Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio

Academy Award-winning Guillermo del Toro’s lifelong love of animation and the art of stop motion began when he was a child growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico. By the age of eight, he had started shooting his own amateur stop motion films using his toys and a Super 8 camera that belonged to his father. As a teenager, he began teaching claymation classes, and in the process, came upon an idea that would find its way to fruition four decades later as he mounted an ambitious adaptation of a classic tale about — of all things — a puppet brought to life.

Now he crafted a screenplay for Pinocchio with Patrick McHale and award-winning stop-motion legend
Mark Gustafson, reimagining the classic tale of the fabled wooden boy with a whimsical tour de force that finds Pinocchio on an enchanted adventure that transcends worlds and reveals the life-giving power of love.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO – (L-R) Mark Gustafson and Guillermo Del Toro. Cr: Jason Schmidt/NETFLIX © 2022

“I used to teach stop motion and one of the guys in the class was infinitely better than I was at animating, so I partnered with him and said, ‘Why don’t you animate and I’ll come up with the ideas?’” recalls del Toro. “It was around that time I first thought about doing Pinocchio in stop motion, but it would be more like Frankenstein — about a character thrown into the world as a blank slate to find out who he is, what he’s doing in this world, and why he exists.” Now, with his twelfth feature film, del Toro begins a new chapter in his illustrious career by bringing 19th century Italian author Carlo Collodi’s fairy tale to screen in a way that honors the original story, the artistic medium of stop motion — and pulls them both to soaring new heights.’

The Henson Company had acquired the rights to a 2002 edition of Collodi’s Pinocchio which featured the striking illustrations of award-winning artist Gris Grimly. Del Toro was approached by Lisa Henson, CEO of the Jim Henson Company, about signing on to a new incarnation of the fairy tale.

Del Toro was struck by the way Grimly had drawn the puppet character — with a long, pointed beak-like nose and spindly limbs.

“In a few gestures, Gris captured the elemental nature of the character as I’d never seen before,” del Toro says. “He had the childlike energy and the purity of a puppet that is unruly, but has a good heart.”

Though del Toro’s passion for the project never waned, the film would dip into several periods of latency and artistic change throughout the years. Shortly thereafter, the filmmaking team on Pinocchio began to coalesce after Emmy Award–winning stop motion veteran Mark Gustafson was brought on to direct alongside del Toro. Much like the arrangement del Toro had struck with his student-partner during his teenage years in Mexico, he relied on Gustafson’s extensive background in stop motion to handle the day-to-day operations with an army of animators all working to push one of the oldest filmmaking
techniques to places unseen.

Del Toro had long been an admirer of the work that Gustafson had done at pioneering animation house Will Vinton Studios, which specialized in Claymation. During Gustafson’s tenure, the company had created well-known commercials starring the California Raisins and M&M’s, in addition to 1999’s television series The PJs, and a 1985 clay-animated feature The Adventures of Mark Twain. “Mark’s work in Claymation is astoundingly important for me,” del Toro says. “What I love is that with clay, you feel the thumbprints of the animator on the material, so it’s pointedly impressionistic — the material feels physical. He carried that into his animation direction on Fantastic Mr. Fox. He has an amazing range as an artist in this medium. He was the only one we approached.”

“There’s been a renaissance in stop motion over the last 15 years,” says Gustafson. “Something interesting has happened where you have artists who grew up seeing stop motion as children, had it ingrained in them, and they’ve now reached an age where they have the opportunity to dive into the medium and make a dream project like Pinocchio. Guillermo brought his live action aesthetic to this movie. When that sophistication of filmmaking is applied to stop motion, which is inherently handcrafted, you get a really powerful combination.”

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio – (Pictured) Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann). Cr: Netflix © 2022

In their earliest creative conversations, del Toro revealed to Gustafson that he wanted to upend one of the central ideas in Collodi’s work.

“What was clear in my mind was that Pinocchio should never turn into a real boy, nor should that be a goal to which he aspires and fails to achieve,” del Toro says. “When I was a kid, I said, ‘So, it means to be loved, you have to change?’ I couldn’t accept that. That’s what you do with classic material. If you can put two or three strands that are completely the reverse of what’s normally done with it, it’s not being intentionally contrarian, just realizing that this material will sing in a different way if we change the key.”


In 2015, del Toro brought on board Emmy-winning writer Patrick McHale, whose credits included the acclaimed animated TV series Adventure Time. “I knew I needed somebody who writes for animation because you write very differently for animation, the way you write dialogue is entirely different,” says del Toro, who had been especially taken with Over the Garden Wall, McHale’s Cartoon Network miniseries about two brothers who become lost in an enchanted forest and must rely on a wise woodsman and a talking bluebird to help them find their way home. “Patrick’s Over the Garden Wall is one of the most magnificent pieces of writing and directing I’ve seen in the medium.

“We immediately clicked because we’re complete opposites. Patrick is profound and deliberate. I go with my gut.”

It was also important to the writers to set the film during Mussolini’s heyday. “To me it was important to show a world in which everybody behaves like a puppet and obeys and the puppet is the only disobedient one,” says del Toro.

McHale, whose own great-grandfather happened to be an Italian carpenter, researched the historical context behind Collodi’s original text to add texture to the script. “Collodi’s story is told through a very childlike lens, so the entire world around Pinocchio is formed through that skewed understanding of reality.

What may seem like arbitrary nonsense to an adult reader is actually delivering a deeper understanding of life’s many absurdities from a child’s point of view — in particular the absurdity of authority figures and government bureaucracy,” he says “The book is very Italian in its big emotions, its ups and downs. There’s a lot of arguing in the book, but it’s always funny and fun.”

Over time, del Toro and McHale harvested some characters and select story elements from Collodi’s text, as well as a few story arcs that del Toro had written in earlier, pre-McHale iterations of the screenplay. Together, they devoted more emphasis to the complicated father-son dynamic between Pinocchio and Geppetto, which grows out of the carver’s relationship with his human son, Carlo.

“The heart of this adaptation is that Geppetto wants Pinocchio to be someone that he is not,” says McHale. “Parents often have an idea of who their child is, and when that child doesn’t fit into their mental mold, they try to force them to fit. It felt like Guillermo’s take on the story would resonate with a lot of parents who are frustrated with their children’s behavior, and children who are frustrated with overbearing parents. Maybe it could help them see things from the other perspective.”

“One of the ideas I liked was to have a desperate man pray for his child to come back and being unable
to recognize him when the child does,” says del Toro. Emphasizing Pinocchio’s wooden origins, he adds:
“Pinocchio is made from a tree that was birthed from a pine cone that Carlo harvested and treasured. The
idea of Cricket nesting in a nook in that tree — the very nook that will be Pinocchio’s heart — landed it.”

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO – Guillermo Del Toro. Cr: Jason Schmidt/NETFLIX © 2022

While Gris Grimly’s renderings of the characters in Pinocchio had initially prompted del Toro to mount his own adaptation of the fairy tale, the filmmaker always knew he’d need to modify the designs to bring the puppets to three-dimensional life. With that in mind, he turned to one of his go-to creative partners, production designer Guy Davis (The Shape of Water, Nightmare Alley), in order to create puppets that were different from what one would normally associate with animation. (Davis also serves as one of the film’s production designers.

Opting for a handcrafted, Old World feel, Davis was careful to avoid anything that felt too cartoonish. He did, however, give the human characters subtle attributes that kept them from feeling too realistic, in some cases elongating their bodies or emphasizing certain facial features. “This is a story about puppets,
acted by puppets,” del Toro says. “You don’t have to believe they are real people — you have to believe in them as characters. We wanted to embody the form and the character into one. We wanted design that told the story.”

For Pinocchio, del Toro wanted the puppets to be constructed with mechanical faces, meaning that beneath their silicone skin would sit a complex system of interlocking paddles and gears the animators could use to manipulate their features and create performances. To the greatest degree possible, he wanted to limit the use of rapid prototyping, a process also known as substitution animation. That
technique involves using a 3D printer to create multiple faces for a puppet, each with a different expression; if a character needs to look happy, sad, confused or upset in a specific scene, the animator applies a face to the puppet that displays the appropriate emotion. Although most of the characters
were built with mechanical faces, del Toro and his partners came to realize that some rapid prototyping would be necessary—for Pinocchio in particular. The hero needed to appear as though he were made from wood, and it became clear that creating his face from 3D-printed hard plastic would be an easier
way to achieve that effect, rather than fashioning it from silicone, the method used for most of the other characters.”

In adapting Grimly’s design for the film, Guy Davis began by modifying the shape of the character’s head
to make it less round, while also altering the proportions of the puppet’s limbs and torso — the length of Pinocchio’s legs were extended, and his body was reproportioned to give it more of a teardrop shape. Lastly, “we made him asymmetrical because Geppetto carves him when he’s drunk — he starts with the ear and his hair, and he is really careful with that. Then, he finishes him quickly,” notes del Toro.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio – (Pictured) Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann). Cr: Netflix © 2022

Although stop motion filmmaking is a uniquely painstaking process, the sheer scope of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio made the project an especially challenging endeavor. The animators needed to stage
choreographed musical numbers and action scenes as well as capture fleeting, intimate moments between Geppetto and Pinocchio. The undertaking required a perfect marriage between artistic endeavor and clockwork-like mechanical discipline.

In November 2019, two months before Pinocchio was scheduled to start production, del Toro and Gustafson sat down with their team of over 40 animators and outlined a set of guidelines they felt were critical to their vision. “One of the founding principles of the film that we discussed very early on was giving the animators ownership of the performances as much as possible,” says Gustafson.

Adds del Toro: “The discipline of shooting a stop motion animated movie is to a point where no one who hasn’t experienced it can understand it. Live action is malleable. You’re working with things that you can alter. With this, you have to pre-plan the chess moves before building the set, before building the characters, you have to account for duplicate puppets, duplicate sets all shooting at the same time. The beauty is in launching the shot, and then seeing the shot. You give instructions, you direct the shot from the storyboard, you talk to the animator, you deposit a lot of faith in the animator being an actor, not a technical performer. The longest shot is in Geppetto’s bedroom, it’s close to 700 frames, and it’s one of the most amazing shots. We’re doing so many things that are not done in stop motion normally.”

The Eight Commandments

  • ANIMATE SILENCE: Seek to animate the characters listening. In live-action, one of the paradigms of acting is to learn to listen. Please animate this space/ silence/listening before charging into an answer or a line.
  • ANIMATE MISTAKES: We often take three moves to put on a shoe, two tries to close a door or tumble on a step. We place our hand on a wall and lean on it for a moment, then find a better hold and move our hand. Animate these “mistakes.”
  • ANIMATE THROWAWAY PHYSICAL TRUTH: Does the character have a small itch on the forehead? Does he/she need to clear his/her throat? When the character sits down, does he/she shift weight from one foot to the other, rub an elbow, a wrist? Pick a scab, clean their nails, etc.?
  • DON’T ALWAYS MAKE EYE CONTACT: We often avoid looking into each other’s eyes. When we do, make it count. Our eyes dart all around each other’s faces. We lovingly look at the forehead, eyes, lips of our beloved ones, while we lock eyes with our enemies or size them up head to toe. Use the eyes and eye contact thoughtfully.
  • SELECT PANTOMIME CAREFULLY: Do not rely on key poses in the traditional way. Pantomime should be used to punctuate physical action, and only with the pertinent characters.
  • SEEK LIFE: Think of the scene the way it would normally be animated and then tell us what is the unexpected way. Find the thing that will make this moment breathe. Even if we don’t take that route, indicate it. Always.
  • ANIMATION IS SPATIALLY SYMPHONIC: Characters occupy spaces and use movement differently. The Podestà is immodest and expansive in his appropriation of space. Volpe glides. Each character adds a note to the movement symphony.
  • AGE INFORMS MOVEMENT: Young Geppetto and old Geppetto move differently. Joints hurt more the older you are. Carlo and Pinocchio should behave exactly as kids do. Look around you, find nuggets of joy to animate looking at real kids.