Isle of Dogs is a love letter to Japanese cinema and visual culture. The stop-motion film takes place in a future Japan where dogs have been exiled to an offshore wasteland known as Trash Island following an outbreak of canine flu. A 12-year-old boy embarks on a quest to find his missing pooch, prompting an intrepid American exchange student to investigate his disappearance.
Erica Dorn spent two years working with a talented team of modelmakers, set dressers, production designers and animators to bring Anderson’s vision to life. Working with Annie Atkins (graphic designer on the Grand Budapest Hotel) and Chinami Narikawa, she created thousands of handmade props for the film – from milk bottles to ID cards, newspapers and posters in various sizes.
Dorn is based in London but has also lived in Japan. A graphic designer and illustrator, she worked at Winkreative for four years and was freelancing at Mother when she received a call inviting her to join the film’s art department. Here, she discusses her work on the film and what it was like collaborating with the famously particular director…
CR: How did you come to be working on Isle of Dogs?
Erica Dorn: I’d been working as a designer – not in film but just as a normal designer in the ‘real world’ – with a background in illustration. I was doing various things like visual identities for brands, editorial design.
[It] was a really lucky series of, not coincidences, but things that lined up – like the fact that the film is set in Japan and they were making it in London and that I was available at the time. Wes’s producer and I have a friend in common and she saw that they were doing a call out for Japanese-speaking designers to work on the film, because it was important for Wes and the production designers and everyone working on the film that all of the Japanese language graphics were authentic. So he put us in touch.
I was actually on holiday at the time – I was in a hotel in Okinawa on lockdown because there was a category five cyclone outside – so I was sitting at my computer and I got the email and I got really excited.
I went in for a two week trial with Paul Harrod the production designer and we just kind of played around making things. I think the first thing I worked on was the sake bottles – they appear lots of different times in the film, mainly in the dog hovel but also later on in the noodle bar and the sake bar scene … so I did a two-week trial and then four months later they called me back to start full-time. That was in pre-production and I was working with Annie Atkins [lead graphic designer on the Grand Budapest Hotel].
Annie’s very experienced, not just in TV and film graphics, but also in working with Wes, which is a very particular process…. She really gave me a crash course in the Wes Anderson method of making graphics.
In the beginning, I was just helping Annie with the Japanese aspects of the graphics she was working on, so if there was a little bit of Japanese graphics then I would do the lettering and send it to her and she would apply it and then eventually I graduated to doing the graphics myself. [Atkins later left the film to go on maternity leave and Dorn took over as lead graphic designer.]
CR: How many of you were working on the graphics?
ED: In pre-production, when we weren’t so busy or rushed, it was three of us, so me and Annie and another designer Chinami, who’s also Japanese. As time went on and we realised how much there was to do, we just kept on acquiring people. One of the art department assistants also joined and she was doing all of the woodblock prints, because everything that’s meant to be a photograph in the film was actually done as a woodblock print.
It would have been fairly easy to fake that but it was important to Wes that it was done by hand, so she ended up carving all of those woodblocks at A4 size and then printing them with ink and then we resized them. You wouldn’t know that they were real but it’s that kind of detail I think that you don’t see explicitly but hopefully, it comes through as a feeling.
CR: Had you ever thought about designing for film before working on Isle of Dogs?
ED: I hadn’t at all, until the opportunity arose. I thought a lot of the skills I had were transferable and then there was a period of this really sharp learning curve where I was like, ‘what’s the difference between a set and a sequence? What does this or that mean?’ and that period was just me acclimatising to a different industry.
The end goal is very different [to ‘real world’ graphic design]. It’s purely about storytelling. Branding is also about storytelling in a way, but this is a little more specific.
CR: Did you have to send your portfolio to Wes and the team? What kind of work did you send?
ED: I did send a portfolio I had at the time, with a mix of illustration and a lot of identity work and logos. I had worked for a couple of months in Japan as well just after I graduated at a very Japanese graphics company, so I think that helped. And the fact I had grown up in Japan and that was part of my visual background.
I [became] a kind of unofficial cultural advisor…. Me and Chinami both got a lot of questions, like ‘would this happen in Japan?’ and stuff that we’d never really thought about, like ‘how do you show the number six with your hands?’ because it’s different in every culture. It wasn’t always graphics-related questions.
CR: Can you tell me about the inspiration for the film’s graphics?
ED: A lot of that work had already been done by Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod and Wes. They had collected a lot of references and a big part of that came from 1960s Japanese cinema. We also looked at real references, but a lot of the initial inspiration came from Korusawa and Ozu films and we kept going back to those films and to screenshots we’d taken.
We made a kind of library or archive where every time we saw a street sign or a wallpaper pattern or a bookshelf, we collected them, and those were the references we kept coming back to. There were a lot of wallpapers, kimono fabric patterns…. When you’re working with miniatures you’re working to a very specific scale so you can’t just pop to the prop store, you have to make everything, and Wes is the kind of director where he wants everything to be made specifically for that visual world.
CR: How many different graphic props might you have to create for a single set or sequence?
ED: There were a lot of graphics that weren’t initially on the graphics breakdown, which is the list that you create by looking at the script in the beginning.
If you take the classroom for example [in the fictional Megasaki City, where the film is set], you know that there’s going to be a chalkboard and there’s a banner that goes across that says Megasaki Senior High Daily-Manifesto, and then there’s just going to be some stuff on the walls.
Then you have a clock so you have to design the clock face, and you have a bunch of maps, so all of those have to be made, and there’s some calligraphy practice that the students presumably did, so there’s a bunch of calligraphy. There are notebooks, so you have to design the fronts of the notebooks, and there are old copies of the Daily-Manifesto lying around, so we designed the front pages of those.
The chalkboard eraser has a graphic on it, the pencils have a graphic on them, the characters are wearing badges saying ‘pro-dog’ and ‘vote Watanabe’ so we had to design those too. There’s also a hacker [in the class], so we designed the hacker’s corner and all the computer screen that he’s looking at, and then there are posters and little stickers on all of the hardware to make it feel like a real workspace as opposed to a made up one.
CR: Were you working almost entirely by hand? And did you have to make things and shrink them down?
ED: We did most of what we could by hand but often, the scale would be such that you can’t actually make it that size, so we would make it by hand in human size and then reproduce them at a smaller size. If it was paper or card, we would do it in the graphics department. For anything else, there’s an amazing paint department and a set dressing and model department and they could pretty much make anything, so we’d deliver the files and they’d create the prop.
CR: How does it work building up each of those environments? So building those layers of detail?
ED: Usually the detail comes from the reference. There’s the early stage, where Paul and Adam have reference images – those often get given to the concept artist, so based on those images they sketch out [the set], and they work with Wes as well. They sketch out a drawing and basically, it’s like a print out of what’s going on in Wes’s head for a particular set. And that’s really useful for us.
There’s also the animated storyboard for each sequence and that tells us how long we see that graphic for and how important it is – if it’s a close-up and someone’s holding it or if it’s in the background. That becomes our starting point and from there, if we have a list, we’ll take each item and go off and look for images that fit the world of the film, so the right period, most of them Japanese, but not always. We tried to get a wide range of references so they’re not all the same. For example if it’s a train ticket, we’ll try to have some that have stamps and maybe look a bit older, some that look newer and have an illustration, and we’ll present those to Wes and he’ll hand-pick the ones that he thinks could be interesting or that have elements that he likes.
He’ll pick sometimes one, sometimes up to four or five, and that becomes our visual brief to start sketching out ideas. From there it’s just really a case of refining and working with Wes, so sending things back and forth until he feels that it’s right or that it’s finished. Sometimes, he’ll say it looks good on the first sketch and sometimes you’re on version 25… I’d say on average [there would be] three or four revisions.
CR: Did you have to create multiple versions of each prop?
ED: We did because when they’re animated, sometimes they get damaged or destroyed because you have to attach them to the puppet hands. We were also working on three different scales. Depending on the shot, you’d have either a large, medium or small puppet. For some things you also have overscale, which is for a close up, and sometimes you have extra scale for a city shot which is really far away.
CR: How long did you spend working on each set? Or were you working on them simultaneously?
ED: During pre-production it was quite relaxed. We were working on things one by one and working our way down the list … and then the list of things we needed kept on growing. In the beginning you would have a graphic ready for them to shoot five weeks later and then during the busiest time – I think probably February or March – we were literally printing things cutting them delivering them and they were being shot the same day. There were times where Wes would look at a shot and he would decide we need to add something in the background or add pin badges to one of the characters and it was a mad rush to get that done because we didn’t want to hold up the schedule.
I imagine on a live action film you shoot things one by one, but with stop-motion animation, there’s sometimes about 20 booths, which we call stages, and they’re all at various stages of build or dressing or animating … so we had to keep track of what was coming up and what was going to be coming tomorrow versus the day after just to keep up. It was really fast-paced but at the same time we needed to keep our attention to detail – all of the newspaper articles [seen on newspapers shown in the film] were still being written by us.
CR: What was the most challenging set to design graphics for?
ED: Tracy’s [the exchange student voiced by Greta Gerwig] bedroom was one of those sets that was like a cloud over us at all times. We knew it was going to be a challenge with the sheer amount of work that needed to go into it. There ended up being about 60 different graphics on each of those walls [shown top].
It’s her conspiracy theory visualised in her bedroom … so there were newspaper clippings, photos, receipts, ID cards of scientists – all this stuff that she had collected – and each graphic is different. Each one is on a different paper stock with different amounts of ageing on them. We had all hands on deck for that one – I think we were seven or eight at one point.
CR: What props did you most enjoy working on most?
ED: I just loved all the packaging. It was all inspired by the second half of the Shōwa Period, so the 1960s and 70s. We made a lot of trash and a lot of that ended up in the trash heap. There was detergent packaging, when Chief [a dog voiced by Bryan Cranston] has his bath and a box of school milk which Atari uses as a pillow. They’re not very visible in the film – they just kind of make up the background or the ambience that gives you a real sense of time and place.
[The milk box] was another prop where we tried printing it, but even at 1200 dpi you could still see the dots on the printer, so we had Roy Bell, head of the paint department, go in with a needle-sized brush and paint on a cow because the human error was preferable to the printer dots.
CR: What was a normal day like on the shoot?
I was there for 26 months. The first part was very relaxed and so was the end part where I was just doing the opening titles, but when we were in the throes of production, we had a weekly graphics list and we met every morning with the art director and coordinator and she would flags things that were coming up or had been changed in the schedule and we just had to make sure we got everything done on time.
We were all based there: we were in the office building at 3 Mills and then [filming was] just round the corner – it’s like an airport hanger but they divide it up into units [for different stages] so you could just run over and deliver or measure things. The puppet department was a bit further along the canal [at Andy Gent’s workshop].
Because it’s so long and so intense, it kind of felt like [we were] a family at the end of it. The other thing with working on this movie is that Wes seems to always surround himself with the best talent, so you end up working with the best animators, the best modelmakers in the UK – possibly in the world. There’s a lot of pressure but at the same time you feel like there’s a lot of support.
CR: Can you tell me about the typography and lettering in the film? Were there any key references sources?
ED: The Japanese type is really varied but there’s not a lot of variation in the English. We had one font we used for all the subtitles … but Wes’s idea was that the Japanese [lettering] would be completely varied throughout the whole film.
We looked at a bit of everything really: theatre posters, ads, signage, stuff from films… and then there were some older references too. For the sake bottles and some of the murals and things like that, we’d go back to some antique references like Yamato-e … and all of these traditional print-making and image-making styles. In Japan, there’s a real mix of old traditional things and new modern things and that’s also reflected in the film. Even in the opening scene, you have a pagoda and all these high-rises behind.
CR: What were the biggest challenges for you, having not worked in film before?
ED: When you’re working for graphics in film, it’s closer to forgery than creating something from scratch – you’re always imitating a reference or something from a particular time period, whereas, as a graphic designer in the real world, you’re expected to come up with something fresh or not done before – very rarely would you get asked to do something that looks like a Japanese brand from 1965.
We put a lot of attention into everything but you also have to be aware that there’s a difference from something that’s going to be dark and blurry in the background and something that’s going to be front and centre. For the sake bar, there were close to 200 illustrations covering that bar from floor to ceiling. None of those were going to be featured [in a close-up], but we still had to create 200 illustrations, so that was about speed.
CR: It must be an interesting challenge working with a director like Wes – you’re exercising your creativity creating props, but he also has a very strong idea of what he wants the film to look like…
ED: I think you know going in to it what to expect. You know what kind of director he is and you know you’re going in there to help create his vision, so it’s not about your ego or what you would have done. But obviously, you’re there because you have something you can contribute – in my case a knowledge of Japanese design – and after a while, you start to figure out what his process is, so you kind of start applying it before he does and the process becomes smoother and smoother.
It’s really nice when you have a sort of rhythm going and you have learned how to create elements from this world. It takes a while before you start to build up a bigger picture, but you see a few pieces from Megasaki City and then you start to see more and more and understand better what this world looks like, so each subsequent graphic becomes a bit easier to design. There was one point about a year and a half in where I showed Wes a bunch of references and he didn’t pick any – he just said, ‘why don’t you just try something?’ and that was really a moment where a I felt there was an element of trust that we’d established.
I don’t know if he has it all in his head before he creates it or he’s learning it at the same time … but it gets easier with time. Although I’m sure in the next film it will be completely different and they’ll have to start all over again.
CR: What was the most enjoyable aspect of the whole process?
ED: I think it’s really nice when you’ve sketched something out and then you hand it over to the model makers and you see it for the first time built into a set. That’s kind of a magical feeling, because it’s something that you’ve invented and now it’s there in 3D. And then there’s obviously seeing it in the cinema. We went to the premiere in Berlin and all sat together and there was a lot of excitement.
Isle of Dogs is out in cinemas now. You can read our interview with the film’s production designers here. CR is hosting a Q&A with Erica Dorn at the D&AD Festival in London on April 26. See dandad.org for details.
The post Designing graphics for Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs appeared first on Creative Review.