'Isle of Dogs': The Environmental Photography That Inspired the Set

Isle of Dogs - Berlin International Film Festival - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

A star-powered group of voice actors that includes Yoko Ono, Bryan Cranston, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig and Scarlett Johansson join forces in Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animation feature Isle of Dogs, but beneath the dazzling cinematography is a critique of the way humans treat our environment.

In the film, after an extensive propaganda campaign blames a flu outbreak on local dogs, the Megasaki City government exiles the canines to Trash Island, the city's floating garbage dump. Isle of Dogs begins later, as 12-year-old Atari Kobayashi searches Trash Island for his missing dog, Spots.

Paul Harrod, who worked as a production designer on the film alongside Was Anderson veteran Adam Stockhausen, told The Hollywood Reporter, "Trash Island represents the way in which a society chooses to put its own crisis of waste removal out of sight and therefore out of mind." It is both literal and not: "The dogs can be seen as representing any group of dispossessed beings, be they human or not."

According to Harrod, commentary about the human impact on the environment was engineered into the set design itself. "The environmental critique was always at the forefront of our design process," he said, noting that the Isle of Dogs team took inspiration from two particular photographers who have devoted much of their work to capturing the impacts of waste on the environment: Edward Burtynsky and Chris Jordan.

Though Anderson and Stockhausen already were looking at Burtynsky’s photos by the time Harrod came on board, Harrod brought Jordan’s work into the mix. "What was interesting about these two photographers was that their images were nightmarish and oppressive, while also having a perverse sort of aesthetic appeal," said Harrod. "Chris Jordan's monograph is titled 'Intolerable Beauty,' which I think says it all. The intent was for Trash Island to always have that quality; to be captivating in the way only a vision of Hell can be."

While Burtynsky's work helped to generate ideas about the landscape at large, Jordan's inspired many of the textures and surface treatments of the set. 

Jordan, whose film Albatross is forthcoming, told THR that his intentions as a photographer are not to advocate for a particular cause but rather to generate questions about human society at large. It's not about pushing people to pick up trash. It's about seeing what that trash, and everything else we leave behind, says about our own search for direction.

"Some people think environmental activism is the primary intention of my work, which it isn't, and that's why I tend to grate against the term 'eco artist,'" Jordan said. "What I'm interested in is the root cause of all forms of human destructiveness, whether environmental or social. ... How can we shift and rebuild the very foundations of our worldview, such as our approach to money, capitalism, militarism, environmental exploitation, social exploitation and so on?"

These are some of the same issues that the production designers on Isle of Dogs grappled with as they worked. Through the work of Jordan and Burtynsky, a film about exiled dogs and a boy's search for companionship has found a uniquely subtle way to raise pressing questions about the relationship between people and the environment.