Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio: A Stopmotion Stunner

GDT on the handcrafted TLC that went into his stop-motion stunner.

I had this idea that the best way to deal with Pinocchio was to make him part of a stop-motion movie,” Guillermo del Toro tells Teasers. “Because everybody’s on a level playing field. All the characters blend very well with the puppet character.”

“Pinocchio” director Guillermo del Toro on his new film

As del Toro speaks – on the promo trail during the London Film Festival – he’s cradling his leading puppet in his hands. Standing around nine inches tall, the wooden boy loses an eye during our conversation, which fellow director Mark Gustafson – who shares helming duties on the film – picks from the floor and pops back into place.

“We needed him to be very robust, because he’s the star of our film,” explains Gustafson, “and we really put him through the wringer in terms of animation.” This Pinocchio’s picaresque journey is set against the backdrop of Mussolini’s fascist Italy.

While key elements of the story are familiar – a woodcarver’s puppet boy comes to life, joins a performing troupe, takes moral guidance from a cricket – this is unlike any of the many previous film adaptations of Carlo Collodi’s 19thcentury novel that you might have seen (according to del Toro’s “informal count”, there are around 65 of them).

There is no risk of this handcrafted original being confused with any predecessors. As del Toro explains, “I wanted the possessory credit, because you have Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, you have Walt Disney’s Pinocchio, and this is Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.”

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How does the story of Pinocchio differ from other fairy tales?

It comes with all the poetry, pain, macabre beauty and evocative fantasy that the title implies.

“It’s a universal story,” says del Toro, who wanted to make a claymation version in Super 8 as a kid. “You can put it in space, in the future, in the past, in the present, as a metaphor for political lies, as a metaphor for being truthful to yourself. It’s incredibly malleable.”

As malleable as the story are the puppets themselves, which Teasers can confirm after getting hands-on with the cast. In an effort to give the film a much more hand-hewn texture, the majority of the puppets (excluding Pinocchio) have mechanised faces which can be fully animated, as opposed to using printed face replacements that are swapped in, as is the case with much modern stop-motion (and on Pinocchio himself, due to the ‘wooden’ nature of his face).

“That was part of us trying to give this agency back to the animators, to give them control,” explains Gustafson, who previously worked with Wes Anderson as the animation director on Fantastic Mr. Fox. “With a mechanical face, they’re performing in real time.

Del Toro Animates ‘Failed Acts’ for More Soulful Puppets

You’re not locked into a replacement. As the shot goes along, you can see an opportunity, and you can take advantage of it, because you have the tools to do that.”

It ties to their approach of wanting to capture characters’ ‘failed acts’ (read: imperfect, human movements), rather than a perfectly fluid but less alive style of animation.

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Del Toro refers to the animators as actors, saying, “We also instructed them on things like, ‘What is the character thinking? What is the character feeling?’ I said, ‘Don’t move the puppet. Make it animated. Make it have an anima, a soul. Make me feel for the puppet, and understand what the puppet’s feeling.’”

Despite having a cracking voice cast – Ewan McGregor is Sebastian J. Cricket, David Bradley is Geppetto, and Tilda Swinton, Christoph Waltz, Cate Blanchett and del Toro regular Ron Perlman also feature – the directors didn’t incorporate their actors’ facial expressions into the animated performance.

“If you just shoot footage of the actor recording it, it’s just a different thing than an actor actually performing a scene,” explains Gustafson. “Because a lot of times, where the truth lies is between the inflection of the voice and the performance in the face.

Pixar’s ‘Pinocchio’ tackles big themes with heart and soul

Sometimes they’re telling you two different things. But that’s how human beings are. We’re all either hiding something, or trying to emphasise something else. If you can get that into a puppet, then it’s alive.”

The directors also agree that this animation medium makes some of the weightier themes easier to digest. “I think this movie makes an emotional plea for thematic elements that are very heavy,” considers del Toro. “What is it to be human? Can somebody be a real human if it’s not possible for that character to die? Which would be a lot heavier with live actors and a CG Pinocchio. I think you inhabit the characters more [in stop-motion].”

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I think that’s true,” adds Gustafson. “I think the audience will lean into a character like Pinocchio. They’ll forgive him things that you might not forgive a live actor!”

Heavyweight emotional themes, fascist history lessons and unsettling creatures (wait till you get a load of the Wood Sprite). Is this Pinocchio actually a film for children? “I said it’s a movie that is not for kids, but kids can watch it,” explains del Toro of his pitch. “It’s of a piece, for me, with The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, for a sort of trilogy of stories of children during war, in a way, or innocence lost.”

Del Toro hopes that the film could be a spur for meaningful conversations between parents and children. “You know, you can talk with your kid, or your kids can talk to you about life, love, loss, so many things…”

‘I said, “Don’t move the puppet. Make it animated. Make it have an anima, a soul”’ GUILLERMO DEL TORO


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