• Interviews

Animation Supervisor Brian Leif Hansen on Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio: “I liked the fact that Pinocchio dies 20 minutes into the film.”

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a dark stop-motion musical adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s “The Adventures of Pinocchio”. The book was published in 1882. The story follows the journey of the wooden puppet Pinocchio, crafted by the artist Geppetto out of the grief of having lost his son during World War II, and which is brought to life by magic. It is the love – or lack of it – between father and son that sustains the emotional core of the film. This emotional heart is what supervisor Brian Leif Hansen wanted his animators to focus on. There, at the very center, their artistic performance shines most brightly. The Danish animator – who has worked in the city of Portland, Oregon, on Laika’s Missing Link and Kubo and the Two Strings, spoke to the Hollywood Foreign Press via Zoom from the Australian city of Melbourne, where he is currently vacationing.

As an Animation Supervisor, what is it like working with a giant talent in movie making like Guillermo del Toro?

He is great! He is such a generous man and he gives you the opportunity for you to present what you want to present. He gives you a huge amount of space for the artists and the team. Most of the time he loved what we had made. The times he loved what we made overshadowed the times he did not like it so much. It was a great collaboration.


How closely do you work with him?

We worked pretty closely with him. He is very busy. Because of COVID, he was not able to hang around in Portland so much. The director Mark Gustafson was there the entire time and I met with Guillermo two or three times a week on Google Team.

The title makes it clear that this is Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio – it is his version of the popular Italian story. What appealed to you in this iteration?

When I said yes, the script was not ready. There were thirty pages of an idea. It developed as we went along. You simply just say yes to a Guillermo del Toro project. I liked the fact that Pinocchio dies twenty minutes into the film. I thought that was great as it kind of wakes you up in the middle of it and you go: ‘I thought I knew what I was watching, but now I don’t.’ That was really one of the most appealing and surprising things to me when I read the script the first time.


Which is your favorite character and why?

Pinocchio. When you are working with animation, you feed off the voice track a lot. What is in the voice is what you have to work with. You can struggle with the performance if you don’t get a great read of the text. So, it is great having voice work like Gregory Mann’s. It meant a lot.

I also really like our face work. Gris Grimly had done illustrations that Guillermo had seen in 2003. Production Designer Guy Davis did a rejig of him and especially his face. Then, animators Peg Serena and Kim Slate made the face as it is now. I am really happy with how that turned out. He is so cute and adorable and you kind of fall into his face.


You have been very hands-on in many stop-motion films where you handled the puppets. What does the job of an Animation Supervisor entail?

I miss performing, which is what you do when you are with the puppet. When you are performing, you also make your mark on the movie. You have participated in a different way. You can pinpoint what you did. When you are supervising, you don’t animate much. I might have animated half a shot.

I still enjoyed my job. In the beginning, we created Pinocchio and the way he moves his joints, so he can perform in the film in a great way. Then, my job changed to employing people and casting the best people possible. The last part of my job was to be the wingman and support for the directors Guillermo and Mark and to be the cheerleader for all the animators. At some point, we had 41 animators. I had to keep them on track and motivate them. Artists can be really critical of themselves. It is important to give them support and lift them.

It is a very emotional story. How do you make sure that the emotion is reflected on screen?

That comes with the animators’ performances. I am just the cheerleader, who has to make sure that the artists are not insecure. They have read the storyboard and listened to the soundtrack over and over again, so as Guillermo says, you don’t tell actors what to do, because that is impossible. You tell them what the story is and what the feelings are and then the actor or the animator takes that on and brings it to the performance and the screen. So the animator is in charge of the performance. They live with the character and the scene they perform in.

Patience is a virtue when you make stop-motion animation. How long does it take to make just one minute of a movie like this one?

Patience comes up a lot. But you work as fast as you can. I think it is more about stamina to produce every single frame as well as you can get it. That takes a long time. A normal frame on a film like this takes between 15 and 20 minutes, depending on how many characters you have.  We did on average 3.8 seconds a week for each animator. 

It is Guillermo del Toro’s first animated film and he has been very passionate about the fact that animation is cinema. What is your take on it?

I love his comment. I think he is right. The Danish documentary Flee is one example of that. Animation can sometimes tell a complicated story in a more easily digestible way. It is easier to portray a troublesome event with an animated character. It can be difficult to deal with subjects such as death and relationships with your parents. When you use animated characters you can leap over some barriers that are in our minds – and the characters can walk straight into us. That might be the power of animation.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio won the Golden Globe for Best Animation. What is your reaction to that?

You spend a lot of time and energy on a project like this. Sometimes, nobody sees it. It is great when people notice. It’s even greater when they like what you have done. When you win an award, it is even greater, wonderful. The Golden Globe is one of the big ones. We are really happy to have been chosen.