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Henry Selick In Conversation

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Henry Selick with Coraline Henry Selick with Coraline.

Henry Selick arrives at the FilmInFocus office carrying a Coraline puppet, and it sits on the table shooting a bemused and quizzical half-scowl the director’s way as we conduct our interview. That Selick could do that – bring an actual Coraline from the film’s production and not just a replica created by a toy merchandising company – speaks to the old-fashioned, artisanal pleasures of his unique animated film. Mixing stop-motion animation – the kind we all remember from Saturday afternoon mythology-and-monster pics – with digital shooting and 3D technology, Selick has created a thoroughly modern picture that, in telling the story of the lonely young Coraline and her frightening journey into a beckoning fantasy world where all seems good, combines the comforts of the familiar with the surprise of the completely new.

Coraline is Selick’s fourth feature. After attending Cal Arts and working as an animator for Walt Disney Studios and, later, MTV, Selick captured the attention of Tim Burton, who produced his debut film, 1993’s stop-motion The Nightmare Before Christmas. Following were James and the Giant Peach (1996) and Monkeybone (2001), both of which mixed stop-motion with live action. After contributing stop-motion animation to Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic, he directed a short film using CG animation (Moongirl) and became the supervising director for feature film development at the Portland, Oregon animation studio LAIKA, where Coraline was produced.

To watch a video of the interview go here.

How did you wind up getting involved with Coraline?

I was introduced to Neil Gaiman eight years ago and was given the pages; it was not yet a published novel. I read it immediately, and as I read it I could already see it as a film. The chemistry of Neil’s creative mind seemed to be in tune with what I was looking to do as well as my own chemistry. But it was a very long journey from that first meeting to finally mounting the film.

Selick is joined on the set by Coraline author Neil Gaiman.

Selick is joined on the set by
Coraline author Neil Gaiman.

Did you ever give a thought as to whether it should be an animated film or a live action film?

A lot of people read the book and saw it as live action, and originally there was some intention to go that route. But I always thought it would be best served as an animated film, and best served as a stop-motion animated film. The challenge is simply that these characters aren’t talking animals. Coraline may be a fairy tale, but it is set in our times, modern times, and stop-motion animation brings a charm, a warmth -- it takes a little bit of a edge off the darkest, most troubling parts of the story, I think, and adds a little creepiness to parts that might be too sweet.

Stop-motion animation is a style I associate with my childhood – watching Saturday afternoon movies broadcast by the local TV station. What were the seeds of your interest in stop-motion?

I was four or five years old and my mother took me to a Ray Harryhausen film, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. He is the master of stop-motion. There is an incredible Cyclops [in that film] -- it seemed absolutely, totally real, and it stayed with me my whole life. And then there were the Rankin Bass Christmas specials -- Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf the Red-nose Reindeer.

As a director who repeatedly works in stop-motion, do you find yourself having to justify the choice of stop-motion in a world in which CG animation is dominant and Pixar has had such great success?

The reasons I love stop-motion today are not the things people want to hear when they are selling a film. They want what’s new, what’s cutting edge, and I think that it is a terrible hang-up in the United States. New is always equated with “better,” and in most of the world, it is not. When CG animation came into being, Hollywood said, “That is the way all animated films should be made [from now on].” And even though Disney had great successes with a couple of 2D films, like Brother Bear and Lilo and Stitch, they shot down all [the rest] of their 2D. But over in England, when CG came on board, it was seen as another tool –– stop-motion animation and 2D animation continued. They didn’t think of shutting down these other ways of telling stories. Stop-motion isn’t sexy unless you like things that are real and hand made, and I like to see the hand of an artist. I don’t like airbrushed photorealism, that totally lubricated image of 3D animation. Stop-motion is flawed, its textures are real, and I think it invites the audience to work a little to make it happen in their minds. As for Pixar, it has the best story department of any animation studio in the world. I could clip off my fingernail, and they could do a feature on that fingernail. They would take six years developing the story, they would come up with a world and context, and they would make a great movie. Their films are a marriage of [CG and their story department].

Selick on the set of Coraline with head animator Travis Knight.

Selick on the set of Coraline with head
animator Travis Knight.

How does the practice of stop-motion differ from the other forms of animation?

Traditional animation is a really long process and there are many stages. You draw your characters. You rough them in, and there are pencil tests. Assistant animators do the in-between, and you do the clean up, and then it goes to electronic ink-and-paint. And then those things get composited. Backgrounds [are added]. In CG, there are even more stages -- wireframe forms, etc. -- and it is not until the end of the process that all those images get rendered and output and you can see the lighting and what [the whole image] finally looks like. One of the things that I love about stop-motion is that there is an immediacy; there are not many steps at all from the concept to the finished film. We sketch out the entire movie in storyboards, which are cut together and then [we build] story reels that we run in real time. We sometimes use temp voices and music. We cast the film and cut in real voices, and then these storyboards become the plan for the film. You figure out the sets and the number of puppets, and it becomes a fluid thing – these [early elements] are not perfect. They are somewhat rough. Then from these storyboards you build the elements, and when you finally shoot it, you put the puppets on the sets.

Although you classify the film as stop-motion, you also used digital technologies in your filmmaking process. How did you integrate the two?

We used modern technologies to assist us. Shooting digitally allowed us to share images more quickly and to review shots as soon as they were in. I loved that process. [Shooting] digitally allowed us to manipulate images, to do our paint-outs of the face cracks, to remove the rigs, composite skies, and take the cotton we stuck on the ground in the banana slope scene and shift it around a lot more easily. And we did replacement facial animation, which has been done in TV commercials for a very long time. We split Coraline’s face so that we would have more control of her brows and eyes separate from her mouth. There would be this big line [bisecting her face]. For a while I preferred leaving it in because it lets you know that this is a hand made movie, and I found that within four minutes people didn’t notice it. But there was a concern and fear that it would be distracting so we did paint that out. When Coraline jumps in the air, she has to be supported by a rig -- a very simple thing with a base and an arm that is adjustable mechanically by hand -- and that got painted out too. I had to fight, however, to keep the scenes that most people would have done in CG as stop-motion. The mouse circus –– we have a series of replacement mice, each one hopping, which is something George Pal invented 60 years ago with his Puppetoon films. I had to fight to make all the Scottie dogs, all 500 of them, in stop-motion. And when those scenes were done all those people were happy I fought for those scenes. It plussed the movie -- it was in tune with the soul of the movie. There were shots where there were also [visual] effects, where we shot green screen and comped in the action, but for two thirds of the film what we shot first was 90% done. So we did use [digital] tools, but we tried to keep them from overwhelming the process.

What was a typical day like for you in production?

We would start with the animators looking at storyboards. I might act out and do sketches, and they might act out and do sketches. What are we thinking of? What is the essential thing in the shot? While the animators can do beautiful work, there is always an essential story point that if it is not conveyed, then the shot is no good. So we would discuss the shot and talk about how the character might move. Then the camera [department] comes in separately, and we would talk about a basic scheme for lighting. Then there was blocking. You “find the marks” just like live action [shooting]. We would do a little rehearsal and then launch the shot. I would check in on the animators while they were animating, see if the shot could work better with a little adjustment. And I would spend a ton of time in editorial; there were two edit rooms going like crazy, I would jump back and forth as animators and lighters would come in, and I would be out on the stages walking six to eight miles every day. Out on the stages is the most fun because you are in the trenches where everything is real. You open up the black curtain, the duvetyn that surrounds each of these sets, and then you are in that world. Everything outside, the noise of all the construction, fades away, and you are working with the actor and the animator in the moment.

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A "3D moment" from Henry Selick’s Coraline.

There has been a lot of research lately about the science of facial communication – of how we communicate through gestures and looks. The character of Coraline has an incredible array of expressions. How did you design them?

There wasn’t a science [I relied on], but there was an experience. I was a 2D animator at Disney. There you would have a mirror, and you would look at yourself and try to adapt your own expressions to the animals or children that you were animating. You would develop a shorthand for the essential elements. There are six or seven main expressions, but in Coraline we wanted to add a layer of subtlety to those. We started with drawings. Every expression Coraline has is hand drawn first. Then we would do key sculpts, and then we used computers to figure out the in-between shapes. In the past we used to have to sculpt every single expression there is, but what you learn is that the closer you to get to “human,” the more dangerous territory you enter in animation. If you get too close [the character] starts to look like an animated corpse. A slight difference from “totally real” looks dead. So we always tried to make something either bigger or smaller than real life.

The use of 3D gave you another fantastic tool, but I’m sure it was also a temptation. Did you battle yourself not to overuse it?

I found that I was mainly fighting the camera crew who fell in love with 3D and always wanted to crank it up too much. I had a very clear idea of controlling it, minimizing it in the “real world” [parts of the story]. Coraline’s life is less dimensional, so there is a muted color palette [in those early scenes]. The sets are built with less depth because the story is about her dissatisfaction and loneliness at home. I wanted to save 3D for the other world, to draw people into the 3D space as Coraline is being drawn into that world herself. I didn’t want the 3D to come out and punch you in the eye. I was surprised that some people thought we should have done more trick shots. I felt we did it just right. I was never tempted to overdo it but I was controlling other people’s temptations.   

Although Coraline is a rich fantasy, the psychology of the family, with its working parents and a lonely, emotionally neglected Coraline, feels quite modern and realistic. What were your thoughts about the family dynamic when you adapted the book to film?

I wanted to think through the entire backstory of the characters, and some things that were not specific in the book and that worked in the book’s favor I had to make more specific [in the film], like where they are from and [that] the move to this other place changed the chemistry of the family. Probably Coraline was supposed to be ten or eleven years old. Back home in Pontiac, MI she probably had plenty of friends, and she didn’t want to hang out with her parents. She didn’t need anything from them but love, food, and clean clothes. [When the family moves to Oregon], she needs her parents in a way that she is not used to. But her parents work together as a team. They are writers, and Mom is the head. The tension that is in the family, I wanted it to feel real. Families aren’t in love with each other all the time. The father-knows-best family, that’s the fairy tale, and that is what I wanted to find on the other side. There is a sense of truth in [Coraline], and it is not a cartoon truth. Mom is cold. I loved in the book that Mom is always cold to Coraline. She is not an “always hugging” sort of person. But she loves her daughter; that is an understood thing, and it doesn’t need to be always demonstrated.