Innovation Wednesday: Henry Selick and the Artistry of Stop-Motion Animation

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Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make it to San Diego last month for Comic-Con, the world's largest comic book and sci-fi fan-fest and THE place to generate buzz about TV shows and movies aimed at these influencers. I would have liked to attend the panel featuring Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick, the creators of Coraline the book and Coraline the movie. Gaiman wrote the award-winning young-adult novel, a captivating ghost story about a supremely bored little girl who discovers an alternative universe through a door in her house. (Stardust, based on another of Gaiman's books, is in theaters now, and the positive reviews could bode well for Coraline.) Selick, who directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, thought so highly of the book that he wrote the screenplay and is directing the movie, due out next year. It's the first feature at Laika Entertainment, Phil and Travis' Knight's new animation film studio, an intriguing and ambitious venture that I wrote about in the July/August issue.

The Comic-Con faithful got a sneak peak of early footage. After watching some of it myself while visiting Laika a few months ago, I'm hungry for more. Selick has brought the animation mastery of Nightmare to a story reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz; an astute and feisty girl struggles to make sense of her strange surroundings and find her way home again. "Coraline is about something primal," Selick told me. "It's like Grimm fairy tales and the early Disney films. Why did they work so well? People often look at them as saccharine, but they had a darkness against the light."

Selick, who attended Cal Arts with Brad Bird and John Lasseter, brought his screenplay to Laika and joined the company as supervising director because the Knights offered him a rarity in Hollywood: the chance, he says, to "do it the right way." That means not only making Coraline in stop-motion animation (with puppets), but also in 3D, an industry first. And doing so without the meddling that comes with layer upon layer of big studio bureaucracy.

On the set of Coraline, a sprawling warehouse outside Portland, I accompanied Selick on daily rounds. He visits each department to review the latest costume, prop, set, puppet, footage - everything. The film is in his head, and the crew talks about "channeling Henry" as they sculpt a puppet's face or paint the interior of a house. Here's how detailed the process is: At one point, the modeling department arranged a few patches of one character's chest hair for Selick's approval (the curliest one got the nod).

Because they're filming a miniature world - the puppet's are about a foot high - the crew can't simply buy clothes or props off the shelf. They have to make everything by hand. The lamps. The appliances. Coraline's father's coffee cup, which is smaller than a thimble. Coraline's signature yellow rain slicker. (It took months to find the right shade of yellow.)

Once Selick signs off on the puppets' physical appearance, the animators have to bring them to life with distinct mannerisms, expressions, and walks. Essentially, Travis Knight, whom Selick calls a "f---ing amazing animator," and the other animators are acting through the puppets. Before shooting, Knight and Selick will discuss a scene and even perform it, and then Knight will go off to recreate it alone in a small curtained off set. He poses Coraline, shoots a frame, adjusts her slightly, then shoots another. And so on. For twenty-four frames a second. That's how glacial stop-motion animation is. A 90-minute film like Coraline requires nearly 130,000 frames.

Since a couple of dozen animators are filming Coraline simultaneously in various scenes, the duplicate puppets have to look identical and move consistently. That's where The Book comes in. It contains the choreography for each each character's movements. All this preparation is essential. As Selick says, "We can't shoot a ton of footage and figure it out later. We have to figure it out beforehand." He actually makes the film twice - first, in shot-by-shot storyboards, then on film.

See why live-action films seem like a walk in the park? Why it takes three years to make a stop-motion feature? And why I can't wait to see the finished product? After learning how much work, how much obsession, goes into each frame, I marveled to see Coraline on screen, dancing lithely as she tried to distract her father on a rainy day. She definitely got my attention.

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