Given the current Bay Area worries over canine flu, the premise of the soon-to-be released Isle of Dogs is not too hard to believe: An incurable canine Snout-Fever epidemic has overcome Japan’s Megasaki City some 20 years from now. The mayor of the prefecture banishes all dogs to Trash Island as a quarantine measure to protect dog flu from harming humans. One boy, Atari Kobayashi — the 12-year-old orphaned ward of the evil mayor — however, longs for his expelled guard dog, Spots, and goes looking for him, crash-landing his plane on the island where he meets up with a band of mutts and mixed breeds that assist his search. Meanwhile, the plot thickens on the archipelago, where the cats are conniving and the politicians dastardly.
Bay Woof was lucky enough to attend an early screening of the movie in February in Emeryville; the U.S. release is March 23. Dog lovers and stop-motion animation fans, kids and adults, won’t want to miss this one, with it’s clever storyline, eye-popping effects, and lovable mutts. It’s a masterpiece of a stop-motion animated film by director-producer Wes Anderson — his second, as Fantastic Mr. Fox was his first — with a huge all-star cast featuring Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, and Scarlett Johansson and lots and lots of other big names.
Not sure what stop-motion animation film is? Lead animator Jason Stalman filled in some gaps for Bay Woof via a telephone interview from London. Stalman’s main characters were Chief, a untrusting stray in the beginning (voiced by Cranston), and Nutmeg, a flirty but street-smart show dog full of tricks (voiced by Johansson).
In stop-motion animation, the main characters are physical puppets, first conceptualized and conceived then built and ultimately photographed and filmed in tiny increments and minute position changes someone manipulates with gravity affecting how the puppets look, move, and act. Elaborate rigging systems of pulleys, winches, and cranes with external supports are created for moving the characters around the sets, but all are painted out so they never make an appearance in the final film.
Stalman said these four-legged critters proved much harder to animate convincingly than the customary two-legged species most animators are more familiar with. But real dogs were observed closely, enabling artists to get everything right from doggie walking, standing, sitting, running, and tail wagging to scratching, jumping, sniffing, and greetings. These dogs talk, so artists relied on their imagination on any anthropomorphic aspects, but they carefully mimicked the real deal for barks, howls, and behavior cues.
Stalman is a veteran of the stop-motion animation genre — magical and full of richness, he called it — and characterized the specialized industry as occupying an extremely narrow niche. He worked with Anderson on Fantastic Mr. Fox, and it was Anderson who recruited him for Isle of Dogs. Stalman said yes unhesitatingly to Anderson, explaining, “You don’t say no to that opportunity.”
“It was an honor and real privilege,” he said of working with Anderson. “A dream come true.”’
He said he looks at his career in stop-motion animation as the most rewarding, crazy, magical type of work he could dream up for himself. “I am very lucky to do what I love, even if I don’t know how I got here,” he joked.
By the way, Stalman lives in dog-friendly Portland and doesn’t have a dog but affirmed, “I would absolutely love a dog.” Oh, and he is most definitely not a cat fan.
ISLE OF DOGS Fun Facts
• Production, which was intense and meticulous, took more than two years.
• There were more than 670 crew members working on the film, including 70 to manipulate the puppets and 38 in the animation department.
• Production occurred at 3 Mills Studios, which is nearby a real “isle of dogs” on a peninsula in the Thames River that started in Henry VIII’s reign.
• The fur on the dogs was repurposed from alpaca and merino wool used for teddy bear manufacturing.
• The robot dogs were the only characters created with 3D printers and thus is the only 3D printed puppet in the movie.
• The credits — from modelers, prep artists, and set dressers to puppet makers, fabricators, and camera operators — take a long time to see to the end.
(Sourced from the film production notes.)
Main article photo by: Courtesy The Isle of Dogs