As I approached the Christmas season this past December, I became curious about painterly representations of the Annunciation and discovered James Tissot’s version of the Biblical event, which depicts a blue multi-winged Gabriel. At approximately the same time, I caught the Netflix broadcast of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022), currently nominated for an Academy Award® for Best Animated Feature Film. I was taken by how similar the Wood Sprite in Pinocchio resembled Tissot’s annunciatory angel. I wanted so much to be able to ask Del Toro if this was coincidental or an acknowledged influence?
My Christmas wish was granted when The Guardian announced an online live conversation with Del Toro and co-director Mark Gustafson on Friday, January 27, 2023. My question was relayed to Del Toro by event moderator Ellen E. Jones.
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Guillermo del Toro: No, I like Tissot. I do like him. And I like the PreRaphaelites, the Symbolists. I like Odilon Redon who also used feathers with eyes, y’know? That’s one of his main symbols. I utilize a very varied vocabulary that I get from the history of art. I have a very good dialogue with art directors and production designers through that.
In Mesopotamian art the wings are carved in a certain way on the Mesopotamian sculptures so we wanted to give it a pagan / more-than-natural, uncanny, cosmic feeling to those figures, so we made the wings like that. There are arrangements of wings that are different in seraphim, cherubs, archangels and in many of those cases each of the feathers has an eye, representing a human soul, depending on the culture. In Mexican culture the seraphims have six wings and have eyes on every feather. There’s a little bit of chimera that is very Mexican on death.
When we were planning this, the way to echo the pine cone was on the tail of Death. The way to echo the two sisters was in the silver mask. They are both emotionless. What it tells you is that they’re not natural. The metal mask tells you these are not natural beings. And, funny, I don’t think we thought about Mark Twain but we have a character with a mask.
Mark Gustafson: Yeah, there’s the mysterious stranger. He doesn’t even have a head. He literally is holding a mask in the air and it’s very unnerving because I think—and this worked for us in the film—we look at people’s faces, we look at their eyes, to get any kind of cue: “Are they telling the truth? Are they being sincere?” When none of that information exists, you’re back on your heels.
But to finish the answer to this important question: when I talk to students or young directors, I say, “Please, please, make your vocabulary visually much more than film. And much more than just pop culture illustration, more than comics, more than illustration, more than fine art, more than architecture, more than sculpture, all of it. The difference between the right word and the almost right word, Mark Twain used to say, is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning. I think it’s the same with visual work. If your vocabulary is not accurate and you are short of your goal with the visual design of a thing, you’re short. It doesn’t matter if you miss the leap by one foot or one millimeter. You missed the leap.
01/30/23 UPDATE: 03/17/23 UPDATE: My heartfelt congratulations to Guillermo and Mark for their well-deserved win.