- By Ian Youngs
- entertainment and arts reporter
A nondescript low-rise building tucked away on a suburban street in Greater Manchester hides the star-birthing studio of one of this year’s Oscar contenders.
In a small room within an anonymous industrial block, an elderly man with a bushy white beard is being dressed in a tuxedo, ready for the red carpet at the Baftas.
There seems to be some uneasiness in her wide-eyed eyes when a designer feels and fixes the fit of her fancy new suit.
“He doesn’t look comfortable with it,” says Peter Saunders, one of the heads of the studio where this test is carried out. “He’s not used to being so tied up, you know?”
Geppetto, a humble Italian carpenter, is more used to wearing his well-worn carpenter’s clothes. But he has no say in his new outfit.
With an approximate height of 35 cm, it is one of the puppets used in the recent adaptation of Pinocchio in stop-motion animation by director Guillermo del Toro.
In the classic tale, Geppetto plays the wooden boy whose nose grows when he lies.
Actually, for the film, both characters, along with the other main cast members, were constructed by Altrincham, Greater Manchester-based animation studio Mackinnon and Saunders.
After receiving his miniature bespoke suit from the company’s wardrobe department, Geppetto joined the other stars of this year’s awards season at the Baftas in London last weekend, where the film won the award. for best animated film.
It has also won a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award, and is the favorite to be named best animated film at the Oscars in two weeks.
Backstage at the Baftas, del Toro praised the British puppet studio. “Mackinnon and Saunders in Manchester, England, are the best at doing this,” he told reporters. “They are incomparable.”
This low-key pillar of the British animation industry has made his home in a slightly ramshackle building eight miles south of the city center.
“It’s not exactly Hollywood,” Saunders admits as he surveys the unkempt parking lot, which backs onto a canal.
Back in the wardrobe department, the desks are littered with pins, cotton, cloth, toothpicks, glue bottles, and scissors. There are small belt buckles and small buttons to be added to Geppetto’s costume.
On the wall are samples of costumes for the film and a single fingerless microglove that one of the costumers painstakingly knitted for Geppetto using pins. Del Toro ultimately decided not to use it in the film.
In another workshop, model makers craft metal skeletons for characters in a new top-secret children’s show. His workstations are similarly filled with the tools of his trade: small screwdrivers, chisels, files, clamps, brushes. A steel foot fitting will take a few days to make.
Upstairs, in a non-glamorous boardroom, Pinocchio joins the postman Pat and Pingu on shelves with some of the characters the company has worked on.
There are also aliens made for Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, Mackinnon and Saunders’ first foray into Hollywood in 1996. Burton couldn’t use stop-motion animation at the end, but he was impressed by the company.
He returned to them for The Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie, and Wes Anderson called them on for The Fantastic Mr Fox.
An exhibit of the company’s work in nearby Sale features models from those movies, as well as children’s TV shows like Bob the Builder, Ra Ra the Noisy Lion, Twirly Woos, and The Clangers.
Saunders says that creating the models for Pinocchio took 62 people tens of thousands of hours over four years.
The characters are based on illustrations by American artist Gris Grimly, but the final designs for the film were created through many emails between del Toro and his team, and Mackinnon and Saunders.
The Mexican director knew exactly what he wanted, down to the smallest detail, for example, Geppetto’s hands.
“Guillermo was very determined to make them look like the hands of the workers,” says Saunders. “It was the dirt on the nails that worried him. It was the calluses on the palms of his hands.
“‘Do you want two tripe? Do you want 10 tripe? Do you want bloodshot or milky white or whatever?’
“It went on for weeks. It felt like months. But it’s that level of detail that’s fun to try and do.”
She continues: “Guillermo had a very clear idea of what he wanted, and he pushed and pushed and pushed until it was right, and we love that process of trying to make things right for people.”
I have to look at it again and pay special attention to Geppetto’s hands, I say. “I don’t think you notice,” Saunders laughs. “But he’s there!”
As for Pinocchio, instead of using a usual steel skeleton covered in foam and silicone, the company developed a method of 3D printing Pinocchio’s body parts in metal, allowing multiple identical versions to be made.
Even more versions of his face were made, each with slightly different expressions, which could be easily taken on and off and held in place with magnets.
Once the models were completed to del Toro’s satisfaction, the equally painstaking work of bringing them to life was done in Portland, Oregon and Guadalajara in Mexico.
Saunders formed the company with Ian Mackinnon after Cosgrove Hall, the legendary Manchester-based animation studio they worked for, closed in the early 1990s.
His company now has around 110 employees, but there have been warnings about the future of the British animation industry due to competition from other countries with more generous tax breaks.
It’s a “really difficult” time for British animation, says Saunders.
“We’ve always had ups and downs with the type of work we’ve done. We’ve had some fantastic ups and downs in terms of feature films and some fantastic children’s television series that we’re very proud to be associated with.
“But maybe a year after those successes, there’s no work. It’s always been a roller coaster and I think because of these tax credits, the ups and downs are getting maybe a little more extreme.”
“So there are concerns that the British animation industry is slowly bleeding to death. That may be an exaggeration, but it’s certainly under pressure from these countries where there are such generous tax breaks.”
A government consultation has just closed on plans to reform the UK’s TV and film tax credits.
Earlier this month, Wallace and Gromit creators Aardman Animations told The Guardian that British companies may be forced to move abroad in order to compete. However, Saunders isn’t considering that.
“Ian and I have roots in the North West. I’m from Rochdale. Ian is from Warrington. We love being based in Altrincham. We have a great company here.
“We employ a lot of people from the North West, but we also attract people and work from all over the world, so we are in a very unique position.
“The building may not look great, but what goes on inside it is still a wonder to me.”
Things like doing Pinocchio and Geppetto, and his tuxedo, which could have an outlet in Hollywood come the Oscars.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is on Netflix. The Mackinnon & Saunders – 30 Years and Beyond exhibition is at the Waterside Arts Center in Sale until March 11.