Production designer Paul Harrod would some day like to collaborate directly with fellow production designer Adam Stockhausen. For the time being, though, Harrod has to settle for at least having worked on the same film--but at different intervals--with Stockhausen. That film is Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated fable Isle of Dogs (Fox Searchlight), a journey that begins with a city’s dogs being exiled to a vast garbage dump due to a contagious canine flu. Accustomed to being pampered, the former house pets go wild, forming little survivalist groups. The protagonist group is led by Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston) and consists of Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum).
Whereas Stockhausen has a notable track record of collaboration with Anderson--yielding a Best Production Design Oscar for The Grand Budapest Hotel and plaudits for Moonrise Kingdom--Isle of Dogs marks the first Anderson film on which Harrod has worked.
Harrod got the gig in large part based on his relationship with production designer Nelson Lowry who teamed with Anderson on Fantastic Mr. Fox. “Originally they contacted Nelson (for Isle of Dogs) but he was busy on Kubo and the Two Strings,” recalled Harrod. “I give Nelson his first job in stop motion at Will Vinton Studios. He’s a good friend. He moved back to Portland and became sr. production designer at the Laika studio. It was Nelson who recommended me for Isle of Dogs.”
Harrod was drawn to the project, captivated by the script. Stockhausen and Anderson worked together extensively in pre-pro on Isle of Dogs. “They developed the design guidelines for the film. Adam worked with the concept illustrators, laying the foundation,” said Harrod. But Stockhausen had to move onto Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. “Adam handed the project over to me. We did the mind meld and he downloaded all of this information to me, sharing all the input and emails from Wes. Adam passed the baton to me but unfortunately we never got to work together side by side. I would have loved to have worked with him like that.”
The pair of production designers created the entire universe of Isle of Dogs--even natural phenomena from clouds to smoke, waves and toxic fumes. Their references included Japanese film--from Kurosawa to the tokusatsu (special effects) and kaiju (monster) films (several of the Godzilla titles) from director Ishiro Hondo. Also in the mix were the influences of Stanley Kubrick, as well as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, for the look and design of the Trash Island wastelands. Isle of Dogs entailed the creation of some 240 highly detailed micro sets--from the red lacquered Municipal Dome to the monochromatic science labs to the ashen ruins of Trash Island with its overhead trash tram.
The biggest challenge, observed Harrod, was “the sheer scope of the film, the number of sets of different scales we had to put together--from pretty simple to quite complex like the animal testing set. All of them had to have animator access so that they could get in there and manipulate the puppets.”
A different perspective
Harrod noted that Anderson “loves this form of filmmaking and wanted to go kind of old school with it by doing as much in camera as possible, including atmospheric effects.”
Harrod went on to say of Anderson, “He is continually challenging you to think a little bit differently. I have over 30 years of experience professionally in stop motion animation. Most heads of departments on the film are similarly very experienced. We would all get together and talk over the best strategy for doing something--based on what we had done in the past. We’d present those strategies and Wes would say he didn’t want to do it the way it was done before. ‘Let’s look at how we can do something that isn’t a rehash of some of the projects you’ve done in the past,’ he would say. That can be both challenging and a little frustrating. You ask yourself what good are my decades of experience? Why not hire people with no experience and none of the baggage we carry? But as you start to see the results of trying to look at a problem from a completely different angle, it becomes kind of fun and exciting. It reinvigorates and renews your passion for your craft. That for me is the biggest takeaway from working with Wes. Isle of Dogs isn’t like anything else I’ve ever done. It’s quite unique. I think I will try to go forward with any projects--stop motion or live action--and bring that fresh perspective and renewed enthusiasm for craft.”
Reflecting Anderson’s nontraditional approach to stop motion was the use of long tracking as well as pan focus shots, keeping everyone in character. Cinematographer Tristan Oliver realized this within a tiny depth of field due to the size of the sets. He also figured out a special way to light dog fur so that it didn’t look flat. Oliver’s contributions were significant in terms of advancing the storytelling. He is a Fantastic Mr. Fox alum and a stop-motion specialist whose credits include the classic clay animation Wallace & Gromit shorts and stop motion features such as Chicken Run and ParaNorman.
Oliver is one of many artisans whose work meshed with that of production designers Stockhausen and Harrod. Others include Mark Waring who headed animation for Isle of Dogs, and editors Ralph Foster, Andrew Weisblum and Edward Bursch. Waring’s credits include Frankenweenie, Corpse Bride and Fantastic Mr. Fox. The trio of editors also earlier worked on Fantastic Mr. Fox. Weisblum earned a Best Editing Oscar nomination for Black Swan.