Andy Gent, head of the puppets department for Isle of Dogs, has been creating puppets for almost 25 years. Arch Model Studio Ltd., his London-based stop-motion puppet and marionette design/ fabrication workshop, has contributed to a number of notable film and television projects. In stop-motion animation, each character and object is physically manipulated and then photographed, one frame at a time; the illusion of movement is created when the frames are played as a fast sequence. A surprisingly old technique, it dates back to 1897. Recently, we were treated to a preview screening of Isle of Dogs, one of the newest examples of this method, then had the pleasure of talking with Gent during a brief break in his production duties. His dedication to the puppet-making craft and the joy he took in working on this film came across loud and clear in the interview.
Bark: You’re a dog person yourself, right? Tell us about your pup.
Andy Gent: It’s great to work on a film where I could put in something close to home. I have a 10-year-old chocolate Labrador, Charlie, who’s been in my studio with me since the Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). He was with us through Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and he’s back with this one.
B: How did you arrive at the looks for the various animated dogs? We understand there are something like 400 in the film—must’ve required a lot of choices!
AG: Some of the inspiration came from the dogs Charlie and I see as we walk in the park around London’s East End. We had many photographs from here and there and squirreled them away in the workshop. We looked at the photos with Wes and said, “We like a little bit of this one, that one has great color, look at the eyes of that one, look at the ears of that one.” Wes is great at finding the bits and pieces of things he likes, then assembling them to come up with the final look.
B: So they truly are mixed-breed dogs?
AG: I think the better phrase is a real cocktail of different breeds. We spent months and months sculpting; a team of 10 sculptors worked on this film. We would sculpt dogs and put them together with the other animals and human characters who were also in the film. Nutmeg [a female dog voiced by Scarlett Johansson] is a great example; it took us months to get her exact look. After the sculpting, there’s the technical process of turning the sculpting into a molded shape.
B: Tell us about that; is the stop-motion animation process as labor-intense as it sounds?
AG: You start pulling skins, making silicones and foam latex, and the form of a mechanical skeleton, which has to be able to scratch and walk and lie down and do all the amazing contortions that dogs do. Then you put in gels so [the character’s] jowls can move and his mouth can open and close and he can rummage his jaws, wag his tail, perk his ears. The fur takes three more months of work. Finally, we have a fully furred, fully armatured, fully posable puppet. They take it away, then ask for our feedback on the screen— the moment what we made comes to life. It walks around in front of you and it says something. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, but it’s still magic every time.
B: What did you use for the dogs’ fur? It looked so realistic.
AG: We buy alpaca and mohair from suppliers and then dye it the colors we need. Teddy bears are also a good source for alpaca and mohair, which we shave off the toy. We also use a teddy bear fabric; we gel the outside until it hardens and then very carefully cut the woven fabric off the back. When you turn it over, you get the pointy hair on the top, very naturalistic; the backing helps the skeletons move nicely—it looks like real skin and real fur. For some, we punched in the hairs one at a time with a tiny needle. Some of the dogs have thousands and thousands of individual hairs; it could take three-and-a-half weeks to make one puppet look like Wes wanted them to look.
B: What’s the difference between stop-motion animation and computer-generated imagery (CGI)?
AG: With stop-motion, everything is done by hand. There’s the human element, the craft— hundreds of skilled people with individual specialties, making eyes and teeth, fur and costumes, skins and molds. There’s this huge energy of 200 or 300 people working incredibly long days for, in our case, 34 months, to make 90 minutes of animation.
So you have all this effort going in, which is quite something to behold. I joke about it being like a magical machine that once you switch it on, anything is possible —you can make all manner of things happen. The Greek word “to breathe life” translates as anime; animation really brings them to life, sort of putting the breath inside of them. With CGI, there’s someone behind a computer screen. It’s a distant other world and you can’t touch it. But this, you can touch, you can see it, feel it; it moves, it has the gravity, the lovely surroundings of the real world and real lights and textures. That’s the energy, the thing that gives stop-motion its amazing feel. It’s all that reality and all of that paying attention. The detail is beyond words. It is one of the most amazing things to see—the workshops, the film set, all the lighting, and everything at one go. It’s quite breathtaking. It’s a joy to behold, and long may it last!