Making of ‘Pinocchio’: How Guillermo del Toro Updated the Beloved Tale for Contemporary Audiences
The joy in Guillermo del Toro‘s face has been abundantly apparent this awards season each time he introduces his latest big-screen outing, a deeply personal animated version of Pinocchio told in the Mexican helmer’s typically sumptuous, meticulously crafted visual style.
When the Oscar-winning filmmaker was growing up, Carlo Collodi’s 1883 fable about a wooden puppet who longs to be a real boy was one of his favorites, and del Toro has now made the oft-told tale (Disney released its own ill-received live-action version, starring Tom Hanks, in September) distinctly his own: a darker, timely retelling for today’s audiences, set in fascist Italy during the 1930s.
Pinocchio is del Toro’s first foray into directing stop-motion animation, an art form that dates back to the early days of motion pictures and which was developed by filmmaking pioneers del Toro has long admired, such as George Melies (1902’s A Trip to the Moon), Willis O’Brien (King Kong, from 1933) and Ray Harryhausen (1963’s Jason and the Argonauts). The auteur, who won a best director Oscar in 2018 for The Shape of Water, says that given the overwhelmingly positive experience he had making Pinocchio — not to mention where he is in his career — this won’t be his last project involving animation. “My hope right now is to slow down, and the ideal place to slow down for me is animation, because it is far more my speed,” he tells THR. “We were able react to the material on an almost weekly basis. We were able re-board sequences and we were able add sequences. It’s a beautiful pace, which is not only more deliberate but also more organic than the way I like making movies. I intend to, if I can, transition between live action and animation, and slowly but surely lean toward animation.”
The film’s voice cast includes newcomer Gregory Mann, who was 10 years old when he was chosen for the title role. Del Toro reunited with many actors with whom he had previously worked, including David Bradley from del Toro’s sci-fi/horror series The Strain (the voice for Geppetto), and Ron Perlman (the voice for Podesta); Cate Blanchett (who provided vocalizations to the monkey Spazzatura). Ewan McGregor plays Sebastian J. Cricket, Christoph Waltz is the ringmaster Volpe, and Tilda SWinton plays the Wood Sprite who grants Pinocchio Life and Death.
A Netflix release — the film is receiving a short theatrical run before premiering on the streaming service Dec. 9 — Pinocchio was written by del Toro and Patrick McHale (best known for the Cartoon Network fantasy series Adventure Time). The director says that by exploring the fascist milieu of 1930s Italy, he and McHale hoped to draw direct parallels to today, with authoritarianism — and protests against it — on the rise throughout the world. “I wanted to talk about things that were very significant for me and that would reflect the present. “Disobedience is something that I treasure as a virtue,” del Toro said. “I thought that the idea of Pinocchio behaving as a free agent and a disobedient soul in a time when obedience is expected of everyone would be very important, especially in a moment like now.”
Director says that fantasy allows for exploration of these themes. “I believe fantasy is always illuminated in the larger arena of philosophy, politics, or ideas. He says that’s what makes it interesting and new again. “I thought this movie could embrace imperfection and could embrace freedom as antidotes to a suffocating dictatorship.”
But he is quick to add that Pinocchio is not merely a political treatise; the tale has a universal quality that touches on everything from the inevitability of death to the challenges — and dangers — of parenting. “I felt it was important to address how brief we have each other, and how life is made worthwhile by death, which concepts are very, very Mexican but [ones] I ultimately believe in,” del Toro states. According to the director, the film “thematically deals with different types of fatherhood — how it is to father a child and what it is like to be a dad.” There are many types of parental figures in this movie. Some are dangerous, others are exploitative, and some are open to love. Finally, the fascist idea and father-figure style leadership are very paternalistic.
As with all of del Toro’s work, design was a priority. The film’s thematic complexity can be seen in its overall design. Guy Davis, co-production designer, says that del Toro loved the use of ‘perfectly imperfect’ descriptions for his world. “There’s a sense that there’s realism, but not reality
The story begins with a puppet. The design of the eponymous wooden child was inspired by the illustrations of Gris Grimly, a noted illustrator and children’s book author. Grimly was also a coproducer of the film. Del Toro says, “He created an extremely simple, incredibly strong, almost elemental distillation” of what a wooden child would be. “And that figure is what gave me the idea that this could work as a stop-motion.”
Del Toro sought out the perfect look by approaching Mark Gustafson, an animation director at Will Vinton Studios (the studio behind California Raisins), to collaborate on directing. They teamed up with ShadowMachine Robot Chicken BoJack horseman , with founders Alex Bulkley, CEO of Henson Company, and Gary Ungar (also a producer on The Strain ,), as producers. Most of the film was made at ShadowMachine, which had as many as 60 small stages operating simultaneously for roughly three years while the movie was in production.
Del Toro believes that animators are actors, and that’s the way he approached production. “We promised animators that they would be treated as actors. That they would have the ability to make decisions and show us their results. We credited animators in the credits, right next to the cast .”
Stop-motion is best achieved by bringing life to puppets’ movements. There are many ways to make puppets for stop motion. The filmmakers used the method that involved internal face mechanics covered with a movable silicone body. This type of construction allows for a deeper connection with the puppet, says del Toro.
Pinocchio was however created using replacement animation. This means that animators used face parts to create different expressions frame-by-frame. Georgina Hayns, head of puppet fabrication, explains that this was because Pinocchio had to appear to be made from wood. The main Pinocchio puppet measured 9 1/2 inches in height — the “most manageable” height to make a stop-motion puppet. “We tried the silicone skin early and it didn’t work. It looked like rubber. [Replacement animation] allowed us keep the wood grain. Pinocchio’s entire look is stylized realism
Animation doesn’t have the same production sound as live-action sets, so every character and sound had to be made from scratch. Scott Gershin, a del Toro alum and sound editor from Pacific Rim and others, says that creating Pinocchio’s sounds as he moves required a lot of wood. This included maple, mahogany, rosewood guitar woods, Foley work, and library sounds. “If we stayed with wood, it would only give us one dimension to the vocabulary that Pinocchio uses.” He recalls that we added little squeaks and other sounds to the mix. “We wanted to find the delicacy and use a few rubber squeaks and metal squeaks to really express the emotions of his movements.
He also said that the character’s sound effects change over time, suggesting that he is becoming more “real”. Gershin explains that we wanted him to feel like he could just fall apart at any time. “So he felt creaky and very loose-sounding. As he speaks more, and starts to get more personality, we begin to reduce the fragility of Pinocchio’s voice and stop seeing him as a creature. Now we start thinking of him as a character who represents innocence.”
Because of his small stature, Cricket — a combination mechanical and replacement parts — was one of the most difficult tasks for the creative team. The artists created a 9 1/2-inch hero (or main cricket) to perform. In some cases, they also used a “very large-scale Pinocchio heads” to capture shots of both characters. For long shots, smaller crickets were made. Hayns explains that we also had to create stunt crickets for the many funny scenes in which he is squashed multiple times throughout the movie. Claymation was a one-off head that could be squashed frame-by-frame. The body was made of a hollow silicone skin with aluminum wire and a metal armature underneath. The body could be squashed and then the wings could be sucked in. We pre-bent the wings in very deliberate crushed shapes .”
The costumes were made of real fabric and were worn by puppets. Hayns says that they did a lot in costume reference searching from Italy during that period. Hayns also explains that the costume for Volpe was a dogtooth weave made on a small scale in a woolen, knit fabric that had all the right stretch properties. We used that fabric and then dyed it and painted it to highlight the dogtooth.
This meticulous work was also applied to the overall production design. Curt Enderle and Davis shared the production designer responsibilities. Geppetto’s village is a combination of many places and inspirations weathered and textured. “Everything has a history. That’s what I believe is the reason the film was grounded. It’s not cute or slick. It’s a real world with its own past .”
For del Toro, all of this obsessive attention to detail would ultimately mean nothing if his version of Pinocchio wasn’t connecting emotionally and thematically, so he was careful to ensure that the film’s technical mastery wasn’t overshadowing its sense of humanity, particularly when it came to Pinocchio’s journey.
He says that everyone learns from him, and not him learning from everyone. To be loved .”
, you don’t need to change who or what you are.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
I have been writing professionally for over 20 years and have a deep understanding of the psychological and emotional elements that affect people. I’m an experienced ghostwriter and editor, as well as an award-winning author of five novels.