Stop-Motion Animation Legend Mark Gustafson

Mark Gustafson

Days before Mark Gustafson won an Oscar for codirecting Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022), A.frame, the Academy’s online magazine, asked him about the films that had made the greatest impact on him. The first title that came to his mind was Jason and the Argonauts (1963), directed by Don Chaffey but best remembered for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation sequences, which brought to astounding life the bronze giant Talos, the seven-headed Hydra, and an army of skeleton warriors.

Gustafson was still a boy when he first saw Jason on his family’s black-and-white television. “How did they do this?” he remembered thinking. “Especially the stop-motion elements of it. I could tell that somebody had done it—somebody had touched those things with their hands and done that animation—and it made it all the more weird to me.” Curiosity led to fascination and, eventually, to a landmark career.

Late last week, the Oregonian reported that Gustafson had died. He was only sixty-four. “I admired Mark Gustafson, even before I met him,” tweeted Guillermo del Toro. “A pillar of stop-motion animation—a true artist. A compassionate, sensitive, and mordantly witty man. A legend—and a friend who inspired and gave hope to all around him. He leaves behind a titanic legacy of animation that goes back to the very origins of claymation and that shaped the careers and craft of countless animators.”

Gustafson started out working in the 1980s for claymation master Will Vinton at his renowned studio in Portland. Odd jobs quickly turned into character work on The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985) and a collaboration with Walter Murch on Return to Oz (1985). He cowrote Meet the Raisins!, a 1988 television comedy special featuring the California Raisins—and he was the lead animator on the show as well. His directorial debut, Claymation Easter (1992), won an Emmy.

Gustafson was the supervising director on The PJs, a stop-motion animated sitcom cocreated by—and featuring the voice of—Eddie Murphy. The Emmy-nominated show ran for three seasons from 1999 to 2001. Gustafson then spent three years working as the animation director on Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, and by the time it was released in 2009, Guillermo del Toro had already announced that he would be taking on his “passion project,” Pinocchio.

Last December, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that Pinocchio, cowritten by del Toro and Patrick McHale, “respectfully acknowledges the best-known prior film version, Walt Disney’s 1940 adaptation, even as it subverts and critiques it, diving headfirst into metaphor and parable in service of a couple of del Toro’s recurring themes, the corruption of innocents and the mechanics of fascism.”

Talking to the Oregonian’s Kristi Turnquist last spring, Gustafson recalled that the project “died several times.” Before winning Netflix over, he and del Toro were turned down by studio after studio. “We went all over the place. Even with Guillermo, when you walk into the room, and he describes it as a film about death, and the rise of Mussolini, you can just see the color drain from faces.

Seitz calls Pinocchio “a record of things that were actually made. As befits its main character, it’s a sculpted work.” Gustafson told Turnquist that stop-motion animation seems to be “perpetually on the verge of going extinct. Yet, it doesn’t. It keeps coming back. It’s a very odd process, in some ways very antiquated, doing things one frame at a time. Physically, it’s like doing oil painting vs. photography . . . There’s a camera, and there’s an animator, and there’s a puppet, and nothing comes between them. You feel that human hands touched this, and an artist expressed this.”

At Deadline, Joe Utichi recalls meeting Gustafson at a recording studio where Alexandre Desplat was working on the score for Pinocchio. “Over the course of that day at Air Studios in London,” writes Utichi, “as well during post-production of the film in Los Angeles, and on the awards circuit for the film, at Q&As and award shows, Gustafson was kind, generous with his time, and forever enthusiastic to explain the intricate work behind the film’s stop-motion animation. He delighted in bringing Pinocchio’s puppets on the tour, and encouraged all those he came across to pick them up and interact with them to learn more about the process to which he dedicated his career.”

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