Coraline director Henry Selick shared with us all the details of creating his eerie masterpiece, from half-naked puppet drama to recreating a stop motion rain storm in the new movie adapted from Neil Gaiman's novel.
Selick, who has a cult following of his own with this past work on The Nightmare Before Christmas had a lot to share about the labor-intensive work on the stop-motion movie Coraline, but we believe it was worth every single second.
Everybody is really excited about the look for the movie, even the way you've gone about using stop motion has changed a bit. Could you talk a little bit about why you wanted to do stop motion as it is now as opposed to how it was in older days?
You know, I've kind of worked on all forms of animation I did a CG short right before this film, Moongirl, it's for little kids. I started out as a 2D animator, I did cut-out, I did stop motion on my own, in some of my personal films, and stop motion is what I keep coming back to, that's what I like the most. It's much for what the audience gets from it which is I think a sense of handmade art, you know the thing exists, and you might not know how big a character is or how exactly it's brought to life but there's a sense that this exists. It's almost like when you're a kid and you want your toys to be alive. So traditionally stop motion, it's simply you know a puppet like this, on the film Coraline, or clay and make a puppet, or even a Barbie doll, or a G.I. Joe. You know, you pose the character, take a frame, pose it repose it repose it. Stop motion from day one, still very much the essence of the performance you see, the characters in coralline it's an animator performing through the puppet. But we use a lot of science. We do face replacement, like Jack Skellington was. It's a bunch of ping pong ball heads with slightly different mouth shapes and we change his entire head to make him talk or move his eyes. But that wasn't going work for Coraline so we developed a system to create in-between shapes so that we put a big split across her face, which you don't see in the finished film ([whispers] although I wanted it), but we can change her upper face, her brows, the eyes separately from her mouth. We needed to make her very expressive so you know use technology to help expand that range, starting with drawings and sculptures and getting into computers to help in-between shapes. But everything no the screen, ultimately, it was still hard shapes. We just had like a box of faces and you figure out which ones you're gonna use to say a line and then you're popping those on and off.
The hair as well, correct? We saw individually moving strands of hair in a lot of places, how did you achieve that, one by one?
In some cases the hair comes off, when we change the face. I wanted to be able to go in for extreme close-ups, much more so than in older animation, and the illusion not fall apart. So there's wigs, and strands were one at a time, time-placed with little bits of wire or metal. Coralline has three or four sorts of wigs, action wigs, upside down wigs, it all gets moved by hand, but it's incredibly intricate in its design.
Coraline really felt alive in this movie, more so than we've seen before. Maybe it was the 3D or the detail.
A third of our crew were veterans from The Nightmare Before Christmas and they're some of the best animators - Anthony Scott, Eric Leighton, art directors who had been set people and I moved up to directors Lee, Bo Henry and Tom Proost. We all were interested in not repeating ourselves. So in addition to more expressive animation, I didn't want it to be too cartoonish I didn't want it to be live action, somewhere between Nightmare which is a classic, but it was a little more cartoonish. These are a little more real. I wanted you to think of them as real, as flesh and blood. Plus the sets were huge. For example in the orchard, Coraline thinks something is chasing her in the beginning of the film and goes running. That set was 50-feet long we never built miniature sets that big. The scale of our sets the house, her house and the rooms, the variation in the scale was much larger than anything done before.
I wanted there to be a lot of atmosphere. I didn't want anything to look heavy like it was blocky or there were wires in it holding it. I wanted things to transmit light. Like the leaves in the trees, the blades of grass, dead leaves on the ground, fog. We animated everything. When there was a storm we put wires in all the trees and hand animated them so they felt like they were moving in the wind. We had leaves tumbling around the ground on little stick pins. And blades of grass, when Wybie shoots the ground or mud flies up I wanted to get atmosphere. Moving clouds, rain.
On the windshield when Coraline and her mom are driving home from their uniform shopping trip, there is bits of clear resin moving along the windshield that we put on by hand. So it was a huge amount of extra work. But it's the atmosphere in addition to other things that make it feel that way. Like there is growth.
Do you feel like this type of movie is a hard sell? With all the Pixar movies and CG movies that are riding the popularity wave right now, is there a place for stop motion?
I don't know. I think people are always looking for something different. If all the fans of Nightmare, many who have grown up with that film, if just the fans of Nightmare come it will be a success. So I'm counting on the fans of Nightmare but also there's been a lot of CG so people know that look. Obviously it can serve a great story well, the Pixar films are brilliant same with Dreamworks. So we're kind of off to the side. And we hope that people notice and are interested in it.
I know the story is very different in some areas, you added new characters. Did Neil have any input on the things that were changed? Was he protective of his story in any way?
Neil was great. The first screenplay was too much like the book. I was really in awe, because he's such a great writer. The first draft didin't have the soul of a movie. I showed it to him and our first producer wasn't happy. So I told Neil, "I can't talk to you anymore" because I was checking in with him too much. I think it took me almost a year, I didn't work the whole time, but a year to turn it into a movie. I showed it to a few people and I was terrified to show it to Neil, but I had to. And he loved it. Neil, he hasn't been a constant collaborator but at the important times I would show him new drafts of the script, I would show him character designs, he came out to the studio a few times and he always have two, possibly three notes for me.
Like what for instance?
He was always right, and it was always something I could do. Something real simple like when Coraline's parents are trapped behind the mirror and they write "help us." I thought I should write it forward so that little kids could read it and he said, "it has to be backwards, it only takes a few seconds for people to read it." So it was a small thing. It was those sorts of things.
There was a little controversy over Miss Forcible and her reenactment of the "Birth of Venus" in the downstairs theater. Some people thought "oh she's in that skimpy outfit," and Neil said, switch lines with Coraline where she says 'Oh my god' and 'she's practically naked. Have Miss. Spink say 'she's practically naked' and 'oh my god' for Forcible and it immediately calmed down that nervousness of mainly middle aged men.
What about your idea behind the character Wybie and other things you added on or just seeing it live when Neil saw the final cut of the film?
I think he was very happy. I showed him just about two weeks ago, I decided to take the film to him, since he had come to the studio so many times, and I showed it to him and his family and friends and his doctor. The Neil posse in Saint Paul Minnesota. It was like 5 degrees in the middle of the day. But yeah I think he's really happy. When Neil really likes something he says less. His first reaction was, "it was lovely," I think he's pretty pleased.
What's next for you besides Paranorman?
The next film for me will be based off the Philip Pullman novel Count Karlstein it's a little bit like the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It's this legendary hunter who comes down from the sky and chases down anyone out in the forrest. It's fun and it's scary, I like doing scary stuff with charming things.