To close the 13th edition of the Office Dog Series, we have Andy Gent, the master puppet maker most know for his latest work for Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” movie, with his dog Charlie, who joins him at Arch Model Studio (AMS), in Hackney Wick, on a daily basis. We talk about Charlie, life as a workshop dog, strange encounters, making of Isle of Dogs with hounds around and why more companies should allow dogs at the workplace.
Charlie the Chocolate Labrador and Andy Gent of Arch Model Studio
As I walk down the street, between the warehouses, I find Andy outside the door of his workshop, taking a fresh breathe of air on a glorious warm and sunny day. He is wearing a black t-shirt with a Great Ramen Wave – Hokusai’s Great Wave in a bowl of ramen -, blue jeans and walking boots, and black-mounted glasses. He has a soothing voice – I notice as we introduce ourselves -, and he welcomes me at his workshop. The door opens into a space with a low ceiling which serves as an anteroom and kitchen. On the walls, doors, fridge, furniture, there are traces of films Andy and his team have worked on. Photos, posters and drawings drape the place. I recognise a photo of Sparky the dog from Frankenweenie, and the mythical drummers from Isle of Dogs on a kitchen counter. It is like entering into a temple where things are somehow familiar, but the perspective is not. It is the perspective of the invisible force that has shaped the story from inside out and brought it to life. Andy tells me that he spent a few years working on Isle of Dogs, of which more than two with “everyone.” There is a board pinned with lots of photos of the team, that “everyone” who worked together on the Isle of Dogs movie, including a Chocolate Labrador and another large light-coloured dog.
Charlie, Andy’s 11-year old Chocolate Labrador, will be back soon from a walk with a friend of his. I learn that the other dog in the picture is Hazel, who has an interesting story, that Andy starts to recount. She arrived at the workshop as a puppy, after one of the girls who worked at the film got two puppies for her brother who had just lost his dog. He could only keep one dog, so the other puppy made her way into the workshop and as a debate sparked about her future, a team member soon offered to adopt her. So Hazel became the new puppy in the workshop.
“Weirdly, Hazel grew very quickly and she turned into this fantastic majestic looking dog who was an absolute dead ringer for Rex in the film,” continues Andy. “In fact she was like a body double, so Rex and Hazel are almost identical, apart from them being one hundred times smaller and bigger respectively. We even put a GoPro on Hazel and let her wonder into the workshop so you could see behind the scenes the making of the puppet department from a dog’s point of view.” Intrigued about this, I would later find a sneak peek of Hazel and her GoPro running around the workshop in a video of the making of, where Charlie appears from the top of the stairs, a place where I later spot him (in the video you can see them briefly at 1:53 onwards).
Lowering my eyes from the photos board, I notice a big stainless steel bowl with dog food and one with water at the entrance of the workshop. Andy offers me a cup of coffee as we wait for Charlie to be back. While he fills the portafilter with grounded coffee and screws it into a big coffee machine, Andy recounts that his father was a cabinet-maker, so he started using tools as a child and even built his own toys. The passion for making things stayed with him in adult life, and he comments that making puppets was a natural evolution.
The bell rings and Charlie the Chocolate Labrador, with his distinctive orange collar, walks into the door and makes his way towards his bowl, where he scolds down his food. He is a well-built 46 kilos dog, with a slightly white-haired muzzle that gives away that he is not a puppy any more. A bit aloof, Charlie ignores me as he walks by, uninterested by the fuss. I will later learn from Andy that “Charlie knows how to work people when he wants a bit of attention, but generally he is the sort of dog who says ‘yes, you can come to me and give me attention, I don’t need to come to you to get your attention’.”
As Andy makes his way upstairs to his studio, Charlie Chops – as he is affectionately referred to – follows him like a shadow and makes himself comfortable on a dog bed next to a square of green astroturf. A cut out from a shoot they did, which together with the black couch I am offered a seat next to Andy’s desk, and “any crossroads” in the workshop, are the Charlie’s favourite spots.
Andy’s studio is decorated with posters and drawings of Isle of Dogs characters, and there are the puppets of Atari, Rex and Chief, on opposite sides of the room. We have agreed to have an in-person interview, and as I mess around the recorder we start the interview. I soon realise that Andy has the voice of a narrator and the gift of being an engaging storyteller. I wonder if it’s something he always had, or maybe working on films helps to shape a different sensibility to stories. When later at home I transcribe our interview, pouring it into 11 densely typed Word pages, I realise it will be very difficult to cut anything from it.
Charlie the Chocolate Labrador workshop dog
As we warm up the interview, I ask Andy about Charlie’s story and learn that since he was a 5-year old, he had always wanted a Chocolate and a Black Labrador, named Charlie and George, who could either be boys or girls. The right time came when he started working on Fantastic Mr. Fox. After having looked into adopting, he noticed that Labradors didn’t come up for adoption very often (a good sign, he notes), so Andy set himself to find a puppy, and stumbled upon a sweet green-eyed puppy who was the runt of a litter.
“I went to pick him up and brought him to the workshop for two days, and all my crew went all silly ‘There is a Chocolate Labrador puppy in the workshop!’,” he says. Where he got him from, they called him Blue from the colour of his collar, but Andy already knew he would either be a Charlie or a George; “Because it was Roald Dahl, it was Fantastic Mr. Fox, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this sort of things made me think that maybe this dog is a Charlie rather than a George.”
“So Charlie has been on film sets since the very early days,” continues Andy. In fact, Charlie has been on every single film and workshop Andy has worked on and had. Andy giggles as he tells me an anecdote, “Even to the point that on one of the most recent films I have done, they were discussing dog policy and they said ‘Well, we had dogs on the previous productions, but we don’t know if we are going to do it for this one.’ And I said ‘Well, I think that’s the end of the negotiation then, if you don’t take my dog you don’t take me’ and they went ‘But that is a multi-million project under you, really?!,’ and I went ‘Yeah,’ to which they responded, ‘Well, we’ll definitely allow dogs, then…’ He has got so much leverage, that he can pick and choose his own movies now!”
As we talk, Charlie has fallen fast asleep on his bed in front of us. Andy looks at him tenderly. “A lot of people talk about him as [if he were] the grandfather of the workshop. He is very sedate as a dog, very calm and very quiet, given his size. The word I like to use is ‘considered.’ It’s a funny thing but he is a little bit reserved, he is slightly shy of doors, you have to open them widely for him to go thorough, he waits for you to hold the door open for him – like the Queen -, and he has to go through first. But he is not boisterous at all. He likes other dogs, but he will soon walk away from another dog in the park, he never runs towards them, he is very much a master’s dog.”
The fact that Andy is the centre of Charlie’s world is something one notices quite soon after meeting them. “He follows me around. Of all the dogs I’ve had, I’d never had a dog that is so loyal. He is very attached and he is very clever, he picks things up really quickly. He has learnt a few of good tricks, like pushing you to say carry on stroking me, and pushing you again when you stop. It’s funny, he likes to see you, most of the time we have the doors open, so he can either see you or hear you,” continues Andy.
Charlie is also known for…
Talking about Charlie, I ask Andy about his likes, dislikes and habits.
“He loves being outside in the park, he would stay all day [if he could], lying out on the grass and playing with the frisbee. Food-wise: there’s nothing like a pig’s ear. He LOVES pig’s ears. Even just the name. He knows the word, and he expects it now after he has had his evening’s meal. He won’t let me settle until I give him a dessert pig’s ear. Once he has had that, he is like knocked out. He also likes to eat snow. I think he can eat his body weight in snow the moment he falls on the floor.
I can’t tell you how much Charlie loves to be in the water. In the morning when I walk past the pond, he will run ahead of me and stand at the edge then look back, and if you say yes, he goes straight in. If you say ‘come here’ he will very slowly plod towards you, like you denied him the world. So yeah, he would be in the water all the time, at any moment he can, whether he has to break the ice to get in it or not. ”
“He definitely doesn’t like little dogs trying to lick his chops. That’s the thing that even now he tends to lift his head up, but the thing that would make him bark or snap is a lot of attention from a little dog running up to him. He doesn’t like to get too hot, but he does like to sunbathe until he gets too hot, and then he’ll come inside. I guess this is a Labrador thing: bake yourself silly and then chill yourself lying down.”
“The whining can be a bit funny because he knows that I am on the other side of the door so I can hear him go ‘uuuuh;’ he is very forlorn.
“He has an amazing clock, so he knows exactly at 5 to 6, to come knocking, scratching, or poaching to get me up, because it is time to wake up. He likes his regime. He likes to be in the park at 7am, he likes his breakfast just after 8 and he likes his tea at 6.30. He is a bit of a [stickler]. If I have to work late, I know that I have to have a break to feed him, because he will keep prodding to say it’s time to go out now.”
Charlie eagerly awaits 6 o’clock for his walk at the park, before heading home for tea, and of course have a pig’s ear, continues Andy. “So this is a good one: so he will come to you, he’ll stand next to you, lean on you, and then hook his nearest paw around your inner leg and then push his head to look at you. That’s how he gets your attention and then, of course, it is very difficult to deny him anything. If I do, then he will go to the person I am talking to, and do it to them, because he knows that will distract them. We think he has done this to one of the sculptors, it is a sort of ‘Well if I can’t distract him, I will distract who he is talking to.’ He has worked out how to get out his way, I don’t think it is an annoying habit, it’s just like ‘you are just too smart for school.'”
A working day for Charlie
It’s not that his time at the workshop isn’t interesting as well, from Andy’s words, in fact, “[after] roll call in the workshop, he’ll settle down up here [i.e. in Andy’s office] and have a snooze. Around mid-morning, he’ll just go out for ten minutes have a stroll around the estate with whoever is wanting to have break. Three lunch times a week he goes out with a friend of mine and a group of dogs, as we say, he gets to hang out with his mates, or I’ll take him for a walk around the Olympic Park ,and then the same thing in the afternoon, he’ll have a stroll around and have a little play in the neighbourhood with whoever goes on a tea or cigarette break.”
Andy continues to explain, “During the working hours, if we have got a project involving dogs of course he might have to pose, he might have to do some running around and be filmed, he may even have to do some sitting and commands so we see how he moves, how he does things, how his weight falls, so we can mimic it when we are building characters. We study anatomy, the skeletal structure, muscle mass, and traits. When he moves in front of you, his ears bounce at the end like two little pony tails, and so when you spot things like that you go ‘oh we should try and incorporate that into a character.’”
I picture Charlie participating to these experiments with a certain aplomb and composure. Andy continues, “We got to study him a lot in Isle of Dogs, he was pushed, pulled and sat, it was like physio, I guess. He quite liked it. We wondered ‘can a dog move like that?’ let’s see if Charlie can move that way, and we would say ‘oh well it looks he can move that way but it doesn’t look it is the best way in which it can move.’ So we did sort of use him more as references, whether it was just by sight, like oh let’s see if he’ll lie down, and how does he lie down, how does he get up from lie down, how does he walk.”
With so many puppets and unusual objects, I wonder whether this could have been mistaken with toy paradise by Charlie or any of the dogs who came in at the workshop and I ask Andy if Charlie ever stole any props to use them at his own leisure or caused any mischief. He smiles.
He’ll try to recount the story politely, he says, and begins, “When we were on Fantastic Mr Fox – Charlie would have been about 18 months old -, I was cycling home one night and he was slightly ahead of me. He stopped to have a poo and I thought ‘Oh no there is something not right, there is something very red coming out.’ As I got closer to him, there was a big round red eyeball at the end of his poo looking back at me. ‘What on earth?!’ On the film we had a dog called Spitz and he had these red very angry eyeballs. I am guessing Charlie had seen one of these balls and picked it up and swallowed it. That was the only time he has had anything at the workshop, but he was very young at the time. Anyway, it manifested itself at the end of what looked like a very angry poo, with a very angry eye. But we did leave it there, we didn’t take it back and it certainly did not find its way back into a puppet! [What a] funny moment. It is not very often you see an eyeball coming out of the other end of a dog!” We burst out in a laugh.
In general, apart from this episode, they have had a tremendously good safety record in over ten years, “apart from one eyeball, but I don’t think that that counts as safety concern,” says Andy. In fact, any procedure which is airborne or could pose any safety concerns for the dogs or the humans is done in special rooms with sealed doors dogs and people who are not from that department don’t have access to. Still plenty to space to roam around for the dogs in the main areas, which Andy explain are always kept clean to ensure there is nothing on the floor that could cause injuries to the dogs’ paws as they are in direct contact with the floor.
Dogs at work during Isle of Dogs movie making
The time working on Isle of Dogs movie marked the peak of the most number of dogs at the workshop. Andy tells me that they had six of them roaming around for a short period of time, although generally there would be two in every day.
One would expect that having a number of dogs in the workshop could potentially cause a little pandemonium of a pack running, playing and chasing each other around, but from Andy’s words emerge a different reality. “Some of the dogs would stick very closely with their respective grown-ups/masters/mistresses, so Choco would be very content sitting next to Louise, Oki the same would sit next to Amy, Trickle would be close next to Josey, but Hazel and Charlie would wonder around the workshop. Charlie is really the grandfather of them all, so they all sort of respect his space, I think they can smell that it’s his space and he is quite calm, so the little ones would fall in after him. I think that was also a size thing. Charlie was just about the biggest until Hazel fully grew. But Hazel was obviously the size of Charlie’s head when she arrived and was very careful of him until then she got into her teens. […] They would play with each other remorselessly, they would hold the stick and just walk around together in the workshop. There was a lot of good fun having those two together.”
There are also some good stories about each dog at the workshop too. For instance, Hazel would have some peculiar habit. Andy notes, “Hazel would climb up on things, because she lived with cats and she was convinced that she was half dog and half cat, so she would go for high ground and go on top of the stairs and you’d often see her with her head between the stairs, looking at people from high up.”
Having many people at the workshop meant some more variables to take into account, too. “One of the funny stories that happened during the film, was that Charlie started to develop a limp and I took him to the vet to see what it was and they checked his weight and noticed that he put on an awful lot of weight, and I was like “Well, I am feeding him the same amount and giving him the same amount of exercise”, and she said “Well, is there somebody else feeding him?” And I went “No, no there is nobody else feeding him, I am the only one that does feed him”. “And in his office environment?” and I said, “Oh yeah, well, there is many more people at the moment”. So I came back to the workshop and made an announcement saying: “Charlie has put on something like 6 kilos and has a bit of a limp, so if anybody is feeding him, please stop.’ Anyway, two weeks later, under this new regime, I took him back to the vet and he had lost a kilo and that was all, but he should have lost more. So I came back to the workshop and I said ‘I did say nobody is to feed Charlie. The thing you don’t know about Charlie is he knows a couple of key words such as ‘it’s dinner time’ and ‘food’ and he will go wherever he has been given food’ and everybody was like ‘Ehmmmm.’ I added ‘We are going to see who has been feeding him and what is under their desk’. As we said it, he went straight to two girls in one corner and they had a boxes of treats under their desks and they said ‘Oh no sorry Andy, sorry Andy, we just really wanted to be his friends, we love him we love him and we just wanted to treat him!’ After we took the treats away he lost all the weight and went back to normal!”
Andy explains that, also who at the start wasn’t a keen dog person, ended up loving dogs by the end of the film. Interestingly, many of the actors giving the voice to Isle of Dogs characters had dogs themselves. “What I found on Isle of Dogs was that almost all involved had a dog or a couple of dogs and so Liev Schreiber would do the impersonation of his dogs [he gives the voice to Spots], Jeff Goldblum has a big silver Great Dane – if I am not mistaken -, and they all reminisce about dogs. Bob Balaban has a funny story, about a dog when he was little, and so has Murray Abraham, [who] he had been bitten by a dog who wouldn’t let go, but they still love dogs. So all the crew, the voiceover talent were all ‘Oh it’s so nice to be here.’ If you are a dog lover you look for communications that they are making, you search for them. How they are looking at you, when they are wagging their tails, if they are looking down or they are asleep, you know the communication is different to verbal communication but there is definitely an empathy that you get and so If you have got a dog you’ll see those things. And I think that all the voiceover talent have definitely used all of that [in the film].”
I am not too familiar with the animation process, so Andy explains to me how it works. “The voiceover parts, as long as they come in before we shoot, would come in at different times. You can’t animate anything before you have the sound, because you have to break the sound down into the fragments of seconds and then make the lip shapes, the phonetic shapes correct to the sound you are hearing.” Andy demonstrates some facial expressions and sounds. For Isle of Dogs, first came the script, then they started building and only then it was decided who would have impersonated who. I think it must be fascinating to assist to the process in action. Luckily there are some great videos about the making of online.
Charlie is still asleep as Andy and I continue our chat. With so many dogs in the movie, I naturally wonder whether he inspired any characters in the making. “Well, he inspired quite a lot,” says Andy. “All the dogs were designed to be in the movie, none of them were copies of an existing dog and a lot of them were mutts, a cocktail of different dogs, so they were all sort of different shapes and sizes. […] Because you have got a dog, you would often meet so many other people with dogs and go, ‘oh look at that one has got amazing ears, or amazing fur, oh look that one got matted today in brambles,’ and I would take photographs. So almost anyone who knows me that has a dog, I have photographed their dogs. Whether it was their collar, whether it was the patterns in their fur, whether it was the length of their legs, the shape of their eyes, their noses, their ears, different breeds, shapes, barrel-like, thin, they have all made their way in and been interpreted into some of the designs. But, obviously, Wes chose everything, so we would suggest things and he would say yes or not, as to whether he liked that for his character or not. I always wanted to get Charlie in, and there is one dog in the background of one shot, which was effectively known as the Dog 7. Because we had so many, we gave them numbers. Curiously, it does look an awful lot like a Chocolate Labrador with an orange collar, who looks up from a sleeping position from behind a character who is a much more significant character in the film. And, well, you could judge for yourself if he looks an awful lot like Charlie! But we started to refer to Dog 7 as ‘the dog who looks a lot like Charlie.’ If that answers whether he was he in the movie or not, without actually saying too much.”
I note down to re-watch the movie looking for Dog 7. Andy continues explaining that, similarly, other members of the crew were inspired by their family dogs in colours and textures. “Without it being that, I think everybody brings a bit of their canine friends into this. We had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dogs, so all manner of people’s dogs ill have found their way or shape or form in the movie. So it may be the right shape of yours but the wrong collar. So if you look hard enough you will probably find what you’re looking for inside the film.”
One could listen to him for hours. There is something about Andy, his attention to detail maybe, which also marks his word choice. He is an observer. He notices the little things and describes the world in its many nuances.
The benefits of having dogs at the workshop and why more offices should become dog-friendly
We talk about encouraging more offices to become dog-friendly. Andy firmly believes that if you have a dog, you should make the effort to accommodate them properly, and notes that he would never have a dog and not have him around. “It just makes you happy. There’s nothing like it. It should be encouraged for most places to have them in the workspace. You’re calmer, everybody is happier, there is the ability to interact with something whether it is by touch or sound, and for somebody else it is a very tactile thing to have dogs around, and that breaks down a lot of barriers having them in the workshop.”
He continues, “Also, it can totally disarm situations when a dog walks into a room. Their silliness and good nature – because they are generally all good natured -, I think it can disarm most situations. We have been in some huge meetings try to work things out and there has been a whine at the door and we have had to stop and let him in and then he has come in and he has tried to sit on my lap and it causes everybody to break down laughing. Then he falls asleep and snores for the rest of the meeting, well nobody could have a serious conversation with him going [Andy makes the snoring sound Charlie would do]. The pressure would have totally been removed, and that is quite an important thing. There is that element about having them around, they are like an assistance for many people in so many things.”
But there are also other reasons. ”They regulate your time, because they have a clock and they need to go and do some things, so you can’t just allow your day to run riot, you have to respect the fact that you have got to take him out 3-4 times a day. You can’t stay here and work all night, which I would have done for many years,” continues Andy. “Part of the reason for me to get him on Fantastic Mr. Fox was to help me to regulate my lifestyle, because of the demands of running films you would often stay late, but there would be a reason not to, and you can’t really argue with the fact that a dog needs to go out. People respect that quite well, so it kind of an assistance.”
For sure, having his own workshop made things easier for Andy.”I have conspired to have a workshop of my own where I can do whatever I like, and everybody is allowed to bring their dogs in here. We have had several at a time,” he adds. “It’s nice, I think it changes the atmosphere in the workshop profoundly having dogs around, they just de-stress everybody, they are fun, they are good natured, they soon sort out who is the one to follow, who is going to go and do this, and the order of things. I think it changes the atmosphere massively. They are very much part of your family, so if they can come and not stay at home, I think it’s good.”
We chat about how different industries may have different approaches to dogs at the office, as each has its own “rules and regulations” as he says. He adds, “In a lot of offices I don’t see why it wouldn’t be possible to bring them in. It’s good for people to go outside, and stretch your eyes and just have a little break in the day, I think it is healthy to have that. It’s no doubt that having a dog keeps you outside and active and stretches your days differently, I think it is good for many reasons.”
Office Dog Survival Guide
Time has flown during our interview, and while I wish it was possible to keep listening to him for hours more, it is time for the last question before wrapping up. The question is what Andy would include in an office dog survival guide, from a dog’s perspective. It doesn’t take him long to come up with a list, which becomes funnier and funnier:
- “Make sure that all the corridors are good for running and chasing toys;
- that they can bounce around and leap everywhere.
- There is plenty of places to lie down and rest.
- It’s good to have a sun balcony.
- And a swimming pool. You got to have a paddling pool for when it gets too hot to stay in the sun.
- And you should have a machine that you could touch with your nose and gives you a pig’s ear when you need it.”
When we finish our chat, it is time to take some photos of Charlie around the workshop. I can tell Andy is looking forward to getting back to work now, so I try to be quick and get some decent shots fast. Charlie is extremely expressive. The way he looks up to Andy, just with the corner of the eye. The position he puts his ears. He is truly a human-like dog and these two make a great couple. Who knows if one day Charlie will have in his own little short animation and Andy will tell his story.