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Burton Gets Personal with 'Frankenweenie'

The Goth King returns to his childhood roots for this stop-motion adaptation of his celebrated short.

Surrounded by equipment in his attic lab, Young Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) attempts to bring his beloved dog Sparky back to life with lessons he learned about electricity from his science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau). All images ©2012 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo by: Leah Gallo.

It's no wonder that Frankenweenie is Tim Burton's best movie since Big Fish and is a top contender for the best animated feature Oscar. It's his most personal film about growing up in Burbank in the '70s, what it was like to be an outsider, and how his love of horror movies helped him through his rite of passage.

But most of all, at its heart, Frankenweenie is still about a boy and his dog, who he tries to resurrect from the dead. Yet keeping the original 1984 short intact was essential before expanding the second-half.

"Being an animator back then, doing live-action was really fun and exciting and got me into a whole other world, which was great," Burton confirms. "But over the years, loving stop-motion and looking over the original drawings, it also became a memory piece, thinking about other aspects of that time: remembering all the kids and teachers and even down to the architecture of Burbank. So the idea of going through the original drawings, expanding the monsters as a sort of House of Frankenstein motif in black and white and 3-D, made it feel like a whole different project even though the heart of it and the root of it stayed the same."

Animation Director Trey Thomas holds up the Mom puppet for Director Tim Burton to review in the Puppet Hospital. Photo by: Leah Gallo.

But what Burton had in mind that he conveyed to screenwriter John August was adding a check list of favorite monsters (Dracula, the Mummy and Godzilla), which are also brought back to life by Victor with horrifying consequences. Yet Burton turned them into types: Were-Rat, Mummy Hamster and Turtle Monster.

"The movie is filled with references but it was very important to me -- and I kept thinking throughout the process -- how so many people don't know those references, so I didn't want to make it reference dependent," Burton adds. "It was all about the feeling of it so I tried to make sure you didn't have to know every reference to still enjoy it…. I tried to keep it on the emotional level and basically about a boy and his dog so those elements are just part of the flavor of it as opposed to the overriding factor."

Interestingly, Burton harbored interest in turning Frankenweenie into a stop-motion feature for decades. In fact, it was pitched at Disney during the Michael Eisner era but went nowhere. Then, when Pixar's John Lasseter took over Disney Feature Animation in 2006, one of the first things that Don Hahn pitched was Frankenweenie. Lasseter immediately jumped at the idea of reuniting with his old CalArts and Disney alum. They set up shop at 3 Mills Studios in East London, where Burton had previously made Corpse Bride, with Hahn serving as exec producer and Allison Abbate (Corpse Bride) producing alongside the director once again.

Tim Burton on the set.

But, for the first time, Burton declined having a co-director and insisted on making Frankenweenie in black and white. How could you not convey the vibe in black and white? At the same time, he agreed to a 3-D post conversion because he liked the way The Nightmare Before Christmas turned out as a View Master experience. Indeed, Frankenweenie is the first black and white animated feature by a major studio."It's what makes it different and stand out from all the other CG features," Hahn insists, which is what Disney is smartly touting in its marketing campaign. However, they actually shot Frankenweenie digitally in color, and then graded it for black and white and used gray scale puppets and sets to make it easier.

For his animation director, Burton chose Trey Thomas (Coraline, Corpse Bride), who oversaw a production that included more than 200 puppets by the famed Mackinnon and Saunders in the UK and 200 sets on 35 stages. But Burton wanted a low-tech approach: no Rapid Prototype 3D printing a la Laika. In fact, the only character with movable mouthpieces was the kindly scientist, Mr. Rzykruski, (voiced by Martin Landau), who was designed as homage to Burton's boyhood hero, Vincent Price.

Mr. Rzykruski. Photo by: Peter Sorg.

"This was so personal," Thomas emphasizes. "He wanted his vision and his vision alone and so I was there to help him realize that vision. He was collaborative, but he didn't want it to be a collaboration. He wanted it to be his vision, singularly, and that was it. And I think we got it."

There was a lot of rigging involved, according to Thomas, but digital technology makes it very simple to remove a rig so they went for the most efficient way of shooting on the floor. "There was a lot of green screen to expand the backgrounds because we wanted this to feel like a real neighborhood, none of this intimate table top that some of this stop-motion falls into," Thomas continues. "All the neighborhood backgrounds were generally green screen; all the interiors were generally sets. It gives it a sense of scope and reality. 'That's just like my neighborhood.' And you're supposed to relate to the kids the way you did when you were a kid, and there's always that one strange girl."

Weird Girl. Photo by: Peter Sorg.

Victor's dog, Sparky, proved to be the biggest character challenge: it was based on a real dog, with no anthropomorphizing whatsoever. That meant difficult motions and making puppets especially for particular moments. For instance, after watching the puppet roll over, Burton decided he wanted him to spring back up, but the puppet wasn't capable of that. They had to quickly modify it.

"There was a lot of that trickery where we had to shoot around things and get puppets that are multi-purpose and popping puppets in between and doing some digital blend, so there was a lot of demanding little problem solving," Thomas suggests.

The destruction of Dutch Day was the most demanding sequence because there were so many crowds and then the Turtle Monster and the double scale and the sets being torn apart and different elements having to hold on together. But also the big pull back dissolve of Victor in his grief just crying was extremely demanding because they had to duplicate the animation twice over this extremely long shot. "It was a technical nightmare but you really get the despair that Tim was going for," Thomas says.

Production Designer Rick Heinrichs.

"Even Weird Girl's little premonitions [with her cat poop] were demanding when she's telling the stories and you have all of these superimposed things coming on and off," Thomas says. "There were 12 shots for every one shot and we'd have to do the six or eight little passes of [Victor's rival classmates] Nassor and Toshiaki."

Abbate admits there was more at stake because Frankenweenie was so personal. You didn't want to disappoint Burton or begrudge the vision that had been in his brain for 30 years. Plus there was always the constant refrain: "That's not the way it was."

Assistant Art Director, Barry Jones, set dressing the Classroom set. Photo by: Leah Gallo.

"As an American living amongst English people, you really have to distill the essence of what it was like living in Burbank in the '70s," Abbate explains. "Once you can find that way in for the artists and the puppet makers and prop makers, it's helpful to clarify it for audiences, too. Everyone brings that little bit of their experience to it.  And we would allow the artists to do that as well. That's why some of the props are personal. Tim creates this place and allows you to bring your own stuff to it as well."

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Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld, the owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), a columnist for Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen, featuring interviews with all six actors.