|Interview: Henry Selick on "Coraline"
|by Peter Sobczynski
The director of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" talks about his latest masterpiece, the jaw-dropping, eye-popping 3-D family fantasy "Coraline."
The trouble with making a flat-out movie masterpiece your first time out of the gate is that every subsequent film will be compared to it and for the most part, the comparisons usually involve people whining about how the new project is nowhere near as good as that first film. Take the case of stop-motion animator Henry Selick, for example. After working his way up in the industry via short films and a series of striking station identifications for MTV in the 1980’s, he was asked by a colleague from his days working at Disney, a guy by the name of Tim Burton, to direct a stop-motion holiday feature by the name of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” a film that would start off slow but eventually become a beloved holiday classic that has increased in popularity every year since its original 1993 release. Since that time, however, his career path has been a bit on the rocky side. He did a lovely 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach” that mysteriously didn’t hit as big as it should of. In 2001, he entered the world of live-action filmmaking with the bizarre comedy “Monkeybone” and the fact that this is probably the first time you have thought about “Monkeybone” since its extremely brief theatrical release should indicate just how successful of a film that was. After that disaster, he seemed to simply retreat from view with his only major credit since then being his contributions of some delightfully daffy stop-motion creations to Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,”
Now, Selick has finally returned to the multiplexes with “Coraline,” a stop-motion animation adaptation of the acclaimed children’s story from author Neil Gaiman, and while many people will no doubt compare it to “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” it is such a weird and wonderful work that it actually deserves to be compared to that earlier masterpiece. In the film, a young girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning) who is bored and alienated from her workaholic parents and who discovers a mysterious door in the wall of the boarding house that her family has just moved into. The door leads to a parallel dimension in which her parents are warm and incredibly attentive, every meal is a feast of delicious treats and the only odd note is that everyone she encounters has big black buttons where their eyes should be. Eventually, it turns out that her Other Mother wants her to stay in this world permanently and to sew buttons on her own eyes to make the transformation complete and when Coraline refuses, she undergoes a strange journey, half hilarious and half harrowing, in order to escape the clutcher of Other Mother, rescue her real parents and make it back to her own world. I won’t tell you what happens along the way except to mention that every single scene is packed to the edges with visual astonishments (and in crystal-clear 3-D to boot) and that the story is compelling enough to completely entrance viewers of all ages (though some of the visuals may be a little too creepy for younger and more sensitive children).
Recently, Selick came to Chicago to talk up his latest masterwork and sat down to talk about the Herculean effort to bring “Coraline” from the page to the screen, the ongoing popularity of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and whether he will ever go back to the world of live-action filmmaking again.
Seeing as how stop-motion animation has always been a rarefied version of that particular art form, how was it that you found yourself specializing in that format in the first place?
I didn’t come into animation until I was already in college. I was in the arts, doing lots and lots of drawings, painting, sculpture and music--I loved all these things and wanted to find a way to combine them. Then I happened to see a short film that combined a couple of different styles of animation and it had all the things that I was interested in. It took a while for me to settle on stop-motion but even in my sculpture days, I was doing figures that had joints that I could repose--people would be in a room looking at other things and I would carefully make slight adjustments to see if they noticed. In my photos, I could never settle on one picture, so I would do a series of photos and that was almost like animation. I did a lot of 2-D work--I got a job at Disney and it was very challenging for me because I wasn’t one of those Disney animator who had grown up with them. I got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts while I was at Disney and I did a film where I did more stop-motion than I ever had--large figures sitting by a pool having discussions about the story.
Finally, after leaving Disney, I moved to the Bay Area and I really started getting into stop-motion animation. I did a bunch of work for MTV doing station ID’s during the late 1980s. That is where I found myself--I had low budgets but freedom as long as I put the logo on at the end. I was just finding myself engaged in stop-motion pretty much all of the time--I did some commercials as well--and then I reconnected with Tim Burton years after knowing him at Disney and then we did “The Nightmare Before Christmas”
In the production notes, it says “He loved unusual and scary animation”--can you speak specifically about what you liked?
I don’t know if it was the first film I saw or the first one that I remember but I saw Ray Harryhausen’s “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” when I was four or five and I dreamed about the stop-motion cyclops in that for years. That probably planted the seed that I was eventually drawn back to because that was one of my favorites. Why did I like it? I think every kid likes a good scare. It was magic, it was terrifying and it felt real because it wasn’t drawn. Among the Disney things, I loved “Night on Bald Mountain” from “Fantasia” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” I liked Disney’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Growing up, I also saw this local kids TV show that had taken the world’s first animated feature, which they probably got for a dollar, called “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” by Lotte Reiniger, and, I later figured out, had just cut it up into little pieces and would show them as shorts. I saw those when I was very young and was absolutely mesmerized by these beautiful silhouettes cut-outs.
I was seeing another screening of a family movie and the preview for “Coraline” came up and there was a family behind me where the kids were maybe 7 and 10. The kids said that it looked fun and the parents said that it looked too scary. Do you think that parents can sometimes be too overprotective as to what their kids can handle in regards to the scares? I grew up with Roald Dahl and he was scary and you grew up with Sinbad. How old do you think kids should be to see this movie?
We sort of figured 8 and up. It says PG, which means that the parents are supposed to know what works for their kids. It’s not just parents--it is the rating system and the ghetto of what animation is and what it is allowed to be. There are always some kids whose parents are more permissive and they are watching scarier stuff at home. TV animation is very adventurous and I am not just talking about stuff like “Robot Chicken” or “South Park.” The current version of “Batman” is dark--it is great and beautifully art-directed and that is what my 10-year-old loves the most. I think it is a strange thing, with movies in particular, that people want to pretend that it is 20 years ago and there is no Internet or adventurous animation on television--that is where we are being prevented from reaching kids. Neil always said that parents see the book as a sort of horror film for children but kids see it as more of an adventure.
Of course, “Coraline” is not the only animated film that you have done to contain dark and scary moments--both “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach” contained such elements as well. How difficult is it to get such material past the studios, who would presumably prefer to have something a little more conventionally cheerful and cuddly that they can more easily market? Do you still have conflicts with them even though the success of something like “Nightmare Before Christmas” would indicate that there is a market for such darker animated films?
Always, and it is the same thing Neil faced. When I first read this, he didn’t have a publisher--he was a published author but it was always the same conflict of “it is too scary for kids and not scary enough for adults.” Neil and I always felt that it was just right and that it works for both--it is for brave children of all ages. There has been a constant fear that it is different when I think that the world is screaming for something different as long as it is good and well-done and original. I haven’t seen the film “Waltz with Bashir” yet but from what I have read and heard about it, regardless of how successful it is, I am just happy that someone in animation got the funding to take on that subject. “Persepolis,” “The Triplets of Belleville”--animation can be so much more than it is usually allowed to be. Obviously, if you are going to be more adventurous, you need to spend less money and we have--we can do a film like this for 1/3rd of the cost of a big CGI film.
I don’t have an answer about this conflict of taste--I just kept going on making the film that I was always going to make and we have had a really good response. Kids aren’t too scared--it is the parents that are more scared and that is always how that is.
How involved was Neil with the production of the film?
Neil was not a constant collaborator. We learned early on that the guy is so smart and such a good writer that if he stayed too close, I couldn’t really do my job. My first draft of the screenplay was terrible because it was too much the book verbatim--it didn’t read like a film. I had to go off for nearly a year to do my second draft and introduce a character that wasn’t in the book and make adjustments that I thought made it more organic as a movie. That was the draft that he and the producers loved. I made a deal with Neil for him to do regular check-ins but I wanted to do a lot of work first. With the artwork and character designs, I wanted to get “Coraline” to a very good place before showing him and not have him look at a lot of preliminaries. That is how it has been throughout--same with the storyboards and the story. We did a lot of work and Neil has almost always had a positive response with maybe two or three notes that were always right and always doable. You couldn’t ask for a better association between an author and a filmmaker.
From a technical standpoint, how much more of a challenge, if any, is it to shoot stop-motion animation using 3-D technology as opposed to conventional 2-D photography?
There is an initial period of time of getting comfortable with the properties of 3-D and the management of the digital files, which can be very tricky. We shot digitally and used single cameras that would shoot the left eye and then move a little bit to shoot the right eye. The technical aspect was fairly challenging but for the artistic challenge, we just shot lots and lots of tests and sort of worked out a simple script for the film. It slowed things down a little because it takes time to do these left eye/right eye exposures and it impacts the rhythm of animating. Animators like to have an instant exposure in order to move things and keep it fluid. Ultimately, we all got used to it and sort of stuck to the script.
I wanted to draw people into the space and only rarely poke them in the eye. I’ve been interested in doing 3-D stop-motion for years, ever since I did a rock video 20 years ago with Lenny Lipton, the man who is behind modern 3-D in cinemas with the Real D company that he is now associated with. His early, primitive system is what I worked with and I kept up with Lenny and saw as he developed the process how it was getting better and better. That coincided with “Coraline” getting off her feet and turning into a film and now that system is going out into theaters.
Do you see yourself permanently working with the 3-D process on your future animated projects or will it depend on whether the material suggests it?
I would say that with stop-motion films, they should always be shot in 3-D and then you have a choice because what 3-D does for stop-motion, and this goes back all the way to the days of Viewmasters, is capture the fact that this stuff really exists. These are real puppets with real lights on a real set with real props. It captures the uniqueness of this medium--it takes the rarest form of animation and puts it front-and-center and I think it adds to its uniqueness. The worst thing would be if it just became a gimmick. There may be some stories where 3-D doesn’t really enhance the story very much and using it would just be forcing it but I would say shoot it in 3-D and you can just archive it that way and never release it like that.
Have you had any thoughts about attempting another live-action movie at some point?
No. The film that I did that turned out to be mainly live-action was one that I never intended to have go there. I am not as successful with live-action and I am not as comfortable with it as I am with stop-motion. Stop-motion animation is what I love most and where I feel my strongest at. Maybe if you have done live-action for years and work with the same crews, you have this loyalty and support right from the beginning but for me, it always seemed like “Who do you think you are, animation person?” It was a much more macho world than the world of stop-motion. The culture was very different from the one that I was more familiar and comfortable with.
You’ve spoken of the technical challenges--what was the biggest artistic challenge of “Coraline”?
Coraline was very hard to design. I worked with a lot of artists and there were a lot of very cartoony versions of Coraline. It took months and months and many different sculptures and trying to work out how she would be expressing things with her face took a very long time as well. There are two kinds of facial animation--replacement, where you basically do a new sculpture for every expression, and there is a mechanical process involving silicon skin over the sculpture to give new expressions. Both methods were employed and so it took months to figure out how to get her to be expressive enough but everything that we learned from her, we wound up applying to the other characters.
The look of the film was very tough and my original production designer couldn’t get there. I was working with concept art by a brilliant Japanese artist and if you look at his artwork, it is difficult to see how this film could have come from there. I had a vision and ultimately, I deputized three people in sets and models and made them art directors while I became a production designer. It was very difficult to get the look of this film right. The shapes of things, the textures--I wanted the materials on the sets to feel light and be translucent so that light could pass through them. I wanted them to be in scale with the puppets instead of the heavy and clunky things that you often get in stop-motion animation. We did a lot of experiments with materials led by Tom Proust, who was one of the art directors. We bought all sorts of fabrics and plastics and hand-made paper, we took some natural reeds and thistles and painted them in order to mix them with the artificial ones. We had this emergency session where we had to start over on the look of the film at a time when we were already starting the film. That was a challenge but we got there.
There are plenty of memorable visual moments in “Coraline” but the one that struck me the most is one that is actually more of a throwaway moment than anything else--the part where Coraline enters the theater and turns around to discover dogs occupying every seat of the vast auditorium. It seems like an extraordinarily complicated shot, even if there was some cheating involved, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that moment was staged.
The dogs in the downstairs theater are all real, just as all the jumping mice in the circus are real. Those were two areas where I got a lot of pressure to go CG on them. My argument was that we could do that but then it would become ordinary because people would expect you to go to CG with multiple characters. I persevered and got people to help me figure out how to control the cost but I knew that nothing would match the impact of actually building a big set and populating it with lots of Scottie dogs with buttons for eyes. The close-up ones are more detailed and there are a handful that are really active and which do a lot of things. Then there is a mid-tier of dogs that can do less but which still have a range of emotion. Finally, there are background dogs and we had little cranks under the set to get them to bob up and down to show some motion.
“The Nightmare Before Christmas” has such a loyal following. Are you at all surprised by that following and how it seems to be growing stronger every year?
I am grateful to be a part of something that has a life beyond its original release. I would say that “Coraline” is like “Nightmare” in many respects in terms of artistic support because the movie on the screen is the one that we wanted to make and it wasn’t lost to politics. You can look at it many times because it s very rich--you could do a pass through it just watching the background characters.[br]
I don’t have an ultimate answer for why “Nightmare” in particular has had its staying power. There is no doubt that Tim Burton’s original idea, inspired by “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” is wonderful--a collision of holidays and a well-intentioned but semi-insane Jack Skellington who thinks he is doing to world a great favor. Danny Elfman’s songs are great.
Even though that film is very different from “Coraline,” I remember going through very similar things with that one. Disney was afraid of that movie and I still don’t know why. Obviously, they aren’t now but back then, they wouldn’t put the Disney name on it--it was a Touchstone film--and they didn’t spend a lot promoting it and were surprised that it did as well as it did. It took many years before it became a Disney film and now it is “the beloved classic” and it still makes me smile that they didn’t get it right away.
Now that “The Nightmare Before Christmas” has been given the deluxe DVD treatment, is there any chance that the same thing will one day happen for “James and the Giant Peach”?
They are actually doing a Blu-ray release and I was contacted several months ago by Sarah Durant, who is a post-production supervisor over there and who worked on “James and the Giant Peach.” They aren’t going to pull out all the stops in the same way, but it is in the works.
Do you have any idea what is next for you?
My head storyboard artist on “Coraline,” a young guy by the name of Chris Butler, has an original screenplay that he has written called “Paranorman” that I am supporting him in trying to get it set up for him to co-direct, though I won’t be directing it. It is a funny and sweet story about a kid who is different because he helps dead people. It is really good and really funny and I have gotten some other folks to support it and it is in early development. There is also an early Philip Pullman book called “Count Karlstein” that I did some development work on even before “Coraline” with a friend of mine, Terry Castle (who is William Castle’s daughter) , and we came up with the idea for a film of that which I am interested in going back to. I am also looking to collaborating with Neil again and we have talked about a couple of projects. The problem is that everything that he has done is already set up someplace because he has become so successful, but I would say there is a very good chance we will collaborate again.
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originally posted: 02/06/09 09:03:00
last updated: 02/06/09 09:26:25