Last week in Anaheim, Disneyland hosted a press junket for the upcoming horror movie for kids, Disney and Tim Burton's Frankenweenie. Here's what the animators and producers of the film had to say.
Staci Layne Wilson reporting
Q: So Allison, for you as a producer, how important was it to you to bring in Trey Thomas after his stellar stop motion work on Coraline?
ALLISON: Uh, you know, it’s the, the, the relationship between the animation director and, and Tim as the director is so incredibly important, and so I knew it had to be the, the right person. The thing about Trey is that we worked together on The Nightmare Before Christmas, so we’ve known each other for years, and on Corpse Bride, every time Trey would do a scene, Tim would just be drawn to it, and even, remember, on Nightmare, like, him sort of singling out Trey’s work. And there was just a real kind of, uh, connection between them as far as their creative way that they approach the acting and emoting the scene. On Corpse Bride again, he just sort of gravitated toward Trey’s stuff.
So when we were looking for someone to take on this role, for me, he was the obvious choice because it was just, you need to find someone who’s really going to be thinking the same thoughts and sort of, um, be on the same page as Tim, and I have never worked with anyone who is more perfectly on the same page as Tim, so…
Q: How does that give you a greater level of comfort as a Producer?
ALLISON: Oh my gosh! That is the, like, the main comfort level because really, if that’s not working, it’s, you just, it won’t work, and, um, and so it’s, it was, uh, it was great to be able to get Trey to move all the way to England and kind of take it on, but I think it was perfect.
Q: Trey, if, if working in TV animation is a five, say, on the patience level, what is working in stop motion?
TREY: Oh, it’s, it’s a whole different animal. ‘Cause it’s more of a true performance. It’s kind of more linear. I mean 2D is a refinement process. You work with kind of poses and you in between, and you can constantly refine and change at will. Stop motion is a performance. You start at the beginning and you work through it and you go to the end, and it’s, it’s just more real. So it’s incredibly much more demanding. It’s an incredibly tedious process. There’s no room for error. We have to be a hundred percent all the time, or the shot is sacrificed, so it’s a ten plus.
ALLISON: ‘Cause if you mess it up, you gotta start at the beginning again, so it’s, it’s not like you can kind of add it or go in. Sometimes, um, CGI animation or something, you can kind of fix it and keep tweaking it. This is really, it’s, uh, it’s very spontaneous.
Q: Is it possible for a type A person to be a stop motion animator? Or do you have to have a certain level of zen going on?
ALLISON: I think you have to be I think you have to… For me, it’s like, you They take responsibility for everything that’s happening. They control everything in the frame, and so to me, they’re all type A personalities. They just are shy ones. It’s like… It’s a, it’s a version of that because you, um, I, I feel like they’re, none of them are very zen. I wish, like, they were, because it is a very nerve-wracking thing, but it is, you know, ‘cause even sometimes people ask, oh, have you ever have ten characters, will have you have three or four animators on there? It’s like, no, no, no, no.
TREY : [OVERLAPS] I think there’s a couple exceptions. There’s a couple of zen animators, but mostly it’s a bunch of control freaks and closet actors. There’s no doubt about it…
ALLISON: [OVERLAPS] Absolutely.
Q: Do you have an acting background?
TREY : I don’t. No, no I’ve certainly taken an acting classes and stuff, but, uh, but no. I, I, just an animator. Just a closet actor type. I mean, I love acting, all that stuff, but through these kind of stylized puppets. It’s perfect.
Q: Were there certain kinds of, I guess, aesthetic flaws that were built in to the process to make it look a little bit more, like, old style of, of stop motion animation things to kind of evoke that?
TREY: Uh, built in, I don’t think is actually accurate. I’d say Tim definitely was interested in having it have texture and old school reality, and stuff like that. It wasn’t an intentional built in process, but it was kind of an overall methodology that he let everyone know. We want this to feel like stop motion. We want this to feel like puppets have a handmade quality because it’s, it’s more accessible. It’s kind of, it’s got a warm charm to it. He’s a huge fan of Ray Harryhausen, and he wants a little bit of that gritty texture where you can see that it’s not CG, and it’s not 2D. It’s overly kind of fluid, or elegant. It has a little bit of a, a rough edge to it. It makes it charming.
ALLISON: If you look closely at the puppets, I feel like in the sense of the design, the textures are not perfectly smooth. Like the Corpse Bride puppets are much smoother as far as their face, faces go and stuff. And that is where I feel like we could put the texture in and really showcase it. But funny, ‘cause oftentimes we want to animate faster, which might be a little bit rougher. Like, don’t you want it rough? And it’s, like, no, no, no. It needs to be perfect. It just needs to be, um, It just needed to look hand made, but perfect. And so it really, the, it was almost like there was more attention to detail just because we were trying to showcase the handmade quality to its best light.
Q: Is there a particular image that is the hardest to achieve? I noticed that, for instance, there were a lot of tears, and I think liquid is one of the real challenges in stop-motion.
TREY: No question about it. Uh, the tears were a challenge. There was, there was a lot of, a lot of particularly difficult things. I mean, just the emotional content of the film was so heavy duty, to get these, these simplified puppets to express these emotions. I mean, their facial kind of mechanics are limited at best, and so it’s really about the subtlety of the, the body action, and, and just the tiny people movements. I mean, it’s trying to make the, the most out of the least, really. It’s kind of understating it, and it’s giving a reality to it to kind of go through these emotions.
Q: Were there any challenges where you had to completely just scrap something, or…?
TREY: Not really.
ALLISON: Well, one of the things that I, is similar to this is that I feel like we, um, I, I was saying it, I’m not sure if it was in that group, but he can’t really sit. And so if there was a scene, or for instance, lying down, you have to build a special puppet to lie down, and then to Tim added at the last minute, I want him to get up from lying down. The puppet doesn’t get up, so the way that you have to, it’s not like you scrap it. You have to go and retrofit it, and build something into the set, and build something so that he could get up onto his… ‘Cause remember, we had to have him wake up, ‘cause he used to wake up later, and it was a different puppet, and then he had to wake up earlier, and then, so that’s the kind of stuff that the puppets sort of challenges to you when something is asked for because it would be lovely for the moment, but then it wasn’t built that way. But those guys are amazing at, you know, you give them a challenge, and 24 hours, and they will figure out a way to make it work. So I think that we, we, we kind of solved those problems…
Q: Now, shooting with the cannon 5D, did that influence you in terms of the tones that you used, and in terms of construction of the puppets?
ALLISON: I think that… We picked the cameras because the 5D was the most, the best range and the best looking image…
TREY: Exactly. Through the lens kind of technology, so the animators could see what they were doing; had a better through the lens image so it gave the animators a better look at their product.
ALLISON: But we definitely tested lots of cameras and lots of cameras we pulled into black and white to see, and, um, you know, I think that this one, it sort of ticked all of our boxes.
Q: How does the current level of technology improve this process, as sort of old school as it is, as opposed to either ten years ago, or even Ray Harryhausen's time. Like, does it make it a lot easier, or just a smidgen easier?
TREY: Uh, digital technology makes it a lot easier. If you’re shooting on film, it is what it is, and they were doing in camera effects, multi-pass stuff, like we were doing on Nightmare. And one tiny error and you throw it all away and start again. Doing it digitally gives you a lot of leeway to massage things a little bit. Compositing’s a lot easier, all that stuff. So it’s monumentally easier, but the final product, Tim wants this to look old school, as if it was shot on film, on black and white film. And so he, he doesn’t want this to become state of the art technology thing. This is supposed to look like it was supposed to be shot at the turn of the century. You know, it’s, it’s, he wants that old kind of textured quality.
ALLISON: But no, only to say that one of the things, though, that happens when you makes things a little easier to be able to do is then the desire is become greater ‘cause one of the things, because it was a little bit easier, this movie also went from a thousand shots to 1,600 shots ‘cause it seems like that’s, that’s kind of the way [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Same thing with Avids now that you can cut things so easily, people have 1,500 versions of the movie, whereas when you were cutting it and putting it on paper clips it was, you know, you really wanted to make that cut when you thought about it before. Um, now it’s like, we can make more set ups. We can have more shots, so I don’t feel like the process is any easier because now the goals are just higher, and there’s just, there’s more scope, there’s more stuff. So, but, the life the quality of life for an animator, I would say, is a little bit easier just because you can now see what you’re doing. ‘Cause it seems like on Nightmare they could see three frames and they were fuzzy, green, horrible looking frames, and that was it. And it was just, like, They didn’t even look like frames. And now you can actually see the whole shot, and, um, and, uh, kind of really be able to gauge if you, you know, if you’re on target or not.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the original Frankenweenie?
TREY: It’s [UNINTELLIGIBLE] to include the first film in tact in its entirety into this feature, and the feature is just elaborated on. It’s just making it bigger and fleshing it out, and adding all these children characters, but I think everything from the original is in this film… in one way or another. So we wanted to keep absolutely true to the original story. That was his story. He didn’t want to change it at all, just to elaborate on it, and make it thicker and more lush with the new characters, and the, the new monsters and stuff. So did it help the animation? Yes. It gave us a a platform to work from. But we wanted to… One of his particular issues was getting the dog Sparky to actually be able to act a little bit more. He didn’t want him to have human emotions, he just wanted him to have dog emotions. He wanted to have a real relationship, a boy and his dog, and the dog was not to be anthropomorphized. Real dog, real relationship, and it was all about that for him. And so stop motion gave us the ability to let Sparky act a little bit more thoroughly.
Q: Could you talk just a little bit about the added burden of responsibility, when you’re realizing, helping to realize the dream of an artist has been rattling around in his head for 30 years.
ALLISON : That’s a lot more responsibility…
TREY : [OVERLAPS] Yes…
ALLISON : [OVERLAPS] Yeah, absolutely. And I, and I feel like everyone on that crew was, um, just so hyper wanting to please him and wanting to kind of get in his head, and really give him what he saw. Um, and so proud when they did. So it was, you know, in some ways it was it was the real feeling of satisfaction when you know you nailed it, and exactly, and literally, I think one time I think in the art department, he was looking and said, oh, no, that’s not how it was. And it was, like, not how it’s supposed to be or how I asked for it, but how it was, and it was just like it slipped out, and I do feel like lots of the things are when we got it to be something like how it was. Like the school when we first walked on the set of the elementary school set, and he was, like, ooo. You know, like, and it was just like that moment of I’m back in school. You know, and it was just things that really were visceral reactions that really felt like they were from his life I think was really fun for us to, to be able to go and see that…
Q: What was it like working with Tim, though, on this one, being such a personal…
ALLISON: [OVERLAPS] To me, it was I felt like it was, he was so open and generous about what he wanted, and so clear about what he wanted, and, you know, going back to her question about the original short, like, sometimes he already made a choice, like, why are we trying to reinvent the wheel when, you know, this is what he wants the rooftop, you know should be a swing set or something else. It’s like, it’s a swing set. That’s what he wants it to be, so We had a thing to to jump off of, and then he was so generous, and was so attentive to being there with us, and working so closely with the puppet designers, and, uh, you know, if we if we needed another sketch, if we needed something else, like, really it was it was so passionate for him to work on it that I feel like he gave us so much, uh, it was great.
Q: Trey, was there anything you wanted to do but you couldn’t because of clearances, or because of, uh, ‘cause it’s not possible yet, or, or, uh, it wasn’t, it didn’t fit in Tim’s vision or anything like that?
TREY: Honestly, no. I love this movie top to bottom. The fact that it was such a close, personal project to Tim’s, I’m kind of a monster movie buff myself, so I had a lot in common with it, and everything about it I love. All these kid characters, totally love. This was nothing but a pleasure and a privilege, really.
ALLISON: We got everything in there. I mean, all the monsters are the monsters that Tim really had in his mind, and they are all on screen, so…
Q: Was everything public domain, or did you have to go through Universal?
ALLISON: I think we had to, we had to talk to, like, Sea Monkey people, and, and stuff like that, but it just seems like, uh, you know, it is all just all kind of fell into place nicely.
Q: What is it about Tim Burton that makes everybody gravitate and want to work with him again, from talent to the artisans to the producers?
ALLISON: I think working with him is such a satisfying experience… and for someone like that, you feel like, he’s at the top of his game, and you’re, you’re you know, so easily, you could easily be so intimidated by him to find someone so warm, so generous, and just so respectful of what we do. You know, it’s, like, he doesn’t second guess Trey’s what Trey’s choice is because he knows that Trey is the best in the world at what he does, and so he’s so good at just sort of working with amazing, talented people, giving them space to as Martin Landau says, play, and then, and then sort of, uh, and then, but, and then raising you up. So to me that’s why people keep coming back for more.
TREY: He was nothing but positive, supportive, enthusiastic the entire time, top to bottom. It was shocking.
ALLISON: But even when he doesn’t…
ALLISON: …like something, he’s respectful and lovely about it, and, you know, especially with something like this movie which is so personal, you feel like if you got it wrong, you’re gonna be devastated, and he was just so just great about just giving you more information, and more stuff so that, that you, uh, could get it to where it needed to be.
Q: This movie really felt like it was, like, this distillation of the Tim Burton cinema aesthetic.
ALLISON: We we have a library of movies, but not just his movies, also the movies that inspired him and made him want to make movies, and to me that was kind of a fun thing. Like, I am not a horror movie buff. I had seen some of them or bits of them, but, you know, we actually got a 3D version, I mean, a 3D print of the Creature from the Black Lagoon and we took everybody down to a theater and we watched it, and it was just, uh, you know, just trying to really go, what was the experience that he had that made him kind of trigger this, and, uh, and, you know, encouraging people to read Frankenstein, and to look at the movies and Young Frankenstein. And so really, definitely I think it’s good to make the whole crew kind of immerse in that world.
Q: And what about the decision to go 3D? Any concerns at, at first about this? Because I think when you started direction, 3D was a little more primitive than it is now, a little bit anyway, but…
TREY: Yes. I mean, we had made the call to shoot it in 2D, and had the 3D done as a post process. And so that took a lot of the, the weight off of us. It allowed us to, to have a little more freedom on the floor to shoot things, but we always had the mindset that we need this to work in 3D, and so we’re always shooting with 3D in mind, but we didn’t have a lot of the restrictions that shooting in real 3D had, and I think it’s also going to be a different quality than shooting the real 3D. I think it’s gonna lend to its graphic quality. I mean, we work with the black and white really well.
ALLISON: But it was always slated to be 3D for us. As far as Tim was concerned. I think he was really happy with the post version of Nightmare, and the way that, that, I always said that Nightmare feels like you’re being pulled into, like, a velvety world, and, and the 3D works so well. And I think for Tim, because of the appeal of the actual physical sets are so strong in a stop motion environment, it feels like it’s pulling you in, so you get a little bit of that feeling that actually being on the dollhouse set, and being in the, the magical world, and so for us, our, our attitude towards 3D is so different. It’s not, you know, the, the mystical roller coaster ride in your face, like, like shocker. It’s about pulling you into that world. So I think from the start it had always been… So I think he was really interested in doing another [UNINTELLIGIBLE]
Q: It’s such a, a labor intensive, and, and involving process for everyone. So I’m wondering, in terms of, you used the word support before, what, what it does in the animation community when the plug gets pulled on a major project. Uh, ‘cause it seems like a body blow, saying wait a minute, is there support for devoting this kind of time and energy.
ALLISON: I feel like movies come and movies go a lot in every medium, and I, I don’t [UNINTELLIGIBLE] sometimes the animation things look like they’re, they’re so much more, like, under a microscope. It’s like, I feel like we can’t see it as a blow to the medium, just because some movies go away. Um, and it’s, I don’t think it’s because of the, the, I don’t think that the stop motion element of it is, ‘cause stop motion can be very economical. It’s actually quicker than most types of animation. It’s like It does seem like it’s a, it’s back breaking work, because it is back breaking for the guy who’s gotta do it, but actually, as a process, our movies only take two and a half to three years, and, and far fewer people than our computer graphics movie, or even a 2D, 2D film. So to me it does seem like it’s important to kind of go wait a minute. Movies come and go because of, um, lots man, many different reasons, and so, and to try not to associate it too much with the medium because I feel like we can’t, we can’t, we could not find animators on this movie because there were so many stop motion movies coming up, and everybody wants to make I feel like I keep getting calls constantly that everybody wants to get into the world of stop motion. So I do feel like, because it’s a medium that really speaks to auteur filmmakers, it will definitely have a, have a prosperous life in the future. But it does seem like you just gotta find the right dynamic.