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Interview with Tim Allen, Key Animator on Wes Anderson's "Isle of Dogs"

Tim Allen animating on the set of Isle of Dogs. Source: YouTube.

“The Wes style of movement has a simplicity & a more experienced animator has to learn to not put in the little tricks or flair that they may have used animating elsewhere,” Tim Allen – an animator whose career spans decades and includes credits on prestigious projects such as Shaun the Sheep, Postman Pat, Fireman Sam, The Flying Machine, Creature Comforts, the Oscar®-nominated films My Life as a Zucchini, Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the Oscar®-winning short film Peter & the Wolf – tells Stop Motion Geek, describing the metamorphosis his animation style underwent on one of his most recent projects – Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, currently available on digital and set to be released on Blu-ray and DVD on July 17th. “The Wes style is direct & clear,” he goes on. “I take the old stop motion phrase & embraces it: ‘Less is more’.”

"Atari" Isle of Dogs character poster. Source: Google Images.

Although the “Wes style” is something of a “back to basics” approach to stop motion – in the sense that the animation style featured in Isle of Dogs (as well as in Fantastic Mr. Fox) embraces the byproducts of the handcrafted nature of the medium such as “boiling,” a term used in the stop motion industry to refer to the physical impression left on a puppet, set, or practical effect by an animator’s hands, giving audiences a breath of fresh air in a medium where pristine, seamless stop motion seems to be the dominating trend – in terms of scope and ambition Isle of Dogs is far from modest, as it very well might be the most practically and artistically complex stop motion feature film to date. In Allen’s own words, “The sheer number of sets & puppets in IOD dwarfs that of Fantastic Mr. Fox. There are so many locations & characters made to exquisite detail, that are seen for a few seconds, then never again. Wes was more precise in the level of detail he wanted & you see this on screen with more polished & impressive visuals.”

"Mayor Kobayashi" Isle of Dogs character poster. Source: Google Images.

The end result of Anderson’s vision and its execution by incredibly talented crew – not the least of which were Allen and his associates – is truly breathtaking, amounting to a film astounding in breadth, ambition, and abundant in intricacy and adroitly applied craft. The part Allen played on the production involved animating many of the primary human characters featured in the film, such as Mayor Kobayashi, Major Domo, and Atari, which – as he tells Stop Motion Geek – involved animating many incredibly subtle, emotional scenes.

As well as having a prolific stop motion career earning him credits on many of the most prestigious stop motion short films, features, and television shows of the past two decades, Allen also has an extensive side-career of teaching the craft of stop motion to animation students all over the world – commonly involving Allen lecturing to groups of students as well as working one-on-one with students to critique their animation – oftentimes taking place over the course of workshops spanning several days.

Tim Allen lectures students about stop motion, specifically showcasing his work on Frankenweenie. Photo courtesy of Tim Allen.

In our interview, Allen discusses the challenges related to the general shortages of work in the stop motion industry he ran up against early in his career and how he managed to overcome them. He also discusses the changes his process of animation underwent so that he could to animate in the “Wes style of animation,” both on Isle of Dogs and Fantastic Mr. Fox. He also breaks down how Isle of Dogs managed to advance upon Anderson’s take on the medium in increasing the complexity of its production design, special effects, and animation style while still retaining the tangible, handmade quality that sets Wes Anderson’s stop motion films apart from other contemporary stop motion productions. Allen also gives us a beat-by-beat description of the evolution of one of the film’s most memorable shots, in part describing how Wes Anderson worked with him to bring his vision to fruition in the shot. He also gives his advice to those working in the stop motion industry for how to create an extensive and sustainable career. He also tells us about what he’s learned from his teaching opportunities, and how he’s applied those lessons to his life. You can read our interview in full below.

A.H. Uriah: Hello, Tim! Thank you so much for doing this interview! It’s truly a pleasure to feature you and Isle of Dogs on Stop Motion Geek!
I usually like to start interviews with the interviewee telling us about how they got into the medium. However, in doing the research for this interview, I realize that you’ve gone into that subjects on several past occasions (which readers can learn about by reading your excellent interviews with the London Film School, Animdesk, and BreakThru Films). So, to keep from retreading old ground, I would like to start with a different question.
In your interview with BreakThru Films, you mention a one-and-a-half year long period in your life after graduating Glamorgan University with a degree in animation where you essentially had no paid work. Can you tell us about the personal projects, experiments with the medium, and education in stop motion you undertook during this dry-spell period for work? How did you – and what do you recommend to – keep your skills sharp when you’re being offered no professional work?

Tim Allen: The truth is that when I graduated it wasn’t so easy to animate in stop motion at home as it is now. Video assist was only just becoming more affordable, with the main player being a chunky EOS computer & rostrum costing £1500. As a graduate I couldn’t afford that & I quickly realized how lucky I’d been to have had access to the university facilities we’d had (& yes whilst at uni we moaned about lack of equipment!). So to begin with, my skills were starting to get rusty. I did start funding myself by taking all sorts of shift work as a cleaner, lifeguard, running children’s parties. I’d try to visit animation companies in the same town on the same day to save on petrol! Some of my approaches to companies did lead to unpaid work experience & it was here that I started taking my next steps to sharpen my skills.

Tim Allen on the set of Fireman Sam, Allen's longest stop motion animation job. Photo courtesy of Tim Allen.

I did a couple of weeks at Hot Animation where I was animating Bob the Builder puppets on a test bay. They gave all work experience people the same exercises to do so that we could be directly compared as potential future animators. It was the first time I’d used a professional armature & I immediately started trying things I’d been to nervous to do with my own homemade puppets. I also got a few days as a trainee model maker at Aardman & some weeks here & there at a Bristol based company called Elm Road (where I first did unpaid work experience). I was very nervous but given simple props to make, often using materials I hadn’t used before. The standard of everyone’s work around me was much higher than it had been at university, so I had to raise my standards. It was intimidating but at each of these companies I found most people were open to be asked questions & advice so that I could learn to from them. I was paid nothing or very little, but being surrounded by professionals taught me a huge amount even though I was only occasionally working with them.

Tim Allen animating an armature. Photo courtesy of Tim Allen.

Technology keeps improving & today you can buy very decent webcams (I use the Logitech C902 in my workshops) to do test animation at home. There are more things like YouTube videos to help with model making techniques, but the really trick is to try to spend some time with professionals & be an information sponge. Be friendly, ask questions & learn as much from others as possible, then try it for yourself.

Tim Allen animating on the set of the Shaun the Sheep television show. Photo courtesy of Tim Allen.

A.H.: In your interview with Skwigly, you say, “When I first started off on Fantastic Mr. Fox, I did a few tests – just a bit of dialogue with Fox himself – where I was trying to get a feel for the Wes style. My stuff was too smooth and flowing and had lots of interesting little subtleties of animation. It was a bit too similar to my work on Corpse Bride, to be honest. I had to really learn to simplify things. In the Wes style, things move in a’s got quite a punchy, stylized way to it.”
Can you elaborate on this learning process? On Fantastic Mr. Fox as well as Isle of Dogs, how did you unlearn that which you before practiced in order to learn the “Wes style”?

TA: With every project you need a bit of time to learn what sorts of movements are appropriate for the style & characters. With the Wes style you learn to do more ‘efficient’ direct movement. For example, when turning a head, normally you’d make it turn in a slight curved arc. On a Wes movie it’s directly left to right with no curve. When making hand gestures, it goes very directly, moving from the first to last position with no overlapping action or ‘drag’ of delaying the fingers then flipping them forward at the last moment. The Wes style of movement has a simplicity & a more experienced animator has to learn to not put in the little tricks or flair that they may have used animating elsewhere. The Wes style is direct & clear. I take the old stop motion phrase & embraces it: “Less is more”.

Tim Allen animating on the set of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Photo courtesy of Tim Allen.

A.H.: There was something about the style of animation on Isle of Dogs that felt slightly more sophisticated and ambitious, perhaps, than Fantastic Mr. Fox, although it certainly still had the same handmade and tangible qualities that make Wes’s take on stop motion so lovely.
In a similar vein to the previous question, when coming to Wes Anderson production for a second time – and, thus, the “Wes style of animation,” again – with Isle of Dogs, how did you extrapolate upon your prior experience on Fantastic Mr. Fox to create the look and feel of Isle of Dogs? Did you feel an overall shift in the film’s aesthetic from that of Fantastic Mr. Fox?

TA: One main noticeable enhancement was the handmade special effects. Credit here goes to Tobias Fouracre, the Animation Supervisor, who ran a team of assistants testing every special effect you see in the movie. Much more time & resources were given on IOD to developing new approaches to water, fire, animated lighting, etc. It is a real exploration & celebration of what can be achieved in stop motion. The making of video in your links below, Isle of Dogs: Weather & Elements, shows it better than I can ever describe it.

Tim Allen animating on the set of Isle of Dogs. Source: YouTube.

Also the sheer number of sets & puppets in IOD dwarfs that of Fantastic Mr. Fox. There are so many locations & characters made to exquisite detail, that are seen for a few seconds, then never again. Wes was more precise in the level of detail he wanted & you see this on screen with more polished & impressive visuals.

Tim Allen animating micro scale puppets on the set of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Photo courtesy of Tim Allen.

A.H.: In your interview with Skwigly, you say that, “Wes [Anderson] is very hands-on about all sorts of intricate little details, so it’s really a case of talking through how you think he wants the shot. He then might correct you on a few things, but it’s quite technical in terms of the positions that he wants, the exact timing he wants a character’s head to turn. So it was slightly less of a ‘I creatively go for it,’ and more of a ‘we map out every little beat of that particular shot in detail and then I just realize that.’”
Can you describe for us a particular shot (whichever you like) in Isle of Dogs that you worked on, how you worked with Wes to “map it out,” and the evolution of it from storyboard/“lavs” (live action videos of Wes acting out a scene) to final composition? Also, on Isle of Dogs, were you interacting with Wes on set in person or via a video chat?

TA: Let’s take the shot where Mayor Kobayashi stands up out of the hot tub to reveal the tattoo on his naked back. The animatic for every shot is very detailed in its timing so I knew the speed of how it should all play out & did a ‘block’ (a rehearsal with less puppet movements per frame to finish the block much faster than the final shot). Based on the block, Wes wanted to tweak certain key poses I’d made. He wanted the Mayor to hold the test cards with a more specific hand gesture to show disdain as he places them in the fire. He wanted the position on the Mayor standing naked to be just the right height, with a small gap visible between the Mayor’s legs. When Professor Watanabe turns to Yoko Ono, Wes specifically wanted the Mayor’s head to turn but not his body. I take this feedback on & make sure he gets what he’s asked for.

Tim Allen proudly displays the shot described above. Source: The London Film School.

Wes is in contact with so many people all day & giving out so many specific instructions that it all needs to be in writing so that nothing gets missed. Therefore most interaction is written down via email & he’ll often film himself of take photos of his hand holding objects to give a clear visual of what he’s after.

Tim Allen animating on the set of The Flying Machine. Photo courtesy of Tim Allen.

A.H.: In your interview with Animdesk, you make the point that, “Everyone wants more product, much quicker, for less money. Adding to this I’ve noticed the complexity of work has increased. So in theory you should need more time for more complex animation, but in fact less time is the trend...It can make for a stressful environment.”
Similarly, in your interview with BreakThru Films, you remark that, “There’s normally pressure to get things done as quickly as possible (for understandable financial reasons!). In fact the key to making beautiful stop motion fast is all in the preparation time. It’s like struggling through an obstacle course when you’d be better off removing the obstacles and just sprinting to the finish line. You’ve got to take responsible decisions to get the balance right.”
While also being perhaps the most complex stop motion film to date, Isle of Dogs also seems one of the most efficiently and effectively run productions. What do you think the Isle of Dogs production did right in terms of how it was run, and what do you think other productions should learn from it?

TA: With IOD many of the crew had worked on Fantastic Mr. Fox so we understood the way Wes worked & embraced that. Wes is very hands on even with establishing the structure of how he communicates with the crew. It was his second stop motion feature film of course so I feel that everyone had a better understanding of each other & how best to approach things. Essentially it was run the way I feel it should be. Everything fits around what Wes needs – one creative vision, from one source, with the crew working to provide that vision. Simple yet efficient.

Tim Allen animating on the set of the Shaun the Sheep television show. Photo courtesy of Tim Allen.

A.H.: You’ve worked professionally in the stop motion industry now for over eighteen years, which equates to quite a lot of accumulated experience. What advice would you give to stop motion animators hoping to sustain a career as long and as consistent as yours has been?

TA: The one constant is that things do change. Embracing that is key. Being flexible & trying new ways of working means I keep learning & having fresh challenges. It makes change a rewarding & exciting experience where I continue to learn & progress.

Tim Allen animating on the set of the Oscar®-winning short film Peter & the Wolf. Photo courtesy of Tim Allen.

A.H.: In erstwhile interviews, you discuss your extensive side-career as a teacher of the craft of stop motion animation. In your interview with Animdesk in particular, you specifically discuss what you hope your students learn from your masterclasses.
I would like to flip that question around: What have you learned about stop motion and what lessons have you incorporated into your work/life from teaching and working alongside your students?

TA: The first thing that teaching others taught me is communication. Learning how to get your message across to others is a skill for life & this is equal to your ability to listen to their feelings & needs. If you want to be heard & understood, you need to understand who you are talking to & what they need to hear. With animation, I am expressing emotions through a puppet. With teaching I am interacting with people, who all have slightly different ways of communicating. The more I learn about human behaviour it makes me a better teacher, better at interacting in a studio, & better at projecting thoughts & emotions through a puppet.

Tim Allen demonstrates animation technique to several students. Photo courtesy of Tim Allen.

A.H.: In your interview with Animdesk, you mention that “You [an animator] do need to take a step back every so often, look at where the work is and isn’t coming from and make some informed decisions about your next steps….I love the sheer variety my career has granted me but I should try harder to not move as much. I reevaluate my direction and goals quite often.”
In closing, I would simply like to check in with you to see how you’re doing in reference to that comment: What are you doing now to reach that Zen-like balance between work and sustainability in your life and career that you weren’t doing ten years ago? How would you recommend fellow animators go about making such decisions?

TA: Well I’m more established as both an animator & mentor now than I was 10 years ago so I’m more relaxed in myself & fortunately am getting more offers these days. I’ve had an intense few years animating non-stop, but levels of animation work will always peak & dip, so I enjoy various forms of teaching in between to give me variety.

Tim Allen animating on the set of the Oscar®-nominated film Corpse Bride. Photo courtesy of Tim Allen.

I have a home in London where I’m very happy & proud to be part of the community. When possible I animate nearby & give animation workshops with the aim that local schools, businesses, festivals & of course myself can all mutually benefit from. I also have just as much fun travelling to other countries to run workshops for a week or so. It makes for a wonderful experience & shorter trips away don’t disrupt my home life. Whether near or far from home, it’s the same philosophy – I’m building bridges, making new contacts, catching up with old friends & developing opportunities that all parties will be better for.

Tim Allen animating on the set of the Oscar®-nominated film Frankenweenie. Photo courtesy of Tim Allen.

We make decisions all day, everyday. To guide such decisions, I’ve learnt to be a good listener. Listen to what others want, listen to what I want. Both in life & each project. I find that by focusing on what other people need, as well as my own needs, & aiming to fulfill both, we’ve the best chance of our collaboration being rewarding for all.

Tim Allen at Annecy Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Tim Allen.

You can read and listen to Allen’s previous interviews with other blogs by clicking on the following links: interview with London Film School, interview with Escaleta Revista Universitaria de Cine, interview with Animdesk, interview with BreakThru Films, interview with The Skwigly Podcast (in which Allen’s interview starts at around 1:40:00).

You can learn more about the making of Isle of Dogs by watching several featurettes released by Fox Searchlight Pictures by clicking on the following links: Isle of Dogs – Making of: Animators, Isle of Dogs – Making of: Puppets, Isle of Dogs – Making a World: Weather & Elements, Isle of Dogs – Making a World: Megasaki City & Trash Island, Isle of Dogs – An Ode to Dogs on Set, 360º Isle of Dogs Behind the Scenes in Virtual Reality, Isle of Dogs: Cast Interviews. You can also learn more about the film by visiting the Isle of Dogs’ page on 20th Century Fox’s website.

You can purchase a digital copy of Isle of Dogs by visiting Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, and Movies Anywhere. You can also pre-order a Blu-ray or DVD copy of the film – set to be released on July 17th – on Amazon by going here.

Furthermore, Stop Motion Geek has previously interviewed three more individuals who worked on Isle of Dogs – animator Andy Biddle whose interview you can read by going here, animator Quentin Haberham whose interview you can read by going here, as well as Gerald Thompson, who designed Mantis, the motion control software used on Isle of Dogs, whose interview you can read by going here.

You can learn more about Tim Allen, his work, and his upcoming workshops by visiting his websiteInstagramLinkedInTwitter, and Vimeo.

You can stay tuned for upcoming interviews and articles by subscribing to Stop Motion Geek via the “subscribe” button at the top right corner of our homepage, by following us on our Facebook @StopMotionGeek, or by following us on our Instagram

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