The Manchester puppeteers who turned Pinocchio's characters into movie stars

Model of Pinocchio in the Mackinnon and Saunders studio

The studio where the stars of one of this year's highly anticipated Oscar contenders were born is concealed in an unremarkable low-level building tucked off a suburban street in Greater Manchester.

An elderly man with a bushy white beard is getting fitted for a dinner jacket in a small room inside an unassuming industrial building in preparation for the red carpet at the Bafta Awards.

His wide eyes appear to be showing some unease as a designer examines and marks the fit of his sharp new suit.

Peter Saunders, one of the directors of the studio where this fitting is taking place, remark that "He doesn't look comfortable in it.". He's not used to being so tightly bound, you see. ".

Geppetto, an unassuming Italian carpenter, is more accustomed to dressing in his worn-out work attire. But he has no control over his new attire.

Geppetto and Pinocchio in Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio
This award season, Pinocchio by Guillermo del Toro has won every award in the animated feature category.

He stands about 35 cm tall and is one of the puppets used in the most recent stop-motion Pinocchio adaptation by director Guillermo del Toro.

Geppetto creates the wooden boy whose nose grows when he lies in the famous tale.

In reality, animation studio Mackinnon and Saunders, based in Altrincham, Greater Manchester, created both characters for the movie along with the rest of the main cast.

Geppetto joined the other stars of this year's awards season at the Baftas in London last weekend, where the movie won best animated feature, after receiving his miniature tailored suit from the company's costume department.

Pinocchio and Geppetto on the Bafta Awards red carpet
On the Baftas red carpet, Geppetto wore his new suit, and Pinocchio wore a bow tie.

Additionally, it has won the Critics' Choice and Golden Globe awards. It is the overwhelming favorite to win best animated feature at the Oscars in two weeks.

Del Toro praised the British puppet studio backstage at the Baftas. He told reporters that Mackinnon and Saunders in Manchester, England, are the best at performing this. "They are exceptional. ".

This low-key cornerstone of the British animation industry has established roots eight miles south of the city center in a slightly run-down structure.

Saunders acknowledges, "It's not exactly Hollywood," as he looks over the messy parking lot that backs up to a canal.

Pinocchio model in the Mackinnon and Saunders workshop
Model of Pinocchio in the Mackinnon and Saunders studio.
Pinocchio fabric samples in the Mackinnon and Saunders workshop
fabric swatches for the costumes of the characters.

Back in the costume department, pins, cotton, fabric, toothpicks, glue bottles, and scissors are all over the desks. The suit for Geppetto needs to have tiny buttons and belt buckles.

A single micro fingerless glove that one of the costume designers painstakingly knit for Geppetto using pins is displayed on the wall alongside samples of the costumes from the movie. In the end, Del Toro decided not to incorporate it into the movie.

Model makers create metal skeletons for the characters in a top-secret new children's show in a different workshop. The tools of their trade, such as small screwdrivers, chisels, files, clamps, and brushes, are similarly strewn across their workstations. The production of one steel foot fixture will take several days.

Model maker in the Mackinnon and Saunders workshop
Model maker in the Mackinnon and Saunders workshop
Metal puppet structures are made by highly skilled model makers.

On shelves displaying some of the characters the company has worked on, Pinocchio, Postman Pat, and Pingu are present upstairs in an unattractive meeting room.

Additionally, there are aliens created for Tim Burton's 1996 film Mars Attacks, Mackinnon and Saunders' entry into the Hollywood industry. In the end, Burton was unable to use stop-motion animation, but he was still impressed with the business.

For The Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie, he returned to them, and Wes Anderson used them for The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Models from those movies and kid-friendly TV programs like Bob the Builder, Ra Ra the Noisy Lion, Twirly Woos, and The Clangers can be seen in a display of the company's work in the nearby Sale.

Bob the Builder model at Mackinnon and Saunders exhibition at Sale Waterside
Pinocchio model at Mackinnon and Saunders exhibition at Sale Waterside
In an exhibition in Sale, Greater Manchester, models of Bob the Builder, Pinocchio, and other characters are on display.

According to Saunders, it took 62 people tens of thousands of hours over a four-year period to create the models for Pinocchio.

The characters are based on drawings by American artist Gris Grimly, but the final designs for the movie were developed over the course of numerous emails exchanged between Del Toro and his team, Mackinnon, and Saunders.

The Mexican director was very specific in his vision, even down to the tiniest details, like Geppetto's hands.

According to Saunders, "Guillermo was very determined that they should look like workers' hands.". "He was concerned about the dirt under the fingernails. His hands' palm calluses were the source of the problem.

"Do you want two calluses, ten calluses, bloodshot calluses, milky white calluses, or anything else?".

It persisted for weeks. It appeared to be months. But trying to realize that level of specificity is enjoyable. ".

Geppetto models on a shelf
In Mackinnon and Saunders' workshop, Geppetto models with extra heads sporting different hairdos.

"We love that process of trying to get things right for people," he continues, "and Guillermo had a very distinct idea of what he wanted. He pushed and pushed and pushed until it was just right. ".

I have to watch it again and focus especially on Geppetto's hands. Saunders laughs, "I don't think you'll notice. But it's there, I say.

For Pinocchio, the company created a method of 3D printing Pinocchio's body parts in metal, enabling the production of numerous identical replicas as opposed to the traditional steel skeleton covered in foam and silicone.

His face was produced in even more variations, each with a slightly different expression that could be put on and taken off with ease and held in place by magnets.

When the models were finished to Del Toro's satisfaction, laborious work was done in Guadalajara, Mexico, and Portland, Oregon, to bring them to life.

Pinocchio model and Peter Saunders in the Mackinnon and Saunders workshop
Peter Saunders exposing the Pinocchio's breast plate's underside.

After Cosgrove Hall, the renowned Manchester-based animation studio they worked for, went out of business in the early 1990s, Saunders and Ian Mackinnon founded the business.

Although their company currently employs about 110 people, there have been concerns raised about the future of the British animation industry due to competition from other nations that offer more generous tax breaks.

According to Saunders, the current state of British animation is "really difficult.".

"With the kind of work we've done, there have always been highs and lows. We're extremely proud to be associated with some fantastic feature films and children's TV shows that have reached new heights.

"However, perhaps a year after those triumphs, there is no work. It's always been a rollercoaster, and I believe that these tax credits are making the highs and lows a little bit more extreme.

"As a result, there is worry that the British animation industry is slowly dying. Even though that might be exaggerated, pressure from the nations that offer such generous tax breaks is undoubtedly present. ".

Mars Attacks models at Mackinnon and Saunders exhibition at Sale Waterside
On Mars Attacks, the business started working with director Tim Burton in the 1990s.

Recently concluded government consultation on proposals to reform the UK's TV and film tax credits.

Aardman Animations, the company behind Wallace and Gromit, warned the Guardian earlier this month that British businesses might need to relocate abroad to compete. However, Saunders is not taking that into account.

"Ian and I are natives of the northwest. I'm a Rochdale native. Ian is a Warrington native. We adore having an office in Altrincham. This is a fantastic company.

"We're in a very privileged position because we employ a lot of people from the north-west, but we also draw people and work from all over the world.

"The structure may not appear to be all that impressive, but what happens inside still amazes me. ".

Making Geppetto and Pinocchio, as well as his dinner jacket, which might be seen in Hollywood during the Oscars.

Pinocchio by Guillermo del Toro is available on Netflix. At the Waterside Arts Center in Sale, the Mackinnon and Saunders - 30 Years and Beyond exhibition is on display through March 11.

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