When it comes to stop-motion animation, there are few who have as involved a history as Tristan Oliver. His list of work as a cinematographer and director of photography spans the genre’s most successful endeavors: “Wallace and Gromit,” “Chicken Run,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “ParaNorman” and, most recently, “Isle of Dogs,” the Wes Anderson-directed, Japan-inspired boy-finds-dog adventure.
There was little in Oliver’s youth that would suggest a break into the world of film, and his first true experience in that world did not come until the age of 20, when he successfully auditioned for the part of Fowler in the 1984 film adaptation of “Another Country” starring Rupert Everett and Colin Firth. Oliver then spent “a peculiarly schizophrenic” two or three years acting and trying to get into the camera department of various productions.
“The main difficulty at the time was that the industry was very much dominated by the union,” says Oliver. “That made it very hard to break into the industry unless you had family there.” One of the only other ways to get a union ticket was to go to an accredited film school, so, at 24, Oliver returned to Bristol University to complete a postgraduate degree in film.
The department was a small one, but his compatriots included Peter Webber, who would go on to direct “Girl With a Pearl Earring” (2003). Together they made a 20-minute short titled “Casino.”
“We entered it into the Fuji film competition and it won everything,” says Oliver. “I won a prize called the BP-Kodak cinematography prize, which came with the handsome sum of £1,000 (¥188,000) and some time studying at the Moscow film school.”
On his return to the U.K., while shooting a pop promo with Webber in Bristol, Oliver reached out to Aardman Studios.
“We had no money, so I asked a couple of friends at Aardman if I could borrow some lights for the shoot,” he says. “They asked me to join a project the following week. So I finished off someone else’s commercial and ended up regularly freelancing for Aardman after that.”
In 1992, Oliver began work on “Wallace and Gromit: The Wrong Trousers.”
“That was the first project where we felt that it might have some legacy,” he says. The film would go on to win an Academy Award for best animated short and set up the next decade of Oliver’s career at Aardman, which included working as a cinematographer on Aardman’s first full-length feature, “Chicken Run” (2000), and then “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005).
It was shortly after completing “Were-Rabbit” that Oliver got wind that Anderson’s film “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009) had entered pre-production, and he presented producer Allison Abbate with his reel.
“I didn’t really know much about Wes Anderson at the time, I don’t think I’d even seen any of his movies.” says Oliver, laughing. “But, to cut a long story short, I got the job (as DoP). What I was unaware of back then was that someone else had already been given the job. It’s not something I would have pursued quite so strongly if I’d known that in advance.”
The film was a tough experience for Oliver. “Working with Wes was, on occasion, very frustrating and a lot of us felt quite battered by it,” he says, “But the interesting thing about Wes is that I think that he would be absolutely appalled if he thought that was the case, because he’s a really nice person.
“He’s possessed of a very particular vision that brooks no variation. But, when it came to doing ‘Isle of Dogs,’ despite all that we’d been through, pretty much everyone who’d worked on ‘Fox’ said yes.”
Following stints on “ParaNorman,” Oliver was contacted by Anderson in the summer of 2015 and asked to take the director of photography role on “Isle of Dogs.” It was a job Oliver embraced, managing the camera and lighting crew across an absolutely vast production.
Though the film is notionally set in Japan, Oliver is hesitant to attribute a Japanese style to the film’s cinematography.
“We did watch a huge number of Japanese films,” he says, “but to look at it dispassionately, what you’re seeing is a film that is lit like a Wes Anderson film. It follows a number of very recognizable traits with a lot of extremely flat, low-contrast light. What he really wants is a ubiquitous soft illumination, as if everything is contained in a milky sphere.”
In fact, rather than Japanese cinema, Anderson found a great deal of inspiration in painting, and tended toward woodblock prints, a style Oliver replicated.
“There’s very little drawn shadow; it’s mostly blocks of color,” says Oliver. “And that’s more along the lines of what Wes aims for. Watching a Wes Anderson film is like looking at a picture book where each frame is a different page. Too much shadow would get in the way of that vision.”
As a cinematographer, Oliver found the exacting nature of Anderson’s method to be a challenge at times.
“Wes needs people with the skills to create his vision, but to think of the process as anything other than reactive is wrong,” he says. “You don’t sign up for a Wes Anderson film thinking that you’ll make anything other than a Wes Anderson film. But for the challenges, the audience response is very positive.”
Of course, “Isle of Dogs” has not been without its critics, particularly on the topic of cultural appropriation. On this count, however, Oliver is a staunch defender of the film.
“Never at any time was anything other than absolute due diligence paid to trying to get it right,” says Oliver.
“I think you attribute a degree of malice of forethought to Wes that wasn’t there if you think it is a reckless piece of cultural appropriation, because to him it was a very considered homage to those parts of Japanese culture that delighted and interested him the most.”
“Isle of Dogs” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit www.foxmovies-jp.com/inugashima.