The Mill Valley Film Festival brought Henry Selick to do a talk on Coraline. He was part of that legendary crew from CalArts that included Brad Bird, John Lasseter, Ron & John, Tim Burton etc. He worked 2D in the fox and the hound with them. Directed Nightmare Before Christmas for Tim Burton. Directed the liveaction stopmotion hybrid MonkeyBone. Did a CG short for Laika (Moongirl). And most recently did Coraline.
[*As always, assume these are paraphrases not direct quotes, because I just don't jot down notes fast enough to be accurate]
If you set the bar very high and your staff believes in it, they'll achieve it.
In animation you can't just decide what you're going to do and work away for 3 weeks mechanically and be done. You have to constantly be breathing life into it, improving it and improvising.
What's your thoughts on Coraline being scary?
He talked about how when you're a kid sometimes the scariest stuff is what you love the most. How we all love getting scared sometimes. And how when we were living in tribes the person who could scare the kids the best to stay away from the cave so they don't get eaten by a bear became the tribes storyteller. And basically he summed it up with a quote "Life's no fun without a good scare"
The performing mice scene and the acrobatic theater scene in Coraline, he was told he would have to do them in CG. But he put up a big fight. He said that it would be very difficult in stop motion but if they didn't then the whole movie would go flat, they had to maintain their integrity, it had to be all real world objects.
The theater scene (especially the birth of Venus) was all meant as an homage to Terry Gilliam, and you can't do an homage to Gilliam half assed.
The garden scene is a good example of achieving what's difficult in stop motion: Bringing an entire world to life and not just a moving character in front of a static environment.
We designed the flowers around the materials that we found that could change shape on a frame by frame basis. An approach he recommends to all stop motionists.
What makes a good animator?
An animator is at heart trying to engage an audience and draw them in. Number one is "What is the character thinking?" It's greater then posing, and timing, and clarity, and all the principles. If you know what they're thinking and can make it visible you'll draw in the audience. The cruder one person shorts that are out there in the world can be really amazing if they have this quality.
He pulled up Anthony Scott (animation supervisor) to answer the question.
Some of the most challenging shots are closeups with subtle expression changes. That's where you especially have to get the thoughts to come through. Also Each of the characters have to move in their own way. A cat moves so differently then a dog does.
What draws you to a script?
A touch of humor, a touch of the macabre. A story that can be appealing to kids. "Classic fairy tales in a modern setting."
What would Coraline have been like liveaction?
Animation brings a fairytale element to a story. Stop motion is ageless, it feels like it comes from an earlier time. It will always be there, there's always going to be some guy off somewhere making GIJoes or Barbie or tinfoil or clay move. So in live action Coraline would have been colder, and the scary scenes would have been scarier.
I had a great experience in Oregon but I know I'll come back to the bay area. Maybe get a warehouse somewhere.
Coraline was set in America because I was more comfortable with the dialect. And set in Portland because I wanted to keep the Spink and Forcible British and the Ashland Shakespeare festival was the best excuse I could for what they would be doing in the states. It was coincidental I wound up there also thanks to Laika.
What were the challenges involved in shooting in 3D?
3D is nice in that it captures the strength of stop motion. Stop Motion can't do some of the stuff that CG or 2D does, but 3D can really make use of the fact that stop motion is actual real stuff in the real world. The hardest thing with 3D was not overdoing it. If everything is always loud or always saturated color then it just overwhelms and stops meaning anything.
Advice you would give yourself as a student?
Be Bold! School is your shot to be yourself. It's fine if you want to study under someone's style with the thought of getting a job afterwards. But your student film will be the easiest time in your life to make the film you want to make. What do you have to say? Don't worry about the technical side, it's got to be about story and character. Be bold, it's your chance to make your mark.
What do you think of the animation world right now?
There's always talk of a golden age or something. The golden age is really right now, because it's the age we're in. It's too bad that we're stuck with the idea of a feature film that has to be 70-100 minutes. I'm still looking for how people can make a living doing short stuff. We need to train the audience that you can't just see everything for free, you have to pay a quarter or something. Steve Jobs is selling Itunes .99 for a short film and people are okay with it, so it's starting. Someone's gotta find a way to make shorts sustainable for people to make. Like the Tesla, someone made the electric car sexy.
(I asked)What have you learned as a director between your experience from NBC to Coraline?
I learned how to be a better storyteller. I've always been a tough ass director. I push really hard and ask a lot and almost every time the animator's deliver it. And the animator's who are brilliant I stay out of their way. By Coraline I had learned more what I liked. I wanted it all hand made. "Let's go back to what felt best."