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On the Set with 'Coraline': Where the Motion Doesn't Stop

XSI expert Ed Harriss chips away at ICE to tell us the scoop on the latest edition of Softimage|XSI.


Coraline combines old-fashioned stop-motion animation techniques with modern 3-D. Here lead animator Travis Knight checks the framing on Coraline. Photo credit: Kelvin Jones. All images © Focus Features. 

In Neil Gaiman's popular 2002 novella Coraline, a young girl discovers a hidden passageway in an old house to a strange and opposite "other" world -- an experience not unlike visiting the "set" of the animated movie that will bring the book to the big screen.

Produced by Oregon-based Laika Ent., Coraline is an unusual movie in several respects. Bucking the CG toon trend, Coraline combines old-fashioned stop-motion animation techniques with the newfangled wonders of modern 3-D. All this under the direction of James and the Giant Peach, and filming in a surprisingly nondescript industrial park office complex just outside the lush green environs of Portland.

At the time of the set visit in late May, Selick says the film is two-thirds complete after about a year and a half of production, which followed a year of pre-production. The schedule for finishing the film is tight -- set to wrap in late summer or early autumn, the film is slated for a late-December Oscar-qualifying run, followed by a nationwide release on Feb. 6 from Focus Features.

Selick says the long process of making the film began in 2000, before Gaiman's popular novella had been published. At that time he managed to convince first the author and then producer Bill Mechanic that animation struck the right tone for the creepy kids tale. "This is a scary book for kids. If it's animation, I think that it takes a little of the edge off the worst moments, but it keeps the Grimm's fairy tale quality," he says.

There are changes in Selick's adaptation, although the story remains essentially the same: A girl named Coraline discovers a passageway to a world much like our own that nonetheless seems better in many ways -- until her "Other Mother" kidnaps her real parents and demands that Coraline stay. But it's now set in Oregon as opposed to the Midwest, and Selick has added a local boy named Wylie to the cast, a move he says helps by giving Coraline someone to talk to. Another character, Mr. Bobo, has been made more energetic and given a Russian accent in his transition to Mr. Bobinsky.

Heading up the cast is Dakota Fanning as Coraline, with Teri Hatcher as Mother and Other Mother, Jon Hodgman as Father and Other Father, Keith David as The Cat, Ian McShane as Bobinsky, and the English comedy duo of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders as the theatrically minded neighbors Miss Spink and Miss Forcible.

Production is in full swing at this point, and there are more than 28 animators working at any one time on rehearsing or shooting scenes for the film and producing 90-100 seconds of finished animation each week. Work proceeds at a steady pace throughout the massive Laika facility as craftsmen prepare from scratch all the puppets, costumes, sets and props needed to make the film one frame at a time.

Creating the necessary elements takes unusual talent and lots of time. The costume department, headed up by Deborah Cook, is chock full of tiny clothes all made by hand to exacting standards. Because of wear and tear, each costume is made in multiples. Cook shows a pair of tiny pajamas worn by Coraline in the film, of which 30 identical pairs were made. Each copy had to be identical down to the way the pattern broke at the seams.

Georgina Hayns, who has the unique title of puppet fabrication supervisor, says making such clothes in quantity requires highly specialized talent. "We've actually got a miniature knitter, who is actually part of the guild of craftspeople in the United States, and we found her on the Internet," she says. Even with such talent, clothing these puppets is also a game of patience -- it takes about three weeks to make a simple sweater.

Next to costume design is a larger room devoted to puppet fabrication. As with costumes, multiple puppets are made for the main characters and there are 28 Coraline puppets. Each puppet also has multiple pairs of backup hands, which are especially prone to wear and tear and often need to be replaced, Hayns says.

Puppets begin with an armature designed to give them a full range of motion. They are made mostly of ball-and-socket joints manufactured by a company in San Francisco. Each puppet also has two heads, each with a different base expression to give animators a greater potential range of facial expressions.

"We try to get as much into these mechanical heads as we possibly can, but without distorting the face so much," says Hayns. "Because if you're not careful, you can over-animate these. We try to get the subtlety of movement in there as much as possible."

Multiple puppets are made for the main characters, with 28 Coraline puppets. Each puppet has multiple pairs of backup hands, which are especially prone to wear and tear and often need to be replaced.

Hayns says the biggest challenge in making the puppets is that every part that the animator may want to control has to be made "animatable." "So you have to take into account that even if there's a tiny piece of fabric blowing behind [a puppet], you have to wire it or you have to put lead in it so it's animatable," she says.

Each puppet is then cast in a silicone substance to create the skin, then painted and given hair -- which also must be animatable. Selick says Susan Multon, head of the hair department, has created for Coraline the best-looking hair ever seen in a stop-motion movie. "Susan came along with this technique of actually animating hair and has perfected it with each character," Hayns adds. "She's designed all the armatures that go inside to make it work, and worked with the armature team."

Puppets also go through a painting stage, giving detail and definition to faces and even clothing. Applying paint to a puppet can be a very high-pressure task because the painter doesn't want to make a mistake after all the work that has gone in.

Up next is the construction department, managed by Lee "Bo" Henry, who shows off a highly detailed moving van and dolly constructed completely from scratch. Henry says it's incredibly rare that he or his crew use anything bought off the shelf, simply because the odds are against any commercial product having both the right look and scale. "We seldom find something that's of the right scale and appropriate in any kind of a buy-out situation," he says.

Henry's department has several sub-departments: models and props, construction and carpentry, and painting. There also is a sculpting department that creates landscapes for the film. The largest set on this film is the orchard set, which is 60 feet long. And, as with the puppets, everything must be animatable -- including the plants and grass, which needs to be able to look like it's being blown by the wind. On the fantastical garden set, dozens of colorful flowers need to bloom, and also must allow for Coraline and her Other Father to view the scene from above in a large "grasshopper" helicopter.

To create the 3-D effect, each shot is photographed using a digital camera that shoots a frame for one eye, then moves a very small distance and shoots the other. Photo credit: Galvin Collins.

Selick says Henry's crew builds more live-action sets than any regular movie can afford, and there are considerations other movies don't have to make -- mainly making sets accessible to animators. Large sets such as the fantastical garden are built to break away and have openings underneath for animators to reach through and adjust the puppets. Other sets have such simple devices as trapdoors and swing-away walls. It takes weeks to build sets -- some of which will only be seen for a few seconds in the final film.

The creative needs of the film require the same attention to detail that the puppet fabricators apply to their jobs. For example, the two worlds Coraline travels between are meant to be similar in form but to have completely different tones: The real world is flat and a bit more worn than the slightly glossier look of the Other World. And with 3-D an element in the movie, the Other World sets are constructed with more depth to make them feel more open and inviting than the comparatively cramped real world.

"We are shooting in 3-D and we wanted to take advantage and really show it off," says Selick. "To your eye, all you know is it feels better, but it's two different sets."

Completed sets are turned over to lighting before the animators begin their work. On one set, the film's lead cat animator, Sarah de Gaudemar, is animating a scene in which Coraline and The Cat walk through the Orchard to the edges of the Other World. She has a guide as to which position the characters' mouths need to be in to match the dialog in each frame, as well as a guide to key poses.

Selick says he encourages animators to work together, but most prefer to work solo. A few will shoot reference video, but not all -- and he's fine with that. "If you rely on live action to do the work for you, you're not really getting the essence of animation," he says. "When you go all the way to basing it on humans, like what used to be rotoscoping, where you trace actors, you see that if it's not done well, it's like the worst of both worlds. It's not great animation."

The two worlds Coraline travels between are similar in form but have completely different tones: The real world is flat and more worn than the slightly glossier look of the Other World. Photo credit: Galvin Collins.

To create the 3-D effect, each shot is photographed using a digital camera that shoots a frame for one eye, then moves a very small, preprogrammed distance and shoots the other. The animator can check what's been shot on a computer monitor.

"The 3-D effect is kind of based on what's the distance between your eyes," says Selick. "Of course, Coraline's eyes are much closer together because she's much smaller, so we shoot a left eye and a right eye with the same camera. It travels very precisely in very small amounts."

Selick says they've tried to incorporate 3-D into the film to make it more than a gimmick, but he's sure that the 2D version that will be seen in most theaters around the world and on DVD will be satisfying too.

"It will work in 2D and work quite well -- that's actually how I deal with the film most of the time," he says. "But I think 3-D is just a more memorable experience."

Other animators working on shots include Travis Knight, who works on a scene set in the Orchard -- where cherry blossoms are made form painted popcorn. Animation supervisor Anthony Scott shoots a scene in the Other Mother's living room, and lead animator Eric Leighton works on the large and complicated set of the theater where Forcible and Spink put on shows for hundreds of little Scottie dogs. Leighton says the scenes are very challenging to animate, as each has so many elements to control and the set is so big that he has to move all around it and onto scaffolding behind it to reach every puppet, prop and set piece that needs to be set up for a single frame.

With the film's completion deadline looming, Selick says he spends most of his time going back and forth between two editing bays. The film will feature songs by alt rock band They Might Be Giants, and a score from French composer Bruno Coulais.

CG will be used on the film, mostly to erase in the puppets' faces the removable parts needed to make them appear to speak, as well as rig removal. Selick says there will be some additional visual effects done in-house by Laika, but he says they are shooting for a handmade look that matches the rest of the film and that they're "based on practical stuff that we then combine."

Character painter Angela Kiely paints the replacement faces for the character of Other Mother. Each puppet has two heads, each with a different expression. Photo Credit: Galvin Collins.

CG technology also can be used to occasionally alter or re-time scenes that would otherwise be too expensive or time-consuming to re-shoot, Selick says. "Once in a while, there's a disaster and we do have a great guy, the head of our visual effects, Brian Van't Hul. If there's a disaster and we really can't afford to re-shoot it, he can kind of make a fake in-between or smooth something out."

Selick says the experience of making the film has been rewarding. Gaiman has seen most of it and the author seems very happy with the results.

"The biggest challenge was always going to be bringing Coraline to life. That was the thing I was always most interested in doing. She's not an outlandish, cartoon character -- she's the straight man of the show," he says.

He's also pleased with the look of the film and thinks it will stand out with audiences for all the right reasons. "It's the imperfections (in stop-motion animation) that I think make it attractive, that bring the audience in," Selick says. "So we keep trying for perfection, but we'll never get it -- and it would be a mistake if we did, because then there would be no point. We would be doing CG."

Thomas J. McLean is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in Variety, Below the Line, Animation Magazine and Publishers Weekly. He writes a comic book blog for called Bags and Boards, and is the author of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, forthcoming from Books.

Thomas J. McLean's picture

Tom McLean has been writing for years about animation from a secret base in Los Angeles.