Frank Passingham Interview: Cinematographer Invented New Stop-Motion Techniques for Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Movies Features Guillermo del Toro
Frank Passingham Interview: Cinematographer Invented New Stop-Motion Techniques for Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio blends the chilling auteurism of its eponymous Mexican filmmaker with the creative talents of a world-renown animation team. Based on the Gothic illustrations of American artist Gris Grimly, the film balances delicate themes of light and darkness to construct its powerful reimagining of Carlo Collodi’s revered fantasy novel. Behind the actual lighting and camerawork of the feature is cinematographer Frank Passingham, a stop-motion veteran whose mark can be found in works including Kubo and the Two Strings, Coraline and Chicken Run—and a filmmaker del Toro hails as the Vittorio Storaro of animation.

Paste Magazine sat down to interview Frank Passingham—who recently watched del Toro’s Pinocchio in 35mm at MoMA, a viewing experience he says adds “an extra bit of magic” compared to a 4K viewing—to discuss his first time at the movies, the new stop-motion lighting techniques he created for Pinocchio and the ways animation has changed since he first got his start in the industry.

Paste Magazine: I was eight years old when Flushed Away came out. It was one of the first movies I ever owned on DVD and also one of the first animated works whose images and story absolutely fascinated me. You have an incredible body of work under your belt. Chicken Run, Flushed Away, Kubo and the Two Strings and, now, Pinocchio. You’ve had a hand in inspiring generations of animation lovers—what early animated works inspired you?

Frank Passingham: When I was growing up, I lived in the country with my parents. My father had been in the Royal Navy and he came out to be a farmer. So, we didn’t have a TV. If I wanted to watch something, I’d have to go next door and watch the neighbor’s TV. When I was about nine years old, my mother took me to see 101 Dalmatians and it just bowled me over, because I had not been to the cinema. I had hardly seen anything, not any TV or anything like that. I was just this country boy. The only thing I was really into was drawing and art. So, when I went to see 101 Dalmatians, which I thought was a brilliant story, it really hooked me in. After that, I was drawing Dalmatians. I probably drew one hundred and one Dalmatians. It just sold me.

Is this love of art what led you to the work you do now?

Passingham: I thought I was going to grow up and be a farmer or something like that. I never even thought the film industry was something I could get into. I was really into art and drawing, so I decided to go to art school. While I was at art school, I got into playing with light. I was doing 3D constructions and I had these painted surfaces that would reflect color. What amazed me was when some of these colors came together, say a blue and a yellow, it would make magenta. But normally, in pigment, it would make a green. So I thought, “Oh my gosh. Light works in such a different way.” And so I really got into playing with light in these early art projects that I was doing.

There’s an interview of yours from about nine years ago where you talk about the future of animation. In the interview, you suggest that the near future may bring holograms to the cinematic experience. We haven’t yet reached that point, but, over the course of your career, what has changed in animation?

Passingham: When we [at Aardman Animations] did Chicken Run and then the subsequent films, we were working in 35mm. We realized halfway through shooting Chicken Run that, because of all the cutbacks that the animators do, there was going to be so many edits in the film. So, what we ended up doing was taking all the 35mm and scanning it. Then you had the DI, the digital intermediate. It was made digitally, because that was the only way to make it safely and make it happen.

So, a few things have happened: One is the advent of digital cameras. I always wanted to go into digital. Aardman and their camera department were always resistant to that. They wanted to stick with film. And, really, the first digital cameras weren’t that good—so I kind of understand that. But once you had Nikon and Canon, you had really good cameras. Canon made a camera that could be used for stop-motion animation because you could keep the live view on and the sensor would not overheat. At that time, I had to convince the studio to go digital. The one person I really had to convince was Nick Park, because I thought, “If Nick Park says ‘yes’ to digital, if he would shoot Wallace & Gromit in digital, then I’d know that I have won.” So, what I did is I filmed the same bit of animation, it was the back garden of Wallace and Gromit with some of the Wallace & Gromit characters in 35mm and a Nikon camera. I got all of it processed and then put back into a digital medium, but I wasn’t going to tell them which was which. We went to a theater and they could not tell the difference between the 35mm and the Nikon footage. After this, Park agreed to bring Wallace & Gromit to the digital age—and that’s how it happened! I’ve always wanted to embrace the latest technologies.

Did new technologies make the shooting process for Pinocchio any easier than that of Chicken Run, for example?

Passingham: Yes. Technologies like Dragonframe. There’s great parts of that software that will run motion control and do multiple exposures. We really use those multiple exposures in Pinocchio. Stop animation is one time that you can use multiple exposures. [For example,] when we were shooting above and below the water, when Pinocchio is rescuing Geppetto, you have this warm sunlight playing on the character [above water]. Then, under the water, you have all this green light on him. So, there are two exposures, two completely different exposures, and then that gets put together by VFX. It’s the only medium you can do this in. You couldn’t do stuff like that in live-action. It wouldn’t be possible. There were other sequences where that was really useful, like the cliff scene where Pinocchio is tied to a crucifix. Spazzatura has a flashlight which is moving around, and then Volpe takes it. Normally, if you wanted to emulate that light you had to have another light that you would have to animate around to catch Volpe. So, what we did was a single pass with just the flashlight. It gives a really realistic view of that light. The way the light moves around and plays onto Volpe—plays onto Spazzatura—is very naturalistic. It’s very real. [Passingham placed small LED lights inside the torch that would cast a flickering orange-red glow onto the characters in every frame.] In the past, we couldn’t have done that in 35mm. You can only do that digitally, because you can shoot various passes and have VFX put it together.

For this film, you created new lighting techniques in stop-motion, something you call “layered lighting.” Is this what you’re referring to?

Passingham: That’s what I’m referring to, those multiple passes! When people watch Pinocchio, I want—right from that very first shot where you see the pinecone and go into that snowy landscape—a naturalistic light. I want people to believe this is a very natural world with very natural light hitting these characters, but I know that due to the fairytale story, I can enhance that a bit. One of the things I like to do is to use gobos. In that first shot, what I do within those first ten seconds is track a light. So, the light raises up about nine feet within those first seconds and you see the rising sun. It’s quite subtle when you see it and I don’t expect people to really see it, but I want them to feel it. In this film, I’m often creating a naturalistic light and then enhancing that light, because I want to enhance the emotion and drama of the scene.

Passingham on his use of color in Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio: You’ve probably noticed that when you meet Geppetto and Carlo, when Carlo is growing up, I use this really warm key light and a cool fill light. When Pinocchio is getting on well with Geppetto—when he’s in church and he’s helping him put up the cross—I use exactly the same color. I want to emulate warmth with Carlo and I want to emulate it with Pinocchio too. But, the first time that Pinocchio breaks out of the cupboard and goes to church—because it’s ten years on and in this fascist era—what I wanted to do was reverse those colors. So, I made my key light blue and made it really cool. When Pinocchio enters the church, that cool light just makes it really austere. That’s the beauty of being able to use color in both an emotional and dramatic way.

What scene are you most proud of?

Passingham: Well, this scene was always going to be a really important scene: Pinocchio has been transported to a reeducation camp and he ends up in a dormitory. In the dormitory, the Podestà is giving a speech about war. After the lights go down, there’s a scene which is played beautifully by Gregory Mann and Finn Wolfhard—it’s that conversation. There’s this friction between [Pinocchio and Candlewick], but at the end of this short scene, they end up good friends. What I wanted to do in this scene was use the searchlights, this red light that would go up and down and swirl around and moments where there was no light movement at all. In those moments of stillness, you can see this tiny glistening of Candlewick’s tears. It was a really important scene to get right—that transformation from starting off as enemies and then becoming friends.

Is there anything else you’d like viewers to know about the film?

Passingham: I just want to say, when I first read the script, I thought, “Gosh. This is one of the best stories ever.” I was so happy that I was going to be working on this thing. When I’ve shown up to studios in the past, they’ve always had their own light/camera people. They have their own kit—all the cameras are there, all the lights are there. With Pinocchio, we started with an empty warehouse. I got to decide which cameras I wanted to use, which lights I was going to use. It was building that studio up from scratch, but also building the crew: Getting all the motion control guys that I wanted to work with, the light/camera people I wanted to work with. One of the first people I got was Laura Howie, who’s from Edinburgh, Scotland. She did some really lovely stuff. She did the sort of “hung-over Geppetto” waking up and discovering Pinocchio. Then, there’s Drew Fortier, from Toronto, Canada and Michel Amado Carpio, from Guadalajara, Mexico, whose work I’ve been a fan of for a long time. Because there wasn’t already a crew or studio, I could get all the best people that I wanted to work with. It was a fantastic, international crew. I couldn’t have done it without those people.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is streaming on Netflix December 9, 2022

Kathy Michelle Chacón is a Gen-Z writer, academic and filmmaker based in sunny California. When she’s not writing for Paste, Film Cred or, you can find her eating pupusas, cuddling with her dog Strawberry or sweating her face off somewhere in the Inland Empire.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin