The Motion/Captured Interview: Henry Selick on ‘Coraline’

02.05.09 9 years ago


Henry Selick is a superstar in my house these days.

Really.  It’s impossible to overstate just how big “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is with my oldest son.  This has been the first year where he’s really asserted his own taste in what he loves, and the things he loves, he loves without reservation.  And he makes me laugh in the way he’ll watch behind-the-scenes stuff on DVDs and talk to the filmmakers like he knows them.  John Lasseter is like an old trusted friend in our house, and Toshi greets every appearance of his with a “Hi, John Lasseter!”  And on the “Nightmare” BluRay, Toshi is fascinated by any example of people actually posing and moving the stop-motion puppets.  He loves the idea that the entire movie stars toys he could hold in his hand.

I didn’t even tell him that “Coraline” was from the same filmmaker.  We watched a trailer for it the other day, and he told me at the end, “You know, Daddy, that not scary.  It’s just ‘Nightmare For Christmas.'”  He senses a connection between them innately somehow, and that speaks well to just how completely Selick signs his movies as an artist.

He’s a striking figure in person.  I could picture casting him as a fire-and-brimstone preacher in a drama set in the 1800s.  He’s tall, scarecrow-thin, and when he speaks passionately on some subject, he closes his eyes like he’s looking inwards for the answer.  He’s very direct in conversation, and on the occasions we’ve been able to talk, I’ve found him to be one of the least-pretentious filmmakers to ever crank out a couple of classics.  At least in my experience.

I got a chance to sit down with him last week at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills, the day after I saw his latest film “Coraline” projected in RealD.  As I walked into the room, Henry was taking a quick drink of water in between what must have been an endless loop of interviews for the day.

[read more after the break]

DREW MCWEENY:  Hey, Henry.  Good to see you again.

HENRY SELICK:  Good to see you.

DM:  I am… overwhelmed by the movie.

HS:  Thank you.

DM:  I think it’s incredible.  The handmade quality of the film is part of what’s so amazing when you’re sitting in the theater, watching it in 3D.  That feeling… like you can put your hand into the screen and touch it.  It’s tangible.  The 3D  pays off in a way I didn’t expect, even when I saw the clips at BNAT or when I came up to the campus while you were making it.  Yes, there’s a sense of depth, a sense of planes, but more than that… there’s a feeling like you’re being pulled into the world.

When you work in 3D, how does it impact your choices as a filmmaker?  Does it change the way you approach a scene?  How do you wrap your head around this new discipline, especially since you’re out on the frontier here?

HS:  You know, it took a lot of experimentation and a lot of mistakes to get our footing, but, uh, from the start, from the moment the decision was made to embrace all stop-motion and to shoot it in 3D, I was trying to use the 3D to, uh… as a story-based device, to suck the audience into the other better world.  Just as Coraline is being sucked into it.  So I came up with this idea that in the real world, all the sets would be crushed, meaning that the depth… see, in “Coraline,” there are sort of equivalent sets for everything in their house.  So there’s the Other living room, the Other kitchen… and in the real world, there’s less color and it’s, you know, kind of lonely, claustrophobic.  But I knew that if I raked the floors and the ceiling and the walls so, so, so the kitchen only has about a foot of depth and it’s really crushed.  It’s really claustrophobic.  You wouldn’t know it because you won’t notice all the crazy angles.  We made it look normal.  But the Other kitchen… that kitchen’s about six feet deep.  And we got all the lines of perspective to line up.  You know, there’s also… it’s nicely dressed, it’s warmer, the lighting is warmer.  But I was trying to make it feel like you can breathe in the Other world.  I didn’t want to hit people over the head and poke things in their eyes, so we only do it three or four times because it was serving the story in that way.  That became the guide through, uh, throughout the film as, as sort of a script for, for, for how to use it.  And also if it feels bigger and better… there’s a sense of freedom I was looking for in the Other world that the 3D totally enhanced.  When things go bad in the Other world, I cranked up the 3D to almost an uncomfortable level on some shots, so things become almost hyper-real.

DM:  All of that plays into the reaction you have in the theater.  It was great… there was one kid at the press screening when we saw it the other day and when we got to that moment where Teri Hatcher finally reveals her true face as the Other Mother, it got very quiet in the theater and, very distinctly from the front row, we heard “MOMMY I WOULD REALLY LIKE TO GO HOME NOW!”

HS:  (laughs raucously)

DM:  And I saw some degree of that same visceral reaction in some of the adults around me, too.  It’s because that world feels so real.  And I love that it’s handmade in this age where everything seems to be moving away from the real and the practical in favor of CGI.  I’ve spoken to filmmakers who are working in motion-capture, and I know there are guys like Zemeckis who swear by it.  But you… you’re one of the few guys left who believes that making a film like this is a worthwhile endeavor.  And visiting your workshop was extraordinary.  Seeing how each piece is handcrafted.  Nothing comes out of a box or off a shelf.

Obviously, this is a huge technical challenge.  So what is it that makes you believe in this as a storytelling tool?

HS:  Getting… getting a stop-motion feature funded is a difficult thing.  I would have made more if I’d been able to, but… you know… the fact is that, that the first all-CG animated film was “Toy Story” by Pixar, and it was a fantastic film.  It’s one of my favorite all-time movies.  And the success of those films has cast, you know… sort of blocked out the light to little stop-motion over here.  Um, so along the way, I’ve had to do other things, but I have always had my hand… I did a CG short, five years ago, called “Moon Girl.”  This thing for kids.  It was fine.  It was an interesting experience.  I was a 2D animator….

DM:  You’ve worked in live-action…

HS:  Yeah, and, and, and… I juts keep coming back to stop-motion.  It goes, it goes back to when I was a kid.  I saw all the usual things.  Disney stuff.  Warner Bros. cartoons.  Tom and Jerry.  But I also was exposed at a very early age to Ray Harryhausen.  I was either four or five when I saw “7th Voyage Of Sinbad,” and the Cyclops remains, uh… ever-present in my, uh, consciousness as one of the great… one of the scariest things, and one of the things I love the most in my life.  I also saw these beautiful cut-out silhouette films made by a German animator, Lotte Reiniger, which has the same feeling as stop-motion because it’s animated by hand.

I keep trying to figure out… is there a hierarchy of reasons why I like it?  Ummm… it’s several things.  There’s sort of an electricity to it.  It’s imperfect.  You can’t… you know, you can’t hand-animate and have it as smooth as a computer.  You don’t have a lead aniamtor who does key poses and then an assistant or a computer doing the in-betweens.  It’s an actual performance.  It’s done slowly, a frame at a time, and you rehearse.  You might sketch out poses.  You know where the dialogue’s going to be.  But when you watch a shot, the animator, you know, basically starts at one side of a chasm and crosses this high wire to get to the other side.  And you stumble.  And there will be surprises.  The puppet’s arm can’t bend the way you thought it was going to.  And you have to work with that.  So the struggle of, of bringing that to life, as well as just fingers touching, you know, cloth or hair on the puppets, and you see it vibrate and, and, and bump around and boil… anyway, there’s an energy there that’s fantastic, and it’s like nothing, like no other form.

And then there’s just the fact that… that what I got as a kid off of Harryhausen’s work is this absolute belief that this thing is real.  You don’t know how big it is, and I didn’t know how it was done, but it didn’t matter if it was a little clunky or you saw fingerprints on it or anything.  There’s a very strong belief that it’s real and I think… and, and that was a good feeling, and I think that just goes back to every person as a child has some kind of a toy or some kind of a figure that, at one point in their life, when they’re very young, they imagine it coming to life.

DM:  So you have this generation right now growing up in the shadow of Pixar.  They’re goign to school for that.  It’s a career path.  It’s not the same for stop-motion, not to that degree.  I would imagine it’s a challenge any time you cruew up one of these films.  Was there any difference between, say, “Nightmare” and this one, in terms of finding enough people who actually  had the right expertise for you to hire them?

HS:  You’d be surprised, but there are always going to be, uh… there’s always young talent who gets… they’re not going to give up their clay or their wire armatures for CG even if that’s the better route to employment.

DM:  Well, thank god for that.

HS:  They like, they like touching and shaping things, so there’s always a new crop of stop-motion animators, and, and surprisingly, at several of the animation schools, there’s been such a demand, um… not a greater demand than CGI instructions… but such a demand that they’ve had to bring in teachers and add classes in stop-motion.  It’s always there in the background, and crewing up was… it was, um, it wouldn’t have been difficult if “Coraline” ultimately was the size and scale of “Nightmare,” but ultimately, “Coraline” is about twice as much movie.  I went from a peak of working with about 17 animators on “Nightmare” to 30 on this.  Yeah, we had to, we had to… we had to reach out, uh… we got the best in the world.  One-third of the crew are “Nightmare” alumni.  That’s, that’s… Eric Leighton and Anthony Scott.  Trey Thomas.  Justin Cone.  Our art department, uh… Lee Bo Henry.  Tom Proost.  On and on.  One-third of the people uprooted their lives ’cause they wanted to do it again.  They wanted to go even further.  One-third were local Portland people who had worked for years for Will Vinton doing the claymation.  Our lighting… one of the best lighters… I got my old friend Pete Kozachik, who I started out with before… even before “Nightmare Before Christmas.”  So… one-third “Nightmare” crew, one-third Portland, and one-third international.  There’s always been a great interest in, uh in England, so a huge contingent of Brits, but also quite a few Canadians.

DM:  I’m guessing some of those Brits were people I met on the “Corpse Bride” sets.

HS:  Yeah.  Most likely.

DM:  It seems like a small community, like this is a faith they have to keep.  Hopefully there will be another one of these and they can do it again.  You have to have a real passion for it.  It’s amazing to see how deeply a film like this can mark a young audience.  You mentioned Harryhausen, and generations have been marked by his work.  Now that my son is getting into movies…

[I indicated the Jack Skellington shirt I was wearing, which Henry hadn’t noticed because it’s fairly subtle, causing him to laugh again]

… I have this, for example, because he is totally obsessed with Jack Skellington right now.  Ever since that BluRay came out, it’s been in heavy rotation.  He can’t remember to zip his pants, but he knows all the words to all the songs.

HS:  How old is he?

DM:  Three.

HS:  That’s great.

DM:  And I remember in 1993, when it came out, “Nightmare” wasn’t really considered a hit.  Doesn’t matter, of course, because it’s had this huge life.  And now I’m showing him the Harryhausen BluRays, like “20 Million Miles To Earth” or “7th Voyage.”  And to him, those films are all of a piece.  The Cyclops or the Ymir or Jack and Sally and Sandy Claws… they’re all equally real to him.  They’re physical.  And there’s something timeless about stop-motion, unlike CG, which changes from year to year.

HS:  Yeah, I’m, I’m… it’s almost like it’s so old-fashioned, it’s timeless.  It’s clearly not trying to be modern.  It’s something, like, conjured up from the past by magicians, and therefore ageless.

DM:  I’m hesitant to take him to this one.

HS:  I’ve actually… I’ve… myself, I’ve had several producers, but Claire Jennings, our on-site producer… she produced “Curse Of The Were-Rabbit,” and she was really adamant with marketing, saying, “It’s not for under eight.”  Eight and up, or, uh, you know… brave children of all ages… but the safer thing is… I mean, PG, right?  It’s supposed to be so a parent would look at the trailers and say, “Too intense or not?”  I’ve actually had kids as young as six totally love it and kids at eight or ten who are scared.

DM:  But don’t kids love to be scared?  Isn’t that at its best when you’re that age?  When you can still be scared so much that you freak out?

HS:  Oh, believe me, that’s… that’s a big part of the movie.  I believe in that, too.  I believe it’s unhealthy to not give them the scares that they crave.  But then, you hug them and say, “It’s okay.”

DM:  But this is very primal.  This isn’t some monster from the outside.  This is your mother.  That’s what is so immediate about the movie.  So you take something that Freudian and you use the 3D to make it this immersive world… hey, when you’re shooting stop-motion in 3D, it has to be a technically different process than shooting live-action 3D would be, right?  I heard this was a single-camera process.  Is that true?  Or a single lens process?

HS:  Uhhh… yeah.  It is, although it’s, it’s, um… we’re shooting a left eye and a right eye.  What you do, um… the whole basis of 3D, you know, is that people have two side-by-side eyes.  You see things at two slightly different angles and then your brain puts it together.  That’s the three-dimensional image.  In live-action, the lenses are about as far apart as the eyeballs of a person.  But when you’re shooting puppets, it’s all in a miniature world, and you need to scale a distance down between the lenses.  So if Coraline… if the distance between her eyes is five-eighths of an inch, there are no lenses… no tricks with mirrors… there was no way to get that to work.  So we came up with the perfect solution.  Because it’s stop-motion, after the animator poses the puppet, it’s going to stay still.  So we would then shoot a left eye frame and then the camera on a little motion-control move, would just creep over a little bit to the right, and we’d shoot the right eye frame.

DM:  That’s such a crazy math puzzle to solve so you can do something as emotional as filmmaking.

HS:  It wasn’t that hard after we came up with that initial solution, the left eye/right eye frames, uh, it just slowed the animator down a little bit while he’s waiting for the other frame to be taken.  But once the system was set up, it was pretty smooth and, uh, it was more a case of, like, what we call the inter-ocular distance, the distance between the lenses.  It’s something you can manipulate.  You can change that during a shot.  If it’s farther apart, you get a deeper 3D effect, and if the lenses come together, things flatten out.  So not only were we getting it miniaturized, the, the, the scale of the distance between the lenses, and playing with that to enhance the shots and change the meaning of the scene.

DM:  Working in live-action, there’s a lot of room for meddling.  I know you really went through it on “Monkey Bone,” where the film that came out is not what you set out to make.  But on a film like this, there’s not a lot of room for things to be reshot once they’re done.  I would imagine there’s less room for radical changes, giving you more control over what the final film will be.

HS:  The process certainly is, is… because there’s limited… Alfred Hitchcock, I think he visited the studio of Walt Disney in maybe the ’30s and discovered storyboarding.  And from that point on, he storyboarded all his films and he only shot the specific shots he needed.  And that was so his films couldn’t be tampered with.  They couldn’t be changed.  There was no coverage, no extra footage.  So… it’s not that I choose animation to avoid interference.  It’s just the nature of it that you don’t shoot coverage.  And in this particular situation, there were many hurdles to clear before we got this film up on its feet.  But once the hurdles were cleared, I got total creative support at this company Laika, where you visited.  Built from the ashes of the Will Vinton studio, and, you know, with our distributors Focus.  The key concern with Focus was just that we get the PG rating.  And I supported that and believed in that.  So there are no compromises in the film.  I just kind of had a sense of what was right for the movie, and trusted that.

DM:  Thanks, Henry.  I think that’s it for time, but it was nice to see you again.

And just like that, the interview wrapped.  I ended up speaking with Neil Gaiman later in the afternoon, and if you’d like to read that interview, it’ll be up here at Motion/Captured tomorrow.

In the meantime, if you’d like to see the short film that launched Selick’s career, check it out:

For now, thanks to Henry Selick and the fine folks at Focus who put this together.

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