The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit on ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’ is a masterclass in stop-motion animation

The film directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson won the award for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Oscars and Golden Globes

March 31, 2023 09:30 am | Updated April 01, 2023 04:33 pm IST

Directors Mark Gustafson (left) and Guillermo del Toro on the sets of the film

Directors Mark Gustafson (left) and Guillermo del Toro on the sets of the film | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The worlds he has created over the years are testament to his penchant for marrying the gothic and fantastical to the mundane everyday or emotions as universal as love — be it the 1960s lab housing an amphibious creature in Shape of Water or the eerie fantasy world set in 1944 Spain in Pan’s Labyrinth.

Watch | Behind the scenes of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio at MoMA, New York

With his latest, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature this year, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, along with co-director and stop-motion animation legend Mark Gustafson, makes the case for animation as an excellent tool to tell dark, sometimes grim, stories.

So, it comes as no surprise that over 245,000 visitors have been to see the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) special exhibit on the award-winning production since it opened on December 4 last year. Guillermo del Toro: Crafting Pinocchio takes its wide-eyed patrons behind the scenes of the exhaustive sets of the movie and its stop-motion animation work with ceiling-mounted art, oversized puppets, alternative posters and more. Edited excerpts from a conversation with Ronald S. Magliozzi, curator, Department of Film, MoMA:

‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’ is hailed as a well-researched thesis on stop-motion animation and its possibilities. How does the exhibit at MoMA further this conversation?

The exhibition invites visitors to explore the collaborative craft of stop-motion animation filmmaking — from ‘look development’ to the ‘on-set’ process, through a presentation of five full working sets and four large set pieces, alongside puppets and marionettes, maquettes, sculptural moulds, drawings, development materials, time-lapse and motion-test videos, digital colour tests, archival photography, and props from the film.

In addition, stop-motion is visible throughout the entire exhibition in time-lapse videos and motion study recordings of animators. It is dedicated to the proposition that Guillermo has so often stated: “Animation is a medium, not a genre.”

The exhibition has had an inspirational effect, as we’d hoped it might, and is evidently encouraging new generations of animators and puppet-makers. On more than one occasion, we’ve been stopped by animation students eager to express their appreciation for the behind-the-scenes look at the particular skill it takes to produce stop-motion, and the collaborative nature of the work.

What was the inception of this curation?

Ronald S. Magliozzi, curator, Department of Film, MoMA.

Ronald S. Magliozzi, curator, Department of Film, MoMA. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

It started with an offer from Netflix in late 2021 to consider the possibility of creating an exhibition on the film. Having previously curated three popular exhibitions on animation at the Museum of Modern Art from archival holdings — Pixar: 20 Years of Animation (2005), Tim Burton (2009), and the Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets (2012) — the opportunity to organise a show during the active production of a film was something new.

My co-organiser Brittany Shaw and I travelled to Portland, Oregon, the home of stop-motion animation in the U.S., in November 2021, and met with Guillermo and Mark Gustafson over dinner. We came away from the conversation with the ideas of craft, process, and collaboration as our guiding principles for the curation, and then spent several weeks at ShadowMachine studio meeting with artists, craftspeople, and puppet makers, and with animators working on a number of sets for different sequences of the film.

What are some of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ aspects the exhibit touches upon?

Pinocchio puppets at the ShadowMachine workshop.

Pinocchio puppets at the ShadowMachine workshop. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The exhibition is in two parts. Starting in a second-floor museum gallery, it takes visitors through the ‘look development’ process, exploring how the natural elements that compose Pinocchio’s world were conceived, including wood, stone, metal, foliage, and light; the historical period in which the story is set; and the different ways the human and supernatural characters would appear and move.

Visitors are then given an ‘on-set’ view of how stop-motion is produced with the installation of eight working sets and set pieces that demonstrate the nuances of puppet staging, lighting, and camera movement.

Part 2 of Crafting Pinocchio continues in the museum’s Garden Hall and theatre galleries with several of the oversized working puppets used in the movie, and a section on the scoring of the film by composer Alexandre Desplat; international editions of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio demonstrating how different illustrators have visualised the story; a comparative selection of studio and alternative del Toro film posters; and three newly commissioned videos and a soundscape contextualising del Toro’s Pinocchio with his earlier films.

One of the special displays at The Museum of Modern Art.

One of the special displays at The Museum of Modern Art. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

What was the most challenging part of realising del Toro’s and Gustafson’s vision within a physical space?

One of our aims was to give MoMA visitors a sense of what it is like to be on the set during the production of a stop-motion film, an experience we enjoyed, when we were in the process of researching for the exhibition in late 2021. Selecting how many full working sets we could bring from the large ShadowMachine studio stages in Portland to our galleries in New York, and which sets those should be, was a rewarding challenge.

How have viewers responded to the exhibit since it opened?

The degree to which visitors of all ages and interests have responded to the exhibition has been especially gratifying. The production art on display is intentionally mounted ceiling-to-floor to give adults and children, alike, privileged views. Seeing very young children seated on the floor for a close-up look at a puppet is a memory of the exhibition I won’t soon forget.

‘Guillermo del Toro: Crafting Pinocchio’ is on display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, till April 15.

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