The Fantastic Retro Fox Rewrites the Rules

Wes Anderson delivers a delightfully quirky adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book.

You’ve got to tip your hat to the ways of stylish, exacting director Wes Anderson: He never does anything half-heartedly. He’s all about committing himself to an idea, a style, a vision’and going for it, come what may.

When he decided to adapt Roald Dahl’s children’s book Fantastic Mr. Fox into a retro-looking, stop-motion animated feature, the 40-year-old director wasn’t quite aware of all the detailed labor the project would actually involve. ‘I knew I wanted to do a stop-motion feature, and I’d been drawn to the works of the Brothers Quay as well as traditionally animated movies like Watership Down,’ says Anderson during a recent phone interview. ‘As a kid, I loved Mr. Fox, and there’s a kind of Willy Wonka aspect about the character. I really got into all the digging that he did and the way he and his friends moved underground. I think those were the things that really drew me to the project.’

The choice to go with Dahl’s well-imagined world was a natural for the director. ‘He was an incredible person’a really wonderful writer with a very strong personality that you just can’t help but respond to,’ says Anderson. ‘His stories are all sort of fables, but they have unpredictable twists and turns. There’s violence, invention and extraordinary, memorable characters.’

Anderson’s movie, which will be released by Fox this month, looks nothing like the crop of CG-animated features that arrive with regular predictability in theaters these days. Thanks to the excellent work of award-winning animation director Mark Gustafson (Mr. Resistor, California Raisins commercials, The PJs) and his crew, the movie is a delightful throwback to some of the classic stop-motion TV series and specials of yesteryear and has a striking visual style that is well served by the lead voice characterizations by George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Jason Schwartzman. The incidental plot surrounds a brave fox (and his family and friends) who challenges the attacks of a trio of farmers who don’t appreciate the way he’s raiding their livestock!

Anderson says he admires movies whose subject matter is really the animation, regardless of story and genre. ‘That’s part of what is poetic about the Quays’ movies’that they are able to use recognizable everyday objects and breathe life into them,’ says the director. ‘You can see the process right up front, just like you can see fingerprints on the characters in the Aardman movies. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, you can see the animals’ fur moving on its own, or that smoke is made out of cotton balls, water is created with saran wrap, and fire is made out of transparent bars of soap. I think it’s great to recognize the tools we used.’

Another wrinkle introduced by Anderson was that the actors recorded their parts in a variety of places instead of just one single studio. ‘We experimented with a lot of locations,’ say Anderson. ‘It was definitely a looser process’we recorded outdoors, in a farm in Connecticut that belonged to a friend, on rooftops, anywhere we could think of. It gave us more room for spontaneity and intimacy. We recorded in Italy, Paris, London’Willem Defoe did his part over the phone, Jason [Schwartzman] was in L.A., Michael Gambon was on the set of a Jane Austin movie.’

The bulk of the animation was done in London’s famous 3 Mills Studios, and Anderson worked on the feature from his Paris studio via the Internet and satellite link-ups. ‘I have to admit it was a very involved process,’ says Anderson. ‘You have the chance to invent every detail of this world. I’d also never worked with storyboards before, so it was a big learning experience for me. It’s really going to affect the way I do my live-action features from now on as well.’

A Man, a Plan, a Family of Critters

One of the biggest challenges for Anderson was to stick with his original vision on a limited budget. ‘At a certain point, you just have to say, OK, we have to finish this. I was fortunate to work with people who were very knowledgeable about this type of animation. I didn’t know the process before I embarked on the project, but together, we figured out new ways to do things.’

The Oscar-nominated director, who has created several left-of-center worlds in movies such as Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, says he believes that animators are very similar to actors. ‘As detailed as the planned shots and frame-by-frame instructions are, every animator brings their own talent and personality to the puppets,’ he notes. ‘They each brought their distinctive strengths to the characters.’

According to the film’s production notes, over 4,000 props and 150 different sets were created for the project. Production designer Nelson Lowry recalls that around 50 people were working in the workshop’from carpenters to painters and mold-makers to research people and runners. ‘We really did shoot most of the stuff we made, which is rare,’ he notes. ‘Another thing about Wes is he doesn’t forget anything. So if something wasn’t used and was cut from the film, later he would say, ‘Remember that table or this set we didn’t use, maybe we can use it here!”

Using different sized puppets crafted by the world-renowned British team of Mackinnon and Saunders, whose creations have graced TV and film projects as wide-ranging as Bob the Builder, Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride and Pingu, the animation team worked on sets measuring up to 30 to 40 feet across. The Mr. Fox puppet is about 15 inches tall, while his sidekick is about eight inches tall. However, the animators worked in five different scales, so sometimes they had to work with puppets that were only one inch tall!

London Calling

Animation director Gustafson says he was originally attracted to the project because he’d been a fan of Anderson’s movies. ‘I wasn’t familiar with the book, but I knew of the other books by Dahl that had been turned into movies: His books have always been a great source for movies. I think our goal was to be respectful of the book’s spirit and the material, although a lot of the script had to be fleshed out because the original book is fairly thin.’

Gustafson, who is usually based in Portland, Oregon, moved to London for two years to work on the movie. He says working on Fox was quite different from his previous experiences. ‘Wes’ background is purely live action, and he has a very unique style of filmmaking, so the whole thing was a dance between how far he came to meet the process as it has existed for a long time, and how we push it to accommodate how he wants to do it. Ultimately, we wanted to make the film Wes wanted to make, so we learned to do things in an unconventional way.’

For one thing, Anderson insisted that they do the film in camera as much as possible, so the crew had to create a lot of the animation in scale and learn to work with a menagerie of tiny puppets. ‘In addition, his approach to acting is in the less-is-more tradition,’ adds Gustafson. ‘That meant that we couldn’t go the cartoony route, so we had to find out how to get as much as possible from our puppets without exaggeration. It’s really a challenge to have these characters emote through silicon and fur!’

Both Gustafson and Anderson are happy that they’ve made a movie that stands out from the rest of the toons seen in theaters this year. ‘I think the fact that this animated movie is a Wes Anderson film and has his fingerprints all over it is a great achievement,’ says Gustafson. ‘And we did this with what is considered a low budget in animation’I think we had about 40 million dollars to work with’which is a fraction of what a Pixar movie costs!’

When asked about the state of the animation world in 2009, Gustafson says it’s great to see more opportunities out there for animators who want to create projects that look different from the rest or tell stories that don’t fit the tried-and-true formulas. ‘It’s a completely different landscape from the time I started out in the business,’ says Gustafson. ‘There’s an appetite for family entertainment out there that is pretty ravenous. For me, I’m just happy to be able to work in this field ‘ You know, I remember seeing what Ray Harryhausen had created in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad when I was a kid. Then when I found out how the movie was made, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, you mean I could earn a living doing this’playing with dolls? I’m sold!”

20th Century Fox released Fantastic Mr. Fox in theaters nationwide on November 25.