Del Toro announced the news Friday on social media, posting: “I admired Mark Gustafson, even before I met him. 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. … Today we honor and miss him.”
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The Oregonian newspaper also reported his death.
Gustafson also worked on the stop-motion California Raisins characters early in his career and served as animation director on Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), another Oscar-nominated stop-motion film.
When del Toro took on the task of retelling Carlo Collodi’s 1883 fable about a wooden puppet who longs to be a real boy, he tapped Gustafson as his directing partner. The duo also earned BAFTA and Annie awards, among other accolades, for the Netflix release.
“We did some design work in 2011 and 2012, and then it went away,” Gustafson said in an interview in March. “It died several times.” Only Netflix would approve the project, he noted: “We went all over the place. Even with Guillermo, when you walk into the room, and he describes it as a film about death, and the rise of Mussolini, you can just see the color drain from faces.”
His long career in stop motion began in the 1980s at Will Vinton Studios in his birthplace of Portland, Oregon, on the California Raisins — the stop-motion group of singing and dancing raisins that became wildly popular after they appeared in a California Raisin Advisory Board commercial singing, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
He also served as an animator on Planters’ Mr. Peanut campaign.
His work included The PJs, a series co-created by Eddie Murphy and set in an inner-city housing project. Gustafson won a 1999 Annie for directing a “Bougie Nights” episode and earned one of his four Emmy nominations for the series.
He won an Emmy for the 1992 special Claymation Easter, a comedy about the kidnapping of the Easter Bunny that he directed and co-wrote. He also wrote and directed the 1994 animated short Mr. Resistor.
Del Toro said Gustafson “leaves behind a titanic legacy of animation that goes back to the very origins of Claymation and that shaped the career and craft of countless animators.”
Accepting the Oscar onstage at the Dolby Theatre in March, Gustafson said, “It’s so good to know this art form that we love so much, stop motion, is very much alive and well.”
Survivors include his wife, singer-songwriter Jennifer Smieja.
Feb. 5: A previous version of this obituary said Gustafson was 64.
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