LONDON – Some directors are enthusiastic about working with actors. Others get an adrenaline rush from difficult shots and exotic locales. And there is even a select group that find the most exciting part of the filmmaking process to be the decisions made in the editing room. Tim Burton may enjoy all aspects of making movies, but he admits there is a special joy he gets on a stop-motion animated film just from the “props and things that people are making.”
On this October, 2011 day, Burton and producer Allison Abbate (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”) are taking a select group of journalists on a tour of the “Frankenweenie” sets built in a large warehouse in East London. It’s early on in production and the animators have over a year before release.
The tale is a familiar one. Boy loses dog. Boy decides to resurrect dog. Town freaks out over the “Frankenstein”-like dog. Wait, hadn’t heard it before? And here people continue to only credit Burton for his visual storytelling skills.
Burton originally shot the story as a live action short in 1984 and it helped him land his first feature directing gig on “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” a year later. Still, the CalArts and Disney Animation alumnus has always had a soft spot for stop-motion animation producing “The Nightmare before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “9” and “The Corpse Bride.” He served as a co-director on the later.
The visionary behind such films as “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Sleep Hollow” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” didn’t reveal where the idea came from to turn “Frankenweenie” into a stop-motion picture, but he notes, “When I first was designing it, there was something about the drawings that I always liked. And it would be nice to kind of capture [that] in something.”
Burton continues, “I feel like it”s a different animal now, you know. It’s [a] different medium, different characters in some cases.”
Of course, the new film still centers on our hero, Victor (Charlie Tahan),a young scientist who just can’t bear to see his little pooch Sparky pass away. Surrounding him are his classmates and friends such as Edgar E. Gore (Atticus Shaffer) and Toshiaki and homages to classic horror films such as Elsa van Helsing (Winona Ryder).
While Burton’s box office credentials have allowed him a tremendous amount of creative leeway, even industry insiders were surprised Walt Disney Studios agreed with Burton’s decision to shoot the film in black and white.
“When you see it at the end of the day I think you”ll see that it”s part of the emotional quality of it and part of the character of it is that it”s based on. You know, the whole kind of Frankenstein movies and the horror movies,” Burton says. “There”s a purity to it and a sort of a depth that we”ll get with it that will be really interesting.”
As we began walking through the massive facility, Burton reveals there are about 30 different setups under the guise of 20 animators being worked on at a time during our visit (for comparison, there were about 40-50 at the height of production for Laika’s “ParaNorman”). Stop motion is not an exact science and it’s actually not easy to find animators who know how to do it. He notes, “We’re always struggling to find animators. And sometimes people that aren”t even animators in the beginning start getting into it become animators and really good at it as they go.”
Moreover, no matter what your experience, each animator has a learning curve of working with each puppet. Burton says, “It takes a while to kind of work out the bugs of the puppets and each one has its own problems and, you know, issues and things. So, it takes a while for everybody to get up to speed and learn how the characters and the animation and all of that.”
Buton continues, “It”s a time consuming process. I mean the shots can take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks depending upon the, you know, complexity of the shot. But, uh, the good side of it is though is it”s [all] sort of treated like a action movie.”
One of the first sets we encounter is a classroom featuring Victor and his classmates. Oscar winner Rick Heinrichs’ production design is flawless with numerous details to give the building and room a bit of a ’70’s feel without making it succumb to retro cliches.
“We’re just starting with some of these kids,” Burton says of the animation process. “This is the first sort of attempts at, uh, you know, dealing with the puppets. And unlike a live action thing where, you know, you work with the actors and it takes you maybe a couple of days or weeks to work it out. Once they get started playing with the puppets to kinda get their character it takes maybe even a couple of months to kinda get at what they are.”
If you want to know one of the reasons why “The Artist” won so many Oscars this past February, it’s because of the difficulty of producing and creating a credible black and white world on film in the 21st Century. It’s a skill set not many art directors, cinematographers, make-up artists or costumers have anymore. And it’s been a major hallenge even on an animated film.
Burton reveals, “We had issues. Like ’cause this grass or Astroturf and flowers come in colors. So, we”ve done quite a lot of testing to get the right tones to get that real rich kinda classic, you know, horror movie black and white that”s got a richness and depth. A lot of testing because colors react very strangely to [being filmed in] black and white.”
Another set we visited featured a crowd of children in a school hallway. Burton jokes, “This is one of our bigger sets and school, which, if I can”t stay in this room very long it”s because it reminds me of my own [school]. Kind of traumatizing.”
As everyone marvels at the detail of the set, Burton volunteers, “Again what I love is just with looking at the, you know, just the garbage around. Just even like the fingerprints. Everybody”s very sensitive about the texture and the tone. There”s something about this that lends itself to just the kind of textures and you can see it.”
With the advent of CG animation, computers have gotten so advanced that they can duplicate the look of stop-motion without the actual process. That’s prompted filmmakers such as Wes Anderson in “Fox” and now Burton to “rough” things up a bit.
“We decided just to kind of go for the purity of stop-motion. Be crude, a little bit more textural in the puppets and things to keep the vibe of the stop-motion feeling to it,” Burton says.”
As you’d expect, the “hopefully” family friendly “Frankenweenie” will be in 3-D. Burton’s last movie for Disney, the mega-blockbuster “Alice in Wonderland,” is seen by many as being the victim of a horrible conversion, but Burton’ insists “Frankenweenie” won’t be a “crappy” conversion.
“‘Nightmare’ for me was the conversion that sold me on that,” Burtons says. “The thing is with conversions or anything, as long as you plan for it you do all the same things that you would [normally] do. The key is planning for it and knowing you”re going to do it and then having the time to do it.”
Burton continues, “You know, [in my opinion] there”s often this kind oof thing where people want this fight. Like, there”s yes and no, 3-D, no 3-D. My personal attitude is I don”t adopt that [attitude that] it”s either one way or the other. I mean, I”ve seen good 3-D movies and bad 3-D movies, and good conversions and crappy conversions.”
And considering the detail Burton has put into this passion project, don’t expect anything less then pristine 3D for this creation.
For more behind-the-scenes magic on the “Frankenweenie” set check out the B-roll of Burton touring the production’s “puppet hospital” at the top of this post and brand new images from the film below.
“Frankenweenie” opens nationwide in 3D on Oct. 5.