Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Henry Selick

Stop-Motion Making Sense

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Henry Selick, 56, once worked as a Disney animator, but left to create his own peculiar, decidedly non-Disney projects, such as the celebrated short films Seepage (1981) and Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions (1991). These led to a job with his old classmate (and fellow, former Disney animator) Tim Burton, directing the stop-motion animated The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) from Burton's story. From there, Selick eventually freed himself from this association with Burton with his own films: another stop-motion feature, James and the Giant Peach (1996), and the combination of real-life and animation Monkeybone (2001). After a stopover for another short film, Moongirl, and some work on Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), Selick returns this year with his first fully-formed masterpiece, Coraline, based on a novel by Neil Gaiman. In addition to its high caliber artistic and emotional achievements, it's also the first stop-motion feature film to be filmed and presented in 3D. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Selick on a visit to San Francisco.

Q: Can you please talk about designing the film with 3D in mind?

Henry Selick: Not only does shooting 3D capture the fact that all this stuff is real, it's used to basically suck the audience in as Coraline is sucked into this other world, this alternate reality. If you notice in watching the film, there's not a lot of things coming out of the screen at you, it's mainly when Coraline goes through that tunnel, it expands, going into the world. There's more 3D in the other world than in the real world. But the worlds are actually designed differently. In the real world, the living room has a crushed perspective, very little actual depth to it. The floors are raked; you get a sense that it feels more confining. Same in the kitchen: it feels even a little claustrophobic. In the other world, you see what looks to be the same living room, but it's very, very deep. It's not obvious. It doesn't hit you over the head. We wanted to make the other world feel better, at first.

Q: That image of Coraline going through the tunnel, was that your first inkling toward the 3D?

HS: It is. Is it that obvious?

Q: I was curious about the concept of darkness. How hard is it to sell genuine darkness? Is there pressure to make things more likeable?

HS: After The Dark Knight, I thought they wanted everything dark! No, I feel like it's the same battle over and over again. It goes back to everything I've ever been involved with. Certainly on The Nightmare Before Christmas, Disney wouldn't put their name on it. It was a Touchstone release. Walt Disney himself was in touch with the balance between, the yin and yang, the dark and the light. His first films, they all had large doses of the blackness in men and women's souls, the dangers that are out there, and the tales the Brothers Grimm collected. For thousands of years, there has been someone warning the children 'you'll be eaten if you go in that cave.' There's danger here, danger there. Whoever was best at doing the warnings became the storytellers and raised the hairs on the back of the kids' necks. It became entertainment. Not every film has to have that, but I don't understand how it can be feared. What's happened in modern times that people think we have to pretend we're keeping children safe at the movie theater. There's always some kid's older brother who shows him "Grand Theft Auto." It's ludicrous to pretend to keep them safe. We want to scare kids in a good way. It's not for little, little kids. It's PG. If anyone actually paid attention to those things, parents are supposed to... it's for 8 year-olds.

Q: Do you think kids are conscious to messages?

HS: No. I'm not trying to spell out the themes. Children, the younger they are, they're heathens. They're wild animals. It's much more about instinct. Love is a fierce thing to a child. Separation from a mother, fear of death... there's a fascination, too -- what is death? If there's a dead animal on the side of the road, they want to poke it with a stick. It's much more instinctual.

Q: Is there a difference between the lighting and lensing different between two worlds?

HS: There are many, many differences. Most of them, we tried not to be too blatant, like an on and off switch. In the real world, we used longer lenses. I was trying to flatten it, so that the sets were crushed. Longer lenses pull things together. The other world was more about wide-angle lenses. In the real world, the lighting was natural, and in the other world, it was more about beauty and warmth. By the end of the film, the lighting has shifted. Those are definitely tools in the arsenal, making the two worlds different.

Q: How long ago did you record the voice talent?

HS: The first voice recording was Dakota, which was before we'd even cast most of the others. That's close to four years ago. Most everything was re-written. It was mostly about getting something recorded to see how it sounds, and start playing with pictures. Now, Dakota's a growing young woman, and from the first recordings to the last ones, which were done only a handful of months ago, she had to work to get her voice to sound younger. So she was under the age of Coraline and now she's over. And subsequent voices were two or three years ago, and then pickup lines later on.

Q: Can please talk about writing the script and the adaptation process from Neil Gaiman's book?

HS: Neil's a very good writer and I worked too closely with him on the first draft, and it was stifling. And it turned out a horrible screenplay, an embarrassment. So the second draft, I just said, let me go off by myself and see what I can do. I took more liberties. I introduced Wybie for Coraline to play off. I set it in the U.S. because I was more comfortable writing American English than British English. And lots of smaller things. That's the draft that read like a movie, and that's the draft that Neil liked way better. I learned to not show him little details or ask him permission. Do large sections of things: new drafts, character designs, music. It was better to present a body of work I believed in. In almost every case, Neil was supportive and reacted well and usually would have a couple of very specific, doable notes that were always right. So we found a way to collaborate by not doing it too often. But just sort of regular check-ins. He's great. He sees it as "inspired by" his book. I'm telling you, I don't think there are very many authors in the world that would have been as loyal and supportive.

Q: Did you use any CG on this film to enhance or smooth out anything?

HS: You've hit on something. There's a line across Coraline's face. Each expression is an individual sculpture. With Jack Skellington, we just popped on a new head. He had very few features. In her case, she needed to be more expressive. We couldn't afford to do thousands of different sculptures, so by splitting the face, it gave us other combinations. I was pushing hard to leave that line in. I did an experiment, and after five minutes most people couldn't see the line anymore. It was like, here's proof: this is hand-made. I ultimately lost the battle, and it cost more to make it smoother and more perfect. In the late 1980s I did a bunch of stuff for MTV, these station IDs. They're all animation, stop-motion primarily, and I tried to make them perfect. There was this device called the "Quantel Harry" that you could paint things out and make it look better. But I was being paid so little money I started to lose money on each one. So I just said I'm going to embrace all the flaws and rigs and cracks and seams and see what happens. And those were the ones that people responded to most strongly.

January 27, 2009

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