Production Design on “Isle of Dogs”: A Chat with the Fantastic Mr. Paul Harrod
By Laura Blum
Paul Harrod says one of his favorite sculptors is August Rodin. It’s not a name you’d imagine getting love from the Portland co-production designer of Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animation Isle of Dogs. But considering that the visuals of this phantasmagoria jointly styled with Adam Stockhausen are a breakthrough in the art form, it’s no wonder the virtuosity behind them involved the study of a master.
Harrod’s more direct influences came from stop-motion animators such as Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts) and Willis O'Brien (King Kong), he tells thalo.com in a recent phone chat. The 60-year-old designer is known for his miniature sets in Pee-Wee's Playhouse and claymation for Will Vinton Studios’ California Raisins, not to mention his episode direction of the animated TV series The PJs. To help build the world of Isle of Dogs, Harrod lived in London from 2015 – 2017.
That world is the fictitious Japanese city of Megasaki, 20 years in the future. Not since Anderson’s 2009 Fantastic Mr. Fox has a canine caper so enthralled. The eponymous setting is Trash Island, where Megasaki’s hounds are banished during an epidemic of Snout Fever lest it spread to humans. Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura, who jointly developed the script with Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman) is the mastermind of that nefarious plot. Hizzoner’s chief disrupter turns out to be his adopted ward Atari (Koyu Rankin). All of 12, Atari commandeers a prop-jet to the vermin-infested outpost to rescue his trusty watchdog Spots (Liev Schreiber).
His mission is backed by a band of mangy curs. There’s nosy Duke (Jeff Goldblum), former baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray), erstwhile petfood model King (Bob Balaban) and alpha primus pares Rex (Edward Norton). Sharing their germs if not urbane charms is Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray who rethinks his rough ways ("I'm not a violent dog; I don't know why I bite"), and develops a crush on former show dog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson). The pack is helped along by wise dog Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and his pug sidekick Oracle (Tilda Swinton), whose clairvoyant powers tap into TV. Reinforcement comes from aboriginal leader Gondo (Harvey Keitel) and winged thing Owl (Edward Bursch).
Back on the mainland, exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), with the aid of scientist Yoko Ono (Yoko Ono), exposes the pro-feline regime’s suppression of a cure for pooch influenza. "Whatever happened to man's best friend?" wonders official news translator Nelson (Frances McDormand) with quasi despair. This may be vintage Anderson, but no amount of deadpan quips and whimsical stagings can obscure its timely concerns about authority, corruption, obfuscation and discrimination. The film’s critique of power abuses and attention to the ordeal of individuals caught up in adversity dovetail with a long tradition of socially conscious thrillers made in Japan.
thalo: Part of the fun of watching the film is picking out references to Japanese cinema, such as Akira Kurosawa’s screen alter ego Toshiro Mifune, who inspires the look of Mayor Kobayashi. How did you and your colleagues pastiche the Japanese masters, beginning with the opening samurai gambit?
Paul Harrod: That’s principally a nod to Kurosawa. The whole idea is that the Kobayashi family goes back to Medieval Japan from the Edo period to the present day. So Kobayashis have been feudal lords for several centuries and would therefore be tied to samurai tradition.
th: Besides Kurosawa’s Seventh Samurai, which Japanese films were especially played up?
PH: For Wes, the big influences weren’t just about the look of the film, but also the pacing. Kurosawa and (animator/manga artist Hayao) Miyazaki were his primary influences. It’s interesting to note that Kurasawa is perhaps the most Western of Japanese filmmakers. He was very influenced by American cinema and really grew from it.
th: Some of Kurosawa’s films had American roots.
PH: Two of his best films were adaptations of American novels. Yojimbo was based on Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, and High and Low -- which was a big influence on us -- was an adaptation of King’s Ransom by Evan Hunter. High and Low is a really important reference because it was one of Kurosawa’s contemporary films. It was made and set in 1963, even though when most people think of Kurosawa, they think of Seventh Samurai, Yojimbo and Rashomon, his more historically placed films. High and Low and The Bad Sleep Well were major touchstones for us because they took place in a contemporary Japan of the early 1960s. Isle of Dogs, as is stated early on, takes place 20 years in the future. But it’s not 20 years from our future. It’s 20 years in the future as seen from the standpoint of early 1960’s Japan.
th: Ah! That explains the new-old feel of the film.
PH: Yes, that’s why some of the elements in the film are actually quite retro. Telephones, the classroom and the computer equipment that the computer hacker is sitting at are all really old technology, because it’s not really our future; it’s an alternative future as seen from the era of High and Low. What we wanted to do was create a world that had some slightly futuristic elements but still had a lot of the old Japan there. Even pre-WWII Japan still existed within this environment. The idea wasn’t to create a Jetsons retro-futuristic world where everything is this mid-century modern idea of the future, but a mix of things. So we have buildings that are influenced by the Metabolist school of architecture from ‘60s Japan, that urban planning thing. But there are also buildings that are very traditional.
th: How did the architectural sensibility of Yasujirô Ozu serve as a model?
PH: I was personally very influenced by Ozu’s films. I have a particular affinity for his use of architecture. The way that he places characters within the frame reminded me a lot of the way that Wes works and a lot of his compositions. Ozu didn’t work with long angles. Typically they were a set of planes in front of the camera. Wes often works in a very similar way, with characters facing the camera and the background being a flattened series of planes behind them.
th: That so comes across in this film. Japanese art and cinema are practically made for Wes Anderson.
PH: There’s a huge respect on all of our parts for the whole history of Japanese art, and I hope that comes through in the film. There have been questions raised about appropriation. I hope the film shows significant enough respect, without feeling too much like a tourist, that it can answer those questions. Also, on the subject of appropriation, it’s important to remember that Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso takes place in Italy and his Howl’s Moving Castle is certainly European based. So just as the influential Japanese filmmakers as far as this film is concerned have drawn from the West in an equally respectful way, I hope what you’re looking at is not so much appropriation as sharing.
th: Which brings us to issues of conceptualization and research. How did you and Adam Stockhausen approach your design brief?
PH: The first thing we did was to figure out the nuts and bolts of Magasaki City and Trash Island. To that end we did a huge amount of research, not just on Japan but worldwide: how countries deal with trash and waste. We drew a lot from two photographers, Chris Jordan and Edward Burtynsky, both of whom chronical the dystopia resulting from from trash heaps and industrial wastelands. Their photographs helped us establish a series of zones in the trash, where each stage of the story unfolds. You might say we separated our trash!
th: How did color help differentiate the trash environments?
PH: You have the ochres and browns and oranges that come from the rusting of ferrous metals, and then the entire landscape is paper as far as the eye can see. From there we go to an environment that’s all black. Wes thought that’d be interesting for the encounter with the dog catchers. For this we researched cathode ray tubes and old discarded batteries. So first we established the shape of the landscape and then we figured what the landscape is actually made of.
th: How early on in the process did the topic of palette come up?
PH: When I first came on board, Wes wanted us to focus on black and white and not bring color into the mix yet. It wasn’t till we started working with maquettes that we developed a palette for the film.
th: How did you come up with, say, purple volcanoes and red temples, and what emotional charge were you invoking?
PH: The Shinto Temple was an amalgam of different designs. We looked at literally hundreds of temples in Japan. There were Buddhist elements as well. They all had these striking palettes. Sometimes they’d be gold and white, sometimes red and black. At one point Wes said, “Let’s go green and pink on this temple.” At first my eyebrow raised a little! But then, working with (assistant art director) Kevin Hill, who did the set design for that, we worked out that the green would be marble or granite, and we created steps and columns out of green. For the painted wooden surfaces, we mixed and matched a few things using the palette that Wes had suggested and finally came up with what you see in the film. That was an unsual set of color decisions that I think actually worked out well in the end.
th: What guided your choice of landscape colors?
PH: We were very inspired by ukyio-e illustrations (woodblock prints) from the Edo period in Japan of the 19th century, particularly the work of print masters Hokusai and Hiroshige. This was influential on aspects of both distant landscapes and other designs.
th: For example?
PH: The purple volcano that you see in the background of a lot of the shots is drawn from ukyio-e illustrations, which employed very radical palette decisions. They’d have a brightly colored mountain as if light was filtered through the atmosphere and hitting it in such a way as to create that look that’s always a bit purple and lavender.
th: What went into whipping up the exquisitely detailed bento box for Science Party candidate Professor Watanabe?
PH: (Head of puppets department) Andy Gent came up with things like the octopus tentacle and figured out a way that it and the mackerel could be cut up to look very realistic. It was a huge challenge creating the illusion that an animated puppet was prepping sushi, and it required a lot of experimentation to create all the colors that you get when you cut into fish. We looked at hours and hours of demonstration films of sushi. One of our producers actually went to a sushi restaurant in New York and shot the preparation and how things were served. We had a vast amount of reference and went with relatively realistic coloring on things like the crab, the octopus tentacle and the mackerel. The decisions to go with those particular forms of sushi stemmed from an interest in creating color contrast within the plate.
th: How did music inform your design process?
PH: Alexandre Desplat’s score was not completed before the shoot. But we always had certain sounds in the back of our minds when we were working on the film, particularly the score from Seven Samurai. There are lifts from the score of Seven Samurai throughout the film. But also from Akira Ifukube, who did scores for the Godzilla movies.
th: What went into creating the uncanny expressiveness of the dogs?
PH: The puppets have very complex mechanisms within their skulls that let the animators move areas of the face and open the eyelids. This allows a level of expression that’s almost real. The eyes are the window to the soul. Moving the eyes back and forth and doing these very subtle eye lid positionings so the expression is either wide-eyed or squinty: Knowing when to do that is vital. Animators are actors. They emote through these puppets, beginning with how they angle the puppet toward the camera.
th: You earned your Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts degrees from the California Institute of The Arts, so you’re of course familiar with tons of artists. As you were fashioning the human puppets in this film, was there a sculptor besides Rodin who guided your thinking?
PH: (The hyperrealist Pop Art sculptor and artist) Duane Hanson.
th: That makes sense, considering the polyester resins he used in his lifecast pieces and the translucent resins that give Isle of Dogs’ human puppets such a next-world glow. And how about for the metallic weirdness of the robot dogs and drones?
PH: For those elements, we especially looked to the special effects and monster films of Ishiro Honda (Godzilla, The War of the Gargantuas, The Mysterians), who was a friend of Kurosawa.
- Atari and his exiled dog friends in Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
- Trash Island’s canine quintet. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
- (Far L) Photo of co-production designer Paul Harrod by Valerie Sadoun. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.
- “Isle of Dogs” poster courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.