In his first collaboration with Wes Anderson on Isle of Dogs, Paul Harrod translated an auteur’s live-action style to stop-motion, a medium that allowed for a spectacular visual presentation, but came with a set of limitations that proved problematic. Gathering reference materials and establishing certain visual parameters early on was Adam Stockhausen, an Oscar-winning production designer who has been the auteur’s go-to craftsman since Moonrise Kingdom, and had to leave the production early on, heading into the VR world of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One.
Picking up the baton, co-production designer Harrod brought 30 years of stop-motion experience to Anderson’s set, realizing early on that this production would challenge him like no other. Set in a specific vision of Japan—caught between past, present and future— the film would follow Atari, a young boy who goes on an odyssey in search of his lost dog. “Wes likes everything to be in focus, and of course, when you’re dealing with characters that are essentially one sixth the scale of a human being, that becomes a real challenge,” Harrod explains. Necessity being the mother of invention, the designer pulled out all the stops to satisfy Anderson’s asks. “In some cases, we would use forced perspective to compress the space, while maintaining the illusion of depth, but we used forced perspective with puppets, too, by having a character well into the foreground, and then placing smaller-scale puppets, in some cases, right next to the [bigger] puppets,” he says. “It looked like the other puppets were trailing behind the foreground one, but in fact, they’re right next to it, so that again, you are able to create that illusion. He wants it to be very crisp and clear, but he also wants to get it all in camera where possible.”
While Harrod found ways to bend the form to the director’s aesthetic, some concessions had to be made. “The images that you see in many cases are taken from multiple different elements, and in some cases, the only solution was to shoot multiple passes with focus on different things—putting a green card behind a main character when they’re animated, and then shooting another focus pass for the background,” he shares. “You occasionally would have to do something like that, but that was always a last resort. We were always called upon to try to figure out a way of pulling the kinds of framings that he likes to do off, as economically and as cleanly as possible.”
For the production designer, one benefit of taking on years of demanding work on a film like Isle of Dogs is the fact that it will inevitably push the medium he loves forward. “What I really liked about working with Wes, and it’s something that I think I’ve always felt working in this medium, is that he doesn’t look at it as an animated film. He doesn’t look at it as a cartoon; he looks at it as cinema. He treats this with the same respect that any film should be treated,” he says.
While animation has frequently been “put into a little bit of a ghetto, separate from what many people might regard as the more legitimate form of cinema,” it’s people like Anderson—“like Tim Burton, like Guillermo del Toro and Charlie Kaufman”–who are changing the way we think about the craft. “You’re going to see in the next few years more and more live-action filmmakers, people who didn’t come from animation necessarily, really gravitating towards this form, because it’s a way of creating a very, very specific vision. I think it allows the filmmaker to have a level of control over every aspect of the image that’s very difficult to have on a live-action film, and the filmmaker actually has a little bit of time to make a decision,” Harrod suggests. “I’m really looking forward to that prospect, and the opportunity to work with really strong live-action directors on animated projects.”
Illustrating the attention to detail that went into honing all of Isle of Dogs’ sets—and the characters that roam within them—is the Sake Bar, where scientists regularly convene. Below, Harrod gives an exclusive breakdown of one of the film’s most memorable spaces, and the conceptual steps the production team went through, in order to come to a remarkable final result:
Wes Anderson worked together with artist Jay Clark to design the film’s storyboards, which are packed with meticulous attention to detail.
The Sake Bar, where the freckled Tracy (Greta Gerwig) confronts Yoko Ono (playing ‘Assistant-Scientist Yoko-ono’), was conceived as a bar especially for scientists, where, earlier in the film, Professor Watanabe and his team toasted their success in finding a cure for the dog flu.
Visual inspiration was taken from Tokyo’s famed Golden Gai bars, which are often plastered with photos, newspaper articles and art.
Assistant art director Kevin Hill drew up a detailed rendering of the space, from which Harrod and his team constructed a full-size foam core maquette. This helped to determine exactly how the set would be built and lit, and gave insight into camera placement and—importantly—animator access.
Given that it’s such an incredibly narrow, enclosed space, jam-packed with props and intricate little details, the Sake Bar was very challenging for the team to arrange, adjust and shoot, while maintaining continuity from shot to shot.
Key contributors in bringing the space to life, graphic designer Erica Dorn and her team covered the bar’s walls with original artwork, all with a science-oriented theme.
Cinematographer Tristan Oliver worked to create the illusion that all the light in the space was coming from practicals embedded within it; the paper lamps and the shelves’ backlight.
The bottles on the bar’s shelves are all hand-blown scientific-style glass. To create the illusion of liquid within the flasks, a translucent pigment was painted on.
For more from our conversation with Paul Harrod, read on.
How did you come to work on Isle of Dogs? What was exciting about this endeavor to you?
I used to be the Senior Art Director at Will Vinton Studios, and one of the people I hired years ago was Nelson Lowry, who was production designer on Fantastic Mr. Fox. He was not available for this project—he was doing Kubo over at Laika—and I was available. I didn’t really know that I was being considered at all. I was actually at Burning Man, and I got this email from [producer] Jeremy Dawson. We had a very spotty conversation with a lot of drops, and then I went back to Portland so I could download the script, and immediately just fell in love with it. About 20 minutes of the animatic had been completed, and I was excited about the prospect of working on this film just because the story was fantastic. But the number of challenging locations, and the prospect of being able to create this incredible environment where the film took place, was something I couldn’t resist. So, a week after I first heard about the project, I was in London working on the film, and I was there for two years.
The other aspect of it was that I had this lifelong love of Japanese cinema and art, extending back to when I was a very young child. I was really into Kaiju films, Godzilla and that sort of thing. As I got older, I started absorbing a lot of Japanese cinema, and a lot of the work that I was doing in college related so much to what we did in this film; basing sets and landscapes on Ukiyo-e illustrations was something that I did 35 years ago.
Meeting with Wes and Adam Stockhausen in the film’s early stages, what was the process?
Adam had been working with Wes on the film for about five months before I came on, and then he had to move on. We didn’t have a huge amount of time together. We had a weekend where Adam pretty much downloaded everything he’d been doing with Wes—most of the references, some concept art—and that was probably about five months before we started shooting anything. We started to go into set construction not too long after that. I think that, as far as the confidence level towards me, it was based purely on looking at work that I had done previously, and fortunately, a couple of the concept illustrators who had worked on Fantastic Mr. Fox had already designed a few of the sets that appear early in the film, so I had a good strong foundation to develop the rest of the film.
With Wes, it’s an interesting process. [Rather than] coming up with a drawing directly from your head, his preference is, “Let’s look at a lot of what has come before, and then we’ll start to adapt that and chip away at it until it becomes the vision we want for this film.” We’re not talking just about film references; it’s all kinds of things, finding imagery from every conceivable, diverse source. The other aspect to it is that he wanted to start with things that were very authentic to Japan, very authentic to the period we were depicting—which, of course, is a nonexistent period, but it’s a future as seen from a perspective of early 1960s Japan. If you start to imagine being located in Japan in 1963, what would you imagine the future to look like? This informed our vehicles and architecture for things that appear in Megasaki City, the technology that’s represented. It’s not necessarily accurate to any particular period, but it was always built off of something that was accurate.
Could you expand on the references you looked at and your approach to designing the film’s world?
It’s a multi-tiered setting, but with Megasaki City, we definitely didn’t want to create a Jetsons-style retrofuturism, one of those futuristic cities where none of the past is present. The past and the present always existed next to each other because the feeling was that, even in this futuristic society, these people were not going to surrender all of their traditions. So, we have a traditional bathhouse in the mayor’s residence. There’s a big sumo arena and things like that, even though there’s this skyline that is based, in many cases, on Tokyo from that period, but also the Metabolists Architecture school of Kenzō Tange. It was in that period in the early ‘60s that the Metabolists were looking at urban renewal, and the types of architecture that would essentially define Japan in the future. But a lot of it didn’t happen. There’s all this great conceptual material that we could draw from that was representing future Japanese cities, but it’s not what actually ended up being the face of Japan.
For Trash Island, the use of Ukiyo-e illustrations and woodblock prints was more of a compositional tool. We would start with a lot of those images, particularly the landscapes that were created, as a foundation, and then figure out, how do we interpret this in Trash Island? How do we interpret these oftentimes pastoral landscapes as a kind of industrial wasteland? For that, we would superimpose the work of contemporary photographers like Edward Burtynsky and Chris Jordan, these really wonderful documenters of the environmental damage we’re doing to our planet right now. So, you have a very beautiful, often idealized depiction of nature, fused with this image of environmental destruction. It becomes a nightmare that’s also strangely beautiful.
The sets you built for the film are incredibly intricate, and often impossibly small. How did you go about constructing them, and working within them to create the illusion of an expansive world?
With stop-motion, you’re usually working in a relatively limited space, so the first thing you have to think about is, how are we going to build sets that have a sense of depth? You [use] a lot of forced perspective; you create sets that have a lot of compression of depth. In many cases we would be building sets that look like they’re going way off into the distance, and that meant if we had a series of towers…Throughout the film, there are all these trash trams that are traveling through the frame. In certain cases, we would have multiple towers, and we’d have to build those towers in multiple scales, ranging from about two feet high to one that’s five inches tall. You place those within the frame, and suddenly, you have this incredible illusion of depth. That was used also for Megasaki City, where the foreground—which is the old town of Megasaki City that’s very traditional Japanese architecture—was built in one scale, but then the city [behind] is built in a series of planes, in a much, much smaller scale. Fortunately, the way that Wes liked to shoot things, he doesn’t do a lot of Z-axis stuff, where the camera is traveling on a Z-axis through the set. We did a few of those things with some of the interiors, so they would be built of a single scale, but more often, he likes to do dolly shots, where things are passing in front of the camera like a series of tableaux. We did that with the introduction to Trash Island, when we first do this dolly along a very, very long set— and also, in the Animal Testing Plant, our biggest set, where Boss and Chief are walking in the foreground. We created multiple scales of puppets for a number of reasons, but the forced perspective was a big part of it. We had to go through each of the shots we were going to do and come to some decision as to what scale would serve us best.
Can you explain the techniques that were used to craft your dog puppets, in comparison to those used for humans like Atari?
Our puppets director and his team started out by sculpting very rough, almost Giacometti-like sculptures of dogs, just to find a particular shape of a character. In the case of a character like Chief, he went through a good 13, 14 iterations, and each one would get sent to Wes. Wes would deliver a few notes about posture—“He should be thinner in the haunches,” and things like that. There were never any drawings done of the dogs; they were all created and conceptualized in the sculptural form. And then finally, when Wes said, “Yes, that’s Boss. Yes, that’s Chief,” the puppet-making process would happen—making a mold off of those sculptures, building an armature and so forth.
Then, there were multiple steps done, in terms of figuring out the color of the dogs, the color of the fur, how much fur they would have. Is this dog a shaggy dog? Is this dog a shorthaired dog? These dogs are also very dirty because they’d been living on Trash Island for a long time. They’re undernourished, so there are all those details to work into the puppets. Those dogs are all built with articulated facial armatures, so animators could operate the brow and the edge of the mouth and various areas on the face where there would be muscular contraction in the face. They’re all mechanical, ball-and-socket, metal armature parts, but they free the animator up to create an amazing variety of expressions—and the armatures were beautifully designed so that any of these dogs could actually get into the pose that a dog would get into. Their sitting pose was very convincing; that really impressed me because I’ve worked on a number of projects where we had to do dogs or cats, and oftentimes, you actually have to make a totally different puppet for a sitting pose of one of those characters. Because you just can’t get the puppet into the right pose.
For human characters, a totally different approach was taken. We worked with a character designer named Felicie Haymoz, who lives in Brooklyn. In many cases, we would give her different photographs. Some of the characters—members of the Cabal, Professor Watanabe and Mayor Kobayashi—are actually based on actors who appeared in Kurosawa films. Mayor Kobayashi is a direct reference to Shirô Mifune—not in terms of his body, but his face.
Atari was a different thing. He’s not based on any particular actor; he’s a bit of an amalgam, but that was of course the most important character for Felicie to really get right. When we had a drawing of Atari that Wes was really happy with, that went to Andy [Gent, Puppet Department head]’s team and they started sculpting him. When you have a two-dimensional drawing of a character, you still have to experiment a lot with sculpting the facial features, and I think they went through maybe three or four different versions of Atari based on Felicie’s drawing before we got the face.
Then, of course, the characters have to have expression. Studios like Laika who do stop-motion films, the way they do their facial animation, it’s replacement animation, but a character is actually built in a computer, and they use 3D printing to print out all of the facial positions, and mouth positions, and that sort of thing. Wes didn’t want to use 3D printing; he didn’t want the use of a computer model to interpret the animation, so all of these replacement faces were hand-sculpted, and there was a long period of experimentation to get that just right. All of the human characters that talk are hand-sculpted replacements. One of the most interesting challenges was the character of Tracy. She had 300 freckles on her face, and they had to paint those 300 freckles that exist in a very specific spot on the face, on multiple replacement faces.