Hand-knitted grass. Cotton-ball smoke. Bath-towel hillsides. Puppets wait on the verge of their next expression on this meticulously arranged set as a man reaches in from the dim periphery to tweak the gesture of a diminutive paw. This is Brad Schiff, animator for Fantastic Mr. Fox. “I often have that thousand-yard stare when I walk out,” Schiff says of his work. It’s a world in which, typically, minutia is magnified and the movement incremental, but in the hands of director Wes Anderson, even the details have details.
Schiff had just wrapped work on Coraline before joining Anderson’s first stop-motion animated feature-in-progress, which is based on Roald Dahl’s book. A sense of deliberateness marks Anderson’s well-established style — action meted out in theatrical set pieces, costuming oddly out of time, understated dialogue rife with pregnant pauses. Under his direction, everything from wallpaper to wristwatches somehow rings with intense purposefulness. Schiff assures that Anderson’s stylistic quirks remain intact in Fantastic Mr. Fox, the very quirks which make his choice of stop-motion animation, scrupulous and controlled, a perfect one.
“I think what you’ll wind up seeing in Fantastic Mr. Fox is a sort of animation that has never been seen before,” Schiff says. “He challenged people all the way through to try to think differently and do things differently than they’re accustomed to. I think that’s really going to show.”
Between set visits, Anderson monitored filming on a live feed and stayed in constant communication with the crew, marking a first for Schiff, who exchanged daily, comprehensive emails with Anderson. “It got me thinking a little differently, thinking more specifically,” Schiff says.
Anderson, a fan of early 20th-century stop-motion work, encouraged animators to adopt old-school idiosyncrasies. “Remember in King Kong, how his hair is sort of moving around all the time? You can’t keep from it, because every time you touch it, `the hair` moves,” Schiff explains. “Wes really loved that and embraced that and wanted that look to be throughout the film.”
Schiff also attributes Mr. Fox’s retro feel to the warm color palette and the number of shots taken between manipulating the puppets. For Coraline, it was a more seamless one shot per pose as opposed to the two-shots-per in Fantastic Mr. Fox. “It gives it a bit more of a tactile feeling to it,” he says.
“I think stop-motion inherently has a real tactile sense to it,” Schiff considers, “because it is handmade. There’s an inherent charm that comes with that.”
Schiff worked for six months on the “whack-bat” game in Fantastic Mr. Fox, which lasts a little less than three minutes. “When you’re doing this, it’s a long process,” he says. “You don’t just get direction and shoot it.” Creating a stop-motion scene involves not only the miniscule altering of the puppets and sets, utilizing the actors’ pre-recorded dialogue as a guide, but cycles of rehearsals, rough mock-ups, and feedback to perfect the segment before the actual filming. Anderson’s quota for the animation team was 10 seconds of film a week, which, according to Schiff, is “pretty aggressive for a stop-motion feature.”
Thus, the thousand-yard stare. “At the end of a long production I really feel like I lose my interpersonal skills,” Schiff admits, “because we’re stuck in the dark, behind the curtains all day with these inanimate objects. I’ve gotten pretty good at being able to step away.”
Long on painstaking detail, even longer on handcrafted charm, Fantastic Mr. Fox manages the seemingly impossible, wresting a classic work from the hands of a beloved author. The film is decidedly more Anderson than Dahl, but it’s done with such aplomb you don’t even mind. Anderson richly embellishes the framework of Dahl’s tale with careful characterizations and his own brand of filmmaking, lifting trademark shots right from his previous films. Anderson caters to his own artistic sensibilities here rather than children’s.
“I think people push the boundaries a lot more in stop-motion,” Schiff says. “I don’t know why that is, but I like it.” •