Even though that still-revered stop-motion animation breakthrough from 1993 goes by the official title Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, hardcore fans know props should go to its lead animator and actual director, Henry Selick, a one-time Bay Area film-scene mainstay.
Selick's new film, Coraline, is another breakthrough: the first stop-motion animated feature conceived and filmed entirely in stereoscopic 3D. And it's beautifully realized; old fans will not be disappointed and new ones will be made. Adapted by Selick from Neil Gaiman's best-selling book, Coraline tells the tale of a resourceful young girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning) who moves with her neglectful parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) into a big, strange house in the Pacific Northwest. Therein she discovers a hidden doorway to an alternate version of her own life -- which seems much better, until it seems much worse.
Selick talked to KQED about his Bay Area moviemaking roots, the time-intensive art of animated adaptation, and where he might like to go next.
KQED: First, tell us about your time in the Bay Area, and what it meant for you creatively.
SELICK: I came to the Bay Area in the fall of 1981, and lived here 24 years, and it was very much about creativity. I had gone to Cal Arts in Southern California, and worked at Disney for several years. One of my teachers, Jules Engle, told me about this independent animated film being done up in the Bay Area, Twice Upon a Time, by John Korty. And I got to meet with him and it was very impressive. My wife, who became an animation producer, is also an artist, and both of us just changed our life plans immediately and moved to the Bay Area.
Remember, it was Korty, shooting movies with a lot of improvisation on a shoestring, who'd encouraged George Lucas and Francis Coppola to come up here. Anyway, I ended up being a sequence director on Twice Upon a Time, which means there are a couple of sequences that I storyboarded and directed. At that time it was in Mill Valley -- the whole production was in this big house, every room jammed with artists and cameras. Lucas was an executive producer. I think it cost about 4 million dollars for the whole movie.
The Bay Area was a creative beacon then, and continues to be. Later I worked with Walter Murch, and with Carol Ballard, which was fantastic and very challenging. You wore many hats when you worked with these people.
Ultimately I started doing a lot of animation through my own little company, Twitching Images, for MTV. I brought in other animators to work with me, a core group. And we did a bunch of animations for Colossal Pictures, which was this great commercials house in town for a number of years. Then when Tim Burton left Disney and had the power to resurrect his Nightmare Before Christmas, that core group became the supervisors. We set it up in the Bay Area, took over some warehouses, and off we went. It's a great place for independent spirits. You're a cog in a wheel in Los Angeles, where there are these incredible teams of people that work on films; in the Bay Area, you carry more weight as an individual.
KQED: In recent years you've been up in Portland, with the Laika company, where you made Coraline. Do you feel you've had the kind of freedom there and the resources that you need?
SELICK:At Laika, the creative support was phenomenal. This is very much my vision, with the help of an army of incredibly talented designers and animators and artists up on the screen.
KQED:So, tell us about turning Coraline the book into Coraline the movie.
SELICK: You have to rip it apart. You start from the outside, and you think, "Oh, I just need to do these surface things and it's a movie," but you need to rip it apart and reassemble it many, many times. It still needs to feel like the book, to smell like the book. This book is great. Fans of the book need to feel that it wasn't abandoned. But the surgery is very deep and took time.
KQED: Speaking of which, Neil Gaiman has said that the book took him a very long time to write. And of course the process of stop-motion animation is sort of famously time-consuming. What can you say about the creative value of taking your time? What does time give you?
SELICK: This film took a very long time to get up on its feet, to get people to support and believe in it artistically, but it's the best possible thing that it took that long. I met Neil Gaiman and read an early manuscript in 2000. I convinced him and our producer to let me adapt Coraline and write the screenplay, and so my first draft was way too faithful to the book. It wasn't a movie. It's only because in that early stage there wasn't a schedule or funding for a whole movie that I had the time to become a much better screenwriter. I was able to go away from Neil in order to transform the story into something that was working. That second draft is where I changed it from England to the U.S., I introduced this new character, and so on. Surprisingly, even though it had some fairly big changes to the book, that's the one that Neil, and the producer, responded to.
I also had to move over to do other projects along the way to pay the bills, but I would never stop thinking about Coraline. I would always take out the screenplay and work on it. I had time to grow a complete vision in my mind. I imagined every scene in the film again and again and again. I was making the movie in my head for several years before finally hooking up with the Laika company. And then there's just these lucky accidents. I was interested in 3D, and there was enough time for that technology to get to the point where it was out into the theaters just as I was starting production. If the film had gone into production earlier, I wouldn't have been able to shoot it that way.
KQED: Part of what's compelling about Coraline is that it's so sophisticatedly beautiful but also so unsettling. You're invited into what seems like an enchanted world, and it is, but you come to discover something very sinister in that enchantment.
SELICK: I'm not interested in creating comfort food for the audience. I'm hoping it's a combination of beauty and a challenge -- something they might remember for more than five minutes at the end of the day. The film is unsettling at times because that's the story. And the 3D not only captures stop-motion effectively -- this real stuff that's flawed because humans are manipulating puppets -- but it's used pretty carefully to draw the audience in, as Coraline gets drawn in, to this alternate reality. It seems very pleasant but then turns out to be a trap. And we manipulate the 3D at that point too, to make a pleasant 3D experience actually get a little more...intense.
KQED: As you keep moving forward in this medium, are there particular people you hope to work with, or techniques you hope to master? Maybe particular stories you hope to tell?
SELICK: At this point I'm very much in the Coraline moment, but there are things that have been discussed, possible collaborations, and always ideas. The film I most want to see right now -- I haven't seen it yet -- is Waltz with Bashir, the Israeli film, which tackles an incredibly serious subject and uses animation. I'm very interested in that. I would like to keep pushing what animation can do in this country.
KQED: One thing we know about animation in America now is how well it lends itself to merchandising. And maybe even more so with a film like Coraline, whose creation required actual "action figures." How do you feel about the merchandising of your films?
SELICK: With Nightmare Before Christmas, originally, there was only a limited amount of merchandise. People didn't necessarily have that much faith in it on that front; it was too different. So it's actually very gratifying to have kids come to my house on Halloween, who don't know I had anything to do with the film, all dressed up as the characters. It's a nice thing to see it out in the world. Certainly it can get grotesque when things are over-merchandised, and I would want things to be done nicely with high quality. We have too much junk. So I'd rather make less stuff but make it really good, make it something that lasts. As with the movies themselves.