- The Washington Times - Friday, November 27, 2009

It’s fair to say that in the world of American cinema, the term “auteur” doesn’t have much meaning any longer, certainly with regard to mainstream fare. Very few directors have a signature style these days, and the ones who do tend to resemble Michael Bay more than Alfred Hitchcock.

The most notable exception is Wes Anderson, the man behind “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and the new stop-motion animated feature “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.” When word first came out of test screenings that the latter was distinctly Andersonian, many scoffed: This was an animated film made with puppets — how strong could the resemblance to past pictures be?

Very, it would seem.

“The Fantastic Mr. Fox” is Mr. Anderson’s first full-length foray into the world of stop-motion animation, and he is well-suited to the form.

“There’s something about the fact that there are these three-dimensional puppets, these sort of toys that have texture and are made to seem alive,” he said in a recent phone interview, trying to explain the joy he had while working on the film. “You can tell that somebody’s doing this by hand, and it has a real kind of magical feeling for me.”

Although this is the first time Mr. Anderson has directed an entire film using stop-motion, it’s not the first time one of his films has featured the technique. “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” also used some stop-motion, which was overseen by Henry Selick (the director of “Coraline” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas”).

“Henry is the master of this form, and I’ve heard him say that the thing you sense with stop-motion is that it is made by someone putting their hands on the puppets and then taking them away,” Mr. Anderson says. “You’re seeing the frames that go in between the hands being there. You sense them.”

It’s a painstaking process, one that involves setting the puppets into position and then moving them in the slightest manner possible, shooting the new position, moving them slightly again, shooting the new position, ad infinitum. Progress is slow, with seconds of screen time often all there is to show for a day’s work.

“I didn’t know quite what I was getting into,” Mr. Anderson confesses. “I didn’t know it would take over my life. I thought I was going to be bringing in a group of people and it could take over their lives, and instead it takes up every second of several years to do a movie like this.”

In order to cope with the demands of the shoot, Mr. Anderson constructed a virtual studio in his Paris flat: Via a series of live cameras, he could monitor the work being done in the studio in England, where the film was shot.

“I would say three-quarters of the time we were in production, I wasn’t even in the same country as where the animating was happening,” he says. “With a stop-motion movie, you’re moving from shot to shot. At the most, we would have 30 shots going simultaneously, plus designing new sets and puppets and costumes and props in preparation for the next shots, because all that work takes a long time to complete.”

Mr. Anderson’s absence from the set led to some uncharacteristically direct criticism — at least by entertainment-industry standards — from some of his collaborators.

“It’s not in the least bit normal,” Tristan Oliver, the film’s director of photography, said to the Los Angeles Times. Mark Gustafson, the director of animation, said Mr. Anderson “made our lives miserable.”

Mr. Anderson’s perfectionism shows up on the screen, however, from the delicately crafted sets to the mannerisms of the characters. Even the costumes for the tiny puppets — intricately detailed, down to visible stitching and thin-wale corduroy jackets for the title character — were all handmade.

These intricacies, combined with the film’s unmistakably Andersonian touches — like the return of the Futura font used for the titles of his previous features and a soundtrack that mixes quirky classics and newer fare — have led some to knock Mr. Anderson for putting style ahead of substance. The familiar criticism elicits a weary sigh.

“Meaning that it’s all about style and not about story?” he retorts. “I know the point of view that you’re talking about. … What do people mean, what do they think are my intentions at this point, you know? I wouldn’t know.”

It’s fair to say that in the world of American cinema, the term “auteur” doesn’t have much meaning any longer, certainly with regard to mainstream fare. Very few directors have a signature style these days, and the ones who do tend to resemble Michael Bay more than Alfred Hitchcock.

The most notable exception is Wes Anderson, the man behind “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and the new stop-motion animated feature “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.” When word first came out of test screenings that the latter was distinctly Andersonian, many scoffed: This was an animated film made with puppets - how strong could the resemblance to past pictures be?

Very, it would seem.

“The Fantastic Mr. Fox” is Mr. Anderson’s first full-length foray into the world of stop-motion animation, and he is well-suited to the form.

“There’s something about the fact that there are these three-dimensional puppets, these sort of toys that have texture and are made to seem alive,” he said in a recent phone interview, trying to explain the joy he had while working on the film. “You can tell that somebody’s doing this by hand, and it has a real kind of magical feeling for me.”

Although this is the first time Mr. Anderson has directed an entire film using stop-motion, it’s not the first time one of his films has featured the technique. “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” also used some stop-motion, which was overseen by Henry Selick (the director of “Coraline” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas”).

“Henry is the master of this form, and I’ve heard him say that the thing you sense with stop-motion is that it is made by someone putting their hands on the puppets and then taking them away,” Mr. Anderson says. “You’re seeing the frames that go in between the hands being there. You sense them.”

It’s a painstaking process, one that involves setting the puppets into position and then moving them in the slightest manner possible, shooting the new position, moving them slightly again, shooting the new position, ad infinitum. Progress is slow, with seconds of screen time often all there is to show for a day’s work.

“I didn’t know quite what I was getting into,” Mr. Anderson confesses. “I didn’t know it would take over my life. I thought I was going to be bringing in a group of people and it could take over their lives, and instead it takes up every second of several years to do a movie like this.”

In order to cope with the demands of the shoot, Mr. Anderson constructed a virtual studio in his Paris flat: Via a series of live cameras, he could monitor the work being done in the studio in England, where the film was shot.

“I would say three-quarters of the time we were in production, I wasn’t even in the same country as where the animating was happening,” he says. “With a stop-motion movie, you’re moving from shot to shot. At the most, we would have 30 shots going simultaneously, plus designing new sets and puppets and costumes and props in preparation for the next shots, because all that work takes a long time to complete.”

Mr. Anderson’s absence from the set led to some uncharacteristically direct criticism - at least by entertainment-industry standards - from some of his collaborators.

“It’s not in the least bit normal,” Tristan Oliver, the film’s director of photography, said to the Los Angeles Times. Mark Gustafson, the director of animation, said Mr. Anderson “made our lives miserable.”

Mr. Anderson’s perfectionism shows up on the screen, however, from the delicately crafted sets to the mannerisms of the characters. Even the costumes for the tiny puppets - intricately detailed, down to visible stitching and thin-wale corduroy jackets for the title character - were all handmade.

These intricacies, combined with the film’s unmistakably Andersonian touches - like the return of the Futura font used for the titles of his previous features and a soundtrack that mixes quirky classics and newer fare - have led some to knock Mr. Anderson for putting style ahead of substance. The familiar criticism elicits a weary sigh.

“Meaning that it’s all about style and not about story?” he retorts. “I know the point of view that you’re talking about. … What do people mean, what do they think are my intentions at this point, you know? I wouldn’t know.”

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