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animation station #2: isle of dogs!

Earlier this year, I took a trip to the Broadway cinema in Nottingham to see Wes Anderson's new animation, Isle of Dogs, after absolutely loving what I'd seen in the trailer. It really inspired me during the Whether the Weather and Ashmolean projects in first year. The only issue was that I had to remember what I'd seen without any way of saving it - until now. I decided that it would be really worthwhile to watch it again now it's available online, and screenshot the techniques so that I can analyse them more in depth (and hopefully remember them better for next time!) so here goes!

(Note: I really have tried to only show my absolute favourite examples but there's still a lot here - this post is mainly for my own reference so I wanted to include all the shots I thought were important!)


I'd like to start with the introduction of the film (this post will have some kind of order at first, hopefully). I love that the film unapologetically uses Japanese in both written and verbal forms, and only ever translates the most necessary information, like the examples below. Note that most of the examples are the titles for the 'parts' of the film; I'd never seen a film be defined and split into parts before, which was really interesting. Regardless, the quirkiness of the subtitles really added to the film's charm for me.

I really loved the whole introduction of the film; it used so many different angles and had a very clear pace to it because of the addition of music. The shots are paced in time with the beat of the drums, and gets more dramatic as the music becomes more layered and faster in pace. I like how at the very beginning, a very slow zoom is used as the music gets louder in order to slowly ease the audience into the film. Extreme angles such as this really create a variance in perspective and keep the interest of the audience high, as other angles like top downs and super close ups are used. I found the whole sequence as a really captivating way to credit the voice actors and director. It also really sets the tone for the whole film, gives it a very authentic Japanese feel, and begins the trend of music playing such a large part in the pacing throughout the film.

I'm going to try and organise all of my thoughts on the techniques used in the film into categories, starting with the materials and overall style. I really love that the characters feel very dirty and real; the hair, noses and eyes of the dogs feel believable (probably because actual alpaca hair was used for the dogs' coats). This is a definite clear advantage of using real life models rather than computer animated characters as the characters feel extremely tangible and authentic; even the humans, who have more of a toy-like appearance compared to the dogs. Another thing I found really interesting was that the animators recorded footage of real dogs (and themselves) in order to recreate walks and movements as accurately as possible. This again adds authenticity to the characters, as they move naturally and all have different speeds and postures. I love the use of cotton wool to create clouds of dust when the characters partake in large group brawls; it really gives a sense of life to the fight and creates a somewhat comedic feel to them, similar to what you'd find in a child's cartoon show. The cotton wool is manipulated to move naturally but a little visibly choppy - especially when used as smoke coming out of people's noses - reminding the viewer that this is a stop motion animation after all. Another interesting technique I noticed was the representation of water in the movie; it almost appears to be some kind of semi transparent/frosted sheet of glass or plastic- although unrealistic, it still imitates water strongly.

Next I'm going to talk about the great focus on the centre of the screen throughout the film; almost every shot in the movie either focuses on the centre with other elements around it, or just has one centre element surrounded by empty space. I found this really interesting as it meant that the whole film had a great amount of visual consistency; there was always something in the centre. This also commonly meant that characters would be looking directly into the camera. Along with this, I felt that every single shot was balanced; never with too much information or too many elements to make it feel cluttered or overwhelming; always just enough. This is something that I am personally incredibly inspired by as I often struggle with overcrowding things and feel I need to improve my sense of visual balance/hierarchy to help the strength of my communication; this is something Wes Anderson does extremely well, in my opinion. I also really love how levels of focus are used to highlight different elements on the screen at any given time, in order to show things that are far away, or when moving the camera backwards to switch attention to the characters at the front of the shot.

Some other examples of shots with a centre focus are below. Note that these are extreme close ups; I really love these as they allow the viewer to see all of the intricate detail in the costumes of the dogs or other 3D models created by the production team (as I found out when watching the behind the scenes clips that the production staff literally placed every hair and every freckle onto the characters by hand - and there are 3 different sizes of models for the dogs too!). This again keeps a really wide variance in the types of perspectives used throughout the film while still keeping the visual consistency of the centre point. I really love that pretty much all of the shots are completely straight on, facing the characters, rather than trying to change angles and be all fancy; I don't think that is needed in this case simply because the models and environments themselves are so beautifully well made that they don't need tilted angles to look good; the perspectives are interesting but they are used more for communication purposes, to make the happenings of the film clearer. Therefore, when they aren't needed, a straight-on shot tells the story just fine.

I've also picked out some wide angle shots from the film to really show the contrast between the close up and distant perspectives used throughout the film. Note that these two extremes wouldn't be used one after the other; a mid angle would be used between in order to create transitional frames. With that being said, I do however love both forms of perspectives; particularly the wide angles, as they show off the environments around the characters much more and really work on demonstrating how large and foreboding Trash Island can be -  showing how tiny the characters are due to the context. I particularly love the first example below as it clearly demonstrates the expansive size of the stretch the characters are walking through, with them being the tiniest dots that are barely visible but still recognisable. Similarly, I like that a top down but wide angled perspective is used in my second example; it communicates the depth of the cliff beside the characters very clearly; they are used as markers to compare the sizes of structures to. Some of my favourite shots in the film were of the cable cars; I really appreciate that the camera stays completely level with the cable car and the environment scrolls around it, demonstrating that a movement is happening while still retaining the centre focal point. These shots again create a feeling of the characters being so small and powerless, linking to the theme of larger characters being the most powerful (which is shown in other shots of the Mayor having large structures and banners as well as his body being so much larger than the dogs and Atari).

Next, I'd like to cover how the use of different character's perspectives are used sometimes in the film. The concept, on paper, felt a little bit cringe to me until I saw it used properly in action. The film seems to commonly use Atari's perspective when he meets characters for the first time (like in the first two examples below). The viewer sees what he sees, allowing them to feel more connected to him. However, some more interesting uses of this are further below, like when his perspective is used while starting up his plane; I thought this was a really unique way of showing take off as we see the texture of the floor move by and slowly become more distant. I really liked this as a perspective as it felt much more interesting to watch compared to just seeing the whole plane from a side angle taking off. The shot is also, however, exactly what is needed in order to communicate the take off - no extra details are included; only necessary information. I saw similar habits throughout the rest of the film, with a 'less is more' approach. In my last example, the perspective of the camera on a drone is used by the Mayor's team is used. I found this really interesting as the camera sways back and forth and does not keep its' usual centre focus; this helps to communicate what perspective has been taken - as well as the green tint to the screen.

Here are some examples I found of the use of split screens in the film. I found the inclusion of these really interesting as they have different purposes throughout the film. In the first instance, a split screen is used to show movement even though the right half of the screen uses quite a close shot; it definitely helps to communicate what is happening clearly. In other uses, the split screen is used in order to show different perspectives at once and how the movements on one side affect the other in real time. For example, the movement of the man with the joystick affects the movement of the drone on the other side, or in my last example the drone's movement affects how the wind and cotton wool clouds are blowing around; the split screen acts as a tool to give the viewer further insight into why things are happening. A noteworthy use of a 'split screen' was the hospital mirror. Although not a direct split screen, the mirror in the top left shows the effects of what the surgeon is saying in real time, as we see the group of characters react to it without having to cut to face them. This, in my opinion, was a really unique way of showing the two perspectives at once and made the sequence much more interesting to watch.

Split screens were also used for sequences that needed to be heavily translated from Japanese (as I said in the introduction, the films characters unapologetically use their native language) allowing for these sequences to still run smoothly with the viewer understanding what each character is saying; without using standard subtitles. Subtitles would mean that the viewer would spend most of their time reading them at the bottom of the screen rather than seeing what was happening; so the transcription using a typewriter is a happy go between. Although it is a split screen, the two sides don't actually have much movement to them, they simply show who is speaking with the copywriter tapping away, so we can see the translation on their screen. This means that no important details are lost while the viewer is reading the translation. Alternatively, a translator speaks aloud what characters are saying or doing so they can be watched more closely; the translator mechanic gives context behind the translation rather than having a narrator that we never see saying everything.

Now I'd like to focus on some of the techniques that aren't used as widely throughout the film, but I thought they were either ingenious or just incredibly unique, starting with the use of a montage. I really like how this is used to demonstrate the passing of time (kind of like the panel I found in the DeadEndia book, but animated!). The sequence cuts to the same shot over and over with a change in the sky's colour and progress of the boat being built each time in order to show how long it took to finish. I really like the use of this technique as it communicates what is happening effectively without using a long sequence that could become boring (as much as I love this film, I wouldn't have wanted to sit and watch hours of the characters building a boat). I love the tones of colours used in this sequence too; the tones of blue and pink are really visually pleasing, but still fit with the dirty, dulled tones used throughout the film that are never broken. I thought this sequence was lovely to watch, but maintained its purpose too.

Now I'd like to cover the harmony of 2D and 3D animation in the film; this is something I have never seen before and found really interesting. Whenever characters are not physically in the frame but are being shown through a monitor or TV, they become 2D animated illustrations rather than their usual 3D stop motion models. This was something that immediately caught my attention as unique; it's a really interesting way of showing the flat nature of screens, and establishes somewhat of a visual code - the viewer knows that if they are seeing the 2D animations, they are seeing some kind of screen, even if they cannot see anything else to establish that context. The 2D animation reflects the 3D animated style really well; the characters move in the same way, they still feel dirty, gritty and real, all while being really beautiful and independent from the 3D animation. I really loved the style used for the 2D animations, with little shading and depth of tone used, again emphasising that they are meant to be flat images seen by characters through a screen. This also really aids the transition between the characters on Trash Island and the characters still in Megasaki City, as scenes from the island commonly transform into the 2D animated style to show that the characters in the city are watching them, in one swift movement. This seamlessness really makes the whole film easy to watch and not too visually overwhelming.

The last interesting unique technique I would like to mention is the use of transparency. This is most commonly used when the dog flu cure is given to a character; we see a very overly realistic representation of their internal organs fade over the character, with the cure flowing through it as bright blue liquid, which then fades away. I found this to be an almost comedic representation of the cure working but it also works towards the visual communication of the film; you can physically see that the liquid is moving around their body, curing them, rather than just seeing the character look happy or say that they feel better. This is just one example of how the movie always strives to show what is happening rather than tell it; which is something I find really inspiring and could be carried over to any graphic design or illustration project.

All in all, I absolutely love this film and cannot recommend it enough, whether you like stop motion animation or not, because the visual communication of the whole thing is so incredibly strong that it could influence you in any kind of project. I really love the whole style, feel, music and all the different techniques and perspectives used throughout the film; the whole thing is so varied in technique that you never feel bored at any point; there is always a new angle or environment to look at. That's it for this one (sorry it was so long) but I'm going to write more about some different kinds of animation soon!

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