“When I got the call about working on the film, it felt too good to be true.” Erica Dorn tells me. She spent the last two years as Lead Designer on Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animation Isle of Dogs. The film is quintessentially Andersonian, told with all the quirks and precision we’ve come to expect. The setting is a fictional future Japan where abandoned dogs are marooned on an island rubbish dump. Life looks hopeless for its exiles until they get a visit from 12-year-old ward Atari in search of his beloved, long-lost dog Spots and a rescue mission ensues. Visually and thematically, Isle of Dogs is steeped in contemporary Japanese pop culture fused with a hybrid of traditional and futuristic influences.
Dorn started her career as a graphic designer working on a mix of editorial and advertising projects in London. Surprisingly, she had never worked in film or TV. In a rare twist of fate, the Isle of Dogs production team were recruiting outside the film world for a Japanese-speaking designer. Dorn was recommended, and before she knew it, she was at the studio for a two-week audition where she designed a selection of Japanese drinks packaging. “I grew up in Japan, and my mum is Japanese, I was excited to work on a project connected to my heritage. I love Japanese design, it can be so many different things, dense and cluttered, but also very austere and minimal. I was excited to contribute.” When discussing Anderson’s approach Dorn shares, “I’ve come to know him as someone deeply interested in Japanese culture, and its customs. He cares a lot about the authenticity of the details. Although there is a fantasy element in all of his films, the details are somewhat based in reality.”
Dorn lead a team who were responsible for creating all the details that brought this fantasy world to reality. From signage and newspapers to sake bottles and apple stickers, each element was meticulously designed. Everything began with the script, “It’s an evocative part of the process. It can give you an atmosphere that you can translate into the graphics.” Coupled with concept drawings, which illustrate Anderson’s vision and hours of research into old Japanese cinema, she set about creating this world. Dorn’s responsibility involved identifying and creating every single design element required for the 250+ sets used in the film. “Some graphics are key to the story and get front and centre placement, but there are others which remain in the background to give context, but all of them demand the same attention to detail and work.” She adds, “Screen time can be completely disproportionate to the time you spend working on each set. The noodle bar appears on screen for a few seconds, but was a very labour intensive scene.” An overwhelming task for many, but Dorn’s calm disposition put her in good stead for the challenge, “Like everything you have just to do one thing at a time, if you start to think about the long list then you can start to panic.”
The allure of stop-motion is the materiality of the process, rich handmade elements create a world so vibrant you’re scared to look away in case you miss something. “The feeling you get from something handmade is just different,” Dorn shares, “so even if I’d worked up something in illustrator, I would print it out and hand draw it at the end.” Working in miniature meant there was a limit to how small we could go. “We were writing letters the size of a postage stamp. When elements got smaller than that we would collaborate with a brilliant paint department who would paint our designs directly onto the prop.” As you might imagine, working with one of the world’s innovative directors, the process was both rigorous and thorough. “Some elements were signed off instantly, and others went through rounds of changes.” Dorn adds, “In the beginning your designing for things three months ahead, but towards the end, you are working in real time. You get calls for replacement elements because something may have been damaged on set and you need to deliver them straight away.”
When I quiz Dorn on the highs and lows of the project she shares, “My favourite scene to design was the noodle bar because there were so many aspects to it. Tracey’s detective wall was also fun as it was so graphics heavy. At one point we had four designers working on that wall. Every element was designed, printed, aged, and then some of the documents had more than one element including photographs, staples and tape. We started both scenes months before shooting, chipping away at it bit by bit. Dorn did not have the luxury of working on one set at a time, because everything ran concurrently. “We worked with twenty animators, and they each had a set, so it was imperative we kept up with their schedule. One set might need more books, while another might need more trash, so you’re juggling all these requests at once.” It’s hard to imagine the pressure of such a production, but Dorn took it all in her stride, “The schedule was tight, but it never felt stressful. We worked as a strong team and were useful in planning. It was a challenging experience, but you feel like you are in good hands. It always felt like Wes was there designing it with you.”
Dorn has already signed on to her next project, a new live-action gangster TV show set in present day, and hopes to continue working in film for the foreseeable future. Isle of Dogs unlocked this new world for Dorn, “It’s like working in a house for years, and you suddenly discover a whole new room you’ve never been in where people are doing something completely different. It’s exciting and inspiring.” She adds, “There is so much more to discover.”