Jason and the Argonauts
Mark Gustafson: 5 Films That Made the Biggest Impact on Me
Mark Gustafson
Mark Gustafson

"I've never had a plan for my career," confesses filmmaker and animator Mark Gustafson. In the early '80s, he landed his first job as a P.A. at pioneering animation house Will Vinton Studios. "When I got that job and I was just sweeping floors and running errands, I thought, 'Well, I've made it! This is it.'"

"And then you work there and you wind up helping somebody do something, and you do a decent job at that, so they see you differently. Like, 'Oh, you can sculpt!' Or, 'You can help us build armatures,'" Gustafson reflects. "Then they would move me up into that and I was like, 'I've made it, now I'm sculpting! This is great. I know what my career is.' It just marches along and you just keep getting different things and, all of a sudden, I found myself animating, and then, directing."

He worked as a claymator on 1985's The Adventures of Mark Twain and Return to Oz that same year, was the lead animator on 1988's Emmy-nominated Meet the Raisins!, and won an Emmy for the 1992 stop-motion special, Claymation Easter. Gustafson served as the animation director on Wes Anderson's Oscar-nominated Fantastic Mr. Fox, before making his feature debut co-directing Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio.

"I jumped onto a raft in a very turbulent river," he laughs, "and I'm just hanging on for dear life."

At the 95th Oscars, Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio is nominated for Best Animated Feature. "We're not just proud of the movie, I think we're proud of the process. This was the most fun and the most challenging thing that I've ever worked on. It was a joy every day to work on it," Gustafson says. "It's a really fun process, that's why I've done it my whole life! It's like playing with toys — very expensive toys — with all your friends. And five years later, you've got a movie."

The filmmaker is currently developing his follow-up with ShadowMachine, the animation studio behind Pinocchio. "It takes place in the desert and on the moon, and that's all I'll say," he teases. "It combines all of my passions about stop motion and storytelling, and it's really different than anything that's ever been done."

Below, Gustafson shares with A.frame the five films that made him fall in love with movies, moviemaking, and stop-motion animation.

Jason and the Argonauts
Jason and the Argonauts
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Directed by: Don Chaffey |  Written by: Jan Read and Beverley Cross

Jason and the Argonauts is one of the first films I ever saw, and I saw it on a black-and-white television we had in our house. We didn't watch a lot of television, but I remember this movie coming on and I was completely confused by it. Like, what's going on here? How did they do this? Especially the stop-motion elements of it. I could tell that somebody had done it — somebody had touched those things with their hands and done that animation —and it made it all the more weird to me.

That stuck with me my whole life. I never thought I was going to do stop-motion, but when I stumbled into it right out of college, it completely made sense when I looked back and thought about Jason and the Argonauts.

2001: A Space Odyssey
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Directed by: Stanley Kubrick | Written by: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke

2001: A Space Odyssey is the first film that I actually convinced my family to go to. I was just a young man, and it came to the Kiggins Theater in Vancouver as a revival, so I called in all my chits and said, 'I want to go see this.' We went and sat down in that theater, and my brother was asleep within about 10 minutes. My mom and dad were just sort of staring at the screen, completely flabbergasted with what was going on. I think they were ready to leave at intermission.

But I was so taken in by the tone of the film. It was so different than anything I'd ever seen, but I was all in. And it transported me. I believed it. I was out there in the cold emptiness of deep space, and I found that fascinating. I had no idea a movie could do that, could have that sort of impact. So, I was completely blown away.

By the end, I had no idea what exactly any of it meant, or maybe even what had happened — I had to figure that out years later when I went back and watched it over and over again — but I will never forget seeing that movie for the first time.

Lawrence of Arabia
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Directed by: David Lean | Written by: Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson

I think Lawrence of Arabia was the first time I realized how a character and the environment could be almost the same thing. Lawrence and the desert, you watch them blend together and become one thing. And there was a sophistication to the storytelling, like with his robes — how they made them thinner and thinner as the movie went on. It's almost like he was becoming a ghost and disappearing into the landscape itself.

The first time I saw it, I didn't consciously recognize that. When you look at a movie very casually, you don't think about any of that — and you probably shouldn't. But when I went back on subsequent viewings, it was really interesting for someone who wanted to tell stories to realize how many tools there were available, in terms of light, art direction, sound, where the camera was in relation to all the characters. That was a revelation for me.

I was really taken by the character in that film, and he was an anti-hero as well. He's not a particularly good guy. I mean, he has good intentions, but he has a massive ego. He could have easily been a director!

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg | Written by: Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb

Jaws scared the crap out of me. It's another one where I went back to watch it again, over and over. I still watch it. It's one of those mouse trap films where as soon as it comes on television or something, it's got me. The brilliance of a young Steven Spielberg and what he did with the blocking in that film is incredible. I can't believe what he was doing at that age, in terms of moving the camera and the characters and not showing the shark. I know that's sort of an obvious story now, but it really helps you understand that, when you're watching a film, you're not just watching what's happening on the screen. It's a relationship between what's happening on the screen and what's happening inside the person's brain.

In other words, the audience is filling in. They're bringing their experience to it. So, if you can show some restraint and just suggest this or suggest that, the audience is leaning in, leaning in, leaning in, and then bam, you hit them. It's just brilliant from that point of view.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Dr. Strangelove
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Directed by: Stanley Kubrick | Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George

Dr. Strangelove was the first film that I ever bought a DVD of, and I brought it home and watched it probably three times in a row. It was hard for me not to just do all Kubrick on this list, because I just love his films. I don't think they would've approved of Dr. Strangelove either, but for me, it was like, wow! It's hilarious and it's frightening at the same time. The tone of the film was what so impressed me, that he could do this sort of pseudo documentary and get this absurdity in there. And he found that balance with reality that it didn't go so far over the top that it lost me. And the performances in it are brilliant. They're just amazing. George C. Scott? I mean!

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