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'Corpse Bride': Puppet Pushing to New Heights

Stop-mo vet Mike Johnson describes what it like was co-directing the groundbreaking Corpse Bride with Tim Burton in this AWN exclusive.

At the end of the article, AWN has a Behind-the-scenes Corse Bride image gallery from 3 Mills Studios in London.

Mike Johnsons living proof that an out-of-work puppet pusher surviving on credit cards and fading hope can suddenly find himself playing ball with the Big Boys. Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Ive been asked to answer some questions regarding my experience co-directing Tim Burtons Corpse Bride:

  • Whats it like working with Tim Burton?

  • How did I get involved in this project?

  • What were the highlights, favorite scenes and greatest challenges of the production?

It would be impossible to squeeze into this article more than a small representation of the three solid years that were required to complete the journey, so I wont talk about the actors, scripts, storyboards, cameras or sets. Instead, Ill limit my focus to the animation process: the topic I suppose is of primary interest to AWN readers.

So: How does an out-of-work puppet pusher surviving on credit cards and fading hope suddenly find himself playing ball with the Big Boys?

Well, luck had a lot to do with it, I guess

Id been working the stop-mo racket for 12 long years, chasing the gigs from town to town like a migrant farmer chasing after a distant harvest. And times were hard. There just wasnt much stop-mo work out there anymore, and most of my old buddies had disappeared, or played it smart and gone into computers.

But the puppet game was the only game I knew, and I was holding on to the hope that in the dawn of the 21st century, my puppet skills could still somehow pay the bills.

Thats how I found myself standing in a dark school gymnasium, desperately wiggling a papier-mâché marionette of César Chávez in front of a small group of bored, slightly confused 10-year-olds, when, suddenly, much to the relief of everyone present, my cell phone rang.

Tim Burton wants to talk to you. And just when I thought things couldnt get any weirder

Three days later, still believing myself to be the victim of an elaborate practical joke, I cautiously roll past the guard-booth at the Old Culver lot, on my way to meet with Tim Burton to discuss the possibility of co-directing Corpse Bride.

Johnsons first meeting with Tim Burton (above) was nerve-wracking. Corpse Bride had become the Bigfoot of the stop-motion world and the project was shrouded in mystery. Photo by Derek Frey.

It wasnt the first time I heard of the project. Over the years Corpse Bride has become the Bigfoot of the stop-motion world. Mysterious reports would surface from time to time. Rumors of sketches glimpsed in shadowy back rooms, blurry photos of a puppet prototype seen briefly on the Internet, whispers of a CGI test done after-hours at ILM

Truth or fiction? I was about to find out. A short while later and Im face to face with the Man himself. Tim Burton, all crazy hair and sunglasses, dressed head to toe in rumpled, rock-star black. Hes on a short break from the production of Big Fish and paces the room radiating high-octane creative juices and exhaustion at the same time, like Amadeus with a hangover.

From what Ive heard, Tims decisions are instinctual. He goes by vibes, not words. Which is good, because being in shock, I dont have much to say. I can only hope my vibe is talking his language.

In preparation for the meeting, I had written up a few pages of notes based on what little I knew of the Corpse Bride, and Tim pauses for a moment to read them, head nodding slightly.

I know Im on second base when he opens his sketchbook and shows me the fabled drawings of the Corpse Bride rising from the grave, a band of skeleton musicians, cheerful decapitated heads, smiling blue zombies, thick-lipped maggots and spindly spiders. Hes been thinking about this for a long time. Ten years or more, and now, it seems, the pieces were falling into place. All he needs is someone to help drag it out of his head and into the light.

So we kick it around a bit. Things are going well and I start to relax when suddenly he gets up. Abrupt handshake. Meeting over.

Did I say something wrong? Walking back to my car, over the very ground where 70 years ago King Kong was made, I whisper a prayer to the ghost of Willis OBrien and drive home, fighting down a rising sense of doubt. Theres nothing I can do now, except wait for The Call.

Let us now fast-forward through an agonizingly extended montage of finger-nail bites, sleepless nights, sweat-drops flying, baby crying, bills stacking, nerves cracking, fat lady singing cause the phones not ringing for days. Or was it weeks? But you already know how this one ends. The phone finally rang, and I dove for it like a starving man on a cupcake. It was my mom, asking if I got the job. I hung up and it rang again. This time it was Tim. Holy Harryhausen! I got the job! Time to get this puppet show started!

And for that, we were gonna need some serious puppets

A favorite moment for Johnson is when Victor plays piano. Phil Dale, animator and trained classical pianist, did every shot, keeping the continuity of the performance. Also, the puppet is actually playing the piano and hitting the proper keys.

Six months later Im in Manchester, England, at the workshop of Mackinnon and Saunders, premiere puppet makers to her Royal Majesty the Queen. Alongside me is Carlos Grangel, character designer extraordinaire, handpicked by Tim and flown in from Barcelona. Our mission: to turn Tims spidery pen-and-ink drawings into three-dimensional, moving sculptures. No problem. We laugh in the face of physics.

Ian Mackinnon guides us past rows of tables where sculptors and jewelers are busily assembling puppet pieces. A rib-cage cast in brass, an eyelash cast in silver, various skins created from a subtle alchemy of foam rubber and silicone for a true flesh-like flexibility.

It all feels very James Bond-ish when Pete Saunders emerges from his isolated workroom to show us the latest developments. Hes been refining the facial mechanics that will allow the Victor puppet to emote with the expressive subtlety of Johnny Depps vocal performance. I think Ive got it this time, he mumbles cautiously, taking the puppet head from a pocket of his white lab coat. He pulls back the skin to reveal a walnut sized casing of microscopic gears, cables, hinges and paddles that resemble, more than anything else, the inside of a Swiss watch.

Pete pioneered the mechanical head process many years ago, but hes never built anything as small and complex as this. He voiced his concerns at the beginning, unsure if it could be done, but I had seen his genius and I had more faith. So I pushed. That was many precious months ago, and now, theres no turning back. It has to work because its too late to do it any other way.

So Petes been at the workbench around the clock, and the strain is starting to show. Even from my point of view, thats a lot of time to spend alone with a puppet.

Johnson happily indulged in a bit of classic horror when Corpse Bride rises from the grave. The scene combined Hollywood glamour with a touch of Hammer to create a sexy-scary moment. James Whale and Mario Bava might have approved.

With trembling hands Pete inserts a tiny Allen key into the ear hole and twists it. We all gasp as, miraculously, the corners of Victors mouth rise into a smile. Pete twists it the other way and Victor frowns. Pete hands me the tiny Terminator skull so I can take it for a little test drive.

I stick the Allen key in the ear and quickly run through the range of emotions that the puppet must convey. Happy, Sad, Scowling Anger, Wide-eyed Surprise, Trembling Fear. Wow.

Nice puppet, Pete. And Stradivarius made nice fiddles.

I tell the boys I think theyve finally done it, but, now aglow with mad-doctor enthusiasm, Pete wants to go further! He shows me another head with spring-loaded eyeballs that shoot out when a secret button is touched. And if that wont work hes got a back-up plan, something with magnets and interlocking stainless steel pegs! And if that wont work hes got another plan! Hundreds of plans! Yes! Hundreds of plans for the hundreds of puppets that still need to be built

Ian puts a gentle arm around Petes shoulder and leads him back to his workroom as I quickly box up the head and bring it to Tim for final approval.

The process of refining the character designs would take more than a year. And even after that, it would require a team in London, lead by Graham Maiden, to further develop and maintain the puppets during the course of our shoot as changes in the script called for even greater levels of complexity.

Next: Where to find a team of puppet-jockeys who could take these creations to the limit of their design? With Anthony Scott heading our animation department, we scoured the four corners of the globe, searching for men and women with the commitment, experience and talent to meet the challenge. If youve ever seen Kurosawas Seven Samurai, then you might have an idea of what the recruitment process was like.

We needed animators with the combined instincts of a ballet dancer and a Shakespearean actor, the stamina of a marathon runner and the patience of Mother Theresa, the hands of a surgeon and the heart of a masochist for even wanting the job in the first place.

The mountain visited Mohammed when legendary Ray Harryhausen paid a visit to the Corpse Bride set. © Sparkhill Llc.

We eventually assembled a team from England, the U.S., Canada, Germany, Denmark, Norway and Australia, and together we set out on a grueling 55-week shoot, slowly dragging in the 109,000, 440 individually animated frames that were required to complete the journey. Crazy? No doubt. So what is it that compels stop-motion animators to submit themselves to this torture?

For some, its about getting into the Zone, a mental space where time is frozen, and the animator thaws it out with the warmth of his hands, one fragmented second at a time. For some, it satisfies a frustrated Frankenstein-like urge to create life. For some, it echoes the power of telekinesis, granting the ability, for a few seconds, to move inanimate objects with the sheer force of your will. And others just like to sit in the dark and play with little dolls all day.

When asked what my favorite scene is, I find it impossible to choose just one. I like them all. Each scene has its own history and behind-the-scenes drama. But there are a few that, even after seeing them 100 times, still give me a little chill.

One of those would be Victor playing piano in the Everglot Mansion. It was one of the rare occasions when we could schedule a single animator to do every shot within the scene, and that helps a lot with the continuity of the performance. It also helps a lot if the animator is Phil Dale. Youll notice that Victor isnt just flailing his hands around. The puppet is actually playing the piano, hitting the proper keys. It was hard enough finding an animator with the skill and experience to do the job, but finding an animator who can also play classical piano really thins out the talent pool.

What I really like about this scene, besides the animation, is that the camera moves, the set, the music and the vocal performance all blend seamlessly together to transcend the miniature world of stop-motion, and become something vast and real. That doesnt happen very often, and its amazing to me when the pieces come together that way.

Another scene thats very dear to me, for different reasons, is Corpse Bride rising from the grave. While the piano scene was about subtlety and restraint, this one was all about indulging in a few seconds of classic horror, combining Hollywood glamour with a touch of Hammer to create a sexy-scary moment that James Whale and Mario Bava might approve of. This is the kind of thing that gets the crews mouth watering. The monster-movie-zombie-geek stuff that made us want to make movies in the first place. And when Corpse Bride rises through the boiling ground-fog and comes over the hill, hips swaying, back-lit bridal veil flowing out behind her like underwater silk, well, I think we all sort of surprised ourselves with what was happening.

Some other highlights? How about the time a guy named Ray Harryhausen dropped by the studio for a little visit, bringing production to a grinding halt as all the animators came scurrying out of the darkness to shake hands with The Godfather Himself.

I was at the head of the line, biting my quivering lip as I shook his hand the hand that had summoned the Beast from 20,000 fathoms, the hand that had pulled down the Golden Gate bridge and the Washington monument, blinked the eye of the Cyclops and encircled Raquel Welchs waist. I was touching the hand that had touched the hand of Willis OBrien, whose hand had touched KING KONG!

I quickly did the math: three degrees of separation between my hand and King Kongs bristling fur! I know it sounds pathetic, but if youre reading this, stop-mo fans, then you KNOW what Im talking about.

So, getting back to the original question: Whats it like directing a film with Tim Burton? It was the easiest and hardest job I ever had. Easy, because it never felt like a job. I was always excited to go to work in the morning, and felt incredibly lucky to get paid for doing something that I love to do. And it was hard, because stop motion is hard. At the best of times, its controlled chaos, and at worst, well There were many peaks and valleys, battles fought and lost and oceans of sweat and tears shed along the way. But it was never boring.

Johnson (right) thought it was an honor to be entrusted with executing Burtons vision that had been nurtured for so many years.

Working with Tim, I was inspired by the fact that he never hesitates to grab a pen and draw. First and foremost, hes an artist with a vision, and it was an honor to be entrusted with manifesting the vision that hes carried with him for so many years. He gave me the freedom to develop ideas and try things that had never been done in stop motion before, with the reassurance that his experience and sensibilities would get us over the finish line. All in all, I had a wonderful time.

Three long years with the Corpse Bride Its hard to believe that the honeymoon is over.

Mike Johnson spent a large part of his childhood bending and breaking plastic dinosaurs in a futile attempt to re-create scenes from his favorite Ray Harryhausen films. He got his big break as a rigging assistant on Tim Burtons The Nightmare Before Christmas. He went on to animate for various stop-motion productions such as James and the Giant Peach and the Emmy award-winning childrens series Bump in the Night. In 1996, he formed Fat Cactus Films, and produced and directed an acclaimed mix of stop-motion projects, including commercials, music videos and short films. His award-winning animated short, The Devil Went Down to Georgia, has been screened in film festivals around the world. In 1998, Johnson directed three episodes of Eddie Murphys Emmy-award winning television series, The P.J.s. In 2002 things came full circle when Burton asked Johnson to join him in directing Corpse Bride.

Behind-the-scenes Corpse Bride image gallery

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