How the ‘Pinocchio’ VFX team took the stop-motion further

In this fourth behind the scenes look at the making of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio at befores & afters, we now center in on the visual effects work overseen by VFX supervisor Aaron Weintraub.

Weintraub, who hails from MPC (formerly Mr. X), led a team that would enhance the practical stop-motion photography with environment extensions, digital weather elements, explosions, water and many other visual effects to help tell the Pinocchio story.

Here he chats to befores & afters about the process, and shares many behind the scenes images showcasing the visual effects.

b&a: I have a feeling a lot of audience members would not think there are many visual effects in Pinocchio.

Aaron Weintraub: If we’ve done our job correctly, the audience should feel like it just slots right in there, and they don’t think about it. In live action, it’s easier to do that because they know what can be photographed and why, and they know what the world looks like. It’s like if you shot Toronto for New York and we had to replace all the skylines and it just looks like New York in the movie, they would never think about it, and it wouldn’t ever be an issue.

Obviously, here, we knew we couldn’t shoot everything practically, even though that was the mantra. It was like, ‘If we can shoot it, if there’s a way to build this or fabricate it, we’re going to do it practically.’ And then the flip side of that as well, if we can’t, then it’s, ‘Go to visual effects. They’re going to do it.’

I mean, stop-motion is visual effects. So the whole movie is a big trick of making things move by shooting it a frame at a time. That’s what visual effects was. Meanwhile, every shot had rigs and wires and clean-up and face chatter. We knew going in that that was going to be a thing. And even some simple comps, just shooting things in layers, that was like the bread and butter sort of work that we knew had to be done. They did have an in-house team that handled a lot of shots, say a drama shot where it was a rig that needed to be removed.

For MPC, however, the main thing on the plate for us was effects simulations. So all the water, all the fire explosions, snow, rain, all that kind of work, and there are a few big environments that we did. For example, the interior of the Dogfish is a digital environment. The interior of Limbo is a digital environment. Establishing the church plaza and looking out the door when they’re inside the church is a digital environment. All the skies in the film are digital, too.

b&a: Tell me more about Limbo.

Aaron Weintraub: It’s a sandy floor. There’s a plinth that the death character, the sphinx, is standing on. And then the background is surrounded by these shelves that are filled with hourglasses. Originally that was planned to be practical. They were going to build that. We were still going to do the dome–when you look up, there’s this ceiling planetarium design dome with animated elements moving around.

We were always going to do that, but the shelves were supposed to be laser cut acrylic set pieces where they would carve in the hourglasses and play in the background out of focus. Then COVID hit and all the acrylic got snapped up to build sneeze guards for banks. There was a run on the material, and they couldn’t do it, and that went digital.

b&a: What about the actual sinking sand?

Aaron Weintraub: The quick sand is practical. All the critical contact when the characters are touching the floor on the sand and on the ground, and in the Dogfish too. Where they stand, they built little islands of ground.

b&a: Let’s talk about the simulations–I found the water to have a very, very interesting look. I don’t quite know how to describe it, but it didn’t really look like sim’d water. It looked like something else.