulation of Atari and his canine cohorts. It may surprise some to learn that Isle of Dogs is the first time Stalman, a veteran animator whose credits include Kubo and the Two Strings and Fantastic Mr. Fox, has worked with four-legged characters. “I had no idea at the beginning how that was gonna go down,” he says. “Whether we were going to make them more human as we went along, or if they were going to start having more dog traits.” The result is a bit of both; the dogs, led by a hardened stray named Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), are able to speak like humans, but their movements and expressions are very canine.

Like Anderson’s live-action films, there’s a distinctive quality that sets his stop-motion projects apart … a peculiar version of reality where everything looks and feels familiar, but is somehow…off. Take, for instance, the fur on the dogs and how it moves in each frame – the result of being positioned and re-positioned by the animators. Known as “boiling,” the effect occurs with hair, fabrics, and of course, furs. Stalman notes that some stop-motion productions will use digital effects to erase any evidence of an animator’s touch to preserve the illusion, or “magic” of animation.

“I had no idea at the beginning how that was gonna go down … Whether we were going to make them more human as we went along, or if they were going to start having more dog traits.”

 

But that effect is the magic. “It just became a part of the texture of the film,” Stalman says, describing what some filmmakers have come to perceive as a flaw, but to him is a natural trait of stop-motion animation. He found a kindred spirit in Anderson, who fully embraced this characteristic. Reflecting on what made collaborating with Anderson so special, Stalman says, “It was refreshing to work with somebody who embraces the stop-motion and doesn’t want to hide the hands behind it.”

Those hands do much more than merely move the puppets from one position to the next. The way Stalman describes it, stop-motion animators are essentially the first group of actors to develop and portray these characters, long before Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum come in. They often perform the roles in front of a camera to create a visual point of reference, and, like any good thespian, they create details about the characters, some of which are never divulged on screen.

The end result is a beautiful collaboration between a filmmaker and his animators, all of whom, Stalman says, bring “some new spark of life or piece of themselves” to their characters — whether it’s a rebellious 12-year-old boy, a corrupt cat-loving mayor, or an intrepid teen reporter from Ohio.
Or a dog.

The North American premiere of Isle of Dogs will close the 2018 SXSW Film Festival at the Paramount Theatre (713 Congress Ave) on Saturday, March 17 at 8pm.

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