The Stop-Motion Puppets in Wes Anderson’s ‘Isle of Dogs’ Required a Costume Designer
Maggie Haden created clothing for five sizes of human puppets — and one adorable canine.
Writer-director Wes Anderson's stop-motion animation film "Isle of Dogs" is both a heartwarming story about a little boy and his unconditional love for his dog — and a narrative of disenfranchisement of a vulnerable community (dogs) by a corrupt authoritarian mayor, which might feel a bit familiar these days.
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Set 20 years into the future in the fictional Megasaki City, the quirky director's latest project pays homage to Japanese art and culture, with references to great directors Akiro Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Seijun Suzuki, plus '50s monster movies and overall pop culture, the latter of which already has plenty of people talking. To help, regular Anderson collaborator Kunichi Nomura was on the story team and voices Mayor Kobayashi, the city's dog-hating (but cat-loving) leader who decrees that all canines must be banished to the remote Trash Island. His ward Atari (voiced by bilingual then-eight-year-old Koyu Rankin) takes off in his mini Junior-Turbo Prop plane to rescue his beloved bodyguard dog and best friend, Spots Kobayashi (Liev Schreiber).
On the island, Atari is aided by a motley pack of exiled dogs, including street smart stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), former Megasaki Dragons Little League baseball team mascot Boss (Bill Murray) and gossip-loving Duke (a golden-voiced Jeff Goldblum). Back in Megasaki City, the mid-century-suited mayor plots the permanent demise of the dog population, while foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) engages fellow sailor-uniformed classmates in pro-dog activism, also reflective of current times.
"Isle of Dogs" took two painstaking years to make, involving 1,000 handmade puppets — 500 dogs and 500 humans — and a crew of 670, from puppeteering to animation to costume design. Because, yes, stop-motion animated puppets need costume design, especially because each character required five scales of puppets: oversized, large, medium-small, extra-small and "hero."
For the colossal task, Anderson called on "Fantastic Mr. Fox" alum Maggie Haden, a model maker, puppet builder and costume designer who specializes in making miniature clothing. Ahead of the movie's premiere on Friday, March 23, she jumped on the phone with Fashionista from the U.K. to discuss how she translated Anderson's vision into teeny puppets, what pedigree was required to make Mayor Kobayashi's tailored suit and why creating a baseball jersey for one of the doggies was the biggest challenge of it all.
What inspiration did you look to when envisioning Japanese clothing and fashion 20 years into the future?
Wes [Anderson] obviously thought very hard about what he wanted his future to look like. We had drawings from him, and he also gave us a list of films he would like us to watch, especially some beautiful Japanese films: old, as well as new ones. A lot of Ozu [and "Kagemusha" and "Ran" by] Kurosawa. Also, we were looking at anything we could track down. One of our great inspirations was Japanese wrapping paper. The head of the puppet department happened to have some vintage Japanese wrapping paper, which was absolutely beautiful. We were also looking at Japanese woodblock printing art. There was an overall [inspiration] and then we would focus in on a certain character and Wes might say, "I really like this gangster feel of this character; can we use elements of that for the Mayor?" Also, sometimes the fabric dictated a little bit which way that would go. It came from here, there and everywhere, to be honest.
What exactly is the process for making costumes for five scales of stop motion-puppets?
I was working on the movie for over 18 months! For years, I've been working on [a technique for] printing onto fabric just through a computer. I've managed it before, but it's never been very stable, but I felt like we really nailed it this time, which makes life so much easier for us. When we design fabric on a computer program, we can run the fabric through computer because [the puppets are] quite small; you don't need meters and meters of it in one piece. You can then just make it 50 percent bigger or a little bit smaller. Just so you can have exactly the same fabric, but printed at different scales. It also means we could be very specific with patterns. For the geishas and for Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono's [voiced by Yoko Ono] trousers, things like that, we could be really specific.
What are the actual sizes of the smallest and the biggest puppets?
The very smallest one: From his shoulder, he's about an inch-and-a-half to the floor. Yeah, tiny. And the big ones were about, maybe, six or eight inches from the shoulder. Then, imagine: It's going to be blown up. It's going to be shown in cinema [on a screen] like 60-feet across, so you have to get it right. You have to get it perfect, otherwise you can just see all the flaws in it. In the past, I've been like, "Oh, no!" But this time, I was pretty pleased, actually, with what we produced. I got to see a lot of it projected as we were going along, so if there were any problems, I could address it.
For the Mayor, I bought some, what I thought was really fine, beautiful fine cotton — it was gorgeous — for his shirt, and when I saw it projected for the first time, I, well, I sort of screamed. It looked like he was wearing a sack — a shirt made of a sack — and it just looked terrible. I'd looked at it under a magnifying glass, but it showed up [on screen] terrible. That all had to go — only silk for their shirts [going forward] because it was the finest I could get.
What was the inspiration behind Atari's silver spacesuit, and how did you make the textures pop so vividly on screen?
That was a slight miscommunication that Atari ended up like that. [Laughs] I thought Wes wanted him in a silver spacesuit. I think he meant "silver white." I found a Japanese tech fabric — so the scale of the threads to weave it is really, really fine and small — and I made it up as a sample and showed it to him. Wes really liked it. He thought it looked slightly absurd — and he really liked that — and it looked a little bit Ziggy Stardust, which I really liked.
I realized it was going to be difficult to find some in a different scale, but I've been making puppet costumes for over 30 years now, so you get a feel sometimes for a fabric. I said to my head of the department, "I want to try it in the smaller scale without changing the fabric. Just change the size of the pockets, the size of the zips." So, we did. And your eye just shrinks it. It's very strange, but it actually works. I used the same fabric for the different scales, but because we shrank everything on it down, your eye just shrinks to the pattern. The woman who was making the costume props came up with a beautiful two-part zip-head which just finishes the zips off and makes you believe they're real. Absolutely beautiful.
I read that you found a Savile Row-trained tailor making Mayor Kobayashi's white suit. What was that experience like?
One of my [team members] is Savile Row-trained, so I asked her if she would like to make the Mayor's suit because he's quite a strange shape, apart from anything else. She took three months to get that first costume to where we needed it to be. It was very difficult. I think I made her life much harder because I'd brought some fabric with bamboo in it, which I thought was great because it had a slightly Japanese feel and it would make it different, but it made her life trickier. It's was very, very hard, but we got there. A challenge, let's say that.
I liked how the high school sailor-like uniforms were personalized for each student, like the punk-goth girl with distressed sleeves compared to the more straight-laced Tracy.
I really loved the students. One of the nice things about working for Wes Anderson is he likes people to be in uniform, but he never insists on everything being exactly, exactly the same. I think he enjoys the kind of the differences you can make in the uniform and what that says about the person. So, it meant that personalizing them, you're adding to who they were and you could immediately tell, "Oh, this person is a little bit punky." We used different fabrics, but they still seem to be a uniform, as well. It's subtle differences, but enough.
You also made a dog costume, too: Boss's baseball jersey from his mascot days. What was that process like?
Have you been talking to someone? You've been picking the most torturous costumes! [Laughs] Because there's more than one size of him, it was quite difficult to get the stripe. I know it sounds ridiculous. Because the process involves animating, as well, we ended up glueing the stripes onto him. I think they're a silk thread. We embroidered the Dragons logo and edged it with a tiny silk thread because the impression that Wes wanted was that it was stitched on, rather than embroidered on. But it was so small. We tried to have the "Dragons" laser cut. On the larger one, it's actually laser cut, from what I remember, but the small ones we had to embroider. I really liked him. I think sometimes, when they're tricky to bring to life you almost have a fondness for them at the end.
What was the biggest challenge in creating costumes for the movie?
The challenge was the scale of fabric and getting that right. Because there were so many scales, like Tracy's skirt; getting those pleats that tiny and so perfect and actually being able to animate them and then on another scale. Yeah, that was good fun.
How did you make pleats so tiny?!
It's a trade secret, I'm afraid. I'm not going to tell you that one.
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