Author: Gerry Maravilla and Chad Wyszynski
While the film market is flooded with computer animated films from the likes of DreamWorks, Disney and Pixar, Henry Selick’s film adaptation of the Neil Gaiman children’s book, Coraline, looks to challenge this animation monopoly. Known for his classic films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, Selick is renowned for his expertise in the niche animation form known as stop-motion.
Stop-motion is a particular type of filmmaking where animators photograph three-dimensional models or puppets one frame at a time. Placed in successive order, these photos create the illusion of movement. Selick and his team of talented animators take the medium to new heights in his latest work, filming Gaiman’s recent classic book in 3-D; the first for any stop-motion film.
Coraline is the story of a frustrated young girl who stumbles upon an alternate world through a small secret door. This other-world has striking similarities to her own. She has her same room in the same house with the same parents and neighbors. The only major difference is that inhabitants of the otherworld have flat black buttons in place of eyes.
While her other-parents seemingly offer Coraline everything a child could possibly desire, she notices that something eerie and disturbing lurks beneath the picturesque surface.
On Oct. 24 in West Los Angeles, Focus Features screened 30 minutes of selected footage from Coraline to members of the press. These scenes displayed the film’s elaborate sets, wondrous lighting and detailed puppet design. While in many other movies 3-D is merely used a cheap gimmick, its use in Coraline enhances the themes and overall experience of the film.
“I wanted to make the other-world come alive and give the audience a moment similar to the scene in The Wizard of Oz where the film transitions from black and white to Technicolor,” Selick said. From the clips we saw, the use of 3-D successfully gave the otherworld a heightened sense of reality and magic.
In one of the scenes from the other-world, Coraline visits her neighbor which has been training a group of mice for a circus performance. Coraline enters a magical room where cannons fire cotton candy and Ferris wheels produce popcorn. A circus tent houses the 50 or so mice who put on a performance reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil. Selick’s use of 3-D pulls us into the mice performance, but stops short of calling attention to the fact that we’re watching a 3-D film.
Selick joked that he had to tell his artists to tone down the visuals. “I had to sneak in when the artists went home and spray some of the models gray. The audience would have too much to look at,” Selick said. “It was too beautiful.”
Balancing the role of director between voice actors and the team of animators proves to be one of Selick’s, and the medium’s, most difficult challenges. “You have to be a coach, a cheerleader, a gardener, and, at times, a heartless bastard,” Selick said.
Stop-motion’s compelling visuals are the result of a collaborative effort between a team of sculptors and puppeteers. In order to display Coraline’s broad range of emotions, the crew designed the puppets with two-part removable heads and enough faces to create over 400 different expressions.
Selick’s team went as far to create special posable hair to make the puppets’ motion, especially falling, look more realistic. This required the puppeteers to manipulate almost each individual hair for every frame. With this amount of attention to detail, it took the crew of over 30 puppeteers five eight-hour workdays to produce two minutes of screen footage. Production on this film took about 40 weeks.Fans of the book need not worry about Selick taking too many creative liberties with the story. Gaiman has given Selick his seal of approval. “I just put people I like in charge of the film, then I don’t have to worry about it,” Gaiman said. “I like Selick’s version enormously.”
At first, Selick worked too closely with Gaiman. “The first few drafts were too boring, so I told Neil I wouldn’t talk to him for a year,” Selick said. “That draft ended up being the one we both liked the best.”
Based on the footage we’ve seen so far, Selick is set to deliver another stop-motion classic. Although Coraline probably won’t dethrone CGI in the animation world, it shows that old school stop-motion can more than hold its own. We would go so far as to say it is the most aesthetically awe-inspiring film ever. Coraline is scheduled for wide release on Feb. 6, 2009.
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