Burton Gets Personal with Frankenweenie
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.
"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."
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.
"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."