Tucked away in a tranquil corner of Altrincham, around 110 animators, puppet makers, sculptors and creative pioneers are crafting the magic behind some of the biggest hit films and TV shows.
It’s where animation giant Mackinnon & Saunders are based, set up by stop frame visionaries Ian Mackinnon and Peter Saunders more than 30 years ago. The company has seen incredible success on a global stage, most notably with their recent involvement in creating the puppets for Guillermo Del Toro’s BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning adaptation of Pinocchio for Netflix.
“We have obsessive puppet makers here, wanting to constantly just push the boundaries of what we do with puppet-making,” Ian Mackinnon told Prolific North at the studio.
Whether it’s design work, animation or building puppets for characters on TV, feature films and commercials, Mackinnon and Saunders’ vast body of work can be seen in Postman Pat, Bob the Builder, Raa Raa the Noisy Lion, Twirlywoos, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, to name a few.
They’ve worked together since the 1980s, initially at Chorlton’s Cosgrove Hall Films which was behind familiar classics such as Danger Mouse and The Wind in the Willows.
The animation giant even attracted the attention of a teenage John Squire, who went on to become a musician for The Stone Roses.
“Before he got involved with The Stone Roses, he brought in this beautiful little model shed,” said Saunders, dusting off the model. The intricate model is more than 30 years old, with minute details down to cracked window panes and hoops on a barrel showing signs of rust.
John Squire’s model shed
“I was working at Cosgrove Hall at the time and said: ‘We’ll get you a job’. Two to three years later he set up The Stone Roses and never looked back. John’s a man of many talents.”
A “game changing” moment
Reluctantly, as Cosgrove Hall Films closed and had been a “great place to work”, they set up their own company in the 1990s and were able to rent Cosgrove Hall’s workshops which gave them a “really useful start”.
It wasn’t long before they were suddenly thrust into the Hollywood spotlight after securing an Oscar nomination for stop-motion animation film The Sandman after they left Cosgrove Hall. It became their “calling card” and the company began to attract the attention of renowned Hollywood directors like Tim Burton.
When Tim Burton began pulling together a crew for sci-fi satire Mars Attacks!, a producer friend introduced them.
“We had a phone call from Tim Burton’s producer inviting us to go meet him in the States and talk about the film,” explained Mackinnon. “Within a matter of three or four weeks, we took a team out to Los Angeles and then the team in Manchester grew to about 45-50 people.”
Although the film led to a “big expansion of the team”, when Tim Burton’s producer first called the studio, Saunders recalls how he thought it was a prank call at first.
“This woman got a little bit tetchy on the phone call and then I suddenly thought maybe this isn’t a wind up! Poor Ian has had to put up with me putting my foot in it for so many years,” he teased. “It was such a game-changing moment. If she had just put the phone down on me, we wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
Working on Mars Attacks! was a “surreal moment”, especially when they temporarily moved into a space in Hollywood: “In the distance was the Hollywood sign and you’d think: ‘How could this have happened to two puppet makers, one from Rochdale and one from Warrington?’”
“It’s a real credit to Netflix for giving the film a green light”
Plunging deeper into Tim Burton’s beautifully gothic and whimsical world with stop motion animation films Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie, they’ve continued to work on a number of projects with directors “all around the world”.
Both Tim Burton and Guillermo Del Toro have visited the studios here in Altrincham, eagerly taking a glimpse behind the scenes of the evolving design and build of their beloved characters as they “love the craft and seeing the models”.
“Both Guillermo and Tim have practised stop motion animation. They wanted to get involved in stop motion, made their own short films and are both accomplished painters and artists. So to go around and see what people in the workshop are doing to them [the puppets], they always give a lot back,” explained Mackinnon.
Pinocchio had been an ambitious project of Guillermo Del Toro’s bubbling away, waiting for its day since 2008. It wasn’t until Netflix gave the green light in 2019 that the Hollywood director, who’s behind dark fantasy horror films like Pan’s Labyrinth, decided to revamp the scripts and kick-start production once again.
“It’s a real credit to Netflix for giving the film a green light and seeing the potential in it, because so many studios had talked to Guillermo about it, said yes then no, then passed on it.
“They said the script was too dark but Netflix became the perfect partner and said ‘we realise what you’re trying to create here’.”
It took 18 months for the team at Mackinnon & Saunders to design, build and test the puppets.
“It has been a collaboration between Manchester, Portland (US) and Guillermo del Toro’s crew of animators and model makers from Guadalajara in Mexico,” he said.
“Stop motion at one stage was probably going to disappear”
With Pinocchio, it marked the start of using a brand new technology in puppet making. Pinocchio’s armature was made almost entirely of 3D printed metal, in what the duo believe is the “world’s first puppet” like this.
“We’ve adapted to change. The area we specialise in has had to adapt because stop motion at one stage was probably going to disappear. There were a number of years where digital was just taking over but we’ve constantly changed and every project we have treated as a unique project,” said Mackinnon.
When battling against global animation giants, sticking with traditional stop motion and puppets might seem a little outdated. But not in Mackinnon and Saunders’ case.
“We’re in a very anachronistic industry, we make animated films with puppets in an age of digital animation with Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks. It’s ubiquitous, digital animation is the norm for today. To be still making these handcrafted puppets I think is quite extraordinary,” said Saunders.
During a tour of the studios, we see various departments tinkering away. The armature department had legs, arms and puppet faces placed across the workshop as a team of animators quietly worked away. We also had a sneak peek of Gepetto’s black tie BAFTA outfit being crafted in the costume department.
Geppetto and Pinocchio at the studios
“We’re not afraid of new technologies and we use them to supplement what we do. It’s not a question of being a Luddite, it’s a question of valuing the artisanal work that we’ve got with these wonderful sculptors, painters, armature makers, mould makers, all sorts of craft skills that were around at the time of the renaissance.”
Reflecting on working on Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, the team had to make 14 versions each of the characters Victor Van Dort, Emily (Corpse Bride) and 12 of Victoria’s character. With Pinocchio, there was an entirely different challenge.
“On average the animators on a feature film will do six seconds a week. If they have 10 animators, they’ll do a minute a week. In order for there to be 10 animators on a project, you need 10 identical puppets of the lead characters. We knew that with Pinocchio, it was a very complicated puppet to make in a robust and repeatable way,” said Saunders.
After receiving a research grant in 2013 to explore 3D metal printing, they discovered it was an “incredible emerging technology” they could tap into for the film.
By 2019 when the film geared into action again, the advancements in 3D metal printing were “just amazing” and it “really answered our prayers,” said Saunders.
“You’ve seen the performance that Pinocchio has to give in virtually every scene. He’s really athletic, he starts off as this sort of gangly, young boy then he’s full of energy and he just can’t be controlled. To get that athleticism and balletic movement out of something that is so delicate, it’s supposed to look like it’s carved of wood but actually it is 3D printed in metal.”
Pinocchio / Credit for all Pinocchio film images: Netflix
Beyond puppets and the future
“Sometimes we do the entire puppet build. On Pinocchio, we were doing all the principal cast, so Geppetto, Pinocchio, Volpe and some of the lead characters,” explained Mackinnon.
But it’s not all about puppet making. On TV shows such as Postman Pat or Twirlywoos, all the animation is produced from the studios in Altrincham. The concept behind CBeebies’ children’s show Raa Raa the Noisy Lion was developed and produced here too, so how the team operates “changes for every show”.
“We do all the design and build here, then we shoot across the way. We’ve got a couple of crinkly sheds on the other side of the canal that we use for filming.”
With an exhibition of some of their work showcased at Sale, which has been extended until March 11, you’ll be able to see some of the famous puppets for yourself from the Clangers, Corpse Bride, Fantastic Mr Fox, Frankenweenie and some of the Pinocchio models.
Ian Mackinnon and Peter Saunders
“It just gives people a glimpse of some of the craftsmanship that goes into the work and the scale that people work on as well,” explained Mackinnon.
Despite the success of Pinocchio, there’s no slowing down for the team. They’re currently working on two stop motion shows, including a new children’s show called BooSnoo! for Sky Kids. A series of “quirky” commercials are in the making for men’s ailment brand Numan too.
“I was really disappointed we didn’t get any free samples!” Saunders teased. “We did a tequila advert once, many years ago, and we received a crate of tequila.”
On what a future dream project might look like for the duo, especially after already working with Hollywood heavyweights, “it’s hard to say,” said Mackinnon as Pinocchio was “a dream project”.
“Somehow Pinocchio has captured the attention not just in this country, but around the world, like no other project that we’ve worked on,” reflected Saunders.
Working together for more than 30 years, we wondered what their secret was to a good partnership. “It’s just a show!” teased Saunders.
“We look at things in slightly different ways. Sometimes we’re a bit like Google Earth,” joked Mackinnon.
“Peter can go down into the minutest details and I can step back a little bit. You need both those views, because everything we do is about creating relationships with filmmakers, the crew and finding out what it is that people want, how we deliver that. That’s the excitement of the challenge.”