Mark Gustafson, the stop-motion animation master who won an Oscar last year as co-director with Guillermo del Toro of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, died of a heart attack Thursday at age 63.
He is survived by his wife, Jennifer Smieja.
“I admired Mark Gustafson, even before I met him,” del Toro said Friday on the social media site X. “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 passed away yesterday. Today we honor and miss him.”
Gustafson, a technical master of the painstaking stop-motion process, was beloved in Portland’s animation community, which includes some of the world’s best animators. Stop-motion is an intensely physical form of animated filmmaking in which models, often made of clay, are moved by hand into slightly different positions and shot at each position. When spliced together and sped up, the succession of individual shots creates movement. Done well, the technique creates a physical, almost three-dimensional effect, which is evident in animated films such as Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and Wes Anderson’s 2009 Oscar-nominated Fantastic Mr. Fox, for which Gustafson was animation director.
Gustafson’s work upheld a tradition of craftsmanship at a time when CGI, or computer-generated imagery, was sweeping the animation industry with its relative ease of production. “It didn’t take long however before Mark flipped my world,” fellow animator Kirby Atkins, who worked with Gustafson at Will Vinton Studios in the 1990s, wrote on Facebook. “He was moving real stuff around — in front of a real camera — and he put such soul, humor and heart-warming quirk into his craft that I’ve never looked at my job with such a lazy eye again. Rest in peace, Mark. You made me want to spend my days making art that sticks.”
Gustafson began his animation career decades ago working with Portland’s old Vinton Studios, now known as Laika. Vinton and his original partner Bob Gardiner were pioneers of the Claymation process, and over the years Gustafson worked as a writer, director, or animator on such projects as The Adventures of Mark Twain, Mr. Resistor, Claymation Easter, Claymation Comedy of Horrors, The California Raisin Show, and the TV special Meet the Raisins! He also directed two episodes of the TV series The PJs, and was an animator on 2011’s A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas.
In June 2023, on the occasion of the opening of the popular exhibition “Guillermo del Toro: Crafting Pinocchio” at the Portland Art Museum, S.W. Conser interviewed Gustafson and the Pinocchio movie’s animation supervisor, Brian Hansen, for Oregon Artswatch about how the film came together. You can read that story, Talking Pinocchio from the Inside, here. And watch for Conser’s more complete appreciation of Gustafson’s life and work soon on ArtsWatch.