Fantastic Mr Fox animators interview: Ian McKinnon, Andy Biddle and Andy Ghent

As Fantastic Mr Fox arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK, we've been spending some time chatting to its animators...

One of the animated highlights of 2009, Wes Anderson’s take on Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox has arrived on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK. And we’ve been talking to some of its animators about making the film…

Can you talk us through the process of making the film – looks like quite a painstaking process?

Andy Biddle: Any animated film is quite painstaking. If you ask an animator how much footage they do in a day, it depends on the production, but for Fantastic Mr Fox it was about 4 seconds of footage a day. The style that Wes [Anderson] wanted was quite fast and character-based action. It was quite involved.

Ian McKinnon: There is a long period of development on animated features, as well – Wes has wanted to make this film for many years. I think it was a favourite book of him.

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Going back to 2005 was when we were first approached to look at the characters for the film and that early stage was two or three years before it went into production. At that point, with the characters, the film was being presented to the studio, so we started off just trying to work up some of the characters very quickly in quick marionette form that the directors and producers could take to the studio to give them a taste of what the vision of the film was going to look like. 

How many versions did it take to get the perfect Mr Fox?

Ian McKinnon: Mr Fox was probably one of the easiest characters to realise. There was a great character designer, a Belgian designer called Félicie Haymoz who we worked with on another film several years earlier. When we were approached about Fantastic Mr Fox, we knew Félicie does some exquisite pencil drawings of these animal characters. We suggested Félicie as character designer and she did these beautiful sketches.

We did a very simple marionette character version of Mr Fox to start with that was supposedly inspired by Rex Harrison and a bit of Roald Dahl in there – it wasn’t intended to be a George Clooney lookalike. It was supposed to have that debonair sophistication that someone like Rex Harrison had.

Q. Where did you get inspiration from for the drawings of the other characters that were not part of the original Mr Fox story?

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Andy Ghent: We had contact with Wes on certain things of what he would like when we were sculpting them out. Sometimes when we were lucky enough, you would sculpt and Wes would actually see it and change things on it. One of the things was the cider cellar. There was a sculpt that he liked of a César [French film award] sculpt and he wanted us to make a fox that looked like that. We had to make him look like Mr Fox but he was in this crazy posture, hiding behind the bottle. We developed that and probably when through 12 different sculpts just to get that, a very small sequence, and he’s more or less a still and just has to move his eyes.

There is quite a lot of working with clay with a character and developing it through contact with Wes, from starting off on what you think it will be to what it becomes is sort of an organic process. With some of the smaller characters, Wes had the idea that they were going to be quite childlike, quite abstract to the others. When we started the movie they were introduced quite earlier on, so you were used to the fact that there were changes in scales. As you get smaller it’s quite difficult to get some of the details and finishes that you have on some of the larger, more close-up characters. You can even see some of the characters where they’ve got exposed, twisted wire parts to them.

Which was the most difficult character to develop?

Ian McKinnon: The earlier characters, the farmers and the foxes had quite a few changes made to them along the way, but that always happens. I think the ‘Petey’ [character] with Jarvis Cocker went through quite a few [changes]. We had perfect reference there but, I don’t know, when you take something you know very well, whereas people don’t really know what Mr Fox quite looks like, and you are trying to recreate that in the world of puppets that sometimes becomes a bit more of a challenge.

The fur was a challenge in itself. How did you get it to move, or to ‘boil’?

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Andy Biddle: Boling fur is not really an animator’s dream – with fabric you try and avoid it. But Wes wanted the boiling. He likes the sort of life it gave to it. Sometimes you’d have a very still shot and you would just blow on it, just to give it a little bit of life. Or if you wanted to get a certain expression, you might just brush the hair up on the eyebrow – just keeping it moving, really. We developed this style to just keep the fur moving and experiment with it. Wes really liked this old-school method of stop-motion animation, I guess, that wasn’t necessarily completely clean, unlike some of the stop-motion films like Coraline that are very elegant and very polished films. Wes wanted to get away from this and go back to what stop-motion was all about.

Ian McKinnon: I think he [Wes] was just trying to push us out of our comfort zone! As professionals with 20 odd years of stop-frame animation experience and preconceptions of how we should approach the work, he sort of said throw all that away and was referencing back to earlier films of the 1930s that have all that movement in the fur and weren’t all that sophisticated. He wanted to do it to really engage with that. It took a while for us to get into that mindset.  When he said he wanted Mr Fox to have a touch of Rex Harrison about him and be inspired by a taxidermy fox, we thought, oh, he doesn’t really mean a taxidermy fox, but he did. [For] the process of laying the hair on the characters, we had a team of people that worked on that, so it took many, many months to develop a way of creating the hair over the sculpt. The characters were originally modelled with plasticine, so you don’t see them with any hair on, but you have to model in all the features, and then we scraped away the top layers of the plasticine to create a bald fox head. You have to trust that the hair team will be able to recreate the actual features. They did a great job. It [the fur] lights very beautifully that it adds a new dimension to stop-frame animation.  

How different was it working with the puppets in the small scale, to working within the ‘hero’ scale?

Andy Ghent: It’s quite tricky when you get to the really, really small-scale puppets. From an animator’s point of view, what they can do from a construction point of view, how long they are going to last, and how close we can get to the real character look – some of them were the same size as your thumbnail. They were incredibly small, but we’d still have to sculpt them to look like Mr Fox with all the little details on that small scale. It‘s a single wire armature, so it’s just one little piece of wire that runs through the whole puppet. If he’s got to do a running shot that’s a few seconds long, some of the animators might use pliers to bend his elbows and legs to get them to look like a ball and socket joint [and] that’s [the puppet] going to have quite a short lifespan.

For the Whack Bat scene I think we made 70 characters just to shoot that one shot. As it happened the animator who is notoriously good at finding weak spots in puppets didn’t really break that many of them.

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Andy Biddle: It was me that broke them, I think!

Andy Ghent: The challenges of materials, too, of finding out how we are going to get through a whole feature, some things you know you can rely on to get through an entire film and you can work with. Some of the challenges from a design point of view, going down to those tiny sizes, so that you can see these great big sets, so you can get an idea of these epic landscapes, something’s got to give to furnish those out. That’s another challenge for the animators of having a tiny little puppet and making it very expressive with just a single-wire armature inside.

Didn’t the room temperature affect the sets – didn’t the cider levels go up and down?

Ian McKinnon: Wasn’t there an exploding bottle of cider, as well?

Andy Biddle:  That was a bit scary! You had all these cider bottles and suddenly they started exploding and I think it was because the shelves were heating up. All the cider bottles had to be taken off and a thin layer of cardboard had to be put down. Fortunately, I don’t think any bottles exploded after that.

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How many puppets did you use and how many people worked on them?

Andy Ghent:  You had quite a big crew working months and months before we even started. The total number of people must be around 100 people working on puppets alone. I think the end tally was 530 odd puppets for the whole filming in six [modelling] scales. It was quite a big undertaking of characters. Something the size of your hand was used for close-up shots, going down to ones of Ash that would fit on your thumbnail.

Ian McKinnon: Luckily, the animals don’t interact a huge amount with the humans. Mr Fox the hero scale was about the same size as Mr Bean. We cheated a lot of the time, so we didn’t have to build stuff to work in the same scale. There were no rules, really. 

Andy Ghent:  You are making it up as you go along. You’ve got to work quickly and just find solutions for the sets. Some of the really big challenges were some of the scales of what you needed as a background will determine if we’ve got to go a certain way with the puppets.

How difficult is it these days to preserve this kind of puppetry art form? Is it difficult to get younger animators interested in it again?

Ian McKinnon: There has been a long tradition of stop-frame animation in the UK – for 30 years there have been lots of television series produced here. That has kept a vibrant industry.

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For a while computer-generated movies sounded the death knell for stop-frame animation but there are people like Nick Park [Aardman Animation], Tim Burton and Wes Anderson who have a passion for these older, hand-made techniques. They [stop-frame animations] have found their feet again. Disney has done its first drawn-animated feature for 10-15 years. I think there has been a renaissance in stop-frame animation over the last few years. There are three stop-frame animation features in production at the moment. That would have been a dream 15 years ago. It wouldn’t have happened. There is more stop-frame animation happening now than there was 15 years ago – whether it’s fashion, I don’t know, but it’s good that people appreciate the difference…

Computers do beautiful things but the audience appreciates there is something there from different mediums.

Do you think there is a gap in Europe for this kind of animation? In the Czech Republic they use marionettes and people are saying, wow we haven’t seen that before. Do you think Europe brings something to the table that Hollywood doesn’t have that much of?

Andy Ghent:  One of the nice things about Fox from that point of view is it bucks the trend for being super slick with that finished CG style and it’s quite a European tradition of puppetry and marionettes. The Redmond Reynard influences on Fox hark back to that period – from the storytelling point of view, to this is a lovely sort of naive feel to the character design. It is different to a new audience. You might have seen the original King Kongs with all the boiling, but it hasn’t been seen for such a long time because we’ve gone down different routes. It is kind of nice to see it return to that and marionettes are new to a new audience, so it’s good that it reinvents itself and brings in new people and new directors, which is very important. 

Andy Biddle: It seems there is always a place for these traditional ways of film-making and performance. I did at one stage think that it might die out, but I’ve always seemed to have ended up with work. It still seems to be a valuable way of making films.

Andy Ghent:  Like Ian said, there are more stop-frame [films] now than ever before and new directors, which is the key to it as you’ve got new people who like the medium and use it regularly. To have new people coming in is really exciting as you don’t know where it’s going to go. It’s good from our point of view – it’s exciting!

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Ian McKinnon: Wes was fascinated about being able to create this world and see it being created in every detail. You can’t go out and buy characters. You can’t go out and buy costumes, or sets, or props. Everything has to be specially made for the film. It’s a great playground for directors to get involved in stop-frame.

How do you concentrate when you are modelling and designing?

Andy Ghent: Coffee. Lots of coffee!

Ian McKinnon: It’s a big team effort. There might be four or five sculptors working on the show earlier on and they have their intense period, then they hand the baton over to the next group who will do the mould making and the armature. Then we hand the puppets over to the animators. It’s like a two-year marathon, really. They are really long hours, especially when it comes to the animation side. The concentration levels keep the performance up.  

Andy Biddle:  If you don’t love it, then don’t do it. You’ve got to enjoy it. You’ve got to get into the mindset… I think the exciting thing about animation is you can do these big movements and get away with it. 

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Ian McKinnon: Very often shots will be kept relatively short so that anything that happens on the set you can always cut into. The first shot that was done was about two-and-a-half minutes and took…

Andy Ghent: …10-11 weeks of shooting, if not more? We returned to it, as well, and carried on with some more changes. It was quite a mammoth shot for one person to sit in a dark box and keep working to.

On the subject of working in a dark box, obviously these puppets are like the price of a new car, in terms of man hours etc to make, but working with something so fragile and beautiful, how was that?

Andy Biddle:  I didn’t really think about it. Obviously we were trying to push them into these new positions and as far as they go, and sometimes they do break, unfortunately… I think my worst break was I snapped Mr Fox’s nose…

Andy Ghent: It was you, was it?!

Andy Biddle: Yeah, I’m telling the world now! But the guys fixed it, the people in puppet maintenance. 

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Andy Ghent: You’ve got to think of them as prototypes – they’ve never, ever been made before. They are very practical things. You can see inside this head [shows puppet]. There are really mechanical thing inside – beautiful, really, on the inside and the outside. They are very, very strong things. You can’t believe how strong an animator can be if s/he finds that one part, or a joint that won’t go, but you need to push things around, so it’s your best guess with making them… You just have to deal with it on the day and climb into the little space where the animators are working with them, sometimes fix them in shot, so you can keep the shot going…

Andy Biddle:  You had to stick Bean’s face back on for me once because his cheek just sort of came away mid shot…

Andy Ghent: It looked like he’d had a massive stroke! The puppet nurses come down and fix the puppet on set and do a little surgery on them then away they go and carry on.

Andy Biddle:  It is called ‘puppet hospital’ in the studio, as well. That’s the name for it.

Talking about the movement, Wes didn’t want any blinking in the film – how was that?

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Andy Ghent: The blinking thing was more of a challenge for you [to Biddle]. We made blinks for them, and you can change the expression by how open and closed the eyes are, but we would make all the eyelashes and details for them all…

Andy Biddle:  Not blinking the puppets was a bit of a headache because, obviously, just putting a blink in, you’ve got that extra respect that they are alive. You’d try and get away with putting a blink in and Wes would cut it out.

That must have been difficult when you are trying to recreate a puppet based on the actor voicing them?

Ian McKinnon: Yeah, because the voices, they are so full, the actual voice track – they are an incredible cast. It is hard because you try and build as much into the puppet as you can to give that expression, so it’s another challenge to actually stand back and to hold back on the animation.

Andy Biddle:  As Ian was saying earlier, Wes really took us out of our comfort zone – every department was a bit at unease. By the end of the film I think I saw his vision but it did take a long time because we do aim to make something so polished now.

Andy Ghent: Going back to the fur question, when we first started, all the animators were like can we control the fur somehow because it was boiling everywhere? We went through loads of ways of trying to secure it but keeping it looking like fur…

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Andy Biddle: We used a lot of hairspray and hair gel – all types.

Andy Ghent: I’ve learnt a lot about hair gel!

How easy is it to source fur because obviously you have to be ethical?

Ian McKinnon: There are a lot of bald goats running around the East End of London! We tried using lots of different products. Synthetic, fake fur doesn’t have the same quality, so we ended up using goat hair. It dyes really nicely and looks good when lit. It has strength to it. It has its own natural oils. Usually the animators are holding up the faces working on them and the foam starts to disintegrate, but these had their own protective layer of fur on them. It worked out really well. We did try to source some toys, as well, that we shaved bits of hair off. For the human characters, we used human hair, punched little bits over the top of the surface of the sculpt to add a bit of life to it.

What was the most difficult scene to do?

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Andy Biddle: I was going to say squab raid – one of the first shots was the big tracking shot and you’ve got lots of puppet changes, lots of scale changes. We had this really, really long set and trying to reach all the way over, and as the shot continues, my computer is over there, and my puppets are over there, so walking all the way down there, [realising] that’s not right, going back, so I got quite fit. Obviously, what we were saying earlier about the small puppets that they would break a lot. I would work out that every 14 frames one of my puppets would break, so I’d have to go back out [and say] sorry Andy, it’s broken again…

Andy Ghent: And sometimes we’d make an absolutely pristine puppet and the first thing we’d have to do to it was saw it in half so it would look like it was half submerged in water. By the time he’s [Biddle] got it to the other side, we’d have to have made another puppet to emerge out of the other side because of the scale. It was quite a test of stamina keeping it up with it all.

Who or what inspired you to take this job?

Andy Ghent: I’m with one of mine – Ian! But Ray Harryhausen is amazing. As a child I think everyone can quote the skeletons as one of the moments of just being amazed at what he can do. The Sandman, for me, was a short film that completely changed how I was going to grow up. I knew from that moment, seeing that one stop-frame animated film that that’s something I wanted to do.

At the London press conference, when this film came out, Bill Murray said this film could not have been made anywhere else in the world. How do you feel about London becoming the world hub for stop-motion animation?

Ian McKinnon: Bristol, London and Manchester have got this 30-year tradition of doing stop-frame animations. It’s like going to a sort of college. You know, you get your first job helping out on a production and you work your way up. Having those years of experience, there’s a really great talent pool in the UK, which I think hasn’t happened anywhere else in the world. I know there are a couple of great stop-frame features being done on the West Coast [of America] but they pull those teams of people together for that production and they’ve not had the same years of hands-on experience that has been available to animators here. I think that’s part of the reason why some of the directors are coming here with their productions because they see there are people who are very passionate, who have got that experience available to them.

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Andy Biddle: I think Britain, in general, seems to be quite a strong stop-motion area because I know a lot of European animators come to London to work on these.

Andy Ghent: I think Aardman has held the torch up for that because they’ve had such a long run of work there and such success that they’ve had a lot of people who have managed to keep perfecting skills – and the same in Manchester, like Cosgrove Hall. That sort of depth of skills makes it quite a resource to the point where we’ve all worked in different countries now and we come back home, but we’ve been farmed out to work on other productions. There are an awful lot of people with an awful lot of experience that it makes it very easy to come here and tap into that.

What happens to the puppets after shooting the movie? 

Andy Biddle: We release them into the wild and they live the good life!

Ian McKinnon: Some of the Mr Fox puppets went out to the Gap clothes stores for a few months. A hundred of them went to New York to Bergdorf Goodman, a big department store, for their Christmas window displays – Andy and team took out a whole load of sets… Thousands of people got to walk past them every day, so it’s very nice that they get to be exhibited. A lot of work goes into them, so it is nice that they don’t get put away into a box and hidden away somewhere.

Do you have one of your own?

Andy Ghent: Sadly, they are quite expensive, so they tend to be accounted for. A lot of them have gone to the Fox museum. Obviously Wes will have a selection of ones for himself.

Ian McKinnon: Also the Dahl museum, quite a lot of them are being set up there. I think they are going to be part of a permanent collection there. It’s good that they get to be viewed. After production they tend to go to some film and animation festivals. There are several versions of Mr Fox, so if one goes to Mr George Clooney, there is still another one somewhere else that can go out on display.

Andy Ghent: We almost had to wrestle with George Clooney’s security guards to get his fox back. He was so keen to take it with him at the last press conference. Bill Murray was quite successful. He got his all the way back to his room before found out!

As you have said, working with Wes Anderson was completely different from traditional animation and he favoured a lot of very close-up shots, too. How was that for you having to adapt to his style, rather than the other way around?

Andy Biddle: These very close-up shots and those looking direct at camera we would spend a long, long time exactly perfecting looking into camera. It was a very strange thing, lots of talking to the camera and these micro puppets originally were going to be very far away, but we actually did get very close to them because Wes did quite like their quirky style…

Andy Ghent: That’s one of the hardest things from a maker’s point of view is making something for a scale you are going to see a certain distance from camera, so you know it’s good, but when it starts to creep in on that, you start to see the imperfections…

Andy Biddle:  And it’s six-foot high on a cinema screen!

Andy Ghent:  It’s very revealing. But stylistically, that was something Wes was looking for, to break those things down. It is a good question because it’s very hard work from our point of view making something so tiny that is going to be seen so big on the screen. But it gives it a certain look and a certain charm. The whole Fantastic Mr Fox has this fantastic, crafted look to it, with the boiling and that naivety – it all goes hand in hand.

Andy Biddle: We went through a lot of testing with the micros. We were trying to give them this elegance and Wes was like, ‘no, push it more, more and more’ and we ended up with this very peculiar, whacky kind of style. Again, that took some getting used to because you want it to look as humanistic as possible and you end up with something that’s going a bit crazy. Wes loved it! He would laugh out loud to it, and you are like, ‘really? Is that really ok? I can do it again, if you want?’ but, no, he loved it.

Ian McKinnon: I think it’s good that someone with such a distinctive style to their live-action work, to suddenly come along and work in a different medium and pushes everybody. It even got down to the way we recorded the voices. Normally the voices are recorded separately in separate booths and added together later. They went out [the cast and crew] and recorded as a group. There is a spontaneity to that performance that the animator then has to capture in some way. It gives it a bit more life than you normally get from a voice recording. That’s quite something.

Fantastic Mr Fox is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.