Henry Selick made his feature film debut directing the 1993 stop-motion film, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” from Disney. The film quickly became a classic, and he soon followed up with the 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “James and The Giant Peach,” garnering more critical acclaim. His third feature film “Monkeybone,” based on the underground comic of the same name, did not fare quite as well. Since then, Selicks hand has been seen in Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” as well as the computer generated short “Moonchild.” Now, Selick has returned to directing with the first 3-D stop-motion animated film, “Coraline.” Adapted from the novel by Neil Gaiman and accompanied by the vocal talents of such actors as Terri Hatcher and Dakota Fanning, Selick is ready to take the box office by storm. CBR News concludes it’s three part look into “Coraline” talking to the man behind the lens himself, Henry Selick.
It’s been 15 years since “Nightmare Before Christmas” hit theatres and technology has advanced in great leaps and bounds, the ripples of which has had a profound effect in the world of stop motion animation. “We weren’t waiting for film coming back from the lab and having a giant session of dailies,” Selick said. “It has been much more relaxed; I could do dailies four times a day.”
Another advantage of shooting digitally is that it allowed the filmmaker to manipulate the images on the computer to enhance or clean up a shot. “[With] Coraline, her various mothers, and a couple of other characters, we used replacement face animations,” Selick explained. “Basically, we use sculpted expressions for everything she says, but we needed a greater range so we put [in] a split line and had her upper face animate separately from her lower, and then in post we can just digitally remove that.”
Even the cameras the production was using were effected by the technological advances of the last 15 years. “We used high def medical cameras, called Redlakes. The camera stands are newly engineered to be able to get the cameras to fly anywhere we want them to,” Selick continued. “Wherever you look there is new technology ultimately supporting this animator pushing a puppet.”
Bringing to life Gaiman’s fervent imagination was a challenge that Selick was ready to take on. “I don’t know if this sounds like I have a huge ego, [but] I never go ‘How am I going to do this?’ like it’s a problem,” Selick said. “It’s always with delight, because that’s what I, and most of the people I work with, love to do the best, is taking on huge challenging projects.”
With a novel that consisted of talking cats, Other Worlds, an audience of Scottie dogs and a mouse circus, Selick actually found his first challenge dealing with the people. “It’s always a challenge to [do] humans in animation,” Selick said. “They can get, in my opinion, a little too cartoonish, or they [can] get too live action. So that was certainly a challenge to find that balance between the two, and designing Coraline and the look [of the film].”
When it came to the actual imagery of the film, the director found himself with a few more challenges. “There are such things like Mr. Bobinsky,” Selick said, “when it turns out he is being animated by rats inside his costume, that he moves strangely. He’s originally this lovely grand ring master but then, in his creepy form, he is this man full of rats and then they all come running out. That was something I certainly felt was going to be an interesting challenge.” The ending of the film present another challenge for Selick with the decaying and the destruction of the Other World. “This Other World that Coraline finds [is] magnificent and glorious,” he explained, “but at a certain point, the Other Mother’s energy fades and it starts to kind of wither away.”
Another thing from the book that struck his attention was the ghosts that Coraline meets when locked in the closet. “I wanted to do something a little bit different [with the ghosts],” Selick said. “How they would move, kind of combine the classic look for ghosts with something new, which I think we came up with in our animation.”
When we spoke with Gaiman earlier in the week, he had mentioned that Selick’s first draft was for a live action movie, something Selick was willing to elaborate further on. “The deal basically was, I met Neil in 2000 [and] I read the unpublished novel,” he said. “He’d just finished his first draft [and] I took it to a friend Bill Mechanic; he had started his own company Pandemonium, and he was [the] former head of 20th Century Fox. The good news was that Bill loved the book as much as I. Bill, like Neil, wanted to give me a shot to do the adaptation but Bill, at that moment in time, his output deal was with Disney and they would not allow him to make animated films. In my mind it was always a charade, pretending it’s live action as I’m writing the scripts and developing the ideas, but whenever I was writing it I was always envisioning animation.”
While the decision to make “Coraline” in 3-D was officially made four years ago, Selick has been flirting with technology for the past twenty years. “I did a 3-D rock video 20 years ago for the Viewmaster Corporation,” Selick explained. “In doing that I met the guy who’s technology we’re using, a man named Lenny Lipton. I was so intrigued that I checked in with him every few years to see what he was developing cause he was always making it better and better. It just so happens that Lenny’s system is the predominant one now used in 3-D cinema, that the Real D system is Lenny’s science. So I got an early exposure to 3-D and it intrigued [me], and I kind of kept up with Lenny.”
While Disney eventually decided to turn “Nightmare Before Christmas” into a 3-D film, the desire for it to be in 3-D was always there. “There were a couple of people in the crew who would shoot 3-D stills and send them off to the one lab in the country that would process them and mount them in these little cardboard holders,” Selick said. “You’d get that back and you’d look through the viewer and you’d just sort of ache with this desire to show the film this way. It always felt like we are really not capturing the experience of what we have here, this real stuff, in real light that’s not like any other type of animation.”
Despite that, Selick did admit that he was not happy upon hearing that Disney was going to convert “Nightmare Before Christmas” to 3-D. “Neither I nor Tim [Burton] were very happy to hear that they wanted to do it,’ he explained. “When I was shown the tests, I was pleasantly surprised. The final result was very nice, [an] incredibly difficult thing to do. It’s much more difficult to make a 2-D film into 3-D then to actually shoot it that way originally. I liked it because they [Disney] showed restraint, they didn’t really gimmick it up and they were very respectful, they left all the mistakes in the film, and I think that was the way to do it.”
Those gimmicks are something that Selick did his best not to incorporate into “Coraline.” “A lot of people kept telling me ‘You have to put more of that 3-D stuff in there’ but I was pretty adamant,” Selick said. “I felt the story would be better served if that was rarely done and it was more about pulling people behind the screen then putting it out into your laps. Once you go there, [having] objects come flying off the screen, then you have to keep topping it and it makes editing very difficult, because it’s actually very painful to your eyes if you’re cutting from something behind to suddenly out there or moving around the screen. I don’t think there is any good that comes from gimmicking up the 3-D.”
The last bit of the puzzle that brought “Coraline” to 3-D was actually another classic film about a young girl who wished to get away from her family, “The Wizard Of Oz.” “It’s the story of a girl who discovers a fantasy world that seems better,” Selick continued “I was looking for kind of the equivalent of Dorothy going from Kansas to Oz, from black and white to color, and it just seemed like 3-D could be used that way to enhance the story. If we shot in 3-D, I could actually build the sets deeper and bigger in the Other World and kind of suck the audience into that other world as Coraline is pulled into it.”
“Coraline” hits theatres tomorrow, February 6th.