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Made by Hand: The Puppets of ‘Isle of Dogs’

Andy Gent’s puppet fabrication crew handcrafts more than 1,100 animatable puppets and some 2,000 background characters to populate Wes Anderson’s ‘Isle of Dogs.’ 

‘Isle of Dogs’ directed by Wes Anderson. All images courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

If there’s anything boys are attached to as much as their dogs, it’s their toys. That makes Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs a trifecta, with head of puppets Andy Gent saying the film required his team of more than 70 puppet fabricators to create 1,105 animatable puppets of dogs and humans and 2,000 background characters for the movie.

“To say it was pretty ambitious would be an understatement,” says Gent, who previously worked with Anderson on the animated sequences in The Grand Budapest Hotel as well as the animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Head of Puppets Andy Gent

Isle of Dogs follows Atari Kobayashi, the 12-year-old ward of the mayor of Megasaki City, who goes in search of his pet, Spots, after the city exiles all dogs to a vast garbage dump to mitigate an outbreak of dog flu. Anderson directs from his own screenplay, based on a story by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura. Anderson assembled an all-star voice cast that includes Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Jeff Goldblum, Frances McDormand, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono and Tilda Swinton. Opening in limited release March 23, the film expands to a full national release as of April 6 from Fox Searchlight.

The number of puppets made for the movie were split fairly evenly between dogs and human, with puppets made in five different scales: oversized, large, medium small and extra small.

With each “hero pack” puppet taking about 16 weeks to build, the process was intricate and involved, Gent says, starting with initial conversations with Anderson that determined the scale of all the puppets, props and sets on the movie would be set by the focus on the dog characters, which evolved in the making of the puppets.

Then the sculpting began. “We did 60, 70 different sculpts -- very [Alberto] Giacometti like -- and Wes would pick bits he liked off of one and then we would slowly come to the start of a character,” says Gent. “We would develop characters with him and he’d go, ‘Oh, yeah, we should try this and see where that takes us,’ and then we had the hero pack, which is Spots and King, Rex, Duke and Boss.”

The dog characters had ball-and-socket armature for their facial expressions, while replacement faces were created for the human characters. The first test was done of a dog body without a head, which was odd to watch but also exciting, Gent says. “To me, it’s one of the most magical moments in stop motion,” he says. “We’ve just spent months and months and months with teams of people and it comes back to you and you see it talking, and it’s a real lump in the throat moment.”

The dogs themselves were designed to be mutts, not representative of any particular breed of dog. “We tried all sorts of different combinations,” says Gent. “I would meet with friends with dogs or go walk in the park and meet people and would go, ‘Yeah, I quite like the ears on that one.…’ Everybody that I’ve known, their dogs, some of part of their dogs, has been called in to service, from an elbow to a paw to a tail to an eyebrow.”

The script required 400 to 500 different types of dogs, so the sculptors used every trick in the book to make each look distinctive. “We just had to sculpt and try different heads, different bodies, different thicknesses, all sorts of things,” Gent says.

Fur was of course one of the most distinctive ways to differentiate the dogs -- and also one of the most problematic. “The last thing you want to use in stop-motion animations is fur, because it’s alive and it doesn’t do anything you want it to do and it’s out of control because it’s long and thin,” Gent explains. “We’d learnt a lot about the use of it and how to manipulate it or control it or not control it in the right way on Fox.”

Gent says they used alpaca and mohair, which the animators have found easier to work with, as well as merino wool fur from a stuffed animal manufacturer that could be dyed in the hundreds of colors needed to make that many dog puppets. The fur would be stiffened and a medical adhesive used to put it through a material similar to nylon leggings, and cut and groomed. That fabric would be then put over the puppet’s foam body, allowing it to stretch and move with the puppet.

“The fur was remarkably good, it does hold up quite well,” Gent says.

The lead characters each had multiple puppets so that they could be filmed on multiple sets at once or replaced should something become worn out or break, Gent says. The wear in some instances worked in favor of the film, with the dogs having lived a hard, dirty life on Trash Island. For those that did need repairs or touch up, “puppet hospital” was maintained.

For the humans, replacement faces were used, each hand created instead of 3D printed. “Wes really wanted this to have a sense of being handmade, of being touched,” says Gent. Each face was sculpted, molded, painted and then each hair places by hand.

The characters ended up with a smaller than usual palette of expressions to match the style of Japanese films that were influencing Anderson. “There was something limited about the expressions,” he says. “It sort of went hand in hand with Japanese theater and masks and big expression changes.”

There also was a lot of science involved in creating the translucent resin used for the faces. “You can’t get that look with 3D printing, certainly not yet,” Gent says. It would take several days do a face and up to three weeks to paint a full set of faces for one character. “And we got hundreds of human characters,” Gent says.

American exchange student Tracy Walker, voiced by Greta Gerwig, was one of the more difficult characters to handle.

One of the most challenging characters to handle was freckled American exchange student Tracy Walker, voiced by Greta Gerwig.

“We liked the idea that she had a few freckles and we were immediately thinking, ‘Well, that means she’s got 20, 30, 40, whatever faces -- so we’ve got to paint each freckle to match the position on every face,’” Gent recounts. She ended up with 321 freckles, with four face painters matching the freckles with exacting accuracy.

It was such specialized work on such a tight schedule that Gent jokes none of the face painters could afford to get sick or take off any time without blowing the timeline. “You couldn’t hand one face over to another person because it just wouldn’t work,” he says. “These are the sort of things you go through just make to this particular film -- all by hand and all by such amazing artists coming together.”

Thomas J. McLean's picture

Tom McLean has been writing for years about animation from a secret base in Los Angeles.