Guillermo del Toro, Mexican director of Pan’s Labyrinth, The shape of waterand Pacific Rim, has always been an animator. But Pinocchio by Guillermo del Toro, available now on Netflix, is his first animated feature, arriving 30 years after the start of his career. Things could have been very different. Before debuting with the 1992 vampire film Chronosdel Toro was actually preparing a stop-motion animated feature film.
“I started animation,” del Toro told Polygon. “The first Super 8s I did were animation. I had an animation and effects business for 15 years. We did commercials. I started the stop-motion movement in my town. I was teaching stop-motion, and I was preparing a stop-motion film before Chronos.”
Then disaster struck. “My brother, my then girlfriend and I made 120 clay puppets. We made the sets. And one evening, we went to dinner and to the cinema. And when we came back, our house had been broken into. They had destroyed all the puppets, they had pooped and pissed on the ground. And I turned around – it was three years of work – and I said, ‘I’m going to do Chronos. I’m going to make a live action movie. “
It must have been a devastating blow. It took del Toro decades to find his way back into the medium, though his return seemed inevitable: as he describes it, “Since then, I’ve taken a very deliberate detour into animation.” The “detour” included co-directing some episodes of his Netflix CGI animated series, troll hunters, and employing considerable practical creature effects and CGI footage in its live-action films. “If you know Pacific Rimyou have seen 45 minutes of animation made by me”, he underlines.
But throughout his creative life, one project lingered in his mind that he believed needed to be done purely in animation, and stop-motion animation: Pinocchio. For del Toro, the 19th-century tale of a wooden puppet animated by Carlo Collodi was perfect for the medium, and he couldn’t understand why no one else had done it yet.
“The first idea I had when I was a kid was to do it in stop-motion, because I thought that that way humans and [Pinocchio] exist in the same world,” he says. “The hardest design element to solve in a Pinocchio movie is that Pinocchio and humans need to feel like they belong in the same universe, and of course stop-motion solves everything.”
Del Toro decided to finally make his stop-motion Pinocchio 15 years ago. The majority of this time was spent trying to finance the film; before Netflix, everyone turned it down. It was too uncommercial, too strange, too badly situated between the family audience and the adult audience to be marketable. Once finally launched, the film took nearly three years to complete: production began in early 2020, alongside del Toro’s previous film, the dark drama alley of nightmares.
It sounds like a headache, but del Toro found the making of both films both “delicious,” helped by the way the production of a stop-motion film slowly ramps up, as dictated by the beat. time at which puppets, props and sets can be made.
“The thing to understand is that you don’t start with all the units on the animation. You start with one unit. And you generate X number of frames per day. Then you double that. And now you run two units and double the number of frames, then you spawn four units, and you spawn four times, and finally we ended up with 65 units, more or less.
The end result is “a massive operation that ends up spanning a thousand shooting days”, but the ramp-up is slow. While he was shooting alley of nightmares, del Toro was able to start and end the day with step-by-step instructions for creating some animation footage, which he found focused and refreshed. “I loved it. I loved it! It was almost a relief,” he says. “It was really incredibly beautiful. You know, running an animation is so thorough, because you have to dictate certain gestures. And you have to explain the emotional state of the puppet, and the physical state of the puppet, and where you are in the story. It takes you right back into the movie.
Del Toro says he “intends to continue” making animated films, but as he well knows, fate can intervene. Pinocchio was not meant to be his first stop-motion film; who can say if it will be his last? “It never happened in the order I wanted it to,” he says. “That’s why we’ve been making this movie for about 15 years. It never happens when you want it to, but it happens when it has to.