If you don’t count the four-legged, anthropomorphic characters and familiar ensemble cast, Isle of Dogs is a very different animal from director Wes Anderson’s first stop-motion film, Fantastic Mr. Fox. A dystopian, post-cosmopolitan tale crammed with exquisitely crafted details, the Japanese fable is awash in references both storybook and filmic — The Little Prince meets The Seven Samurai, Rankin-Bass does Throne of Blood. We spoke with cinematographer Tristan Oliver, an early Aardman employee who first worked with Anderson on Fantastic Mr. Fox, about how his camera setup changed this time around, the limitations of shooting Wes Anderson’s beloved wide and deep shots in stop motion, and what led him to the world’s tiniest green-screen shoot.
You got your start in stop-motion in the camera department at Aardman in the early 1990s, starting with such classic Wallace & Gromit shorts as The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, on through Aardman’s first features. How did this experience inform your approach to stop-motion cinematography?
Tristan Oliver: Philosophically, that was an incredibly rich period for me. There were really only a handful of people at Aardman then: there was Pete (Lord), Dave (Sproxton) and Nick (Park). What Dave Sproxton, who co-founded the studio with Pete, was moving towards was a way of shooting stop-frame animation that was essentially no different from shooting anything else. The idea that you just put a large flat light over the top and shoot it as you did children’s TV series animation was of no interest to him or anyone else there. We were driving a cinematic approach to shooting animation and trying to find a way to make it as beautiful and filmic as live action, without any real concessions being made to the medium of animation. To be in there when that was happening meant I grew up, if you like, with that perspective.
Do you shoot live action?
I do, actually, but you know what the business is like: one very quickly gets put in a little box and I tend to mostly shoot stop-frame these days. But I, ironically, shot all the live-action footage for Loving Vincent (the recent Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature). We shot over about 18 days, some on full sets, some on partials and some in fully green screen. It was a proper live shoot, but it was fast and furious to get it done on that schedule. So they then took the footage, cut it, reprojected it and painted over it. It was certainly a unique process, but the second half happened far away in Poland without my involvement. As a very different visual experience, I think it worked extremely well. It’s really had the most astonishing success, given that when I was on board with it, it was barely more than a Kickstarter.
When did you begin work on Isle of Dogs?
Right after I shot Loving Vincent. In October 2015, we started camera testing. But because of the modern nature of DSLR camera manufacturing, every time you do a film like this, which takes several years to shoot and complete, you have to find a new camera. The cameras, of course, get better and better, which is good. The Canon 5D, which we had been using, was not the best camera, by any means, to be shooting animation on. This time we had a lot more choice and we ended up with a Canon 1DX. It was great and overcame a lot of the problems we’d experienced with the 5D. But, you know, halfway through the production of Isle of Dogs, they stopped making it! So that left us, and also Aardman, who were shooting Early Man on the same camera, scouring the second-hand market for cameras so we could complete our inventories. We started at B&H in New York and they luckily had some, and we shipped a number of others from the States to get our final cameras. We had a total of about 80 of them shooting on about 45–50 camera units. Those additional 30 were those being passed through the cleaning and maintenance process; you always need a few sloshing around just to keep good cameras everywhere at all times.
Is this the most units you’ve worked on at once?
No, it isn’t. The most was at Laika. On ParaNorman I think I had 56 units. In terms of scale, Laika always goes the farthest. They just wrapped on Chris Butler’s latest and I think they had over 90 at one point, which I have to say is absolutely insane as a concept! How you would keep your head with that number of units I don’t know. At 56 I was living, breathing and eating it.
In Isle of Dogs you can see plenty of examples of a favored Wes Anderson shot: super wide and super deep. But that’s got to be really tricky on such a small scale with DSLRs. How did you make it work?
It is very, very difficult, and that’s because of the physics of stop-motion. We work very, very close to the camera, and the wider the lens — and he does favor quite wide lenses — the nearer the camera you need to be. So you end up hitting the minimum focus point on the lens, but then he’ll want quite considerable depth of focus through the shot. That is actually physically impossible! So, the first thing we’d do would be to shut the lens right down and work with the aperture at minimum, almost like pinhole photography. Although you get a bit more in focus that way, then it all tends to get a bit foggy. You’re looking through a very small piece of glass, so it’s not the best way to work. So the other thing we did was we would shoot in layers, essentially: we would shoot the foreground guy on a little green card for a bit of green screen, then we would shoot the shot again, focused further back, then stitch the two planes together. This, of course, is very time-consuming. We had a few other tricks, too, but we were constantly banging our heads about what you could and couldn’t do. That’s the beauty of Wes: he got it and he understood the very real challenges, but at the same time he wanted it to look like his live-action movies look. But in live action, you’re not trying to focus at four inches but at four feet. In that world, the optical possibilities open up before you. The other thing is, if you’re working that close to the camera, actually avoiding camera shadows becomes very difficult. The camera, relative to the character, is about the same size as a large family car. It’s huge.
This film has a very different look to it, especially when compared to Fantastic Mr. Fox. Beyond the markedly different aesthetic, from the Japanese graphic design to classic film influences, what were you doing differently during the shoot?
It did differ in some very significant ways from Fantastic Mr. Fox, especially with the exteriors, which on Isle of Dogs became highly formalized and planar in terms of color blocking. I definitely think that was being informed by the woodcuts. The skies, for example, became a sort of universal white gray. There was very little key light. We had perversely come back to the kind of children’s series look that we had been trying to move beyond all those years ago with big wrapped soft light sources and very little idea exactly where the light was coming from. The interiors were much more interesting from a camera point of view because the texture and the jewel box-like quality of the interiors lent themselves more to making things look beautiful. The exteriors were unremittingly uniform, whereas on Fox we did play around a lot with color and direction and that continual sense of autumn and late evening. It gives it that glow. It was a very red, orange and yellow movie to begin with, but it does have more light sculpting to it. Isle of Dogs became flatter and flatter as we went. There are exceptions — when we meet Nutmeg, for example — but most of the daytime shots, Wes just wanted it to look polluted, I think, so that’s why we came to where we ended up.
Anderson has mentioned in interviews how the films of Kurosawa influenced Isle of Dogs. But if you look for it, you can catch glimpses of so much more, from Ozu’s Tokyo Story to the 1960s films of Seijun Suzuki. What did he want you looking at in preparation?
It was a really big melting pot. Wes sent me references of about 40–50 movies. You’re right: it wasn’t just the hardcore Japanese black-and-white films, but also much later Japanese color films from the 1960s and 70s that were trying to emulate the Hollywood style in a uniquely Japanese way. We’ve ended up with a movie that’s trying to look like a Japanese movie that was trying to look like a Hollywood movie, and on and on. It wraps itself round and round, layer upon layer, in that very specific Wes Anderson way.
What was a typical day like for the camera crew on this project?
It was pretty busy. First, we’d see dailies, and that’s just a bringing together heads of departments process so we can resolve anything. Because we’re shooting digitally we kind of know what we shot the day before anyway. Then we’d go to the studio floor. On any one day, there might be 20 or 30 sets that need turning round and need redoing. The new set would come in, it would be crawled all over by the art department, who would prop it and paint it and dress it, then we would go in, set up the camera [and] the motion control and the set would be lit. For myself, I would typically be looking after maybe 13–15 units, which means completely hands-on: I’d be standing in that space with my gaffer and we would be up ladders and lighting it and making it work. I had a couple of other guys working for me, who were also lighting; I would give them an initial brief and then I’d see all the test footage that they were shooting. Sometimes I would just sit with them in the theater and give them extra notes. My number one priority is it has to look coherent, as if one single hand created the film’s look. I had a top-down vision of everything that was coming off the studio floor, plus my own workload. You just get into a rhythm and it all starts to work. Sure, some days are absolutely insane. The camera crew in total is only about 22 people, and that includes my electricians, gaffers, my camera assistants, the motion control department and technical support. It’s actually quite a small number inside a very large space. We are running around that space pretty fast and furious on a daily basis. And on top of that, we’re of course getting feedback from Wes: I’m sending him material and he’s responding to the lighting, framing, whatever over the network in pretty much real time. We did this for about 82 weeks, which is pretty average for a film like this. We shot Chicken Run in 78 weeks and ParaNorman in 86.
Obviously technology won’t ever be able to speed that process up.
You’ve got to go frame by frame. This type of animation takes a very long time. People always say, “You must be very patient.” But I’m never there when the animation takes place. The set is brought to a point of readiness and then the animator goes in and is left on their own. They don’t want an audience. The concentration is so intense that having anyone else with you in that space is very difficult. One short shot can lead to weeks and weeks of animation. They are working as fast as they can. It just takes time. We shot Curse of the Were Rabbit and Chicken Run on 35mm film and it took no longer! Our digital workflows haven’t increased the speed at all.
Do you have a favorite scene, shot or set?
There were some sets by which I was delighted, just because they were so nice to work on. The sake bar was a particular favorite of mine: that long, faux-Western bar with the light coming through the colored beaker flasks on one side. In the workshop, I collared that myself so I could get in there and do the magic. There were other sets that were just fantastic to work on that, unfortunately, flash quickly past you in the final film. It really does warrant a second viewing because there is so much going on visually. On the island there was a set we called the “Animal Testing Plant” where, toward the end, Chief is taken on a tour. It is absolutely vast with beautiful construction, with vines and trees growing in and out of it. It took weeks and weeks to construct and dress. I’ve got photos of half a dozen set dressers painstakingly putting in rust stains and weeds, and it looked fantastic. But you don’t get to see a lot of it, in the end. The damn thing is there, and then it’s gone. But it was lovely to go to work and just stand there and look at it.
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