How Guillermo del Toro’s Animators Brought Pinocchio to Life, One Frame at a Time

The holiday season is always a gift to movie lovers. Many of the buzziest Oscar contenders, along with some of the biggest budget productions, come to screens large and small. From the spendy Avatar: The Way of Water to the Hollywood epic Babylon, this year has plenty to offer.

But what sets Netflix’s Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio apart is that it’s so meticulously and exquisitely handcrafted it looks as if it might have been made with a little touch of elven magic.

This story about “imperfect fathers and imperfect sons” is a gift not only to lovers of stop-motion animation, but also to those who crave stories that make you laugh and cry, and make you think and feel. As del Toro himself says, “Animation is a medium. Animation is film. Animation is art, and it can tell stories that are gorgeous and complex, and that feel handmade by humans for humans.”

One of the humans key to bringing this reimagined version of Pinocchio to life is Georgina Hayns of ShadowMachine who, as director of character  fabrication, takes us on a journey through the process. And while it might demystify what our eyes are seeing, it doesn’t detract from the magic of the experience. More than that, it demonstrates the beauty that lies in imperfection.

An imperfect path

As a child growing up in England, George (as most people call her) was challenged by academic subjects, a result of her dyslexia. But what she discovered was that she excelled at anything artistic. “I was the kid that made things—literally picked up every scrap of fabric, every scrap of paper,” she says. “Thankfully we had great art classes in England, and I couldn’t not be good at any kind of art and craft that I put my hand to. And I was incredibly fortunate that my parents saw that and didn’t try to put a round peg into a square hole. They let me follow my desires to do something creatively.”

George’s biggest problem, a good one to have, is that because she excelled at everything from drawing to painting to sewing to making jewelry, she didn’t have a clear direction for how to turn her talents into a career. “It was at the point when one of my lecturers said ‘Right, you’ve got to think about what you’re going to study at university,’ and I just didn’t know because I loved it all.”

Her a-ha! moment came one day when her father, an antiques collector and part-time dealer, took her to an antique fair. “Initially I’d kick and scream about going. ‘I don’t like old things.’ But this one day I saw some dolls from the turn of the century. Some of them had costumes that were torn and shredded, or fingers that were broken. There was this one particular doll and I told my dad that I’d found something antique that I liked. He was so encouraged that he bought it for me, and that was the start of me collecting antique dolls. And it was also the start of me thinking, ‘Ohhh, I know what I want to do. I want to make art dolls.’”

No. You’re too good an artist to make dolls.

“At the time, I was on this very brilliant two-year Art Foundation course in my hometown, and my lecturers were inspiring. But they were from the 1960s and were all fine art painters or sculptors, and when I went in and told them that I wanted to make dolls, they were horrified. ‘No, you’re too good an artist to make dolls.’ Those were their exact words,” George recalls.

“That night at home I was disillusioned. I talked to my mom and dad, and then I just literally had a brain wave. ‘Wait a minute. Aren’t puppets an artistic form of dolls?’”

Inspired by the puppets in Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, George went in search of anything she could find about puppet making. “I got every video, and books out of the library, and I looked into all kinds of puppets, from marionettes to shadow puppetry,” she says. “Getting into the stop-motion world was purely geographic. I went to university to do film in Manchester, and Cosgrove Hall Films was there. I was doing puppet making and ended up getting a work placement with them, and they, of course, were the foundations of MacKinnon and Saunders.”

The beauty of asymmetry

If you’re a fan of stop-motion animation, chances are you’ve seen MacKinnon and Saunders’ work. From Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Mars Attacks!, and Frankenweenie, to Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, to Bob the Builder, the projects done there—and subsequently by their distinguished alumni—are some of the most beloved stop-motion films and shows of all time.

The project that ignited George’s career was Corpse Bride, which led to her being contacted by director Henry Selick, a collaborator with Burton on The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. Selick had gone to Portland-based LAIKA Studios and was helping them become serious contenders in the stop-motion world with Coraline. George relocated to the US to work on that production and spent the next 12 years there working on The Boxtrolls, ParaNormanKubo and the Two Strings, and Missing Link.

But even during her time at LAIKA, she kept up a relationship with her friends at MacKinnon and Saunders. So when they contacted the people at ShadowMachine (also in Portland and LA) about del Toro’s project—which had already been in development for years prior to getting greenlit by Netflix—George was immediately tapped to head up the puppet department.

“I came onto the project very early, along with the production designer, art director, and character designer. Some puppet supervisors want to say, ‘Well, we can’t do this or we can’t do that.’ But I prefer to allow the character designers to come up with these fantastical, amazing designs which they then present and we problem solve as closely as we can to the design. We talk about things that may be difficult or cost prohibitive and work it out as we’re going. That’s my philosophy, and that’s why it’s key that I’m there from the beginning,” she says.

On Pinocchio, George worked closely with art directors Guy Davis and Curt Enderle, as well as with co-director, Mark Gustafson—another Portland-based stop-motion veteran—and animation supervisor Brian Leif Hansen.

“During the first part of the film I work on getting into the director’s head, into the production designer’s head, and working out what the general feel of the movie is. When I first walk into a movie, it’s 2D illustrations of characters, and I’m asking a million questions about them. I need to know what they are going to have to do in the movie, about their personalities, and what they look like,” she says.

“Once I’ve got all of that information, then I can start crewing up. Pinocchio was a very collaborative project in that MacKinnon and Saunders had done an animation test 12 years ago, and ShadowMachine partnered up to work with them, as well as with a studio in Guadalajara, Mexico, in Guillermo’s hometown.”

“It was his vision to shoot part of the movie there, so we had a small team of puppet makers there, one of whom traveled to England and was trained by MacKinnon and Saunders, and then went back to Guadalajara to make the black rabbits. So I was overseeing the art direction of all of the puppets across these three different countries,” George says.

Pinocchio was at once daunting and thrilling. Guillermo del Toro, who has previously referenced the stop-motion work of the legendary Ray Harryhausen, was committed to making a film that not only contained the imperfections inherent in stop-motion animation, but celebrated them.

And George’s sensibilities perfectly suited his intention. “When I’m walking down the street, what I find interesting about looking at people and at the world around me is all of the asymmetry. If you see a perfect specimen of symmetry and beauty you won’t even spend two seconds looking at that person because there’s nothing interesting to look at,” she says.

As much as we’re blown away by how cool computers are and what they can do, it’s hard for computers to find the imperfection of real living forms and objects.

“Stop-motion gives this organic, real-life quality that I think humans are always going to want to relate to. As much as we’re blown away by how cool computers are and what they can do, it’s hard for computers to find the imperfection of real living forms and objects. They produce a polished version, whereas we just get it for free when we’re doing stop-motion because everything’s done by hand—so you’re never going to get a perfectly symmetrical puppet. It’s going to have the same quality as a human or an animal face.”

Asymmetry plays heavily into the character of Pinocchio himself. Crafted by a grief-stricken Gepetto, one side is fully sculpted but as Gepetto falls into a drunken stupor, the other side remains unfinished, foreshadowing his journey as a character.

The magic’s in the details

Creating a large-scale production based in a small-scale world means that there’s no detail too small to sweat. And because the vast majority of the film was done with physical materials and mechanical animation, there was no shortage of details to work through.

The team does extensive prep work to see how they can properly create (or recreate) the materials they need and how they’ll behave, as George explains. “Especially with a film like Pinocchio that is set in Italy in a specific time period [during the rise of Mussolini in WWII], the illustrator who does the character designs does a sketch with an idea of a costume, and then we have to put all the historical accuracy into that and figure out how we’re going to translate all these different fabrics to the puppet world. How do we create knitwear? Or corduroy? It’s about altering existing fabrics to make them believable to the scale of our world.”

“We review all of that with the director in swatch form on the main characters. And then once the directors are happy, there’s a lot of trust that goes into it and by the time we’re working on the background townspeople we’re a well-oiled machine and we know what fabrics and techniques we’re using. We also do something similar with the paint department. We talk with the director to find out how realistic they want these characters to be.”

“Pinocchio has a lot of human characters in it, and we very quickly realized that Guillermo loved illustrative realism and was really drawn to detailed paint jobs,” she continues. “One of my favorite painters is Andrew Wyeth and one of the main reasons I love his work is that when he paints portraits, if you look closely at the canvas, it’s a mad array of dots and dashes and lines. But then you step back and it’s like a photograph.”

“So I presented a mood board to Guillermo with his work and Norman Rockwell’s work—that era of 20th century American artists—and that was our inspiration. It’s a process I like to use on all of the films I’ve worked on because I think it just adds another level of artistry and design to the puppets, and is something that keeps them connected because sometimes with a puppet-animated film, the designs can be quite different.”

In addition to the humans in Pinocchio there are also animals and insects and fish, and Pinocchio himself, who is made of wood. “It’s the paint jobs that bring them together,” George says. “That’s something that I’m constantly reviewing with the artists and when I’m happy with it I’ll show it to the production designer. And then when we’re all happy we review with the directors.”

It takes a village

George’s job encompasses much more than the creative aesthetic, however. Building physical puppets that work the way they need to is a strategic endeavor that requires input from different teams.

“At the beginning of each character build I come up with my ideas of how we’re going to make that character and how we’re going to approach all the different actions that it needs to be able to perform. Before we ever start working on the actual build, I have the key members of the build team in a room with the head of animation, a person that’s essential for us. And then also in these bigger projects we include the head of rigging.”

Rigging in stop-motion is not the same as rigging in the sense of computer animation, where it’s about creating the movable points on a 3D computer model. In stop-motion, that’s handled by the puppet creators when they build the armatures, and rigging is a separate department that is responsible for placing the characters in the set on elaborate rigs that allow the animators to manipulate them through all their performances.

“Once the puppets are finished and they’re out on set, the riggers work with the animators to hold those puppets in space. So it’s really important that they’re in the initial problem-solving meetings. It’s kind of like King Arthur,” George laughs. “We all sit around a big table and we’ve got drawings in front of us and we’ve got maquettes and information from the character designers. We’ve got a list of what the directors want and the animators there telling us what they want from this puppet, and then we all brainstorm the best approach to building it, literally in that room. I think it’s the most important part of my job.”

But equally important is sharing that information with the team it takes to bring the puppet to life, so to speak. “Sometimes you’ve got 20 people, if not more, working on one puppet. For a character like Gepetto, you need a sculptor, a mold maker, someone who’s casting all of the flesh parts—the silicone parts or foam latex parts—and an armature maker to make the skeleton that goes inside it. There’s a costume maker, and if that costume has any external elements of, say, flowing fabric that has to be linked with the armature, the riggers need to discuss it with the armature makers,” George says.

Which is to say that the form and function are closely linked. Sometimes the puppet fabrication informs the production design and vice versa—and the numerous variables mean that a puppet continues to evolve over the course of its life throughout the production.

A dash of technical wizardry

One of the techniques that was developed at LAIKA is rapid prototyping, a technique in which the facial features of the puppets are created as CG models and 3D printed so they can be easily swapped onto the puppet to change their expressions. It’s been recognized as a groundbreaking use of technology, and it’s part of what gives LAIKA films their signature look.

But although that’s not the look the Pinocchio team was after, they did judiciously incorporate some 3D printing into their workflow. “Guillermo’s hope was that we could put as much control into the animator’s hands to perform through the puppets, and with that decision we decided to go with mechanical animation on most of the heads,” George says. If you watch the excellent Netflix behind-the-scenes film Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio: Handcarved Cinema, you’ll see just how elaborate the mechanical puppets are. As George explains in the film, they’re like Swiss watch movements covered by silicone.

Except that Pinocchio is made of wood, and wood behaves very differently from flesh. “MacKinnon and Saunders did a test in the early days with a silicone head over a core and it didn’t work. So we had a creative meeting right at the beginning. It was the first time I met Guillermo and the MacKinnon team was there, as well. We were brainstorming and we felt that his character needed to be 3D printed face replacements. Because he’s his own thing and the rest of the world are real people.”

In fact, the team broke new technological ground of their own in 3D printing with the Pinocchio character. “Richard Pickersgill had worked with me on Coraline, and with Henry [Selick] down in San Francisco on another project. And in that time he became interested in 3D printing and when he went back to England and to MacKinnon he said, ‘We need to start looking into this.’ Now, the thing with Pinocchio is that he’s only nine inches tall, which means that his limbs and joints, and even his body, are tiny. But he’s the main character so he’s got to be really strong,” George recalls.

“About 13 years ago at LAIKA, after Coraline, we tried to 3D print a metal armature and it was a disaster because there was only one metal you could print with and it was very hard. You couldn’t drill into it. It kind of scared us off because making armatures is such an easy part of the process with CNC machines and mills and lathes. But Richard found a company that 3D printed in metal, and the technology had improved enough that they were able to print a metal that you could drill and solder into.”

“We’d never gone back to 3D printed metal until Pinocchio and it worked brilliantly. The back of his body was metal printed and the front was 3D-printed plastic that was then painted. But his head was color-printed plastic, and the reason we had to do that is because of the wood grain and the expressions we needed him to make. We used the most high-end color printer we could so that the color is essentially animating and moving with the face and only has a natural tiny bit of paint chatter—but that makes it animation.”

The other two other characters that posed mechanical challenges were Spazzatura, the monkey, and Cricket. “The scale of Spazzatura’s head was so tiny and even though he doesn’t talk we wanted him to be able to be really expressive in his facial performance, so we decided to do him as a hybrid,” George says.

“The upper part of his head is mechanical and it’s only about an inch in diameter, and because of the size limitations we would never have been able to get any of the mechanisms that we needed into it. So what we’ve got is mechanical eyes, mechanical eyebrows, and silicone skin. But then because he has a muzzle that defines his mouth area, we were able to do 3D-printed mouth replacements.”

Then there was Cricket, who’s designed to have an exoskeleton. “We wanted to sell that, and we had a lot of hard parts on his puppet build and his eyes were oval-shaped spheres that sit on top of his head. How could we mechanically move those? How are we going to get a blink? So we decided to 3D print those. The rest of him is all made with hard resin silicone parts, and it looks like it’s a hard shell.”

On the other hand, the dogfish puppet is made with much the same technique that was used for the original King Kong. “We made a traditional ball and socket joint for the armature and we cast it in foam latex and I think it’s one of the most fantastic puppets in the movie. It looks amazing and it performed amazingly well,” George says. “We were lucky enough to have an incredible team with years of experience and knowledge from all over, and we use the best techniques that are at our disposal.”

Patience is a virtue

So how long does it take to make a puppet?

“I always say it takes from the beginning of getting the character design in front of you until the last day of filming,” George says. “Because the puppet we send out on the first day of filming is going to go through multiple iterations over the course of a couple of years, depending on what performance they need. From character design to stage-ready puppet it takes 6-12 months to build the first hero puppet for each character. This includes the time needed to set up for duplication.” 

“When the teams are making the puppets, my job is creatively and technically overseeing the production line. Each day I am checking in with the artists and reminding them that they’re working in a team, and making sure they have what they need to do their part and know what they need to deliver to the next artist. At the point when the puppets start to come together as finished characters, I work closely with the production designer and the art director, making sure they’re happy with how all of the surface treatments are looking in the world we’re creating.”

George’s role is all-encompassing, from the smallest detail to the full scope of the film, from the first frame to the last. It’s part of why she relies so heavily on another vital material—the glue—in the form of her production manager, Jennifer Hammontree. “She’s the go between for what the stages need, how we’re breaking the budget down, how long we’ve got for everything. We work really closely together and we’re constantly brainstorming and problem solving,” she says.

As a former puppet wrangler—the person who takes the puppets out to set, brings them back, and knows where they all are—George was impressed with Jennifer’s skills. “When Pinocchio came up, I knew I needed a fantastic production manager by my side, whom I’d worked with before. You’re working with these mad creative artists and she glues us to the production, to the schedule, to the timelines. And she protects us, as well. She allows me to do my creative job.”

Speaking of timelines, there’s a common perception that stop-motion films take longer, or cost more to make than other forms of animation, and that’s not necessarily the case. Because the truth is that almost any form of animation takes time.

If you consider that each second of film contains 24 or 30 frames, and most animation is produced on “twos” (meaning that there are two frames for every movement the character makes), that equates to 12-15 distinctive poses for each character per second of animation in order for their movement to look smooth. And whether each pose is drawn on paper, or on a digital tablet, or applied to a puppet, it will always be a painstaking process, and ideally a labor of love.

Crafty makers

Whether it’s traditional hand-drawn 2D animation or 3D computer animation or stop-motion animation (or a combination of different techniques) the technique is always in service of the story. “If you’ve got a good story, we’re just enhancing it,” George says.

True, but the artistry that goes into bringing a handmade film to the screen isn’t something just anyone can do. While computer-animated films dominate the animation world and virtual production has become one of the hottest ways to create environments, there’s still such an appetite for movies that create a world that looks and feels so tactile. So computers will never really replace stop-motion. “Over the years so many people have told me that I’m working in a dying art form,” George says. “But it’s not true. If anything it’s been exciting to see so many stop-motion movies coming out at the same time.”

In the Portland area alone, while Pinocchio was in production, Netflix’s other stop-motion movie, Henry Selick’s Wendell & Wild, was filming nearby, while LAIKA is still in production with their latest feature just across the river. This is also the year that A24 brought us Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.

“I think a lot of people weren’t even aware that this is a real way to make a movie,” George says. “What’s great about all these films is that young artists are starting to go, ‘Oh, wow, there is a space for me to still make things with my hands and be a part of the film industry but not have to sit working on a computer all day.”

In fact, when seeking new talent for stop-motion teams, George recruits not so much from the film schools as from the more craft-oriented schools. “Sometimes puppet makers aren’t always from where you think they’re going to come from,” she says. “We look for artists, craftspeople, engineers who have an eye for detail. Usually they show an incredible talent in some creative field that’s not usually animation.”

“We look at craft programs for jewelry, illustration, fashion, and textiles. And what’s interesting is the fashion people come with their portfolio and they’ll show us the standard things like pattern making, draping, stitching, and you can’t really tell a lot from that. But then at the end they’ll say, ‘I’ve also got some of my personal work, if you’d like to see it.’”

“One of our best costume makers, her personal work was miniature lacemaking, and we were just like ‘Oh my God, this is incredible!’ One of the best armature makers I’ve worked with came with a degree in philosophy. One of our all-round fabricators was a ceramicist and when we saw the detail of the illustrations on her ceramics we thought she could be really good at puppet making.”

A fairytale ending

But much like the elves in Santa’s workshop, it takes a team to make magic happen. And the team behind Pinocchio made it an especially magical experience for George.

“The production team and the creative team held hands all the way through,” she says. “There can sometimes be a tendency to assign blame when things go wrong, and this movie is a testament to working together. If you get all the right people in the room, you can solve whatever it is and move on.”

From the support of directors Guillermo and Mark, who worked so collaboratively with their artists, to Netflix, who supported the lengthy production process even through the pandemic, George acknowledges the privilege it was to work as such a cohesive unit, and how it shows in the final film.

“Every day working on that movie was a wonderful day for me. I think that’s another reason that you feel the love coming out of the screen. It’s not just the story. And although we had Guillermo at the helm pushing forward with his incredible vision, it was also the entire crew, and the love and passion of all of those artists. And then Netflix was so supportive through lockdown and really stood by us, as well,” George says.

Finishing any film is special, but some films are extra special. For George, Pinocchio holds a unique place in her heart and in her career.

We make fairy tales come true.

“I’ve had an incredible run and worked on some beautiful movies but Pinocchio came at a perfect time. I was able to bring all my years of experience to it, and I got to be surrounded with beautiful objects and beautiful people. You know, we make fairy tales come true. We put them on the screen and there’s nothing more wonderful than the praise we’re getting for it. It is really something special,” she concludes.

Pinocchio explores themes of staying true to yourself, of not changing to please others. The imperfections that helped George find her career in puppet making are the ones that keep our world lively, full of beauty and variety.

At the end of Pinocchio Gepetto embraces his imperfect puppet with love and gratitude. It’s the kind of message that resonates deeply, especially during the holiday season, and yet another reason why, when we are given the gift of an extraordinary film, we should stop to appreciate the magic that happens when an extraordinary group of people commit to a vision and work together to achieve it.

Lisa McNamara

Lisa McNamara is's senior content writer and a frequent contributor to The Insider. She has worked in film and video post-production approximately since dinosaurs roamed the planet.