Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio may be one of the most stunning technical achievements of the decade. The Academy award- winning director constantly takes on new challenges, such as stop-motion in order to bring life to worlds that most audiences could never dream of. From the production design to the character creation, there is not one detail that hasn’t been thought out and gracefully executed. But Guillermo couldn’t pull it off without a crew of skilled professionals that understood his vision, but also believed that it could happen.
Recently, AwardsWatch was able to catch up with Pinocchio’s Director of Photography Frank Passingham to find out how he was able to bring Guillermo’s Pinocchio to life. Passingham explained that he and the director really hit it off when Netflix first brought them together and they bonded over the significance over aesthetic details such as color and tone.
Passingham explained that when he first read the script he was completely in awe and went through great links to understand Guillermo as director so he could provide optimal cinematography for his stop-motion opus. Together, they were able to bring life to one the most original worlds ever depicted on the big screen.
Landon Johnson: Pleasure to meet you. What a remarkable film. I just want to first off say congratulations on the incredible accomplishment that is Pinocchio.
Frank Passingham: Well, thank you very much. I think I’ve just been very lucky. I mean, the first time I read the script, I was just knocked out because I thought, oh wow, this is probably the best script that I’ve ever worked on. It is absolutely stunning. It’s an amazing story. It’s got such amazing arcs and yeah, loved it. And I probably won’t get a better script to work on during the rest of my career, I’m sure.
LJ: The film represents such a different story, such a different vision of Pinocchio and that has a lot to do with Guillermo’s vision for the puppets and the design. What do you think as the cinematographer is the most unique element in this film?
FP: All right. I suppose what that sets it apart from the other Pinocchios, I think, you know what made this so different is it I think it created a… Because in some of the other Pinocchios, you feel like you are in a bit of a fantasy world. And I think this world, the world with Geppetto when he’s with his original son sort of Carlo and you see their life, you think this is so real. And I wanted to really amp that up with very naturalistic lighting, because we’re dealing with puppets, but I want people to view those puppets as real human beings. Really living, breathing entities. So that was really important to me. The other thing with that stop frame animation world, because it’s slightly different from the live action world, although we want to make it like a live action film, we have the freedom to just enhance that world just a little bit more. And you’ll notice even right from the very first shot of the film where we see the pinecone and when we go into that snowy landscape, I am tracking a light. Over about 10 seconds, I’m tracking a light about eight feet up into the air to show the sun rising over this sunny landscape. I mean, that would be hundreds of feet in 10 seconds. So, I’m able to sort of enhance things, but to still keep them within that natural world. And the other thing was, so you had one part of it is keeping things very naturalistic, but then you have, when Pinocchio meets his first death, he goes into limbo. Then we’re in a much more sort of stylized world there. So, I was able to change things up quite a bit. And the way I approached the limbo scenes was to think about, well, to think about time and the way that time never stops, it’s always running. It’s like the sand in the hourglasses, which surround this arena that Pinocchio finds himself in. And so, several years ago I’d been to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain and I was looking at the patterns there. And I was really interested to see how those patterns are being created. And they were created with systems in numerology. And so, I used some systems and numbers. I found out, I read up on how they created those patterns. So, I started to create some patterns myself. So, I created several patterns. I picked what I thought was the best one, had them printed out on acetate so that I had black on clear film. And I had two of those, two GoPros that would track contrary to one another in front of the key light. And I had no idea whether it was going to work. I had no idea really what I was going to get until I saw it. But when I saw this blue light, it wasn’t really something geometric, but it was almost something watery and that rippled across the sand and rippled across death. And I just wanted to keep that sense of movement going all the time through those sequences. And then because the sand had these little ridges in it, I was able to get some raking lights. I was using magenta and cyan light. That light would be coming up and down. It would be ebbing and flowing. So, I thought that all of this would just enhance that idea of time and time flowing through the hour glasses. So, it was an opportunity to just push the boat out on just go a little bit further. So yeah, we want people to feel like it’s kind of lit for a live action film in one way, but you are in slightly an enhanced reality on the other.
LJ: I’m so glad you spoke about the different worlds because each world is so different from the other. The underworld, Geppetto’s world, it’s all very different, but it seamlessly blends together so well. I think that is just a testament to your skillset as the cinematographer. Can you elaborate a little bit more on how you were able to mesh those worlds so well?
FP: So, one of the things is that when we started out, I wanted to have a really complete sort of color script and the way we would use our colors, what color would we use when we got to limbo? So, we kind of decided that way ahead. The color script was always something that I like to get involved in really early. And I remember meeting Guillermo for the first time. I met him in the Netflix sort of building in the conference room in LA. And one of the first things he said to me was, “Well, tell me about your process.” And I said, “Well, I like to really get involved in the color script.” He leaned across the table towards me and said, “Well not if I beat you to it.” And I said, that made me laugh because I said, “Yeah, I know how important color is to you, but it’s something that is also really important to me because it’s what imports all the emotion and can enhance the emotion and the drama in a scene. So, it’s something that I like to be really closely involved with.” And he said, “Absolutely, and I look forward to collaborating with you on that.” So, I think we had a good dialogue with the color. So, we would come up with a basic color script that went throughout the film and then I would work on that with the production designers, with the art director. And then we would show it to Guillermo, and he would come in and most of the time he would agree with our decisions. There would be a few changes that we made. But Guillermo, he’s a true collaborator and he’s just great to work with and he gives you a fair bit of freedom so that you can go away, and experiment and you can do something. So, when we had one of the first models of death and we had the black sound arena, I was able to set that up. So, with a tracking shot, I did what was very similar to the first reveal of death. So, I was able to do it with all the moving light and just revealing her slowly with all this moving light and her eyes glowing up and all the rest of it. And so, Guillermo was visiting the studio and we just showed it to him in the theater, and we were all a bit anxious about what he was going to think about it. But he watched it and then at the end of it he said, “Yep, let’s do it like that.” So, we were all very relieved. And that is a testament to what an amazing collaborator he is because I think it’s the same as he works with his actors. He wants to bring all of their talents, all their creativity that they can give to the project, just bring all that into play. So, I think he really gets the most out of people and I found him amazing to work with in that respect. So yeah, I found an amazing director to work with, actually.
LJ: This is great. An amazing director who’s collaborative and you, an amazing cinematographer, joined forces to create this stop motion epic of a version of a story that no one’s ever seen before. Now to me stop motion is kind of the art of problem solving. What do you think the biggest challenge for you as the cinematographer was in Pinocchio?
FP: Well, one, there were some really, really key scenes. I think there were two key scenes that we really had to get right. One was Pinocchio’s first visit in going into the village. And up until then, we’d always seen the village in a sort of warm light. So, when we see Carlo and Geppetto going into town is these lovely warm golden ambers, this warm light. And when we see them working in the church together, there’s this sort of warm light that comes into the church. When Pinocchio goes into town, we wanted to just completely reverse that. So, we changed the key light to a cold blue and then we put warm light on the fill light. So, we totally reverse that so that when Pinocchio goes into the church, it’s very austere, it’s very sort of cold. And that was one of the things we really knew that we had to get right. And the other scene comes further towards the end of the film, I thought it was a very important scene and this is the scene where Candlewick and Pinocchio are in the dormitory of the re-education camp. And we knew that we could utilize these search lights that would come past the window and then glowing red lights that would come up and they would subside. So, one of the really important things that to, that we had to get absolutely right because here you have sequence, it’s quite a lot of emotions come into play. And at the beginning of it you got Candlewick saying to Pinocchio, “Well your father’s a coward,” and all the rest of it. And so, there’s this friction between them, but by the end of that scene, it’s not a long scene, but they have to become good friends by the end of it. So, the way we orchestrated that sequence in terms of the way we used the light was really important. And sometimes you didn’t want any movement of the light, you just wanted it to just be a static frame so that you just see enough of the tears on Candlewick’s face. And other times you wanted that light to come in and sweep across when there was a little bit of drama or to enhance the friction between the two of them. And so that was something that we felt really, really important. We really had to pay a lot of attention. But I think in the end, I think we came up with something that just enhanced all those emotions and the drama at the right points.
LJ: The attention to detail in this is just tremendous. What do you think, Frank, was the most enjoyable or interesting part of working on Pinocchio?
FP: Well, I suppose never before, as a cinematographer. I’ve usually walked into a studio as part of the crew. You’ve got lighting, camera people that are on the start. What was great about this film is it was the first time ever that I had an empty warehouse, a shell of a building that I had to build it from the ground up, both in terms of all the kit I was going to use. So, the people that I wanted to use for motion control, I could get the best people that were in town or anyone anywhere in the world really. I could get all the people that I wanted to work with for my lighting camera. I had four lighting camera people. And just to be able to have that kind of control and to be able to stretch my budget out, it’s like the way I chose to a lot of the studios, they were kind of selling off their tungsten lights and we decided to go for all of our direct light would be tungsten, all of our bounce light would be indirect light would be LED. And the people that I got involved, it was just a fun project from the outset, building up that crew and just getting everyone that I really wanted to work with. And also working with the team, because I’d previously been to Guadalajara, and I wanted to go to Guadalajara because I knew it was the town where Guillermo had grown up. I also visited Mexico City because I wanted to get into that culture. I think the more you know about your director, the director you are going to work with, the better you are off in terms of communicating with him. And so, I think all of those things contributed to just being a really, really fun, really enjoyable project and being completely different from anything I’d done before because I’ve never had that opportunity of starting from scratch.
LJ: That’s so exciting. So great. Now what’s next for you Frank?
FP: Well, am I allowed to say?
LJ: Don’t tell me any secrets now.
FP: Alex, a producer, well he’s got some ideas of another feature. I better not say anything about it at all and just describe it as another feature that might be starting from summer of next year. So, there’s that. My first big feature was Chicken Run. They’re doing Chicken Run 2. They actually asked me, because they’re trying to get Chicken Run 2 finished at the moment. They said, “Oh look, if you’re free come back and do a bit of lighting camera work for us.” So, I might even do that at the beginning of next year. But yeah, I’m really open to anything, any sort of interesting sort of project. Anything that is a good story, anything that is well written that I think I can really put my talents to it. Yeah, I’d be very happy.
LJ: I completely agree, and I think any film with you as the director of cinematography or cinematographer is going to be a feast for the eyes. It’s going to be, it’s such a revelation. Everything you’ve done, Chicken Run, now Pinocchio, I just can’t wait to see what’s next for you Frank. I feel like you’re just going to keep tackling these challenges and bringing new worlds to audiences and using technology to do so. And I’m so excited that you have this skill set to tell these stories because they might not get told without people like you. So, I just want to say thank you Frank, for being such an expert in your artistry.
FP: Oh, and thank you Landon for saying that. I very much appreciate it.
LJ: What you’ve accomplished here is truly remarkable. And like I said, I just can’t wait to see what’s next for you.
FP: All right. Thanks a lot.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is in select theaters now and streaming on Netflix on December 9.