Pinocchio: Making of Guillermo del Toro’s Update of the Beloved Tale for Contemporary Viewers

Guillermo del Toro Updated the Beloved Tale for Contempo Viewers

For his stop-motion take on Carlo Collodi’s 1883 fable, the Mexican auteur turned to his frequent collaborators and craftspeople to create a grounded fantasy with stark parallels to the modern world.

Del Toro’s latest big-screen feature, a personal animated version of Pinocchio is told in the Mexican director’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 often told tale 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. It was developed by filmmaking pioneers del Toro has admired, such as George Méliès (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, 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 says.
“We were able to react to the material on a week-to-week basis. We were able to re-board sequences, we were able to add sequences. It is really a beautiful pace that is more deliberate, but also just simply more organic to the way I like to make 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 role. Del Toro reteamed with numerous actors with whom he had worked before, including David Bradley, from del Toro’s sci-fi/horror series The Strain (the voice of Geppetto), as well as frequent collaborator Ron Perlman (the voice of Podestà); and Cate Blanchett from last year’s Nightmare Alley (who provided the vocalizations for the monkey Spazzatura).

The voice cast is rounded out by Ewan McGregor as Sebastian J. Cricket; Christoph Waltz as ringmaster Volpe; and Tilda Swinton, who plays both the Wood Sprite, who grants Pinocchio life, and Death.

On working with the cast, del Toro says, “We kept the actors separate from each other, except in the case of Pinocchio (Gregory Mann, pictured) and Geppetto, where we did feel we needed moments of chemistry between them.”
On working with the cast, del Toro says, “We kept the actors separate from each other, except in the case of Pinocchio (Gregory Mann, pictured) and Geppetto, where we did feel we needed moments of chemistry between them.” COURTESY OF GABRIEL HUTCHINSON/NETFLIX

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 (known for the Cartoon Network fantasy series Adventure Time).

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 was hoping to talk about things that were very important for me and that would reflect today. One of the things that I cherish as a virtue is disobedience,” del Toro says. “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.”

Enderle on one of the Pinocchio sets at ShadowMachine.
Enderle on one of the Pinocchio sets at ShadowMachine. JASON SCHMIDT/MICHEL AMADO CARPIO/COURTESY OF NETFLIX

The director adds that working in fantasy offers the opportunity to explore these themes. “I think fantasy is always illuminated by the larger arena of either philosophy or politics or ideas. That’s what makes it new and interesting again,” he says. “I thought this movie could embrace imperfection and could embrace freedom as antidotes to a suffocating dictatorship.”

He is quick to add that Pinocchio is not merely 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 thought it was important to deal with how briefly we have each other and how life is made valuable by death, which are concepts that are very, very Mexican, but [ones] that, ultimately, I believe in,” del Toro says. The director explains that the film is “thematically about different types of fatherhood — what it is to be a father, what it is to be a child. And there are different types of parental figures in the movie. Some are lethal, some are exploitative, some are permeable to love. And, finally, a very paternalistic concern is the fascist idea of the Fatherland and the father-figure style of leadership.”

In designing the Italian village, co-production designer Curt Enderle says, “There is a language to Guillermo’s films. We wanted it to feel as full and realized as anything else.” (Pictured from left: Set decorator Gillian Hunt and scenic artist Susanna Jerger.)
In designing the Italian village, co-production designer Curt Enderle says, “There is a language to Guillermo’s films. We wanted it to feel as full and realized as anything else.” (Pictured from left: Set decorator Gillian Hunt and scenic artist Susanna Jerger.) COURTESY OF JASON SCHMIDT/NETFLIX

An emphasis on design was paramount, and the film’s thematic complexity is reflected in its overall look. “One of the descriptions he loved using for our world was ‘perfectly imperfect,’ ” co-production designer Guy Davis says of his longtime collaborator. “There’s a sense of realism but not reality.”

The story starts with a puppet, and the design of the eponymous wooden boy began with inspiration from the illustrations of noted children’s book author and illustrator Gris Grimly (also a co-producer on the film). “He created a really simple, incredibly powerful, almost elemental distillation of what a wooden boy would be,” says del Toro. “And that figure is what gave me the idea that this could work as a stop-motion.”

Puppet painter Yooseon Veronica Hwang works on Cricket. “There’s so much performance needed out of the cricket,” says head of puppet fabrication Georgina Hayns of several Cricket puppets, including one that was 9½ inches.
Puppet painter Yooseon Veronica Hwang works on Cricket. “There’s so much performance needed out of the cricket,” says head of puppet fabrication Georgina Hayns of several Cricket puppets, including one that was 9½ inches. JASON SCHMIDT/MICHEL AMADO CARPIO/COURTESY OF NETFLIX

To achieve the look, del Toro turned to Portland, Oregon, a hub for stop-motion talent, and approached Mark Gustafson — a veteran of the former Will Vinton Studios (the studio behind the California Raisins) who was animation director on Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox — to team up on directing. They then partnered with animation production company ShadowMachine (Robot ChickenBoJack Horseman), with founders Alex Bulkley and Corey Campodonico boarding the movie as producers (del Toro, Henson Company CEO Lisa Henson and Gary Ungar, a producer on The Strain, also produced). 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.

More than 150 puppets were created for the film.
More than 150 puppets were created for the film. COURTESY OF JASON SCHMIDT/NETFLIX

One of the skills in creating stop-motion is breathing life into the puppets’ movements and gestures. There are various ways of constructing puppets for stop-motion, and the filmmakers mostly used the method that involves internal face mechanics covered by a movable silicone skin. “You can really connect with the puppet, deeply,” says del Toro of this type of construction.

Pinocchio, however, was created with replacement animation, meaning that the animators replaced face parts to create various expressions frame by frame. Head of puppet fabrication Georgina Hayns explains that this is because it was crucial that Pinocchio appear to be made of wood (the main Pinocchio puppet was 9½ inches tall — the “most manageable” height for a stop-motion puppet, according to Hayns). “We did an early test with the silicone skin and it didn’t work, it looked like rubber. [Replacement animation] allowed us to keep the wood grain. The whole look of Pinocchio is a stylized realism.”

“I think the most sacred link in stop-motion to me is between the animator and the puppet. No other form of animation has that tactile connection,” del Toro says.
“I think the most sacred link in stop-motion to me is between the animator and the puppet. No other form of animation has that tactile connection,” del Toro says. JASON SCHMIDT/MICHEL AMADO CARPIO/COURTESY OF NETFLIX
The many faces of Pinocchio were created using a 3D printer.
The many faces of Pinocchio were created using a 3D printer. JASON SCHMIDT/MICHEL AMADO CARPIO/COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Animation doesn’t have production sound like there would be on a live-action set, every character and sound in this world had to be created from scratch. Supervising sound editor and designer Scott Gershin (another del Toro alum, from Pacific Rim and others) says that the creation of Pinocchio’s sounds when he moves involved a lot of wood, including maple, mahogany and rosewood guitar woods, but also Foley work and library sounds. “If we only stayed with wood, it only gave us one dimension to the vocabulary of Pinocchio. So then we started adding in little squeaks [and other sounds],” he recalls. “We wanted to find the delicacy of some metal squeaks, a little bit of rubber squeaks, and many different types of wood that we used to really define all the emotions of his movement.”

Concept drawings of Pinocchio by co-production designer Guy Davis, based on Grimly’s illustrations.
Concept drawings of Pinocchio by co-production designer Guy Davis, based on Grimly’s illustrations. JASON SCHMIDT/MICHEL AMADO CARPIO/COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Because of his small size, Cricket — a combination of mechanical and replacement parts — presented one of the more challenging tasks for the creative team. In the end, the artists made a 9½-inch hero (or main) cricket to perform, in some cases alongside a “very large-scale Pinocchio head” for shots of both characters. Smaller crickets were created for long shots. “We also had to make stunt crickets for all the funny scenes where he’s squashed on multiple occasions through the movie,” Hayns says. “We made Claymation, one-off heads that could be frame-by-frame squashed. And then, for the body, we did a hollow skin of silicone with aluminum wire and metal armature underneath. So you could literally squash the body and then the wings, which we pre-bent in very intentional crushed shapes.”

Puppets were also dressed in real fabric costumes. “We did a lot of costume reference searching from Italy of that time period,” Hayns explains, adding that for the ringmaster Volpe’s costume, “we found a dogtooth weave on a tiny scale in a woolen, woven fabric that has all the right stretch qualities. So we used that fabric, but then we dyed it and painted into it to accentuate the dogtooth.”

“Then that dictated the scale of everything that the cricket had to play in with,” Hayns continues, “so we actually made a very large-scale Pinocchio head.”
“Then that dictated the scale of everything that the cricket had to play in with,” Hayns continues, “so we actually made a very large-scale Pinocchio head.” JASON SCHMIDT/MICHEL AMADO CARPIO/COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Such meticulous work also went into the overall production design. Davis, who shared production designer responsibilities with Curt Enderle, says they researched villages in Northern Italy during the time period, and Geppetto’s town is ultimately an amalgam of various places and inspirations, weathered and textured. “There’s a sense of history to everything. And I think that’s one of the things that grounded the film. It’s not too slick or cute. It’s a lived-in world, with its own past.”

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.

“Everybody learns from him as opposed to him learning from everybody,” he says, pointing to how his version of the story is a kind of “reversal” of its traditional telling. “You don’t have to change who you are to be loved, you don’t have to turn into a ‘real boy’ through obedience to be loved.”

For the scene set at sea when a dogfish (pictured) swallows the characters, co-director Mark Gustafson says, “The characters are still shot in camera, but we just couldn’t 1 2 3 4 take on that volume of water,” adding that they relied on CG water and digital techniques in order to complete the scene.
JASON SCHMIDT/MICHEL AMADO CARPIO/COURTESY OF NETFLIX
For the scene set at sea when a dogfish (pictured) swallows the characters, co-director Mark Gustafson says, “The characters are still shot in camera, but we just couldn’t 1 2 3 4 take on that volume of water,” adding that they relied on CG water and digital techniques in order to complete the scene.
For the scene set at sea when a dogfish (pictured) swallows the characters, co-director Mark Gustafson says, “The characters are still shot in camera, but we just couldn’t take on that volume of water,” adding that they relied on CG water and digital techniques in order to complete the scene. JASON SCHMIDT/MICHEL AMADO CARPIO/COURTESY OF NETFLIX