Interview: Production Designer Paul Harrod Discusses Creating the ‘Isle of Dogs’

Production Designer Paul Harrod has been working in the industry for over thirty years. Much of his experience has been in stop-motion animated films, working with models and computer animation.

I recently spoke with Paul about his first collaboration with Wes Anderson. He thoroughly details the thought behind key decisions, and shares his personal favorite prop from the film. Please enjoy this conversation:

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: How did you first get involved with “Isle of Dogs?”

Paul Harrod: It was kind of a funny story. I was actually at Burning Man. I’ve been going to Burning Man since 2002. Not yearly, but pretty often. It was 2015 and the weather was really bad, and it was the first year that I was able to actually get any kind of cell signal, so I was checking on the weather. Normally I just put the phone away and don’t even deal with it for the week I’m there. But I was checking on the weather and noticed that there was an email from Jeremy Dawson, the producer. He mentioned my friend Nelson Lowry in the heading of the email, who was the production designer on “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and a very dear friend of mine. And he wanted to talk to me. Nelson wasn’t available to work on this film because he was on “Kubo” at the time. They wanted to talk to me, but Jeremy wanted to send me the script and also the first 20 minutes they had cut of the anomatic.

Basically I hitched a ride out of Burning Man to the Reno airport, flew back home to Portland, Oregon, where I was able to download this stuff, because I certainly couldn’t download it there. A week later, I was on a plane to London. That’s basically… I mean, how I got involved was they looked at my reel and thought I had sufficient experience to take over from Adam Stockhausen. He was Wes’s regular production designer and worked with Wes for four or five months, gathering a lot of reference and they had started working  with some of the concept artists. Adam was moving on to “Ready Player One” with Spielberg and pretty much we had a couple of afternoons together where he did the mindmeld and it was honestly like a relay. He handed the baton to me and I ran with it. That was pretty much the degree to which Adam and I intersected was just a couple of days there and then the ball was entirely in my court.

So I worked on the next five, six months of pre-production before we actually started shooting.

KP: What were your early conversations with Wes?

PH: We talked a lot about the history of Japanese art. We talked a lot about Japanese film, because I’ve always been a huge fan of Japanese cinema. In fact, 35 years ago when I was in art school, a lot of the work I was doing really related strongly to sort of reinterpreting Yuki Oi illustration in three dimensional miniature sets. Japanese cinema and art had been just a huge influence on me. So we shared quite a bit in that realm. The whole range of Japanese cinema, particularly in the 50s and early 60s was a big influence. And then later on the work of Miyazaki and we just bounced a lot of ideas back and forth.

One of the basic principles for the design of this film when it came to Trash Island was taking the photography of Edward Burtynsky and also to a large extent Chris Jordan who are these contemporary photographers who have been documenting the environmental devastation that we are inflicting on the planet with waste products and pollution and whatnot. We are basically taking that kind of condition, those situations, and sort of superimposing them over these oftentimes classical, pastoral Japanese landscapes. Taking a lot of the ideas that are in Yuki Oi illustration and transposing the works of these photographers onto that and creating this kind of hybrid so that while we were depicting these environments that were essentially trash heaps and the remnants of decaying industry and that sort of thing, we always wanted it to be sort of beautiful and so the work of the 19th century Japanese illustrators was used as a compositional tool in establishing that.

It was a lot of discussion of that sort of thing, as well as, in creating Megasaki City, we were also referencing a lot of post-war Japanese design principles, including the metabolist architectural movement. But also looking at a lot of films delving into a lot of research. Because Megasaki City is really meant to represent a vision of the future as seen from the past. So it’s imagining yourself in, say, 1963 Japan and trying to imagine what the future might look like. So there would be a lot of things that you wouldn’t necessarily have effectively predicted, like the characters still using rotary phones and that sort of thing. There’s still all these remnants of that early 1960s past still very much present in and combined with this imagination of what the future might look like.

KP: Those things really do come across. When you’re dealing with Trash Island, like you were saying, you were looking for something that still looked beautiful. It really does. There’s something very interesting about that. And then the technology and this kind of future look, but not quite.

PH: We definitely wanted to avoid a cliched, retro futurism. That kind of Jetsons view of the future, where it’s all just sort of sparkly and there’s no real sense of the past existing there. We wanted the past and the future, or at least the future from that perspective to be very much combined together.

KP: How did you settle on the look for Trash Island with the old, decaying amusement park and the nuances of the location.

PH: We worked a lot from reference. Interestingly enough, Japan has a number of these abandoned sites. Not just amusement parks, but resorts and things like that. Oddly enough we found a lot of examples of architecture in Japan that had just been abandoned and allowed to, you know, nature was allowed to take it over. There were examples of amusement parks where that had happened, where they were crumbling and rusty and falling apart and, it’s very much something that exists in that world.

One of the ideas that we discussed early on, this is interesting, normally as a production designer, one of the first conversations I’m going to have with a director is about the palette. That was one of the first questions I put to Wes was, “Let’s talk about color.” And Wes said, “I don’t want to talk about color right now. I want to treat all of our concept art and design in black and white right now. And as we develop it, as it becomes more and more defined, then we can start talking about color.” Which was a very interesting and unusual way to work. And this is the first time I’ve worked with Wes, so I don’t know if that’s how he normally does things. Of course his films have this incredible color sense to them. So I just said, “Okay, let’s try doing it that way.”

And then as we moved forward, what we did was we applied color to different environments. Like, for instance, the first scene where we’re introduced to the main dogs, there’s all these rust tones, all very cool tones. And the idea there was that by working with these reddish and beigish tones, you were recalling the westerns of Sergio Leone. So that whole standoff scene and the dog fight early in the film is definitely a reference to 60s westerns. Particularly Sergio Leone, but also things like “The Wild Bunch.”

Then the next environment that you’re in is entirely white, and that’s where Atari crashes. It’s white because the ground plane there is a beach made up entirely of old newspapers and paper things that have faded and are bleached. The hills are a combination of that and old refrigerators and washing machines and white appliances.

And then the next environment that you go into after that is totally black. It’s where they have the encounter with the dog catchers and the drone and have that little battle. We talked for a long time about what we would use to create a black environment. And we hit on old TV tubes and car batteries. So if you look very carefully at the landscape, it’s entirely made of TV tubes and car batteries.

So the idea was that we didn’t want to just create a big garbage heap that was this melange of colors and if you look at your city dump, the colors are so mixed up that it really doesn’t have a color. And we wanted to be very specific about each of these environments. Even though the entire island is a trash heap, there’s no two places that you go to that are the same. It really helps with the whole idea of creating a journey through this environment, and the environment is basically color coded.

KP: What is something that makes designing for stop motion animation more challenging than a live action film?

PH: The main thing is that every single thing has to be designed. A live action film, most of what you’re working with are things you can look up in a catalog or buy in a store or go to an antique store or something like that. You buy or rent all of these props that you bring to the set. In the case of stop motion, every single item, and believe me, there were wall outlets, little plugs, soap dishes. Every single thing had to be designed and built and hand crafted. Of course you’re also working at this very small scale. Wes likes to keep the camera on these small scale sets, keep everything in focus and really celebrate the detail. It almost borders on making jewelry. Some of these props, they’re so incredibly detailed and if you look at them with a loop or something, they hold all of this incredible detail.

So it’s a combination of having to design every single element, everything you see. A tie pin, the ring on somebody’s finger. And then actually having a small army of very talented model makers who actually can create all of that stuff, constructing from scratch. They have these raw materials like a sheet of plastic, or metal tubing, things like that. Being able to craft these details props and sets, you are creating the world completely from the ground up. There isn’t a single ready-made to be found anywhere.

KP: Did you have a favorite piece or set?

PH: It’s a tough one because we had 240 sets and all of those sets have all of these incredible props and there are so many beautiful pieces in there that I would just love to have taken home with me. But one of the things I was particularly delighted by was the little dog grooming kit that Atari has in the scene where he gives Chief a bath. And he washes him and then opens up this little metal kit. It’s one of those very fancy, brushed aluminum briefcases. It’s this beautifully detailed set of clippers and scissors and the dog comb and little dog cologne and things like that all inset into this sort of crushed blue velvet inlay. Everything has its place and it’s a beautiful bit of detail and everything is so perfectly placed in this thing. And the idea that Atari has been carrying this little kit in one of his zippered pockets all the time is so amusing. I think that’s really one of my favorite little props.

And then, of course Wes has a close up on the prop and he adds these little superimposed titles, telling you what every single object in there is. It’s a really great moment.

KP: What is something you learned on this film that you will take with you into future projects?

PH: I think that’s a really easy one. I’ve worked in this business for over three decades and I’ve always had this intense love for stop motion, ever since I was a little kid. Having worked in it for years, you develop a lot of strategies for doing things. There’s a kind of a shorthand. And because I was working with a bunch of other very experienced people in this field, we would look at certain scenes that Wes would have storyboarded and we’d all go, “Well, of course this is how we did it on the last job. This is how you approach a scene like this.” And everyone agreed that there is a method for doing a particular scene. We would present our ideas to Wes and he would say, “Yeah, well, let’s try to look at it differently. I don’t really want to do it the way you did on the last film or TV show or commercial. I want to look at it from an entirely different angle.

This initially was a little frustrating because here we were with people with a cumulative couple hundred years in stop motion… Our years of experience aren’t really serving us if we approach it in a different way. But in the end you would work with Wes and look at these things completely differently. You figured out a different way of handling a problem that usually involves using a lot less technology. It was a matter of going back to the way we would have done it 40 years ago, before computers were around. That, for me, really revitalized my enthusiasm for the craft of it. I realized we had started to rely more and more on digital technology to address a lot of these visual strategies. I think going forward, I’m going to try to hold onto that idea of, “I’m faced with a challenge that’s very much something I’ve faced before, but this time I’m going to look at it differently, in the way Wes would have suggested we do it. Maybe not just fall back on the same techniques or the same technical solutions.

I think that is really the big takeaway for me. Look at it differently. I think that’s why Wes Anderson has such a unique place in the pantheon of contemporary filmmakers. He is looking at everything in a very different way than anyone else and I think it’s something to aspire toward.

Awards Circuit would like to thank Paul Harrod for speaking about his work.

“Isle of Dogs” is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.

Be sure to visit our Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “ISLE OF DOGS” ranks among the contenders.