"Coraline" Director Henry Selick on His Latest Film
Editor's Note: Henry Selick is the director of several acclaimed films including The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, and most recently, Coraline. (He also created visual effects for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.) Below, he shares a behind-the-scenes look at how the movie Coraline came to be. --Leah
So the Coraline DVD is coming out on July 21st, in three different flavors--plain vanilla, with sprinkles, and dipped in blu-ray--and I was invited to do this “guest blog” for Amazon. It’s a one-shot deal, no updates or follow-ups, and my orders are to tell the home-viewing audience something they don’t already know. I figure if I say enough, there’s bound to be something you haven’t already learned on the internet or in the ads or from seeing the film at the movie theaters. Here goes:
- Coraline is the first animated feature from LAIKA in Portland, Oregon. It rains a lot in Oregon and it rains a lot in Coraline. This is not a coincidence.
- Coraline is the first stop-motion feature to be conceived and shot in stereoscopic 3D.
- Coraline is the first feature film I wrote the screenplay for, adapting Neil Gaiman’s exquisite novel.
- Coraline is the first all stop-motion feature that I’ve directed since The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Great stop-motion animation takes an insane amount of time to create--the puppets in Coraline were reposed and photographed between 12 and 24 times per second of film. So in one day, an animator can produce just a few seconds of finished footage; in a week, a team of 17 animators can produce a minute; in a year, an even larger team produces a little over an hour.
Nothing came quickly on Coraline. Neil Gaiman first gave me the pages of his yet-to-be published novel back in late 2000. I loved it right away and took it to producer Bill Mechanic, convincing both Neil and Bill to give me a shot at writing the screenplay as well as directing. Coming from the 100-monkeys-at-100-typewriters-for-100-years-to-write-a-Shakespeare-sonnet school of writing, my adaptation took a while to get working.
It takes 22 months from conception to birth to produce a new baby elephant. The gestation for the Alpine black salamander can be three years. Coraline beats them both with a total of eight and a half years--two years to write the screenplay, three years to find a studio and a distributor bold enough to make a spooky film for kids, and three and a half years to actually make the movie from green-light to release. As Neil likes to say, it took just long enough to get things right on Coraline. An explanation:
- If Coraline had been green-lit right away, it would have been a live-action film. Our producer was stuck in a deal where he wasn’t allowed to make animated films.
- If Coraline had been green-lit right away, I wouldn’t have had time to develop my filmic vision. When I decided to make Coraline’s hair blue, I’d lived with the project long enough to know it was the right color.
- If Coraline had been green-lit earlier as an animated film, it would have been made in CG, since CG animated features had totally dominated ever since Toy Story.
- If Coraline had been green-lit earlier as a stop-motion animated feature, we couldn’t have shot it in 3D since the newest digital projection systems had not yet been put into any movie theaters.
- If Coraline had been green-lit earlier, I wouldn’t have worked on Wes Anderson’s Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou where both my lead creature maker and I were exposed to one of the first 3D printers. We used a later version of this device from a company called Objet, to expand the range of facial expressions in Coraline miles beyond Nightmare, and James, and Corpse Bride.
- Finally, if Coraline had been green-lit earlier, we wouldn’t have been able to work with LAIKA because that animation studio did not yet exist. Any other studio would have forced the film to be horribly sanitized and compromised. And without LAIKA, we wouldn’t have hooked up with our distributors, Focus Features/Universal.
Why I Love Stop-Motion
There was a debate about whether or not Coraline should be CG versus stop-motion early on at LAIKA. We even did a side-by-side test, thinking of using CG for the real world, and stop-motion for the fantasy world. The test only proved that we should choose one technique for the whole film and, with the help of Travis Knight, one of our lead animators on Coraline (and now head honcho at LAIKA), we opted for stop-motion. Phewwwww!
The animation in Coraline is so smooth at times that some people think it might be CG. But it’s not; it’s all real puppets bathed in real light standing on real, miniature sets; puppets that were manipulated a frame at a time by the best stop-mo animators in the world. Both hand drawn and CG animation involves the creation of key poses for an entire scene and having an assistant animator or computer create in-between images. There is the ability to change sections and re-time the shot and make all sorts of adjustments. But in stop-motion, the final animation is an actual performance by the animator through the puppet, coaxing it to life a frame at a time. There is a voice actor to guide mouth shapes and timing, there are story sketches and pose tests and even rough rehearsals, but when a final shot is launched, it’s just one animator and their puppet crossing a tight rope across a chasm.
Mistakes are made and fixes must be improvised as the performance unfolds, and you can sense the kinetic energy of the animator’s hands touching and reshaping the puppet in every frame. It’s slow and hard to do but there is still an amazing kick in the pants when you play your shot back and see the miracle of something willed to life by your own hands. It’s like the dream of all children, that their most beloved toys come to life and speak to them and share their secrets.
- We started with the Coraline in Neil’s novel, a character and tale inspired by his two daughters.
- In writing the script, I brought my own influences into the mix, including my big sister, Linda, who, when we were kids, led a mission to find a hidden well by an abandoned mansion. She also fell down a dry well in the snow once (Mr. Leg, our next door neighbor, pulled her out). My niece, Stephanie, was an inspiration for how young girls talk and think and move.
- Dakota Fanning read an early script of mine when she was nine. She began to influence how I thought of Coraline. Later, when we recorded her for the voice, her performance had a huge effect on the timing and expressions of the character as Coraline was animated.
- I worked with three different character design artists, two sculptors, and a battalion of puppet fabrication and facial animation experts to build the Coraline puppet. Next, our supervising animator and leads helped define her poses and walk and gestures, then they and all our fantastic character animators brought her to life a frame at a time in scenes sketched out by our story department, in worlds designed and built by our art/set department, bathed in real light and photographed by our lighting and camera dept, edited in our editing dept and cleaned up in visual effects.
Inspiration, Coincidence, Advice, Secrets
- The idea for the Other Mother’s spooky doll that resembles the kids it’s spying on came from something I saw in the obituaries. An old lady had died who’d been a child-star in the days of silent movies. There was an old publicity photo of her holding a doll that looked and was dressed exactly like her.
- One of my favorite films of all time is Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The scene in Coraline where old Spink and Forcible perform "Sirens of the Sea" is an homage to the scene in Munchausen where a stunning, young Uma Thurman reenacts Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” painting. I read that Terry told Ms. Thurman to look directly into the lens in the scene to unsettle the audience.
- We had normal pets when I was a kid, like our boxer dogs Mugs and Eric, and we had unusual pets, like seahorses, raccoons, a chipmunk, and a baby alligator. Twice in my life, maybe three times, I’ve gotten big red dragonflies to land on my fingertip. I once stunned a big blue one with my fishing rod when I was a kid and brought the still-living creature home to study. I looked it up in my bug book to find I’d accidentally knocked its head off. Coraline wears a dragonfly barrette and makes origami dragonflies that come to life in the Other World.
- Another bug that fascinates me is the praying mantis. Rudy Kugler gave me an egg case in 4th grade that hatched out a hundred little mantises I put on my mom’s rose bushes. Near where I used to live in California, there’s a big metal sculpture of a praying mantis (eight feet long) on the roof of a gardening store. I thought it could make a great tractor design and so I put one in “Coraline” for the Other Father to drive. Twice, I’ve found mantises outside the studio, one on my car and another, especially fierce one, by the smoker’s area door. Guess all that cigarette smoke made him angry.
- We were well into production and I was looking for a visual ticking clock for when Coraline plays the game to find the ghost children and her parents. A gorgeous lunar eclipse occurred one night, and we all went outside the studio to watch it and bingo--there was the answer. The button-moon eclipse turned out to be one of the most memorable images in the film.
- When I first read Neil’s novel, I really liked the idea of button eyes but wasn’t sure how they’d work visually. So, I got our son George, 3 at the time (five years later, I recorded his voice for the ghost boy), to lie still on his back, close his eyes, and let me place some black buttons on them. He looked wonderfully creepy.
- After my mother, Melanie, read the Coraline novel, she reminded me that I used to sit in the kitchen for hours when I was 4 or 5 telling her about my other family in Africa, with other parents, where we had adventures with dangerous wildlife. She says I was very convincing.
- I was living in California when I wrote the first drafts of the screenplay for Coraline. With Neil’s encouragement, I was making some changes to the book, including setting the story in the U.S. I really wanted to keep the downstairs neighbors--actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible--British, so I picked Ashland, Oregon because they have a Shakespeare festival there. Two years later, I was approached by LAIKA Portland to come up and work for them. I agreed, and brought Coraline with me, eventually making the feature for LAIKA in Oregon. Ever since, I’ve felt that whatever state or country I had set Coraline in is where I would have ended up making it. Glad there’s no Shakespeare Festival in the Gobi Desert.
- I was always pitching my screen story for Coraline to my family over the years, and showing character designs and artwork to them for feedback. I also had a few film business friends read my script for input: Liz Bird told me I’d made Coraline’s real parents much too likeable and there was no reason for her to run away; director David Fincher suggested I arm Coraline with a chain saw to fight the Other Mother (but I resisted the temptation).
- I’ve always thought of Neil Gaiman as the cat in Coraline. He’s very wise, dryly humorous, and superior in a cat-like way. He has a great voice and I considered early on having him voice the cat. In re-setting the story in the U.S., I felt I needed more ethnic range in the characters leading me to the marvelous Keith David. Sorry, Neil.
- The two movers at the beginning of the film are based on real brothers Joe and Jerome Ranft, big guys who used to get asked so often to help people move on weekends that they had T-shirts printed up with “Ranft Brothers Movers” on them. Joe was one of the greatest story artists of all time and was head of story on Nightmare Before Christmas and Toy Story and many other features. He was a huge, sweet brilliant storyteller and artist with a demented side that was hilarious. He died in a car accident a few years back. Jerome, his younger brother, is one of the greatest sculptors working in animation today with a decidedly cruder sense of humor than Joe. I love both of these guys a lot.
And Now, for the Close
Well I’m all blogged out for now. Hope you enjoy the Coraline DVDs and all the extras we’ve crammed onto the 2-disc Blu-Ray Hi-Def and 2-disc Collector’s Edition DVD. There’s even a 3D version of the film included so you can have a stereoscopic experience right there in the privacy of your own home. Over…and…OUT.
Learn more about the making of Coraline: