Tim Burton’s new stop-motion movie was the opening film at this year’s BFI London Film Festival. Phil Bayles went down to London to hear the cast, the crew and even the man himself talk about the film.
Tim Burton’s reputation certainly precedes him. When I first get a glimpse of him at the Corinthian Hotel in London, arriving for a Q&A session about his new film Frankenweenie, he looks every bit like the mad genius we’ve all come to expect. But there’s also a deep love for what he does, which is evident from the moment Burton opens his mouth, and it’s that love that makes his relationships with the actors he works with so fruitful.
“It’s unbelievably collaborative,” says Martin Short, who first worked with Burton on Mars Attacks! (1996). “He wants to know what you think, which is absolutely ideal for an actor.”
Martin Landau, who Burton first cast in Ed Wood (1994) stated that he wanted to work with the director after seeing Beetlejuice (1988) for the first time. “I had no idea who he was, but I thought his imagination was just mind boggling.” According to Landau, the pair understood each other so well that they didn’t even have to communicate in full sentences. “It’s like a big playground, working with [Tim]… he makes it fun, and good directors can do that.”
And the love goes both ways; Burton has worked with everyone on the panel at least once, and for him that makes the job so much more enjoyable.
“When you work with people from the past, who you’ve worked with before, that makes it all the more special.”
But there’s one key figure in Burton’s work that wasn’t at the panel; composer Danny Elfman, who’s collaborated with the director since they both made their debut with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985.
“Danny and I are very close; we always have been. He’s like another character in my work. He’s really good at guiding the tone of the film.”
Clearly, Frankenweenie is a very special project for Burton. He describes it as a ‘memory piece’; the locales are all based on the neighbourhood of Burbank, where the director grew up.
“Any place you’re from, that’s a part of your life. And it was great delving into those memories; a lot of places change quite a lot, but Burbank hasn’t changed at all.”
The movie was always conceived as a feature-length stop-motion animation, but due to budget constraints it was reduced to a live-action short film.
“The purity of stop-motion, in black and white, and 3D, was always something very exciting to me,” says Burton. “The black and white makes it more emotional… and the 3D really suits the work that [the animators] did; it really highlights the tactile nature of the film.”
Burton’s clearly made a good career for himself without the help of Disney, but has he found it difficult putting his stop-motion films against the big CGI releases from the likes of Pixar?
“I really hope all forms of animation are still viable; stop-motion is a beautiful art form, and I would hope that all art forms can flourish.” Burton’s art has certainly flourished, in any case; his works have even been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Like ParaNorman, another stop-motion film released this year, Frankenweenie makes plenty of references to the kind of horror films that Tim Burton grew up on. But, as he explains, he was always very careful to make sure that the movie never became ‘reference-dependent’.
“We thought very hard about the references… We wanted the audience to try and feel what these kinds of movies are like, without having to know every single reference we made.”
Still, the idea of making a full-on horror film isn’t out of the question. “Maybe I’ll make it completely in stop-motion!” he laughs. All jokes aside, Burton is often seen as a director who’s focused on darker movies which often deal with death. But he doesn’t see it that way, and he certainly doesn’t consider Frankenweenie to be a ‘dark’ film.
“I always wanted to be a mad scientist,” he says, “To me, [the movie] isn’t about death; it’s about creation. It’s about animating inanimate objects. That’s why I love the Frankenstein story. And that’s what filmmaking is; it’s about creating something special with a smallish group of people, and bringing it to life.”
A stop-motion film like Frankenweenie is what you might call a labour of love. It took a team of 30 animators and over 100 artists, working over a period of 18 months to bring the movie to life. Or, to put it another way, a single animator working flat out for a week can produce between four and five seconds of footage.
It’s a painstaking task, but animator Tray Thomas and his team are definitely up to the job. But they can’t start until the models have been created, and that’s where Mackinnon & Saunders come in. The company, led by Ian Mackinnon and Pete Saunders, has already worked with Tim Burton in the past – they’re the ones who provided the models for Corpse Bride – and they seem to be in tune with his way of working.
“Tim has a keen eye for detail,” says Mackinnon. “We tried to use a lot of motifs from [his] sketches, like the subtle, hand-drawn lines in Victor’s trousers, and to take all of our stuff from [his] head. That way, it feels like one complete world.”
But there were still new issues to get around. In particular, Burton’s insistence on shooting the film entirely in black and white meant that everything – including the props – had to be painted in different shades of grey.
“[Tim] wanted the animators to feel like they were in a black and white world, which was crucial to the film.”
The theme of horror was also incredibly important. The people at Mackinnon & Saunders used pictures of old horror villains, like hunchbacks and vampires, as inspiration for the weird and wonderful characters. But they still have a soft, almost delicate feeling to them. After all, this is a Disney film.
So the puppet makers create design models out of clay, and when Burton approves of the design, it’s time to make silicone models – complete with real human hair on their heads – to scale. Unfortunately, the animators have a whole new set of problems to work with – because of Burton’s penchant for giant bodies and spindly limbs, many of the models simply couldn’t stand up by themselves. Instead, they have to be supported by a rig which gets edited out in post-production.
“It’s amazingly time-consuming,” admits Thomas, “but it gives it a really visceral quality… It’s a very old-fashioned filmmaking style.”
And it’s not just the actors who develop the characters. Even the animators are ‘cast’ and divided into teams which work on a single character in order to keep them all distinct.
“We look at everyone and we see who is drawn to which character,” Thomas explains. “Certain animators have a knack for animating Sparky. There’s a scene in the movie where Sparky is really scared, and there was one animator who gave us a perfect image of that. So we say ‘okay, he’s a Sparky guy’.”
“It’s a single person’s vision,” adds Mackinnon, “but it’s a huge team effort.”
So considering all the trial and tribulation that goes into these films, what do the animators think the future of stop-motion will be? Thomas is optimistic.
“Little kids like to watch CGI, but stop motion is beautiful, and I hope they’ll grow up to appreciate it. It’s an art form; [stop-motion films] tend to stand the test of time, and they usually go on to become classics.”