After visiting the magnificent Coraline set up at Laika in Portland last year and recently seeing the completed movie that opens today through Focus Features -- the first stop-motion feature made in 3-D -- I finally had the chance to sit down with director Henry Selick last week to discuss his latest stop-motion journey. Sitting near a Coraline maquette on an end table next to a copy of Neil Gaiman's Newberry Award-winning The Graveyard Book, the soft-spoken Selick very much conveyed the "Rock 'n' roll meets Da Vinci" aura that his late friend Joe Ranft once offered. In fact, Selick pays marvelous tribute to Ranft in Coraline, but you'll just have discover it for yourself.
Bill Desowitz: Let's begin with the wonderful advancements you were able to take advantage of on Coraline: the improved puppetry, with movable parts and silicone and better hair and fabric; the beautiful sets; the ability to shoot digitally and in 3-D, all contributing to a more tactile and immersive experience.
Henry Selick: That was a big part of shooting 3-D. When you're doing stop-motion and weighing it against the other formats, you're trying to determine its strengths and weaknesses. For me, the strengths are that it's all real stuff: it's all real props and miniaturized but the stuff really exists and 3-D captures that. I've often said we don't have the best movie in the business but we have the best tour. So people would come visit us and would see these huge miniature sets with forests and trees all rigged with wires like they will move in the wind and the beautiful lighting. This feels like we finally captured that experience of what you get when you finally visit the film in production.
BD: Talk about the 3-D journey, which is significant on Coraline.
HS: I have a long history with 3-D -- I shot a 3-D rock video 20 years ago for the View-Master Corp. with Lenny Lipton. Lenny is the godfather of the modern digital 3-D cinema.
BD: It's funny you should mention View-Master because that's how I would describe this whole new "immersive" approach to 3-D.
HS: That's what it goes back to: So I met Lenny and he's a genius and I would check in with him every few years and ask how it's developing. And going back to shooting Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, there were always a couple of 3-D hobbyists from our crew that would shoot stills in 3-D. And we just had this longing to shoot the stop-motion in 3-D. And then there was Lenny, who was developing how that might be and this long gestation period for Coraline, and in that time, getting to a stop-motion film and 3-D was happening, all these things started coming together. Ultimately, for a couple of years, I was looking to do The Wizard of Oz going from black-and-white to color. And so I thought that in a more subtle way, 3-D would really enhance the story, with Coraline discovering what appears to be a better world. And we actually designed the film for 3-D, changing the shapes of sets and so forth.
BD: Coraline does benefit from the subtle 3-D approach in the way you dial down the real world and dial up her alternate one.
HS: Yes, it's easy to punch people in the eyes with 3-D, and that's appropriate for My Bloody Valentine, but for this film, it was more about bringing people into the space as Coraline is seduced by this Other World that's full of magic in a place that she's starting to feel real good about. So this draws people into the screen rather than hitting them over the head.
BD: Fortunately, I'm happy to report that most of your colleagues share your view. Jeffrey Katzenberg says it's more about extending the proscenium rather than breaking it.
HS: I'm glad people are coming to the same conclusion.
BD: And it helps to shoot in true 3-D.
HS: Yes, because in animation we have the ability to shoot single frames and it's a miniature world, so the issue of if you were using two lenses is pretty much impossible. The interocular distance between the lens is supposed to be in scale with your characters, so we were able to use a little motion control model mover and we would shoot a left-eye frame and then the right-eye frame, and the animator would reposition the puppet and continue shooting left-eye, right-eye and line them up in post. It actually took quite a long time to figure out. We started in real-world interiors, the simplest areas of the film, so we could learn how to work with 3-D. When you shoot in 3-D, there's a certain amount that gets baked in that you really can't change. Basically, how much of the experience there is. How deep gets baked in. And every different lens you use affects that. And then in post you do have the ability to take that baked-in part of the 3-D and move it farther out into the audience or deeper.
BD: Let's talk about the experience of making Coraline at Laika with this particular crew.
HS: It's always a challenge to find enough people to do a stop-motion feature. It's not and never will be the dominant form of animation. But about one-third of our crew were veterans, going back to Nightmare Before Christmas and earlier. People I've worked with in some cases 20 years: Bo Henry, Anthony Scott, Eric Leighton. So there was a solid [core] of people that already knew how to communicate with one another. Then there was another third were local artists and animators from Portland, Oregon. There's a long tradition of stop-motion with Will Vinton's company that specialize in claymation. Travis Knight, one of our lead animators, is one of the best animators in the world, in the top five or 10 that I've ever worked with, so he set the bar very high for the local talent. And then one third was international: a lot of Brits, Canadians, Belgians, Germans, New Zealanders.
BD: So how long did it take for the production to jell?
HS: It takes somewhere between half-way through production and two-thirds, to hit the sweet spot where we're all onboard making the same movie. And it's not so difficult to explain why I need a shot.
BD: You previously mentioned that you intentionally instructed everyone to be wary of trying to reach for perfection.
HS: Well, in the past, when Ray Harryhausen was doing his magnificent stop-motion monsters, creatures and effects for films, the attempt was to make it as realistic as possible. People were supposed to believe they were real and they did. But the world changed with Jurassic Park, and then it changed again with Toy Story. And I've done a lot of soul searching over the years. What are the strengths of stop-motion? What should we try to hold on to? There are a lot of strengths: it's touched by the hand of the artist -- you can feel that. You can sense that life force, but it's imperfect. It can't be done perfectly -- that's what CG can do. And I'm trying to get people to embrace that: if it pops, if cloth shifts a little, if the hair is buzzing. It's like this electricity of life.
BD: And life is full of imperfections and Coraline embraces this.
HS: Well, it's about loving your family with all their warts and flaws.
BD: And what other soul searching have you done about stop-motion and where do you want to go from here?
HS: Again, the question of playing to its strengths and what it can't do well. I felt that it's important to try and keep pushing it in terms of subject matter. A lot of people are concerned that [Coraline] is too scary. I actually think back to the first Disney films that deal with this very effectively: Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Fantasia. It's Alice in Wonderland meets Grimms' fairy tale and I think that it connects to this very long tradition of telling scary tales around the campfire and telling kids not to go out of the cave at night because they're going to be eaten by a saber tooth tiger. So, in one respect, I'm going back to classic storytelling, which is at the heart of Neil Gaiman's book, but this time, the other animators aren't touching this territory, so, for me, it's breaking new ground. So part of my soul searching is taking stop-motion to new places: don't play follow the leader. Look, I understand there's a lot of variety, especially at Pixar, in the stories that are being told, but the tone and feel of those films are very different from what I want to explore.
BD: What are you planning next?
HS: At the moment, and this has been going on for a while, I'm supporting our head of story on Coraline, Chris Butler, an incredibly talented storyboard artist, who has an original script called Paranorman and I believe he can direct this. So this is a project Laika believes in and Travis Knight is a big supporter, and it's a sweet and much more comedic story than Coraline about a boy who can commune with the dead and has a great relationship with the ghost of his grandmother, but who's been given the challenge of dealing with a curse on the town that he lives in. He raises an army of zombies only he can talk to. I think it's funny as hell and there are some designers sculpting and the second draft of the screenplay should be finished by tomorrow. So that's been cooking along and whether I'm called a producer or not, I'm not worried about a title, but I'm trying to share what I know with young talent and encourage that. And I'll write another screenplay to get another project that I'll direct in the not too distant future.
BD: An original or another adaptation?
HS: There are several interesting projects, some book-based, some a little more original. I did find an incredible partner in Neil, so we're talking about collaborating again at some point.
BD: What kinds of stories are you looking to tell?
HS: Not necessarily for me, but I just think animation can do so much and the film I most want to see that I haven't seen is Waltz with Bashir.
BD: I finally caught up with it.
HS: What did you think?
BD: It's wonderful.
HS: See! I read about it and I've seen the images.
BD: And it really stays with you. It's such a provocative subject and has such a distinctive style.
HS: So I knew that done right, animation can take on a subject that way. There are graphic novels being turned into live action and many of them should be animated. One thing: Travis Knight will be running a company up there. He has nothing against doing a PG-13 animated film. Why wouldn't we? If we find the story or create one and that's where it goes, great! Probably the majority of successful live action is PG-13. It's just trying to elbow our way out of this box that animation is locked into. I don't understand why people don't take more risks, but at this point in history, taking chances on something new is actually the best bet. You'll never catch up with Pixar and DreamWorks or Blue Sky. They're so good. But they're successful enough to take risks. Look at WALL•E. It breaks new ground, absolutely. And it's a very difficult thing to do a family-friendly film that breaks new ground. It's brilliant work they're doing, but I want to actually be a little bolder and we have to keep the costs down.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of VFXWorld and AWN.