Andy Gent & his team made about 400 stop-motion dogs for Wes Anderson’s ‘Isle Of Dogs.’ The Puppet Master talks to HollywoodLife about bringing Chief, Boss, Duke & the other characters to life!
Andy Gent‘s most recent masterpieces are featured in Wes Anderson‘s critically acclaimed Isle of Dogs. The ‘Puppet Master’ and his team spent months and months making, not only the stop-motion characters, many of which were dogs, but also interchangeable facial expressions and a variety of scales for almost every character. We’ve seen his award-winning handiwork in other Anderson films, like Fantastic Mr. Fox, but in Isle Of Dogs, Gent’s artistry in capturing each ragged mutt and their personalities is truly astounding. The puppet master, whose official title is Head Of The Puppets Department, spoke to HollywoodLife.com about the intricate and fascinating details surrounding the creation of the beloved Isle of Dog characters.
HL: When creating the dogs, who were essentially displaced and put on a toxic island, what inspired their look? Did you have a breed in mind? Do their puppets speak to their personalities?
Andy Gent: We tackled this in a sort of two-prong way. We have the previous experiences we’ve had with Fantastic Mr. Fox of creating creatures that were very textual and furry, so we knew the sort of approach we’d take to get to them. Because the dogs on Trash Island were so mutt-like, you know mongrels, a cocktail of all sorts of different dogs, that wasn’t going to be an easy thing to straightforward just go to reference. Wes would send me some lovely reference pictures of disheveled, downtrodden street dogs, which gave us a feel for their being scrawny, thin, and a little bit desperate, and matted fur. So, we knew some of the textures, but creating the characters was really down to play. We literally did what I call a jack-o-matic quick sculpt, which is very thumby and quick. So you sort of jigsaw them together after different kind of quick sculpts, and then once we got a feel for a character, Wes would go, ‘oh, I think this one’s achieved.’ And we would then start to refine them down.
HL: Now, for those who don’t know, how exactly do you sculpt these puppets in a way so they move so flawlessly and realistically?
Andy Gent: With the film puppet, it’s got to be expressive, got to be able to change its features, more than likely it’s got to talk, it’s got to run around, it’s got to do all these things. So you sculpt something in plasticine, really simple sort of children’s plasticine, initially in a sort of jack-o-matic way, very filmy and resolve the character until you get the character you like the look of, and then refine that into a sculpt that you can sort of take apart and mold. And the molding process encapsulates the sculpt into multiple parts, give it a hard shell that breaks apart and registers together. Once you’ve got the mold, you can start to work out everything else. But from the molds you can work out the bones that go inside, which we call the armature. And the armature can be very simple wire skeleton that you can bend into a new position every frame, or it can be a very complicated mechanical one that looks a little bit like a steam engine with hard-working parts.
When it comes to filming the movement, it’s moved by hand. The animators can literally move a limb or a finger in the littlest or the largest amount to a new position. By taking several photographs — 24 photographs, make one second of film if it’s shot on single frame –, and then when you play it back at real speed, it looks like it’s moving correctly in time.
HL: What exactly are the Isle Of Dog puppets made out of?
Andy Gent: With the dogs on Isle of Dogs, we would go through all of those processes, and we’d make the eyes, we’d make the teeth, we’d make the tongue separately, and then we would pattern them out. So we’d do like the patterns you’d do for making a dress or a suit, and then we would cut the teddy bear fur which we used, which is mohair and alpaca. The whole process to getting that ready, where you shave the backing off and put it on lady’s tights, do that together so the fur can stretch and move and it doesn’t restrict the armature underneath at all. And we’d do those on in panels, and punch in between each one, and feather them out by punching in individual hairs at a time where it gets to the finer part, like on his nose and his ear tips. Put all the bits together, make the props for the collars.
Once you’d made the dogs like that, you could hand them over to the animators. They do that magical thing where they’ll animate a character. 15 weeks later of making one puppet, you see him breathe and talk back to you.
HL: To film wide shots, you needed to have puppets of a smaller scale. How do you decide which characters you need more replicas of?
Andy Gent: When we start the movie, you got through the script and you work out how many characters are described, and then if there’s a lead character that’s being needed to shoot many seconds of, then it’s better to make more than one of them. With Wes, one of the unique things about Wes and his flavor of stop motion and films with stop motion puppets is he likes to play around with scale, so that comes back to your question that when you get smaller puppets, they sort of move differently, and they act differently, so you get a charm that’s very idiosyncratic to the size that they are. So there’s really tiny little ones that have little wires in, move in a very charming, sort of more naïve way, and Wes really likes to embrace all of those sort of things that make it quite a unique field of film. So instead of doing it all in the large scale, where they’re very slick, he’d also mix them up with more sort of crafty feel to them all. The beauty of having the small scale, of course, is then if you wanted to create an entire island and have tiny little puppets in it so you can see these little ants moving around, then the set’s not so big.
HL: What was it like seeing your dogs come to life for the first time?
Andy Gent: Listen, if you’re a dog lover like me, it’s brilliant, because you get to make your own dog that talks. You always want your dog to talk back to you. With these guys, you actually get the magic to actually believe that they’re talking back to you, and it’s amazing. It’s so much fun to be able to make the puppet, to see him come to life and act out a story. If you like making things and you like stories and you like film, it’s the best thing because it’s real, and it’s there in front of you, and it stands on the shelf and looks back at you.