An Interview with Andy Gent, Head of Puppets Department | The Wes Anderson Collection: Isle of Dogs

To celebrate the release of The Wes Anderson Collection: Isle of Dogs, we have an interview extract from the book to share below on the use of puppets in the making of the film!

The Wes Anderson Collection: Isle of Dogs is the only book to take readers behind the scenes of the beloved auteur’s newest stop-motion animated film. ​Through the course of several in-depth interviews with film critic Lauren Wilford, writer and director Wes Anderson shares the story behind Isle of Dogs’s conception and production, and Anderson and his collaborators reveal entertaining anecdotes about the making of the film, their sources of inspiration, the ins and outs of stop-motion animation, and many other insights into their moviemaking process. Previously unpublished behind-the-scenes photographs, concept artwork, and hand-written notes and storyboards accompany the text. The book also features an introduction by critics and collaborators Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou, and a foreword by critic Matt Zoller Seitz. The fourth volume of the New York Times bestselling Wes Anderson Collection, Isle of Dogs stays true to the series with its rich design and colorful illustrations, capturing Anderson’s signature aesthetic vision and bringing the series’s definitive study of Anderson’s filmography up to date.

The following extract is from The Wes Anderson Collection: Isle of Dogs by Lauren Wilford, illustrated by Max Dalton, contributions by Wes Anderson (ABRAMS Books)


Andy and Charlie

ANDY GENT has been “looking after puppets” ever since he finished at university; his first job on a feature film was Corpse Bride. Since then he’s worked on films like Max & Co, Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Frankenweenie, and The Grand Budapest Hotel—he made the puppets for the stop-motion ski chase.

Andy’s office belongs equally to Charlie, a chocolate lab, who lounges calmly in the center of the room throughout our talk. Charlie came into Andy’s life during the shooting of Fantastic Mr. Fox. He’s with Andy at the workshop every day.

So how did you first get involved with Isle of Dogs?

 There’s that amazing moment where I get a phone call and hear, “Hi, it’s Wes, Andy. We’ve just, you know, got this little project. Are you interested in making some puppets?” Brilliant, it sounds great. He said, “Oh, I’m going to send you a little YouTube link, and then I’ll send you the script. And you must watch the YouTube link, the little video clip I’m going to send you first.” And I was going, “What is that going to be? What is this first thing that I’m going to see about his idea, or his imagination, or whatever it is that’s going to capture this?”

And when it arrived it was an amazing clip, a few minutes long, of traditional Japanese taiko drummers. They were so dramatic and very powerful—boom, boom, boom, boom—with amazing synchronicity and raw energy. I was so charged up by the moment of this clip, and the sound, and how inspiring it was. It left me saying “I’m in. I’m in.”

Atari gives Chief his first hug

Whatever this is, I’m in.

 I hadn’t even seen the script at that point, just watched the video clip which was so amazing. I got it. You know, it was super-dramatic, it was so powerful. It just took hold of you. So that’s how Wes opened it up. [laughs]

You’ve got Charlie at the workshop with you here. Have there been other dogs around?

Oh, yes. There’s been a few. Choco, Treacle, Piglet the Chihuahua mix, and Billy the sheep dog were all the regulars. Other than Charlie we had one full-time real dog in the shop called Hazel. She was a puppy when we started and was here to the last few days of the filming. Amazingly, she grew up to be pretty identical to Rex, one of our Hero Pack dogs. She is so like Rex in many ways, in shape and look and color, it’s possible that people might think we based Rex on her. 

What’s it been like to create these dog puppets with all these real dogs around?

The only big difference between real dogs and the puppets is that the puppets can talk [laughs]. I think it’s very good anyway, having real dogs around in the workshop—they help keep everyone happy and less stressed. They’re also amazing in this instance as reference. Dogs can look sorrowful, thoughtful, mischievous, alert, and you can always tell when they’re really happy. With the puppets, you’ve got to try to give them this ability, especially with their faces and eyes and ears, to help them make these expressions or emotions. So, having real dogs around doing exactly that is super helpful. Sometimes we can almost tell what a real dog is trying to say, but with our puppets, they can actually say the words. It’s still magic hearing them and seeing them speak every time I see it happen.

When you have imagined something from the first reading of the script to something that’s then three-dimensional, it’s an amazing thing. Whether it started as description or a quick sketch, it’s just magical to see it jump from the page to something physical, something that everybody else can then see and move around. Then you can imagine how it would move and walk and even what it might sound like. There isn’t such a dramatic moment of realization again until they’ve got their skin and fur applied. Then the animators start testing, and the puppets start to wriggle their faces around, or open and close their mouths, or perhaps scratch an ear. That’s when you sort of go, “Oh yeah, it’s a moving dog.” That’s its own magical moment. The dog comes alive. And you can see its characteristics—how it drags its feet, or if it’s got a limp, or if it holds its head low all the time, whatever it is.

But then, when they talk back to you, it takes on a whole new level. And that level of excitement is . . . it’s really difficult to . . . [laughs]

I imagine this is all particularly poignant for you, as someone who speaks to your own dog.

Totally. Because you talk stupid language to your own dog. But you can have a proper conversation with a talking dog, you know? 

You seem like the person to ask about the handling of the dog-human relationship in Isle of Dogs.

They mention this in the film, but dogs and little boys are really connected. If you’ve had a dog when you were a kid, it was the best thing in the world. One of the women working here has a little baby, and she is completely gaga looking at Charlie, wanting to touch him and all that stuff. There’s that connection with an animal, where the emotions run deep, and hopefully we have brought that to life in the puppets, especially with Atari and Chief and Spots.
You know, I’ve watched the footage with a bunch of grown-ups [laughs], and you’ll hear them clearing their throats because you can’t help . . . You do get sentimental; it’s inevitable, and especially as a dog owner watching the film. It’s natural, I think, for a kid to wish that their dog could talk; it’s that part of your imagination kicking in.
[Andy turns to address Charlie, who is fast asleep] Do you know what we’re talking about? Who knows. It’s quite nice—Atari and Chief obviously have those moments where, when they’re talking in the film, they’re clearly thinking about one another, “He has no idea what I’m talking about.” Atari’s talking in Japanese, Chief’s talking in what we’ve translated as English. And the whole play of it is fun.

As I’ve walked through the workshop it’s been funny to hear how so many of the puppets have names that aren’t in the script—that you all have given them names as a sort of interdepartmental tool, and the public may never know about them.

Really, there are over eleven hundred puppets in this film so far. We’ve got major ones, and ones that only we’ll know who are tucked away on the sides of a shot. And it’s easier to remember a person by the name than “seventh person on the right in the back stage of that scene.” So, they all tend to get names. And then “Other Dog” might become “Other Dog That Looks Like Charlie,” which soon becomes “Charlie.” In our world, anyway. We have one that we refer to as “Bryan,” because he looks like Bryan Cranston. We’ve got another one that we refer to as “Keanu,” because he looks a little bit like Keanu Reeves.

Well, and over the course of two years, the amount of slang and shorthand that will develop—

 Yeah. I’m trying to think . . . We’ve got “Punk Girl,” which is this lady here.

Oh yeah, one of the student activists.

Yeah, very quickly you’ll know them by a little nickname. After two years with them, they’ve become sort of personalities that you know.

Did you take anything specifically from Kurosawa films in the puppets?

 The Bad Sleep Well had quite a lot of very good references, particularly for costume. And then from Seven Samurai you’ll have bits—faces, or a headband, or an obi [the sash that belts a kimono]—that make you say, “Oh, yeah, that one’s really nice,” and we’ll lift these little bits out.

Where do they end up on your people?

The one that strikes me straightaway as we have just been working on him is a character derived from Yojimbo. His character is very similar-looking to one of the guys in there—he was sort of, you know, a crazy big ram of a chap. And his face is almost identical to the one that made it through the sculpting process. You’ll spot him. He’s got quite bushy eyebrows. And there’s a moment where he glares back at camera. One funny story: on Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes took some photos at a country fair. A photo landed on the desk, and Wes said, “I really liked this guy. Could we make him?” We sculpted him, and he eventually became a character in the film. I often wonder if this random guy ever spotted himself.

The sheepdog pack. Their earless leader Igor (#1) is voiced by Roman Coppola. His concerned companion (#2) is voiced by Wes.

That illustrates a general truth, I think—a lot of directing comes down to knowing it when you see it.

You’ve got it, yes. For Atari . . . Well, there’s a lovely little stop-motion film shot in Poland, by Suzie Templeton: Peter and the Wolf. It’s beautifully constructed. Wes quite liked Peter from that film, especially early on, and was often referred to for his expressions and emotions. The Peter puppet didn’t talk in the film—in fact he barely opens his mouth—and he had really nice, clear eyes. And also, there was the little boy from Angela’s Ashes, whose picture they used on the book cover . . .

Kind of knock-kneed—

You’ve got it. There was something about both of those that Wes really liked. 

A lot of people I’ve talked to on set have a favorite puppet. Do you?

How many can I have?

You, of all people, have a right to more than one.

OK, all right. Well, I mean, I think Atari and Chief are my firm favorites. But I do have a soft spot for Auntie too. Chief was the first one I saw talking, so he’s obviously special. Jupiter and Oracle, I’m quite fond of, you know. They have a great moment together. There’s also a little group of dogs, the sheep dogs, which seem to be quite well liked, and I loved their look too. I had better stop now before the list gets out of hand.

I like the sheep dogs too.

It’s funny, isn’t it? There’s just something that they communicate.

Charlie has, over the last ten minutes, come to sit in front of Andy, and now extends his paw gently onto Andy’s knee, like a hand on a shoulder. “Why am I getting the paw?” asks Andy, but we all know why—Charlie sensed that we’d come to a natural stopping place.

A pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs—the Hero Pack

The Wes Anderson Collection: Isle of Dogs is out now and available in all good bookshops and online!