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‘Your mortality is important. It’s to be celebrated’: Remembering Mark Gustafson

The remarkable and well-loved animator, who died Feb. 1 at 63, worked around the world and won an Oscar for "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio" but was a Portlander through and through.

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Mark Gustafson with his Oscar for co-directing the stop-motion animated movie "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio" at the 2023 Academy Awards ceremony.
Mark Gustafson with his Oscar for co-directing the stop-motion animated movie “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” at the 2023 Academy Awards ceremony.

Less than a year ago, Champagne corks were popping all over Oregon. The animation community celebrated as Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio brought home the Best Animated Feature Oscar for del Toro and his co-director, Mark Gustafson.

It’s not often that a local animator gets a chance to appear in a glossy magazine or on a fashion website.  Photos from the Academy Awards tend to feature the same celebrities who might grace the cover of Vanity Fair, Vogue, or GQ. Last February, though, everywhere you looked, there were Mark Gustafson and his wife — musician and actor Jennifer Smieja, perhaps best known in Oregon for her heartbreaking performance in the 2017 indie film The Last Hot Lick — looking glamorous on the red carpet.

Last week, the same community was in shock at the news of Gustafson’s sudden death on Feb. 1 at the age of 63 from a heart attack.

“We are gutted,” wrote filmmaker Joanna Priestley, who, along with her husband, production designer Paul Harrod, had known and worked with Gustafson for decades.

“He was a shining light in the stop-motion community, not just in Portland but across the world,” said Georgina Hayns, director of character fabrication on Pinocchio, who first worked with Gustafson in Manchester, England, in the 1990s on Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!.

Mark Gustafson was a lifelong Portlander, attending the Museum Art School as it transitioned into the Pacific Northwest College of Art in the early 1980s. His first job out of school was quite literally sweeping floors at Will Vinton’s legendary stop-motion animation studio, the predecessor to Laika Studios. While technically a production assistant, he jokingly adopted the job title “Possum Janitor” after shoveling a dead possum from the parking lot into the studio dumpster.

His gift for versatility emerged quickly. As he told the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last year, “You help … somebody do something, and you do a decent job at that, so they see you differently.  Like, ‘Oh, you can sculpt!’ Or, ‘You can help us build armatures [the jointed metal ‘skeletons’ inside clay or latex puppets].  It just marches along, and you just keep getting different things, and, all of a sudden, I found myself animating and then directing.”

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Not long after he was hired, Gustafson joined the animation crew on the 1985 feature film The Adventures of Mark Twain, utilizing Will Vinton’s trademark Claymation technique. The film was a critical success but a box-office failure. Fortunately, in 1986 the studio was hired to create a series of commercial spots for Sun-Maid, and the California Raisins became media darlings. The success of the campaign led to the 1988 TV mockumentary Meet the Raisins!, on which Gustafson served as writer, producer, and lead animator.

Paul Harrod, who later worked as production designer on Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, first met Gustafson in 1992. “My first project at Will Vinton Studios was the final California Raisins commercial,” Harrod said. “Mark was the director and I loved working with him. He was very collaborative, always open to my input and he had a remarkably keen, dry sense of humor. Mark was great at surrounding himself with people he could trust so that they could do their best work without a lot of interference.”

Animator Jerold Howard, who arrived at Vinton Studios around the same time, has similar memories of Gustafson’s mentorship.  “I worked on props and set pieces for months but finally got the chance to animate. They had me shadow Mark for a couple of days while he was shooting. He was incredibly kind and patient. He showed me how to prep for a shot, what tools to use and when, how to put tasks in an order so you don’t forget something. He talked about character performance and timing. How much is too much, how much is not enough.”

On his own time, Gustafson set aside the clay and took a more unorthodox approach to stop-motion. For his 1994 short film Mr. Resistor, he used everything from electrical detritus to toy parts to fashion Frankensteinian characters embarking on a daring nighttime adventure across a closed workshop.

The success on the festival circuit of Mr. Resistor and its 1997 followup short Bride of Resistor led to Gustafson being tapped to direct the iconic “Toys” ad for Nissan. Set to the Van Halen song “You Really Got Me,” the spot features a remote-control miniature Nissan 300ZX being commandeered by action figures who bear a winking resemblance to GI Joe and Barbie. “Toys” became a phenomenon, winning numerous industry awards, and was named “Commercial of the Year” by Adweek, Rolling Stone, Car & Driver, and Time magazine. Even Jerry Seinfeld was taken aback, commenting, “More people talked about that Nissan ‘Toys’ ad than any movie that came out last year.” Gustafson made an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, along with ad man Rob Siltanen, presenting Oprah with a puppet version of herself.

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Mark Gustafson, director of the “Toys” ad, talks about the process of making it in this video that also includes discussions by Will Vinton and others.

Despite his growing celebrity in the world of stop-motion, Gustafson never called attention to himself.  He was known for his easygoing nature both with colleagues and with clients. “He gave an air of wearing his job rather lightly, as though he might drop this gig as director at any time,” remembers character designer and storyboard artist Robin Ator. “Once we were working on a complicated commercial sequence, a character in a fast car on a mountain road. The script called for lots of quick, jazzy cuts and angles. I said, ‘Cool, this’ll be fun to board,’ and started talking about shot transitions. Mark smirked and said, ‘Let’s not overthink it.  We’re just going to steal this,’ and held up a VHS copy of ‘Bullitt’.”

Still, Gustafson loved the intimate feel of stop-motion animation and the painstaking process that could bring a clay or latex or wooden figure to life on the screen. “There’s a camera, and there’s an animator, and there’s a puppet, and nothing comes between them,” he often said. “You feel that human hands touched this, and an artist expressed this.”

When Will Vinton Studios shifted from commercial spots to broadcast TV in 1999, with the Eddie Murphy-produced animated sitcom The PJs, Gustafson was hesitant. “It seems like a bad idea to even attempt doing this much stop-motion,” he said. “My concern was,`How are we going to maintain the quality?’ I’ve done so many commercials, and they take forever. There’s no way we could have done this if we’d approached it the way we do commercials. So what we tried to do is streamline every aspect of production so that it was all focused on the animation. What it comes down to is getting the animator on the set and in front of a camera so they don’t have to bother with anything else.”

With two animated television shows pushed into production, The PJs and Gary & Mike, Vinton Studios expanded in a matter of months into a second and third building in industrial Northwest Portland. The stress ballooned along with the workforce. Larry King, construction foreman at Vinton and Laika, remembers those days. “Mark was amazing in his support of the teamwork required to work on these projects. In a media production world filled with sharp elbows and anger management he was always personable, supportive, and very very funny. I don’t know how he did it. Everybody else would respond to the stress by disassociating and he’d be calmly cracking jokes. It was remarkable.”

Mark Gustafson directed episodes of the animated TV series "The PJs."
Mark Gustafson directed episodes of the animated TV series “The PJs.”

The PJs proved a cult classic with audiences, but still lasted only two seasons on Fox before moving to the WB for an abbreviated third season.  Gary & Mike lasted a single season on the UPN Network.  Staffing at Vinton quickly shrank back down to a fraction of its recent high point. Gustafson stayed on at the studio, and The PJ’s earned him an Annie Award for TV Direction. Asked about the future of stop-motion at the time, he said, “It’s hard to say. I don’t think stop-motion will ever be as big as cel [animation] or computers. I’m sure stop-motion will always have its niche.”

Around 2004, filmmaker Wes Anderson and collaborator Noah Baumbach were finalizing their screenplay adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel Fantastic Mr Fox. Anderson needed an animation director for the project and approached Henry Selick, who had animated the underwater sea life for Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Selick demurred. Will Vinton Studios had now transformed into Laika, under the ownership of Nike’s Phil Knight, and Selick had been tapped to direct their first feature film: Coraline.

Anderson asked Selick if he could possibly recommend someone who could bring to life his vision for Fantastic Mr Fox. Selick gave him one name: Mark Gustafson.

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The tip proved auspicious. Anderson’s quirky vision for the project fit perfectly with Gustafson’s versatility. Need tiny wire-armatured characters like the ones built in the 1930s by King Kong’s Willis O’Brien? No problem. Need animal characters with shifting fur (“fur boil,” in stop-motion terminology)?  Well… okay. Production got under way at London’s 3 Mills Studios in 2007.

Anderson took sole directorial credit for Fantastic Mr. Fox, relegating Gustafson to the title of animation director. Gustafson didn’t complain, even when he found himself doing most of the onsite supervision in London. Anderson, meanwhile, mainly remained in Paris, directing via e-mail, acting out scenes and recording them, and sending in his favorite DVDs to give an impression of the look he wanted.

The cross-channel communication often frustrated the crew. Fantastic Mr. Fox‘s cinematographer, Tristan Oliver, later said of Anderson: “I don’t think he quite comprehends … how difficult it is to change something once you’ve started. I think he also doesn’t understand that an animator is a performer. And this is the secret to animation: You direct your animator, you do not direct the puppet, because the puppet is an inanimate object. You direct an animator as if you’re directing an actor, and they will give you a performance. So we’ll get a note back from Wes saying ‘that arm movement is wrong.’ But that arm movement is part of a fluid performance. And that has been really quite difficult for the animators.”

Fantastic Mr. Fox was released in 2009 to critical and audience acclaim, and was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Animated Feature. Asked at the time about the experience of working with Anderson, Gustafson said, “Honestly? Yeah. He has made our lives miserable,” before adding, “I probably shouldn’t say that.” Shortly thereafter, Gustafson released a personal short film, They Shot in the Dark, which hinted at the communication breakdowns between the crew and Anderson during the making of Fantastic Mr. Fox.

While Gustafson had proved he could work anywhere and with anyone, he opted to stay rooted in his hometown of Portland, which had become a hub for stop-motion animation. Joining Laika in town were smaller stop-motion studios such as Bent Image Lab and ShadowMachine, as well as commercial studio Laika House (later House Special), where Gustafson became a resident director after Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Directors Mark Gustafson (left) and Guillermo del Toro of the Oscar-winning “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.” Photo courtesy Jason Schmidt/Netflix
Directors Mark Gustafson (left) and Guillermo del Toro of the Oscar-winning “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.” Photo courtesy Jason Schmidt/Netflix

In 2011, Portland’s reputation brought Guillermo del Toro to town. In his youth — years before becoming an award-winning live-action filmmaker — del Toro had experimented with mold-making and stop-motion animation, and was well-versed in the use of practical special effects (effects that use physical materials rather than computer-generated imagery). A novel idea was kicking around in del Toro’s head, and one particular animation director he wanted to meet.

“I didn’t even know he knew who I was when I got the phone call from him,” Gustafson told me last year about del Toro. “But apparently he was very familiar with my work, and he’s got an amazing memory, and he could go through my entire catalog of work — stuff that I forgot I had done — and he would say, ‘Oh yeah, remember that thing you did?’ I’m like, ‘Really? I did that?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, you did that.’”

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From the start, Gustafson’s relationship with del Toro was worlds apart from his experience with Wes Anderson. Del Toro named him co-director of Pinocchio and brought him on board the project when the script was still in its early drafts. Gustafson accompanied del Toro into meeting after meeting with studio executives: “We would go out to pitch it, and we would go into all these studios, and the door is always open for Guillermo. So you’d go in and you would meet with the top people at the studios, and the pitch would happen, and you’d say, ‘Yes, well, it’s Pinocchio, everybody knows the story, but we’re gonna do this very different take on it.’ And then you can see they’re excited about that, you see it in their eyes.  And then you say, ‘And it takes place in Italy during the rise of fascism.’  And you just see the blank stare.“

To del Toro, who’d addressed the issue of fascism in such films as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, the association between oligarchy and puppetry was an obvious one. As Gustafson related, “When we first thought about making this film, we thought, ‘Well, why would you make this again?’ But then we recognized that this conceit of, ‘If you’re obedient and a good boy, you’ll become a real boy’ was something we weren’t that interested in. And we thought, what is the virtue of a righteous disobedience? What is it like if this character questions authority, asks ‘Why?’ And that was one of the reasons to place him in this fascist regime, where everyone is expected to walk in lockstep. And we said, No, Pinocchio’s gonna be that one character. He’s gonna be less of a puppet than anyone else in the film, even though he’s a puppet.”

“We didn’t necessarily want to make a film for kids,” Gustafson continued. “We were making this film for ourselves. And I think that you can feel that. We’re not pandering at all. There was never a discussion about, ‘Oh, I think the audience needs to see a skateboard here.’ We made choices based on what was best for the characters and the story that we wanted to tell. And if that meant the character has to die or there should be something unpleasant, that stuff has to live in the film as well, in order to feel the joy that you feel when something wonderful happens, when characters really connect. But it has to be in the context of darkness.”

By the time Netflix green-lit the production and the local crew was assembled, a dark cloud was indeed gathering on the horizon.  Warehouses south of Portland had been rapidly converted into animation sets and sound stages, then just as swiftly abandoned as Covid swept through the country.

Once again, Gustafson’s adaptability saved the day. As Animation Supervisor Brian Leif Hansen recalls, “We just started; there were like four animators going on sets and then everybody’s running out the door.  But most of the scenic people and the people who are building the props and, to a certain extent, the people doing the costume stuff, carried on doing all those things in their basements and garages.  Because Portland is a great place where everybody has a little workshop in their upstairs, downstairs kind of place.”

In a strange way, the pandemic gave the production more breathing room. Del Toro and Gustafson worked together to perfect their take on the Pinocchio story, with the help of the design team. And as the lockdown dragged on, the crew become more cohesive. “We curated our crew very, very carefully,” Gustafson said, “because we’ve been through this before, and we knew that this was going to be our family. We’re going to spend years with these people, and we wanted to spend it with people that we love and respect, and that we wanted to be around.”

Putting on a show in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”: Count Volpe (left, voiced by Christoph Waltz) and Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann). Image Netflix © 2022
Putting on a show in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”: Count Volpe (left, voiced by Christoph Waltz) and Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann). Image Netflix © 2022
Pinocchio production puppets in progress in the ShadowMachine workshop. Photo Netflix © 2022
Pinocchio production puppets in progress in the ShadowMachine workshop. Photo Netflix © 2022

By the time the crew came back together on set, the vision for the film was that much sharper. There had been room to experiment with materials and machinery and visual effects that hadn’t been attempted before on this scale. “Part of what we tried to do, even on Pinocchio, was achieve as much in-camera as possible,” said Gustafson. “We tried to have as much of it happening right there on the set as opposed to creating it digitally, particularly anything that was close to camera, because we wanted the language of all these textures and everything to be very genuine. And then when we did use digital elements, a lot of times we created an example in real life and then handed that over to the digital artist. Like, something like fire. We created a look for fire where we animated it practically with our hands and gave it to the digital artist. Same with the explosions and that sort of thing.”

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By the time Pinocchio wrapped, everyone on the crew knew that they had a hit on their hands. But the work was only beginning for del Toro and Gustafson.

Del Toro was very familiar with the awards game, having won numerous Oscars, BAFTAs, and other accolades over the years. As he made the rounds of the screenings, he included Gustafson in all the events. “The awards thing is a whole different animal,” Gustafson recalled. “I spent five months wandering the earth meeting people and trying to convince them that Pinocchio was the best thing since sliced bread. After one of these screenings, I was approached by, of all people, Terry Gilliam. And he came up to me and he was like, ‘How did you do it?  How did you do it?’ He just peppered me with questions for probably twenty minutes about the puppets and what we did. He said, ‘This is the third time I’ve seen it on the big screen, and I still can’t quite figure it out.’ And that was Terry Gilliam, one of my heroes in cinema.”

The success at the Oscars of the intricate and hand-hewn Pinocchio, after a nearly unbroken run of wins over the years for family-friendly computer-animated features, opened doors for del Toro but even more so for Gustafson. The two of them had enjoyed their collaboration immensely, and tossed around several ideas for future projects.

In the meantime, Gustafson returned to ShadowMachine with a concept for an animated mystery series called Milepost 88. Inspired by the oddball comedies of the Coen Brothers, the show would center on two brothers running a Nevada gas station where enigmatic and otherwordly events take place.

Another never-realized project was a live-action feature called Many a Poor Boy. According to close friend and fellow filmmaker Joanna Priestley, the screenplay was in many ways a tribute to Gustafson’s mother. “She looked out for him and tried to give him a normal childhood despite his father’s strict religious views,” recalled Priestley. “A key plot element was that his father forbade him from watching the moon landing on television in 1969. The father believed it was a sin for man to explore the heavens, which were the domain of the Lord. So while the moon landing was happening, his mother announced that she was taking him shopping. They went to a department store where she deposited him in the TV showroom while she tried on dresses.”

On social media, Guillermo del Toro mourned the loss of his collaborator and of the art that the world would never have a chance to see. “I admired Mark Gustafson, even before I met him,” wrote del Toro. “A pillar of stop motion animation — a true artist. A compassionate, sensitive and mordantly witty man. A Legend — and a friend that 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 career and craft of countless animators. … They say: ‘Never meet your heroes …’  I disagree. You cannot be disappointed by someone being human. .. I am as glad to have met Mark, the human as I was honored to have met the artist.”

Indeed, even in his absence, friends and colleagues continue to feel the influence of Gustafson’s spirit.  His mentorship helped guide countless young artists through periods of self-doubt and struggle.

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“I asked him a long time ago about his career and how he became a commercial director,” Robin Ator recalls. “I said, ‘So, how do you become a filmmaker?’, and he said, ‘Make films.’”

“Not only was he inspiring in the work that he did, but he recognized talent in the people he worked with,” said Georgina Hayns, “I feel so lucky that ShadowMachine allowed me to work with Mark.”

“Your mortality is important. It’s to be celebrated,” Gustafson told me last year. “And that’s what we did in Pinocchio as well. We said, ‘Yeah, you’re going to die. We’re all going to die.’ But what’s important is all these connections that we make in the meantime, you know, and that we take advantage of life.”

Mark Gustafson’s short fim “A Moving Observation.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

S.W. Conser is a Portland-based storyboard artist and audio producer who hosts the long-running public-affairs show Words and Pictures on KBOO-FM. His work can be found online at Conch.com.

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