Burton Gets Personal with Frankenweenie
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."
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.
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.