Pinocchio: A Passion Project

In December 2022, we finally saw the release of a stop-motion project more than ten years in the making. Guillermo del Toro, known for his otherworldly life action projects such as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, announced his adaptation of the classic Italian children’s book The Adventures of Pinocchio back in 2008, only for the project to fall into the proverbial “development purgatory” for a number of years. The high-concept interpretation of the source material, del Toro’s predilection for dark themes, and the very nature of the stop-motion medium itself daunted most studios, making it incredibly difficult for the film to find funding.

Despite its rocky start, Pinocchio is a success story. Following its heavily anticipated release, the film received glowing reviews and dozens of award nominations, including several for the upcoming Golden Globe Awards in January 2023. One might wonder how the team behind this film pulled off such a feat, but after even a single viewing, it’s plain to see the passion and artistry in every frame.

Along with a touching story about grief, fascism, and individuality, Pinocchio has a distinct visual style that brings the inanimate character models to life in a way that has never been seen before. The titular character’s appearance strays from the typical depiction, looking more akin to a spindly, wooden Frankenstein than a little boy. While all the characters are designed to have an unusually wooden disposition, as though they were all painstakingly carved from wood, Pinocchio’s status as an outsider is apparent at first sight. His asymmetrical features and eerie, shambling movement immediately declares that he is different, which all too often translates to dangerous. From the perspective of both the characters and our world, he is a challenge to the status quo.

Creating this effect is an incredible feat by the animators. A short documentary on the film’s creation, Pinocchio: Hand Carved Cinema, features a number of live-action videos, in which the animators themselves acted out scenes with each other to use as a reference. The technique is very similar to that of rotoscoping—an animating technique that allows animators to trace individual frames of a live-action video, resulting in fluid and lifelike progressions. It gives the animators the opportunity to incorporate subconscious mannerisms they might otherwise not think of including. People aren’t perfect and often make minuscule mistakes such as going to pick something up, missing it the first time, and readjusting to pick it up again. In something as precise as stop-motion, every gesture needs to be planned, which would allow little things like this to be forgotten about. In this film, however, their importance was emphasized, bringing a whole new level of realism to the characters.

“One of Guillermo’s initial conceits was really making sure that you hold on to the realness and the tactileness of stop-motion, and the idea that you animate mistakes.”

Corey Campodonico, “Pinocchio: Handcarved Cinema”

In terms of movement, there is one subject that bears the most importance: expression. Body language can tell us a lot about a character and their motivations, especially when it comes to unorthodox creature designs, but for humans, their facial expressions grant us the ability to relate to them. In the past, a great deal of stop-motion projects used a transplant technique. This required their sculptors to create a separate face model for every expression and mouth shape, which would then be swapped out on the main character model to create a moving face. This technique was used in Pinocchio, but was notably only used for the wooden boy himself. The more human characters were constructed upon a complex mechanical skeleton, which would enable animators to simply push and pull their silicone faces into position between shots, resulting in a more naturalistic illusion of muscle movement. They opted against this for Pinocchio, believing that it would make him too “fleshy”, for lack of a better term. For a character made of wood, the static style of the transplants would better communicate his unnatural form.

While it’s vital that the characters feel alive, the importance of the world they inhabit cannot be understated. The setting exists as more than a background for the scenes; it suggests a larger world beyond the story itself. Pinocchio takes place in Mussolini’s Italy—a country with a lavish history covered in layers of fascist propaganda. The town in which the story begins is clearly ancient, with crumbling architecture and fading frescoes from the Renaissance, all framed by a dramatic mountain range on the horizon. However, the ivy covered walls are marred by paintings of Mussolini and messages demanding obedience. Even the actions of unnamed passersby suggest a larger story is unfolding, made familiar to us with infamous right-handed salutes and nationalistic comments. If anything, the world of Pinocchio is its own character: a parodistic critique of fascism and propaganda that follows every character and influences every decision. 

“If I’m gonna make a movie about disobedience being a virtue, what better place to set it than in an invisible string world, where everybody obeys except the puppet?”

Guillermo del Toro, 2022

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a dark fairy tale, meticulously crafted by masterful designers and animators that found a deep connection with the story. While del Toro’s directorial style is evident, every frame echoes with the voices of the hardworking animators behind them. From the very beginning, Pinocchio was a passion project; at every turn, the creatives had to fight for this story they knew they had to tell. After more than ten years, it finally graced the big screen and streaming services, bringing their visions to life. It’s an inspirational tale for any aspiring artist.

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