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Henry Selick Interview, Page 2

The Director of The Nightmare Before Christmas
Reflects on His Biggest Hit and Discusses Next Film

Q: How is the directing process on a stop-motion film different from directing live-action or even regular animation?

H.S.: Directing stop-motion animation is actually a sort of combination of directing live action and "regular" animation. We have real sets, real lights, real cameras.
There is a costume department, a hair department and our puppets are the actors. Like regular animation, it is a divide and conquer. It is all divided up into manageable pieces, edited in storyboards before the movie is made and then shot a frame a time like traditional animation.

Q: Do you think the Best Animated Feature Oscar category does more good or harm for the medium?

H.S.: More good!

Q: I remember being on set, and you explained that The Man with the Tear Away Face had to be tempered because it was too scary originally -- were there other sequences that had to be altered during production because they became more intense?

H.S.: No, that is the only studio note that was actually implemented.

Q: What is the next step in stop-motion technology? We've read about the new stereoscopic dual digital camera rig you're using on Coraline. How will the end result be different from Nightmare Before Christmas?

H.S.: Shooting stereoscopically just gives you more of what is there, just a little more sense of the reality of this medium. It does not live in the computer nor is it a series of drawings, it's an actual real set and puppets.

Q: What major changes have occurred in this kind of filmmaking in the time between Nightmare and Coraline?

H.S.: Mainly, it is the ability to capture images in a computer while you shoot.
When we did Nightmare we could capture 2 images total. Now you can shoot the whole scene and play it back while you animate. This assists the animator but actually slows down the process because they keep checking it every time they shoot a new frame. Computers have slowed down what is already a time-consuming process.

Q: How difficult was it to do the Oogie Boogie sequence? With all the neon, it seems like it was one of the more complicated set pieces in the film.

H.S.: It was not the neon that was difficult. It was Oogie Boogie himself. He was a huge puppet, very difficult to muscle around -- it was almost as if he was trying to push back while you were animating him.

On Coraline...

Q: How will your experience working on Nightmare influence your upcoming project, Coraline? How will the aesthetic and visual style compare to Coraline?

H.S.: You build on what you know, so there are no doubt that some similarities between the two projects. I also have many of the original Nightmare team members working on Coraline. We've all grown and the visual aesthetic is ultimately a very different one. You'll see great animation like Nightmare, like a cousin of Nightmare. More like a second cousin. The last thing I'd want to do would be to try to rip off a classic film I directed.

Q: How would you compare adapting Neil Gaiman in Coraline with adapting Tim Burton's designs on Nightmare?

H.S.: I think that both Tim and Neil are extremely imaginative and real creators. In Tim's case, he is a visual artist so the look of the film came from his sensibilities. Neil is not a visual artist,
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so I created the visual look of Coraline. As far as sensibilities, I think there is a little more whimsy in Tim's work, a little more sweet with the sours, comfort with the scary, but I'd probably exclude Sweeney Todd. Neil goes a little more darker, primal like a Grimm's fairy tale.

Q: How direct of a translation is Coraline from Neil Gaiman's book?

H.S.: The movie version of Coraline is very faithful to the tone and the spirit of the book. In the translation from book to film there are adjustments to story and character that have to be made. The main thing I always felt was I could not disappoint the readers of the book, and though some details have been changed and as well as the order of the sequences, I feel we will be successful.

Q: How far along is Coraline?

H.S.: We will complete animation on Coraline in about 6 weeks and plan a February release of 2009.

Q: What was it about Coraline that truly appealed to you?

H.S.: It's a dark perfect modern fairy tale that concerns itself with a primal thought every child considers: I wish I had other parents. That, and the button eyes.

Q: Was there resistance at first to do Nightmare as stop-motion instead of cel animation?

H.S.: There was resistance to doing it at all at first.
Tim Burton's first directing job at Disney was the stop-motion short "Vincent." In this screencap from the film, Vincent Malloy uses his wild imagination to drop a relative into a steaming vat.
When Tim first pitched it to Disney in the early 1980s, there was resistance to the project in any medium. But 10 years later, when the film was made there was never an issue about it being stop-motion. It was simply a case of that is how Tim conceived it.

Q: What type of animation was used for the Vincent Price narrated poem, and what different perspective did that give you on the Nightmare world?

H.S.: Vincent was Tim's first stop-motion film that he made with Rick Heinrichs. It had a striking look, bold design and was basically part of Tim's growth as an artist, which influenced the look of Nightmare Before Christmas.

Q: Who were (or was) your personal favorite character(s) in Nightmare?

H.S.: The one I'm closest to is Jack Skellington, because as a director you often have to act out various characters for your animators. Since I resemble Jack Skellington more than the other characters, I think more of my gestures got into Jack.

Q: People who have directed 3D/CGI tell me that stop-motion people
have certain advantages adapting to CGI over more traditional techniques. Do you find that to be the case? If so or not, why?

H.S.: It is simply the fact that what were shooting really exists. So you get immediate feedback and can make adjustments accordingly.

Q: You began your career as an inbetweener and animator trainee on The Fox and the Hound. What made you move toward stop-motion animation?

H.S.: I'd actually done stop-motion prior to working on The Fox and the Hound, including some life-size figures for an independent film of mine. While I enjoyed 2-D animation while working at Disney, stop-motion had a more visceral charge to it and was therefore where I was always going to end up.

Q: I once interviewed Joe Clokey and he told me that you and Tim Burton took a lot of your people from his Gumby crew. Did you? Why?

H.S.: There was a Gumby revival by Art Clokey in the '80s and a new TV series that followed, which attracted a lot of young stop motion animators to California. Many of the animators for Nightmare Before Christmas came from that group. But the Gumby project had been over for almost 3 years so we did not "take" anyone.

Q: Would you ever do a short film for Caroline Thompson's new company, Small and Creepy?

H.S.: Sure, I'd love to do a short film for Caroline Thompson's company. She did a great job shaping the film's story from Danny's songs.

Q: How many of the original puppets do you have in your house?

H.S.: The main one I have is Jack Skellington as Santa with his Skeleton Reindeer in his sled led by Zero. It is prominently displayed in my office where occasional trick-or-treaters get let in IF they are wearing Nightmare Before Christmas attire.

Well, I've got to get back to work on Coraline, I've got some folks waiting in the screening room to work with, but thanks for all your great questions about Nightmare and your continued interest in the film.

The Nightmare Before Christmas: Collector's Edition DVD - click to read our review.
More on The Nightmare Before Christmas...
Click here to read our The Nightmare Before Christmas: Collector's Edition DVD review.
Buy the new release from Amazon.com: DVD, Blu-ray, Limited Edition Ultimate Collector's DVD Set.
Click here to read our 2006 interview with Don Hahn on the movie's 3-D theatrical reissues.

Read other interviews...
Gore Verbinski, director of the Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy
Kathryn Beaumont, voice/model of Alice and Peter Pan's Wendy

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Interview posted August 26, 2008. Conducted August 16, 2008.