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Friday, Feb. 19, 2010


An ace in arcane animation

Stop-motion animation is an arcane art with an ever- diminishing number of practitioners, but director Henry Selick has taken it to an insane level of finesse and sophistication. Selick worked his way up the ranks, doing storyboards and character animation at Disney before moving into the director's chair for 1993's "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

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Pulling the strings: Henry Selick, the director of "Coraline" AP PHOTO

Its cultlike success led to the even bigger-budgeted adaptation of Roald Dahl's "James and The Giant Peach" in 1996, but Selick's career came to a crashing halt in 2001 with the barely released "Monkeybone" (which despite its critical thrashing, has some insanely funny moments.) It wasn't until filmmaker Wes Anderson brought Selick's team back together for the animated bits in "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" that the director was able to, as he puts it, "break the logjam."

Your career seemed to be chugging along until "Monkeybone." What happened?

In Hollywood, they call it "director's jail." If you make a film that doesn't succeed, you have to go to director's jail. With "Monkeybone," there was a change in regime at the studio, so it was not supported. And it was a wild film. But it was when I was finishing "Monkeybone" that Neil Gaiman first brought me "Coraline."

It was not yet published — it was considered not scary enough for an adult audience, and way too scary for a younger audience. Kind of the same problems I faced in getting it financed. It was a long journey, five years, before I found a studio that would support it. There was resistance to doing stop-motion again.

Why are the studios so resistant to stop-motion? "Nightmare Before Christmas" is considered a classic now . . .

I can't boil it down to any one thing. But in Hollywood they don't see the value in smaller successes. With a film like "Nightmare," there was an original core audience who felt like "this is our film," and that feeling grows over time, with people sharing it, even one generation sharing it with the next. But that kind of long-term thinking, of growing from a small success to something larger over time, that's difficult for Hollywood, because the executives might not still have their jobs. So they want to always approve the thing that feels safest, that has the quickest return.

Also, when "Toy Story" came out, everything changed in animation. They shut down 2-D animation at Disney — "The Princess and The Frog" is the first one in many years — and I was told that stop-motion isn't a viable way to make movies. But things have balanced out now.

What is it for you that you can get from stop-motion that you still can't get from a computer?

With CG, ultimately you can do anything, but it seems to have locked into just a couple of looks. I think it got very restrictive very quickly, basically four flavors of the same ice cream. For me, with stop motion . . . it's all real stuff. "Coraline" is a pretty slick movie, but when you see trees moving in the background, they're all on wires that we're winding and unwinding. There's more hand-made animation in "Coraline" than in "James and the Giant Peach." We kind of felt, as long as we're doing it in stop-motion, "Let's find a way to use it as much as possible." So the jumping-mouse circus . . .

That must have been insane to shoot.

It was totally insane, but I knew if we went CG at that moment, audiences would sense, "Oh, they've taken the easier way." Just the fact that it really exists is why I do it, and why the audience has a different response. In any given shot, it's an actual performance. An animator performs through that puppet. We do a rehearsal, we block the shot, there are storyboards for guidance, but when we launch a shot, an animator has to get from here to there, and there're no short-cuts. Mistakes will be made that they have to try and recover from. I think there's an energy in that performance that's unlike any other type of animation.

What sort of technical challenges do you face working in 3-D?

For the animators, there's really no difference in their jobs. The challenges are how do we get the left-eye, right-eye separation? We couldn't get the lenses close enough, because basically it has to represent the average distance between the character's eyes. With a live action film it's three or four inches or something, like a real person, but in a miniaturized world, it might be half an inch. So we came up with the idea that we'd pose the character, and then the camera itself would move, it would shoot the left eye, and then the right eye.

In (the film's) "real world," I wanted things to have less depth, so I came up with the idea of actually having the sets compressed. . . . It just felt more constrained and claustrophobic. And then in the "other world," the lines of perspective in our master shots lined up almost perfectly, but we built (the sets) deep, so you get a psychological feeling of freedom.

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