Achieving the Look of Fantastic Mr. Fox

Even among animated films, Fantastic Mr. Fox looks unique. In a field dominated by computer generated animation, Wes Anderson’s new film stands apart even from other stop-motion movies.

Anderson began creating this unique look long before a single set was built, or an anthropomorphic fox was posed in front of a camera.

“We started by developing a color theory for the film,” explains Nelson Lowery, the film’s production designer, “It was a limited color palate, quite unusual for an animated film. There was no blue or green. [It was mostly] autumnal colors.”

This posed a slight difficulty for the team. “When you make a palate like that, when you interject grey it would become a new color. While grey would just be grey in any normal movie, once it’s against those warm colors it becomes sort of purple, or slightly blue, or cold feeling.” Despite this, Lowery is positive about the effect it created: “It was set up at the beginning, and it was very restrictive, so it was quite a challenge at first, but I think it paid off.”

With this ‘color theory’ in place, Lowery began work on the sets. “When you go to design a film, and you have everything to draw upon, it’s kind of nice to have a point of reference, and Wes likes to do that for sure.”

That point of reference was Great Misenden, the village in which Roald Dahl lived. “We first did a lot of reference gathering on a couple of trips here. Even though the film is wildly stylized it is really based on this landscape. I was just noting on the drive in here, there is a radio tower across the street, and that’s in the movie.” This influence, Lowery tells us, even went as far as the tree lines. “We ended up making it from reticulated foam from air conditioners. [We] literally traced the shapes of the bushes and the trees here.”

In addition to the extraordinary level of work that went into the landscapes, there was similar care and attention paid to the design of the characters. Andy Gent, who was the film’s models supervisor explained how the process worked: “The character designers would spend an awful lot of time sketching them out, developing the characters in a 2D form, until Wes was happy with that, then we’d make a sculpt from that.”

This conversion of 2D sketch to 3D model presented a challenge for gent and his team. “Often what happens is you get the drawing and it doesn’t actually translate into a 3D form. Eyes classically can be drawn forward, but they can’t be looking sideways at the same time. It jumps into a 3D shape, and then you can see it again, and then we’d start working on that, just to get the character.”

Part of the difficulty experienced by the character designers was the challenge of anthropomorphizing the animals, without them looking too strange. This was particularly true when it came to realizing some of the less prominent characters. Lowery went into more detail: “Mole, who was a bit of an incidental character, had potential to look quite odd, but he ended up being the star of the show for some of us, we love that character. Also rabbit’s girlfriend, who’s a little bit of a sex-pot, so making a cute little rabbit, was a bit challenging.”

The use of fur to make the characters is unusual for stop-motion movies, and this created problems for the character designers. “From a puppet making point of view, [fur] isn’t the obvious choice, because it is out of control,” Gent explained, “Getting it to find the shapes is quite a difficult process. There were 27 different sculpts just to find the shape that goes underneath Mr. Fox’s head, so when you put the fur on top of it all it looks like the finished character sculpt.”

The creation of each puppet is very much a collaborative process, as Gent describes: “The amount of different skills that go into making these guys, from silversmithing to costuming to wig making, sculpting, latexing, painting. All of them, you put all of these people together, it’s an amazing collaboration to make one thing.” Underneath the fur the puppets are even more impressive. “Inside they’re like little steam engines, they’ve got hard mechanical steel and bronze working parts, and then slowly but surely you put all of these bits and pieces together until you’ve got this sort of jewel-like finished puppet.”

Because so much work goes into the puppets they are worth an absolute fortune. The first Mr. Fox puppet cost £50,000 ($83,000), mostly because of the trial and error process of making it. Fortunately for the film’s budget this wasn’t the case for every puppet used, as Gent explains, “For the first one it’s disproportionate. By the end we’d had 17 foxes made, so we were a lot quicker at making them, so they got cheaper. I think you can get one for a bargain £12-15,000 ($20-25,000) by the end of the movie.”

To make Gent’s job even more difficult, there was more than one scale of puppet. “We had five scales, going from one for close-up shot [of hands], [that were] real human sized, so you can imagine a Mr. Fox hand the same size as your own. Then it went down to what we call a ‘mini-micro’ scale, that was a really unusually small puppet, that was the same size as your thumbnail, about a quarter of an inch high.”

In contrast to the ‘mini-micro’ scale puppets, the largest of these puppets were between one and two feet tall, and referred to by the crew as ‘hero’ scale. The huge disparity in sizes gives a clue as to their use. “You can imagine, if we wanted to do a big landscape shot with [hero] scale puppets, we’d have to make an enormous set, so we made smaller puppets to have that cheat.”

There was another benefit, according to Gent, to using the ‘mini-micro’ scale puppets: “It also gave an idiosyncratic movement, because they’re made of wire. So with [hero scale] they’re ball and socket armatures, they’ve got sophisticated mechanics inside of them, but with the wire ones they bend, and they’re a bit more rounded and a bit more fluid, and I think Wes quite liked that.”

Indeed Anderson was so keen on this effect that the crew ended up using the models far more than they expected. To cope with this they had to make tiny mechanical joints to control the movements of the puppets, including a ball and socket joint that was only 2mm across. To create this, the team had to commission a Swiss watchmaker to make some of the parts. This was unusual for craftsmen who would ordinarily fabricate everything, but as Gent puts it, “These things were just off the scale.” Despite all the work that went into the smallest puppets, they were so fragile that they didn’t last long. “You might make a tiny little puppet and spend a week doing it, and it might get through one or two shots, and you’d discard them.”

The key to the individual look of the characters in the film was detail, something that Anderson was obsessive about. “Wes, throughout the whole film, was incredibly involved with every single process. There’s not one part of these puppets, whether it was a whisker, or an eyelash, or an eyeball, everything has been checked down.” Gent divulged: “It was amazing the amount of concentration for every single part. You normally offer a lot of things, but it was amazing the amount of involvement he had. We’ve changed costume designs; we’ve gone through every single thing until it’s been honed.” This obsession on Anderson’s part even went so far as donating his own trousers to make Mr. Fox’s suit, because he liked the material so much.

It also meant that fabric used to make the jumpers worn by characters had to be knitted, using miniature knitting needles, which themselves had to be fabricated by the model makers. Anderson also insisted that the 1.5mm (59/1000 inch) high letters on the ‘Bean Security’ badge, worn on Rat’s costume, were embroidered, rather than printed.

With the sets and characters in place, the hard work of actually animating the film could begin. As with the design stage, this started at the drawing board, in this case with a series of story boards and animatics.

In addition to the drawings created by the storyboard artists, Anderson himself provided sketches to help guide the animators. Lowery provides more details: “[Wes] did hundreds of drawings, thousands probably, little, very lovely, it’s primitive, but quite poetic little sketches that told you exactly the composition of something, or he wants the puppet to be in ‘this’ pose, and to the letter you’d have to copy that.”

It wasn’t just sketches that Anderson sent the animators. Allison Abbate, the film’s producer, recalls: “Wes was very specific about his performance. He videotaped himself doing a lot of the acting and a lot of the blocking of stuff, so that people would have a sense of what he wanted timing wise, and what he wanted physically for the characters to do to match the voices.”

Despite his specific instruction, the animators managed to surprise Anderson. “Animators have a sheet that has what is happening in every single frame. It lists each frame, and it lists every syllable that every character is saying, and every movement essentially is in it,” the director explains, “You couldn’t have something more precise, but two different animators will take the same information, plus extensive discussions we’ll have had and careful planning, and will interpret it very differently. Their personality comes through, and their skills, and their interests as animators.”

In addition to the challenge of keeping a consistent style of animation, the animators also had to deal with working with puppets covered in an unfamiliar material. They developed a number of strategies to avoid touching the fur, including manipulating the puppets with rods, and when they had no option but to touch the fur, they tried to do so in a way that didn’t cause it to move.

There were, however, occasions where a little movement in the fur was desirable, as Gent tells us: “One of the little things, to keep them alive, some of the animators started doing this little thing, so that when it was really still, and the character was just looking back at camera, they’d just blow on the fur, and take the next frame, so that you get a little shuffle.”

The other major difficulty that the animators faced was the scale of some of the shots, in particular the scene where all the animals are having a banquet. “[The scene] had so many puppets in, and was a really long tracking shot,” Gent explains, “The potential for it going wrong, or getting something mistimed was huge, so I’d say that’s got to be one of the more complicated shots.”

Of course, there were occasions where things did go wrong, and despite his desire to control every aspect of the production, according to Lowery, Anderson was keen to exploit these occasions.

As well as making the best of mistakes, Anderson would also approve what were originally intended to be temporary solutions. “A lot of the effects, like smoke and fire and water, we would show him something, ‘we could make the water move in this way, but for now we’re going to use cling-film rolled up on a thing, and later we’ll do it right’ and he was like, ‘no, that’s it.'” Lowery is keen to point out that Anderson’s trust in his animators’ abilities went down well. “The animators liked it because that’s their old tricks, that’s the stuff they used to do, and they know how to do it well, and nobody ever lets them do it.”

That said, Anderson was keen to control every aspect of the production that he could. In the world of stop-motion animation it’s unusual for a director to be involved with a production on a day-to-day basis. To accommodate Anderson’s desire to be so heavily involved the crew had to develop some novel working practices. “[Wes] was seeing dailies all throughout the day, as well as every night. He’d get dailies, we would have his responses by eight o’clock the next morning,” Abbate tells us, “We would go into dailies, and we projected them every day armed with his comments, and he was on the other end of the phone, he was on the other end of the e-mail.” They even went so far as to run live feeds from each of the 30 shooting units, so he could watch, in real time, what each animator was doing.

This obsessive and painstaking attention to detail on the part of Anderson has led to some criticism, but it has also created a movie that looks like nothing else. Lowery sums it up perfectly: “Wes’ attention to detail was extraordinary, and probably the most challenging thing about the film, but quite satisfying. I’ve never worked with a director who cares so much about every single thing. It’s quite fascinating.”

Fantastic Mr. Fox opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 13 before going wide on November 25.


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