“It’s difficult to get funding for stop motion,” says director Henry Selick, of trying to finance his projects. That he was previously the director of modern holiday staple The Nightmare Before Christmas tells just how over-cautious—or non-available—production capital must really be.
Selick was talking about raising money for Coraline, his adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel which came out earlier this year, and is enjoying a year-end bounce as “best of” round-ups commence, and talk quickens for Oscar slots for the year’s best animated films.
However, the exacerbated pre-production process left Selick with “lots of time to imagine, and dream.” Part of that dreaming helped Selick very practically fill the extra role of production designer, as well, which he found himself in after the departure of his original designers—in part, because of the long delays in pre-production.
This necessitated an “emergency meeting with the rest of the art department,” allowing a “recalibrating” of design, which included such serendipitous activities as “playing around with different types of Japanese paper,” to get textures for clothes and skies.
Ultimately, Selick talks of wanting “a feel between live action and cartoons.” So besides working on character design and the texture of materials, Selick was also to take about a year working on the screenplay, which needed to have a “life of its own,” separate from book.
That, in part, at author Gaiman’s behest. While the book had been a lauded bit of “young gothic” for its mid-grade and YA readers—about the titular character discovering a parallel world in her clattery old house, where an Other Mother lives, along with Other everything elses, in seeming harmony and relative freedom, until the inevitable “catch” comes along—both author and auteur knew that it needed to be reworked as a film.
That, or there’d be lots of voiceovers, to replicate the book’s internal monologues—a narrative mode particularly well suited to novels. “We didn’t get together often,” Selick says of his collaboration—his m.o. was to do a lot of work on the script, then show it to the author—but when they did, Gaiman would add the “small but perfect note.”
As the characters became clearer to Selick—including the ones he added, to drive the narrative, (though he does this so seamlessly, it’s hard to imagine they weren’t in the book)—the search for the voice casting began, which itself delayed the development process, in particular, the selection of Dakota Fanning, voicing the lead.
She read an early script “at age 9,” Selick recounts, but it would be “two more years until I recorded her,” and that process stretched to over 18 months. The process allowed “a little Dakota” to creep in to the character’s look, which Selick worked on with at least four different sculptors, along with character designer Shane Prigmore.
The sculpting turned out to be critical for the voice actors, including Teri Hatcher as both “real” and “Other” mothers, and Keith David as a dimension-straddling Cat, a la “Alice”—since “sculpted marquettes are taken” to the cast. The small replicas of how their characters look is often the only “external” prep they have, since most of the tracks are recorded separately from each other, as opposed to the cast being recorded in ensemble fashion.
Overlapping the recording process in this case is the shooting, though with so much pre-production (as opposed to saving everything for post), Selick says “90 percent of the work is done” by the time actual production commences.
Selick cites his collaborators in the run up to, and unfolding of, production. “Every one was essential,” he notes, running through numerous names and worrying he’s omitted key contributions (just as your correspondent must apologize for the constraints of page space and word count, for not being able to fit them all in here).
Among the many cited were lead animators Eric Leighton and Trey Thomas, as well as cinematographer Pete Kozachik who supervised visual effects in previous Selick outings like James and the Giant Peach and Monkeybone.
Selick also cites Kozachik for having “researched a new motion control system,” which allowed the Redlake video cameras they were using to “fly around” in the shot, which served “stop motion well,” as well as the 3D they were filming in, using a system developed by indie filmmaker Lenny Lipton.
A lot of of that flying around was figured out in advance by storyboard artists, which included Graham Annable and Vera Brosgol, who helped Selick reach that “90 percent done” quotient when Kozachik took over with the Redlake.
But there was some posting, even of the digital variety—especially for sequences in the Other world involving some Van Gogh-like palettes as Coraline is deciding which world to live in permanently, in addition to a fair bit of “compositing” to tweak things later.
Those were overseen by visual FX supervisor Brian Van’t Hul. Facial replacement animator Martin Meunier provided the lively expressions on the characters’ faces.
“These are the best people I’ve ever worked with,” Selick says excitedly. And the excitement is there during his umpteenth press interview during a recent Los Angeles visit.
Which might explain why all the difficulties in bringing Coraline to the screen have been so worth it to him leaving him looking forward to starting the next project, once the hurlyburly of award season is behind him.