January 1, 2009
Behind the Scenery
It took a staggering number of animators, puppet makers, set builders, and art directors to bring the feature film Coraline to life in stop-motion. Along the way, they proved that this lo-fi approach to animation is a sophisticated feat of design.
On the quiet outskirts of a rainy town way up in the Pacific Northwest, there’s a boring beige building in the middle of an even more boring business park. It doesn’t look like anything very special could happen here. Outside, cars sit in neat little rows, and nothing at all is visible through the tinted windows. But near the entryway there is the faint, unmistakable whiff of…popcorn. Inside, down a long hallway, a dark space nearly the size of three football fields is broken into “rooms” by heavy black curtains stretching up to the 30-foot-high ceiling. Not so long ago, each of these rooms contained a small, meticulously built stage—a child’s fanciful bedroom, an eerie Victorian house, a ghostly chamber behind a magic mirror—all part of a universe coming to life within the anonymous walls. Propped on a chair next to one of the swathed spaces is a sign: “Caution, Magic Occurring Inside.” Movie magic, to be exact.
This is the set of Coraline, an animated feature film, out next month, based on the fantasy author Neil Gaiman’s beautifully creepy children’s novel about an adventurous girl who unlocks a secret passageway and enters the parallel Other World, complete with an Other Mother and an Other Father. In this place, Coraline’s food is tastier, her boring Real World neighbors are fascinating, the many toys in her bedroom play with her, and her parents exist only to love her. They love her so much, in fact, that they want to keep her there forever, a dangerous predicament that could cost Coraline her flesh-and-blood family—and even her soul.
The director, Henry Selick, had already used stop-motion animation, a lo-fi approach that employs real puppets and scenery rather than computer graphics, on his cult hit The Nightmare Before Christmas, and he was convinced it was aperfect medium for Gaiman’s fairy tale. “It connects directly to the story of Coraline,” Selick says. “She’s a kid who’s not happy with her life. She lives in a huge old house, has neighbors she doesn’t like, and discovers another world—a better version of her own life.” Just as everything in that world was fastidiously made by the Other Mother’s dark magic, Selick and his Portland, Oregon–based crew had to will into being every physical detail of the film, including every emotion on every character’s face. Their completely designed universe neatly marries process and story.
At the height of production, 35 animators and 300 crew members worked all day and into the night inside the warehouse, about 15 miles from the production company Laika’s headquarters, toiling over intricate sets and complicated shots. Every second of on-screen footage required 24 separate frames and many hours of labor. Even with the crew putting in 50-hour weeks, Laika averaged only 70 to 90 seconds of footage, or about five minutes a month. Magic, it turns out, is really hard work.
The animators are also actors in the most basic sense of the word, moving a puppet’s eyebrow, say, a fraction of a millimeter at a time to create an expression of surprise. Because they work in solitude, rather than under the immediate direction of Selick, the briefing for each scene included a discussion of both basic choreography and emotion. “Unlike traditional hand-drawing, it is a performance,” says Travis Knight, one of the lead animators. “The old Disney animators always said they were actors with a pencil. The same holds true, but instead of a pencil we have a puppet”—a physical object that can be difficult to manage. “They sometimes resist, so you have to be a little flexible. It leaves it open for a fair amount of spontaneity, gives it warmth and charm, evidence of a human hand and a human mind.” Selick describes the process this way: “With puppets, you’re growing your actors!”
The animators may breathe life into the scenery and puppets, but before they can start, art directors and set builders have to create an environment for the characters to live in. To establish the visual vocabulary of that environment, Selick tapped a Japanese illustrator, Tadahiro Uesugi. “Tadahiro’s heavily influenced by late-fifties and early-sixties American illustration, the kind that’s portrayed in Mad Men, back when photography wasn’t the first place you’d go to solve things,” he says. “It’s a fresh, illustrative style, very graphic, but he adds a touch of soul—a tiny bit of reflection in a water surface, a shadow, a disturbance of atmosphere. His work breathes.” At first glance, the illustrator’s deliberately flat style doesn’t seem to lend itself to a movie, but Selick was heavily influenced by Uesugi’s rich, quiet palette. “I was going for subtlety and muted colors in the Real World and didn’t want to go way overboard in the Other World,” he says.
Using those illustrations, Selick developed handbooks that detailed the appearance of everything from Coraline’s yellow raincoat to rug swatches, giving the designers, puppet makers, and animators a reference as they worked, simultaneously but independently, on their scenes. Nevertheless, finding the physical materials to translate those visuals was a challenge. Though an architect or interior designer has spec books to pull from, Coraline’s crew had no such tools and instead combed drugstores, craft shops, and even supermarkets until landing on the right stuff. “Art never duplicates reality—it’s a symbol of the thing,” Selick says. “Here everything is art-directed; nothing is random. Every blade of grass, every branch shape, needs to have style.” One of the best examples is the blossoms of the apple orchard in the Real World. Various papers and even faux flowers were tried and discarded before the designers hit upon the idea of popcorn. “We finally used the cheapest store brand we could get because it popped more realistically,” says Tom Proost, an art director. “We didn’t want all these big, fluffy kernels.” And the brown insides proved the perfect guidelines within which to painstakingly paint the blush-pink hearts of the 60-odd trees’ apple blossoms.
The same kind of ingenuity came into play with the puppets. Selick sent designers on “cloth expeditions” to London, Los Angeles, and New York. And although the sweater that Coraline’s Real World mother wears was made out of “a baby sock from, erm, Baby Gap,” according to Scott Tom, the character-fabrication lead, other woolens did not come from the mall. “We located a miniature knitter,” Selick says with relish. A young mom in the Midwest knit mittens for Coraline’s toothpick-size fingers.
Seeing a deconstructed character is like receiving a strange anatomy lesson. Each one has a skeleton—a slim, precise, ball-jointed structure that resembles something built from a spaghetti-thin Erector set—clad in silicone flesh. Because the characters are magnified so many times on-screen, the margin of error in building multiples of each is just 5/1,000th of an inch. They need to be sturdy enough not to shift between frames but pliable enough to be manipulated into lifelike positions.
Some unavoidably delicate parts, like Coraline’s tiny hands, took such a beating that animators went through as many as ten in a single shot, requiring the puppet makers to produce them nonstop for two years. And since certain characters underwent a vast range of expressions, specialists were needed to keep track of replacement faces, plates with a series of tiny emotional variations that snap on and off. Coraline had about 480 of them, all cataloged by her very own face librarian.
It takes someone with an extraordinary amount of patience and skill to work within those constraints. Many members of Coraline’s crew have collaborated on past productions such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach; several, including Knight, cut their teeth on The PJs, Eddie Murphy’s short-lived stop-motion sitcom. They are a small but loyal band of stalwarts who worship at the celluloid altar of the early stop-motion innovators Ray Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien (who crafted King Kong for the 1933 film), and grew up watching Rankin-Bass TV specials, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, over and over again.
Jerome Ranft, now a clay sculptor for Pixar, worked with many of the Coralinecrew members on Nightmare and James. Still, he came away from a July visit to the Laika production facility impressed: “Here were 50 sets going at once—that was pretty amazing. They are huge, bigger than the town-square sets on Nightmare. It’s a scale that’s kind of unprecedented for stop-motion.”
With so much effort going into physical creation, it might seem difficult to achieve the artistry necessary for real storytelling. “It’s the minutiae and it’s the grandeur,” Knight says of the balance. “Sure, there are the tiniest details—the fingernail polish, the intricate work—but then you take a step back and you see the spectacle.”
The power of design as an emotional tool in this medium is most apparent in the play between Coraline’s two worlds—the drab apartment in a rundown Victorian where she lives with her harried parents, and its perfected replica. “In the Real World, I wanted to create a sense of claustrophobia,” Selick says, “while in the Other World you get a sense that, oh, you can breathe here. It’s not just about turning up the color and magic right away.”
To achieve that, Selick decided to rake the Real World sets at such a severe angle that standing in front of the kitchen feels like looking through the wrong side of a pair of binoculars. The floor and sides slope queasily to meet a back wall that is pinched and uncomfortable, too small for the puppets inhabiting this stage. The rooms in the Other World, by contrast, are deep and spacious, with neat right angles. So it’s not just the brighter purples and exotic toys of Coraline’s Other World bedroom that make it so desirable: it’s a physical space that fits the character better. “A lot of people were pretty upset with me because I kept pushing,” Selick says, “but eventually they understood the logic and could play with it more. It became a tool.” On-screen, thanks to tricks of the camera angles, the spaces don’t read as raked; only the sense of discomfort or freedom comes through. Their impact is amplified by the use of 3-D technology—the first time it has ever been seen in a stop-motion feature—which is minimally employed in the drab Real World, and to great effect in the fantastical Other World.
The sets got such a workout that Lee Bo Henry, an art director, says, “You have to overbuild while maintaining detail. For live action this would be held together with spit, but stop-motion is harder on a set. The typical scene will take two weeks, and while they’re shooting, nothing can move—every time something moves, it costs us $5,000.”
In a behind-the-scenes featurette, Eric Leighton, an animator, is shown working on an Other World scene that takes place in a fantasy theater where Coraline’s ex-actress neighbors, Miss Forcible and Miss Spink, relive the performance of their lives. Leighton crawls onto the set with a headlamp, shifts a prop boat, goes around to the back, moves the background according to tiny gauge marks that indicate one frame, and ducks under the stage to reach a trapdoor rigged with automatic jacks that move Forcible. From there he also accesses two angels who bob up and down. Their marks are so miniscule that he has to wear two pairs of special glasses to see them. He then takes off one pair of glasses, slides Forcible toward the center of the stage, and runs around to the front to begin animating the character while holding his shirt in his teeth so that it doesn’t touch the hot spotlights below—the last time that happened, it went up in flames. That is one frame. Remember, it takes 24 for a single second of footage.
Though some digital magic was used, the vast majority of Coraline was made in an extraordinarily old-fashioned way. “It’s becoming more and more rare that high-quality handmade objects are being produced,” Selick says. “Stop-motion’s the red-headed stepchild of animation,” Knight adds. “Now that CG”—computer graphics—“has dominated, it’s kind of this weird anachronism, moving these little puppets a frame at a time.” Yeah, but it’s cool, explains Richard Zimmerman, an animator who lights a flame and heats a blade with gusto in preparation for a scene in which a character’s hand transforms into dust and blows away. “Here’s something the CG guys don’t get to use—fire. And sharp weapons of destruction, surgical blades, even hypodermic needles.”
Stop-motion, for these guys, is where the real magic is at. “We try to achieve a lot, and in the end there’s this weird thing where you push things around, and a few days later you watch it on a screen, and it’s…life,” Selick says. “You look in the mirror, and you’re tired, but there’s still this secret joy that you created life.”