Stop-motion discord on “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (updated 2x)

I don’t know how I missed it up to now, but I just caught up with this fairly extraordinary L.A. Times article from Saturday’s edition by Chris Lee covering some pretty extreme sounding discord between writer-director Wes Anderson and at least some of the crew of his puppet-animation adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which is set to open on November 25th.

Now, a little grumbling is probably inevitable given that Anderson decided to eschew any and all CGI on the film and do everything “in camera,” including using live fur on the animal characters. As viewers of the original “King Kong” will note, stop-motion fur tends to rustle on screen because the effects people have to pick up and touch the thing and, barring CGI, I believe there’s really no way around it. However, like Anderson, to me there’s a wondrous handmade charm to it. As someone with highly retro sensibilities, I completely understand the aesthetic reasons for Anderson’s decision, though I realize it also makes a very hard job harder.

Fantastic Mr Fox Gets Set Photos

However, the quotes Chris Lee was able to get go far beyond just a disagreement about the production methods, and underline just how possibly wrongheaded his decision to direct the actual animation portion of the film’s production remotely from Paris might have been. I personally would not have expected Anderson to be on hand for every single frame of film shot — I doubt that Ernest Shoedsack and/or Merian C. Cooper were around for much of the shooting of the effects footage created by Willis O’Brien in “Kong” — but they were as far as I know they were all working out of the RKO lot, at least. True, Anderson had computer technology available to him but, assuming there was no journalistic malpractice, something clearly went very wrong on the set that he was not there to deal with.

To be specific, when you have high ranking production people providing material like this:

“Honestly? Yeah. He has made our lives miserable,” the film’s director of animation, Mark Gustafson, said during a break in shooting. He gave a weary chuckle. “I probably shouldn’t say that.”

…and this…

“We avoided wild animated flourishes of fantasy,” [Art Director Nelson] Lowry said. “Normally, an animated film allows you crazy camera angles shooting through a wild landscape. Instead, this feels like a dry adult drama.”

…and especially this…

“I think he’s a little sociopathic,” cinematographer [Tristan] Oliver said. “I think he’s a little O.C.D. Contact with people disturbs him. This way, he can spend an entire day locked inside an empty room with a computer. He’s a bit like the Wizard of Oz. Behind the curtain.”

…to a major newspaper, you have a real problem.

These are no rank amateurs or show business neophytes, even if they are effects folks. Oliver, whose comment Anderson somewhat understandably said “kind of crosses the line,” in particular is a veteran of Nick Park’s Ardman animation and worked on all of the “Wallace & Gromit” films as first a camera operator and later the DP. (For the record, however, I’m not sure Oliver understands the meaning of the word “sociopathic,” which indicates a complete lack of any conscience or compassion — that doesn’t seem to be exactly what he means.)

All of this leads to a question. I personally consider Anderson one of the two or three best American directors now working, give or take a Sidney Lumet, I know Paris is the city of lights and all, and clearly Anderson j’etaimes the place, which I get. But what’s London, chopped liver?

UPDATE: Variety‘s Todd McCarthy has a mostly positive early review which touches on some of the matters brought up above.

ANOTHER UPDATE: As pointed out in the comments, DP Tristan Oliver has basically charged Chris Lee and the L.A. Times with journalistic malpractice. You can reads his remarks to a Wes Anderson fan site here. Were his words really twisted by Lee or is this a case of after-the-fact damage control? Could be either, neither, or both. To paraphrase Will Rogers, all I know I read online.

  

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