Isle of Dogs: How Wes Anderson’s stop-motion epic was made

Wes Anderson’s stop-motion epic Isle of Dogs arrives in UK cinemas next week. We talk to the film’s production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod about bringing Anderson’s vision of a dystopian future Japan to life, the director’s legendary attention to detail and creating the film’s lovable canine characters.

Isle of Dogs is an incredible feat of stop motion. The 100-minute film is packed with thousands of handmade objects, charming puppets and some brilliant animation and illustration dreamt up by Wes Anderson and a talented army of craftspeople.

The film presents a dystopian vision of Japan where dogs have been banished to Trash Island – an offshore wasteland filled with rubbish and abandoned buildings – following an outbreak of canine flu. It follows the adventures of a 12-year-old boy named Atari who goes in search of his missing dog and an intrepid young exchange student who decides to investigate his disappearance.

Poster art for Isle of Dogs. Most of the film’s canine characters are invented breeds. Puppets were created by Andy Gent and a team of craftspeople at his workshop in East London. All images provided courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox and © Twentieth Century Fox

There is everything you’d expect from a Wes Anderson production: a considered soundtrack, offbeat humour, an impressive cast (actors include Ed Norton, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Greta Gerwig and Bill Murray as well as Canadian Japanese actor Koyu Rankin, who plays Atari) and carefully composed scenes where every element is colour co-ordinated and artfully arranged. But it also has a distinctive aesthetic inspired by Japan’s rich visual culture.

The film features dozens of intricate sets. Megasaki City on the Japanese mainland is home to skyscrapers, neon lights and traditional wooden houses: a street lined with paper lanterns brings to mind the narrow alleys in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district while a building in the opening scenes is reminiscent of Shuri Castle in Okinawa.

A lab in Megasaki City. Each of the film’s sets is meticulously colour-coded

Trash Island – as you’d expect – has a very different look and feel. It is a place filled with discarded objects where dogs are left to fight over food scraps and rotting fish bones. But here the production design team have achieved the unlikely feat of making even trash look beautiful. The island has a surprisingly diverse landscape: over the course of the film we travel through an abandoned fairground and an animal testing facility as well as towers of old tires, newspapers and glass bottles.

Production designer Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod worked closely with Anderson – and the film’s art, animation and visual effects teams – to develop the look and feel of the film. The process began with gathering a vast range of visual references. The film draws on various aspect of Japanese art and design but one of the biggest sources of inspiration was woodblock prints – in particular the intricate paintings of cities and landscapes created by Okiyu-e artists such as Katsushika Hokusai. An illustration in the film’s opening scenes shows a group of dogs aboard a raft with a wave heading towards them – a scene inspired by Hokusai’s famous print The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Trash Island has a diverse geography – over the course of the film we see characters travel through an abandoned fairground and a testing facility as well as piles of old tires and newspapers.

Stockhausen also researched various art photographers – particularly ones who photograph industrial landscapes and waste. “We did a deep dive on real trash – like a big exploration of piles of tires and crushed cars and metal sorting facilities – to find the sort of language of trash and the different ways that you could see it so that the world of the film didn’t become just one big blur of things,” he says. “If you go to a country and travel around you’ll see different geographies and Trash Island had to have that same kind of feeling.”

We did a deep dive on real trash – like a big exploration of piles of tires and crushed cars and metal sorting facilities – to find the sort of language of trash

An industrial wasteland might seem an unlikely setting for a Wes Anderson film (it is not an environment conducive to the perfectly symmetrical and ordered shots he is known for). But the production design team managed to reflect the chaos of rubbish-filled landscapes and Anderson’s choreographed aesthetic through a careful use of colour. The team decided to create whole landscapes out of a single material or object – from rust to old tires and newspapers – resulting in a series of sets with one dominant colour. “We were able to bring this sense of structure [to the landscape] through colour-coding,” explains Harrod.

Designers Annie Atkins and Erica Dorn worked on graphics for the film, creating official decrees as well as signage and posters for sets.

While Harrod and Stockhausen were refining the look and feel of sets, Andy Gent and his team of puppetmakers were building the film’s canine stars at Gent’s workshop in Hackney. The film features dogs of varying sizes, from a pug voiced by Tilda Swinton through to a scruffy St Bernard who appears to be blind in one eye, but most of its four-legged characters are invented breeds. They are shaggy mutts – skinny strays with straggly hair and battle scars – but their large and floppy ears give them a puppyish charm.

The design of each dog was inspired by its personality. Gent would knock up a rough sculpture of each character and work with Anderson to refine the look and shape of it before adding colours often looking to magazine ads for suitable colour palettes. “You sort of want the dogs to be looked upon as their character and not necessarily a breed so it was very important to come up with looks for them that spoke to the character and to the actor’s voice,” explains Harrod. “Whenever I see the character of Rex talking I think ‘that dog doesn’t look like Ed Norton but he sure looks like his voice!’”

Stockhausen and Harrod looked to various aspects of Japanese art and design for inspiration when designing sets, from traditional architecture to woodblock prints.

One of the most striking things about Isle of Dogs is how expressive the dogs are – so much of the film’s humour lies in their facial expressions and the way they move. Each puppet had a skull that could be manipulated by animators to convey a range of emotions from fear to anger and confusion. “They have very sophisticated mechanisms … that allow the animators to actually move the flesh of the face around a lot. The brows and the edges of the mouth and upper lips are completely manipulable for stop-motion so you can get these snarls and things,” explains Harrod. A different technique was used to create human characters: lead character designer Félicie Haymoz started out by drawing humans in 2D – often creating composites of real people – before making 3D models. These models have rigid faces, meaning teams had to create a range of static faces to convey different emotions and swap them in and out during filming.

Working with pre-cast faces is a much quicker process. With the dogs being the stars of the story, Stockhausen says more time was spent animating dogs than human models. It also avoids the Uncanny Valley effect that can occur when trying to animate human faces in the same way.

The film’s human characters reference real actors in classic Japanese films

“If you tried to manipulate a human character’s face in the same way [as the dogs] it can be a little bit grotesque – you want to get a smile but it comes off as a grimace. Things like dogs are a little more forgiving because they have these very long b snouts – there’s a little more real estate on the face of a dog to work with and also the fact that the fur is hiding the actual musculature,” adds Harrod.

Many of the human characters in Isle of Dogs are inspired by extras and minor characters in classic Japanese films – mostly films by Seven Samurai director Akira Kurosawa. “We trawled through every single one [of Kurosawa’s films] and caught each face and made kind of a giant casting pool,” explains Stockhausen. Characters were never just based on one person but are a mash-up of different supporting actors – many of whom appeared in the background of multiple films by the same director.

Puppets were created in a range of sizes: “We had three basic scales of puppets which also meant that in a lot of cases we’d have to build three different scales of sets,” explains Harrod. “The large puppets [for close-up shots] were about 12 or 13 inches tall, the medium puppets for medium and medium wide shots were about 60 per cent of the size of the large puppets and then we had small puppets for long shots … which were about half the size of the medium ones. We also had a range of even smaller puppets for super-wide shots.”

One of the many miniature sets created for Isle of Dogs

Harrod doesn’t know how many puppets were created for Isle of Dogs but he thinks it might be more than any other stop-motion film. This number could have been significantly reduced with some digital trickery but Anderson was determined to shoot as much of the film in camera as possible. “Nowadays you can shoot a puppet of any size and digitally reduce it into a set of a different scale but Wes wanted to avoid that as much as possible. He really loves maintaining the in-camera, handmade quality throughout,” explains Harrod.

Sets, graphics and props were created at 3 Mills TV studios in East London, where Isle of Dogs was filmed. At its biggest, the art department was around 130 people with another 60 or 70 working out of Gent’s puppet workshop. As 3 Mills is a live action studio – it is used to film TV shows, ads and music videos and rehearse scenes from live productions – the team had to adapt the space to film in stop motion. “On one stage they would be shooting a TV show so there would be a full-sized set of human actors and the next stage over would be the animation stages for Isle of Dogs. We’d take curtains and subdivide that onestage into dozens of mini animation stages – all of which are working simultaneously,” explains Stockhausen. “When the film is finished shooting, it all gets taken apart and the machinery and whatnot gets sold off … so when the next stop-motion film goes into production they have to start from the ground up,” adds Harrod.

Anderson and the film’s art department researched various aspects of Japanese art and culture

Isle of Dogs was storyboarded from beginning to end before filming began (this is rarely the case in a live action film). Stockhausen, Harrod and a team of concept illustrators then fleshed out sets according to Anderson’s animatic. “In the animatic it might just be a shape – a set of lines to suggest what the shape of the set is, so we know where the horizon line is and that there are going to be two shapes either side of it – but the animatic isn’t really clear on what those shapes are, so our process as production designers is to decide that,” says Harrod. “Because of the precision of trying to integrate everything with puppets that were being designed concurrently, we had to draft everything out, so everything had to be drawn up as an architectural draft that the set-builders would then construct.”

Every object in the film was handcrafted – from the name tags worn by dogs to the clothes worn by humans – meaning the art department had to create thousands of different objects. “That’s the thing to remember about stop-motion puppetry – there are no readymades,” explains Harrod. “Every film works within its own scale so there isn’t stuff that was made for a previous film that can be handed down. So every single item has to be designed, whether it’s a tie pin that’s going to be 3mm wide … all of those things have to be designed and built and a lot of the time, built in three different scales.”

Puppets feature sophisticated mechanisms, allowing animators to manipulate facial expressions

Another brilliant touch is the use of animation in place of news broadcasts and public service announcements. French animator Gwenn Germain created dozens of handmade scenes in a style reminiscent of animation house Studio Ghibli. “Gwenn had impressed us with some animated work that he had done entirely on his own that was pretty epic and it was reminiscent of some of [Studio Ghibli co-founder Hiyao Miyazaki’s] work, but was its own thing as well. It was kind of a fusion between Japanese anime and French illustration,” says Harrod.

Graphics were designed by Annie Atkins, who also worked on The Grand Budapest Hotel, and London-based designer Erica Dorn. The pair were responsible for creating posters, signage and government decrees as well as newspapers.

Puppets were created in a range of sizes for close up, medium wide, wide and super wide shots

These graphic elements add another handmade touch to the film. Stockhausen likens it to the book covers in Moonrise Kingdom or the paintings and printed props in Grand Budapest: “It feels like something [Anderson] does a lot in his films … there’s very often these artists brought in to add these special touches,” he says.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Anderson’s distinct style of filmmaking, it’s almost impossible not to be impressed by the craft and attention to detail in Isle of Dogs. It’s a hugely ambitious stop-motion production – one that has all the slickness of a big budget feature film without the artifice. Like The Grand Budapest Hotel and Fantastic Mr Fox, it’s the product of a director with a clear vision for how each scene should look and feel and a talented team of creatives working behind the scenes to bring those ideas to life (and add some of their own along the way).

Atari hugging Rex, played by Bryan Cranston. Harrod says the film’s canine characters were designed to reflect each dog’s personality and the voice of the actor playing it

“Wes has this incredibly intricate style and this incredible attention to detail and I think he draws people to him who are excited by that,” says Stockhausen. “I keep picturing Andy Gent’s workshop and all the incredible craftspeople working on all of those ball and socket joints and the armatures for all of the puppets and it’s an army of people, but all of them have this love for hand-making these things. Movie after movie, those teams assemble and it’s just incredibly fun to be part of.”

“There’s only one person who knows how to make a Wes Anderson film,” adds Harrod. “We all have experience – I’ve worked in stop-motion animation for three decades – and sometimes one can get a little set in one’s ways about how this is done. The great thing with Wes is that he’s constantly challenging you. You say, ‘well the logical way of doing this is ABC’ and Wes will say, ‘yes but why? Why would you have to do it that way? What if we were to do it this way?’

“There might be a lot of harumphing and people saying ‘but we’ve never done it that way before’ but you have to keep in mind that Wes has an incredible love for this particular art form,” Harrod continues.

Wes has this incredibly intricate style and this incredible attention to detail and I think he draws people to him who are excited by that

“He wants to bring something genuinely new to it and I think he really has with this film and with Fantastic Mr Fox. He has taken an art form that I have been in love with since I was a small child and kind of turned it on its ear and created something that is truly, truly unique to the medium and to me that’s what’s really exciting about being involved in this film. I was constantly challenged to think in a completely different way. People might think looking at Wes’s films ‘oh there’s a formula here’ but there’s not. It is a complete reinvention every time. He never lets us just rest on what we’ve done in the past and that’s really exciting.”

One of several Trash Island sets

Some of the sets and puppets from the film are on view in London in an exhibition at The Store X, 180 The Strand, London, WC2, until April 5. Read more about the show here

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes