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The Oscars: Selick Talks More 'Coraline'

Henry Selick looks back on Coraline and ahead to life after Laika.

Henry Selick is proud of pushing stop-motion in Coraline. All images courtesy of Focus Features.

Check out Coraline in the 2010 AWN Oscar Showcase! Henry Selick was in town for the Annie's last week, so we chatted about the significance of Coraline, his thoughts on the competition and moving back to Northern California. Bill Desowitz: Congratulations again. How are you? Henry Selick: I'm happy. It's been a rare feeling to have it last for such a long time -- more than one day. It's nice.

BD: What are you proud of?

HS: I remain especially pleased with the chances that were taken that paid off: some of the scenes that were difficult to shoot like the floor falling away and dropping into a giant spider web, which we had to cut out of steel and figure out how to rig it. I was asking people to go places they hadn't gone before. For the most part, it all worked out. I'm still warm and fuzzy about it and have no regrets about what wound up on screen.

BD: And adapting Neil Gaiman's book?

HS: I still feel that my job was to translate a great book into a film and not lose the fans. And for the most part, the fans of Neil and the book have embraced the film as well. They may not like all the changes, but what they love about the film seems to override their quibbles.

BD: What about the technical achievements on Coraline using digital technology?

HS: Where new technology was helpful was in a couple of important ways: One is that we shot it with digital cameras and captured it digitally; and the animators are able to look at their entire shot. Of course, there's a lot of navel gazing where the animators keep looking at their stuff over and over and over again: 10 frames, 20 frames. It can actually hurt the performance. So on the next movie, I have to find a way to put some kind of a limiting thing -- I don't know. It'll be a cultural shift -- a challenging one.

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Rapid Prototyping was a big technical breakthrough on Coraline.

And the other thing is we used 3D printers: Rapid Prototype machines so that in the jumping mouse circus, we were going to go with a George Pal, full replacement bodies: cycles of mice, five to seven in different positions that you just swap out, so you get the squash-and-stretch as they jump. You never had to do more than that in the entire sequence. But rather than having to sculpt and cast millions of these, we were able to take the basic scans into the computer and then print out the in-between shapes as actual objects, then paint them all and use those on the sets to light and manipulate. So that was a big breakthrough. We also used it for additional facial expressions of Coraline and a couple of other characters where we just needed to go miles beyond Jack Skellington in a range of expressiveness. We scanned in actual sculptures and in the computer created in-betweens and even some new expressions, but we always use 2D animation. We had Shane Prigmore, this character designer, who drew all the key expressions as a guide so we could get that snap and clear shape change from traditional animation and force the computer to match it. And then we spit out hundreds of little plastic faces, so you could change brows separately from lower face and get all the different mouth shapes. I wanted to show the seams on the face -- I wanted the audience to see that and felt like after five minutes that would disappear. But the producers thought that was a little too scary, so we digitally painted out the seams.

BD: Obviously, it was an exceptional year for animation and I wanted to get your impressions of the other nominees.

HS: I saw Up: Again, Pixar could take their audience anywhere emotionally. It's brilliant work and they're constantly taking risks.

I first saw The Secret of Kells at Annecy last year and happened to see it because our composer, Bruno Coulais, had done the score for that and I wanted to see his work. I thought it was beautiful. I found it a very different sort of story; the look of it inspired by those illuminated manuscripts was gorgeous; and the tone was unique, so it's nice to see good, fresh stories well told that don't hit all the beats that we're used to in most of our American animated films.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is its own animal. Having worked with Wes, doing creatures for him on The Life Aquatic, I was impressed that he was able to bring his style and sense of humor -- his characters -- into this other medium that he had never actually worked in before. So I felt it was really well done for being a true Wes Anderson movie, I found it funny and warm. There's a certain approach that I take and the animators I work with, and it was unsettling to see animation as starkly simple as this. But I got in the groove and just, OK, this is working for this movie.

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Selick is a big fan of Disney's return to 2D hand-drawn animation.

BD: And The Princess and the Frog?

HS: I still remain friends with John Musker and know Ron Clements; and I'm a big fan of the movie. I'm especially a big fan of David Keith's character, the Voodoo master and those almost Ward Kimball-like henchman goons for Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. I think they were partly inspired by Hieronymus Bosch. I felt some of that same energy in the evil spirits and it was great. I felt they also got in some pretty big scares that hadn't existed in Aladdin or Little Mermaid. I think it's great that Disney respects their heritage and has given this another go.

BD: So why did you leave Laika?

HS: We got Coraline up on its feet and going and we're all very happy with the results. At the end of the day, it just made sense [to move on]. I have things that I want to do that aren't necessarily the other films they're going to be making. I want to keep pushing; I want to go bolder than Coraline. And the other half of the equation is simply, my wife got sick of the rain. It's beautiful and green in Portland, but we kept our place in the Bay Area and it's my home base and where I've done most of my work. I'm going to be working with some good friends and I've got several really good projects. But there's no bad blood with Laika. Travis and I are very good friends and I'm sure we'll be working with a lot of the same people, and it's possible I could be working with them sometime in the future.

BD: What are the projects?

HS: I've narrowed them to three: two are adaptations of books (one is another by Neil Gaiman) and the other is an original story -- one I wrote many years ago, but I just sort of put it aside. But I brought it out a couple of months ago and shared it with a few people.

BD: This is the one about the house with a curse?

HS: Yeah, I would call it kind of a haunted house story -- something you could easily say, "From the director of Coraline." But it's a different story. I don't want to go further. There will be more to come in an official announcement after the Academy Awards. So I'm hoping to get the go-ahead on at least two projects so we can plan a little better. My attitude is a good project will attract good people: that's one of the reasons I can't wait to announce so I can start waving the flag because there's a lot of great stop-motion films happening in the world now.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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