Designing Visuals for a Unique Stop-Motion Story Based on Japanese Culture That Were up to Director Wes Anderson’s Specs Was a Complex Task, Co-Production Designer Explains
Director Wes Anderson’s new stop-motion animated film, Isle of Dogs, is built on a foundation of Japanese cultural imagery, and that meant the visually obsessed filmmaker needed an intense collaboration with his production design team, headed up by co-production designers Paul Harrod and Adam Stockhausen. Harrod recently spoke to Studio for the Podcasts from the Front Lines series, and emphasized “it’s unlike any project I’ve worked on before, and I’ve worked on a lot of stop-motion projects. That’s partially because Wes has such a distinct visual sensibility and is involved in every aspect of design.”
“For stop-motion animation, every single thing — every nut and bolt that you see, every vent on the wall, the telephone cord, electrical outlets — all that stuff has to actually be designed and fabricated,” he adds. “There are no ready-mades, so we had to go through a process of identifying and constructing every single thing you see in the film.”
Harrod essentially took the baton from Stockhausen after Stockhausen departed to transition to his duties on Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Harrod says there were 250 miniature sets created for the movie, making it what he calls “a massive undertaking.”
The movie basically tells the tale of a young boy determined to recover his dog after it is exiled from a fictional Japanese city, along with all its other canine inhabitants, by corrupt government and corporate forces. Harrod suggests the movie is meant to show a somewhat futuristic version of Japan, but futuristic “as seen through the eyes of someone from 1963.” He calls the painstaking design a sort of “retro-future environment, but with lots of ‘old Japan’ peppered in there.”
The design team, he adds, referenced a wide range of iconic films and photography to come up with their look. “Adam and Wes had already figured out a basic strategy for the design, which was to start with ukiyo illustrations from the Edo period in Japan, and then screens and prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige. That was a building block, but instead of making them beautiful pastoral countrysides of 19th century Japan, they became literally landscapes of trash [for the central location in the film, Trash Island]. Then, the next place we looked was Japanese films. Kurosawa, of course, was a big influence, but also filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu, [Seijun] Suzuki, [Mikio] Naruse, and others. We also drew a lot on Japanese industrial design from the period, including from the conceptual architectural movements like the Metabolist architectural school. That was a group of architects who focused on urban planning and how to deal with an increasing population.”
Harrod also emphasizes that the collaborative nature of designing unique visuals for Isle of Dogs was more intense than on most projects. He says his collaboration with the director, cinematography department, art director, and visual effects teams were extremely detailed. Plus, the movie relied heavily on a graphics department, as well.
“One thing that was incredibly helpful were our graphic designers, particularly Erica Dorn and Chinami Narikawa, who are both Japanese,” he says. “They were crucial in helping us find a style for all the graphics—and there is a lot of graphic work in the film—and were also great fact-checkers. Chunami, in fact, at the very beginning, was my research assistant and she dug very deep into the period we were after. She could find things like a TV news van from the mid 1960s, or a sake vending machine — great little details we have buried throughout the film. These are things that were very specific to Japan, not necessarily made for export. So this was a real team effort.”
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