At a time when Manchester has been picked as the only UK entry in Lonely Planet’s pop chart of world travel destinations and The Haçienda’s 40th anniversary is providing the pretext for further partial reminiscences of the Whitworth Street discotheque, it’s reassuring to consider that not all the region’s successes are those which mythologise themselves with the greatest insistence.

Take Mackinnon & Saunders. From its premises in the quieter quarters of Altrincham, the firm which bears the names of its founders has been setting its puppets on the world stage, strutting in stop motion across small screen and wide, for exactly three decades.

Mackinnon & Saunders: 30 years and beyond. Credit: Picture © Jason Lock Photography

In fact, Peter Saunders and Ian McKinnon have been working alongside one another since the 1980s, initially at Chorlton’s much-missed Cosgrove Hall. Stepping out from their umbrella in 1992, they – and their company – hit their first of many purple patches when they were approached by post-Goth auteur Tim Burton to fashion the charismatically malevolent Martians for his bubblegum-based Mars Attacks!

Burton’s admiration, as Saunders reveals at the retrospective’s preview, owes something to the opportunity the very analogue solidity of their figures affords for ‘hands-on’ direction. As beautiful as the ghosts in Pixar’s machine have become, you can’t reposition a string of zeroes and ones in real time, nor light it from a different source.

The current exhibition, in partnership with Manchester Animation Festival, parades the miniature stars of their productions, encased in cabinets of glass. But it also takes care to give wall space, and occasional credits, to the life-size people who breathe temporary life into them, the often local artists and craftspeople whose pains are visible in each minuscule button and every sculpted hair.

Pride of place, perhaps, goes to a puppet of Gepetto, flown in from the United States for the occasion. Hot upon the heels of the London Film Festival premiere of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, his presence is something of a coup. Del Toro’s film, owing considerably more to the character designs of Gris Grimly than those which bore Walt Disney’s signature is, by all accounts, something of a passion project for a director hardly lacking in that particular quality. Saunders speaks of his own enchantment, having seen only each part of the jigsaw in piecemeal fashion, upon viewing the picture as an assembled whole.

Mackinnon & Saunders: 30 years and beyond. Credit: Picture © Jason Lock Photography

Mackinnon & Saunders: 30 years and beyond. Picture © Jason Lock Photography

Besides a grinning brace of mocking Martians, representing the enduring relationship between Burton and the company, is the exquisite corpse of Emily, the cadaver who puts the ‘bride’ into his Corpse Bride, along with the main body of characters from both that film – winner of a 2006 Ub Iwerks award for technical achievement – and Frankenweenie, the last of their collaborations to date.

If those puppets are pale and interesting, then others have a more colourful appeal. The marquee star of Fantastic Mr. Fox exudes all the rakish charm of Terry Thomas at his louche peak. In a centrepiece designed to appeal to younger viewers, the primary simplicity of the Twirlywoos, bold and spherical, bowl along nicely beside a next generation Clanger.

Mackinnon & Saunders: 30 years and beyond. Credit: Picture © Jason Lock Photography

Admirable as the visible craft undoubtedly is, what lies beneath is arguably more so. It was Mackinnon & Saunders who pioneered the ball-and-socket armature that forms the endoskeletons of its puppets, allowing for the strings-free animation doubly apt for Pinocchio. Moreover, as Saunders avers, the company has no wish to settle on its deserved laurels, but, in parallel with its intangible digital competitors, continues to look forwards. With no house style to be confined to, each project brings fresh inspiration, and further innovation. The exhibition may serve as a greatest hits collection, but there’s no sign that what, in pop terms, would be their imperial period is coming to an end.

It really is the quiet ones who end up making the most lasting noise.

By Desmond Bullen

Main image: Jason Lock


Mackinnon & Saunders: 30 Years And Beyond is at Sale Waterside until February 25, 2023. For more details on exhibition pieces as well as opening times, please click here.