Stop-motion master Henry Selick directed The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach—as well as the live-action adventure Monkeybone and the CGI-animated short Moongirl—before taking on the role of supervising director of Laika Entertainment, formerly Will Vinton Studios and now a Phil Knight venture. Selick's first feature with Laika has the distinction of being (by a long shot) the best film of 2009 to date: Coraline, based on the Neil Gaiman book. On his barnstorming press tour on behalf of Coraline, Selick stopped at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton hotel, where I got a chance to pick his fertile brain.
Groucho: This was, I think, the first time you designed a film with 3-D in mind. Is that right?
Henry Selick: That's correct.
G: So what was your philosophical approach of how you were going to employ 3-D to tell the story?
HS: Not only does shooting 3-D capture the fact that all this stuff is real, it was used to basically suck the audience in as Coraline is sucked into this other world, this alternate reality. If you notice in watching the film, there's not a lot of things that are coming out of the screen at you. It's mainly when Coraline goes through that tunnel, it expands: it's about going into the world. So there's more 3-D in the other world than the real world, but the worlds are actually designed different. In the "Other" world, there's many duplicate sets, like the living room: it looks the same. In the real world, the living room has a crushed perspective, very little actual depth to it. The floors are raked; we don't show that they're raked. You get a sense that it feels more confining. Same in the kitchen: it feels even a little claustrophobic. And then in the other world, you see what looks to be the same living room, but it's built very, very deep. It's not obvious. It doesn't hit you over the head. But it was to—before the magic happens in the "Other" world—it was a way to just make it feel better, like you can really breathe in that other place...
G: How consciously aware do you think kids are of the deeper themes or messages in this film or other films that you've done, as opposed to absorbing them? Do you think kids are conscious of those things?
HS: No. I think that children, the younger they are, they're heathens. They're wild animals. It's much more about instinct. Love is a fierce thing to a child. Separation from mother, you know, fear of death or—they mainly, I think, with kids, there's an incredible fascination—what is death? If there's a dead animal by the side of the road, they want to poke it with a stick. So it's much more instinctual. I don't think they really—I'm really not trying to relate to children and spell out, "These are the great themes. Pay attention..."
G: I'm curious about the collaboration with They Might Be Giants and the Nice Children's Choir: how those came about, what the nature of the collaboration was. Some of the early reports about the film suggested there might be more songs or music from They Might Be Giants, particularly.
HS: Yeah, there's more to talk about with They Might Be Giants than the Children's Choir Nice. That's more through Bruno Coulais, our composer; I think he did an amazing job. They Might Be Giants is a troubled report I'll give you. I love them and their music. When I used to go on car trips with my two boys, who are now ten and seventeen, the only music we could agree on was They Might Be Giants. You know, everyone's choice would upset someone else. And I had a lot of They Might Be Giants stuff from '80s and '90s. And just through—someone I was working with was doing a music video for They Might Be Giants, so—a very talented artist, Courtney Booker, worked on "Some Bastard Wants to Hit Me" video. And so was connected, I spoke with them, they did some work on this short that I did right before Coraline, called "Moongirl." "Moongirl" is for the young children. That's the one that three-year-olds are totally—it's good food for them, and it's mesmerizing. But it's a CG short I did, and they wrote the score for it. It's like an eight-minute film. And then "Let's try to do something with Coraline." They did several demos, about four demo songs. You know, they read the script, and I picked some places. They're beautiful, they're magnificent. There's a couple that I think are two of the best songs they've ever done. Ultimately, those songs and this movie could never quite mesh. And, you know, we went through a period of—they're the sort of artists where they're not, you know—if they do a work for hire, 'cause they sometimes do commercials, they do what they want, and it just works. They're not someone I can tell, "Oh, change the key." I would—any direction I gave them ruined the songs immediately. And we never could quite—the movie went one way; the songs remained in one place. And, you know, I think they're hurt and even angry to this day, feel rejected. But they weren't. They're geniuses. I'm very happy we got to keep the one song, the Other Father singing to Coraline. I'm hoping they see this movie and, you know—the way to work with them is do a musical. Do a modern Yellow Submarine or something and, you know, they—
G: Work to them, what they bring.
HS: Yeah, yeah...
G: You've talked about the appeal of stop-motion being in its palpable quality, that you're seeing something that's actually there, captured on film. But there's also of course, in the post-production of it, the sort of smoothing of—using a little CG here or there to remove seams or whatnot. How do you feel about striking that balance? Is there ambivalence about taking away the seams, on your part?
HS: You've hit right on a particular subject. As you see with Coraline here [indicates on a Coraline puppet standing on the table], there's a line across her face. Her expression changes and ability to talk were all done with replacement animation, meaning they're all individual sculptures. Go back to Jack Skellington, we just popped on a complete head. 'Cause he had very few features, and it was simple enough to do his different mouth shapes and eye shapes all as one. In her case, she needed to be more expressive. We couldn't afford to do thousands of different expressions, so by splitting the face,we would have the ability to control her brows and eyes separately from the mouth. So it it gave us a lot of—
G: Thousands more expressions. Or hundreds.
HS: Yeah. Other combinations. I actually was pushing very hard to leave that line in. And I had some people in my court. It was something where I did experiments, when I had a certain amount of movie done. Most people, after five minutes, they wouldn't see it anymore. It disappeared. You know, initially it's like, here's proof that this is hand-made. And, y'know, kind of showing the technique in it. But I ultimately lost the battle, and so it was more expensive to make it look smoother, more perfect. And, y'know, it's just—I suggested that maybe we'll do special midnight screenings of Coraline with no fixes. So you'll see the rigs when Bobinsky jumps up in the air. And there's a metal-based rig with an arm on it that holds him up. And, uh, you know, I don't know if we'll really do it, but I'd love to have that chance...if I was doing personal films, absolutely I'd leave the seams in. I learned a long time ago, when I did a bunch of stuff for MTV in the late '80s, these station IDs. They were all animation, stop-motion primarily, and I tried to make them perfect. There was this device called the "Quantel Harry" that you could paint things out and make them look better. But I was being paid such little money to do these MTVs, I was starting to lose money on every one I was doing. And so I just said I'm going to embrace all the flaws and rigs and cracks and seams and see what happens. And those are the ones that people responded to the most strongly. When you get to a feature film, it can be a completely personal film. But if you're going to do stop-motion, I'd like there to be the proof that it's stop-motion in the work. Why not make it a little more obvious about what it is...? It's these flaws that make it human, make it unique.
G: Directing and producing: they're really a series of problems that you solve, I suppose. On this project, what was the biggest artistic problem or challenge, and how did you go about solving it?
HS: There's no one biggest artistic problem. The biggest problem of the movie was getting people to support it, to believe in taking a chance. And basically through Travis Knight, who's one of our lead animators, and one of the finest animators I've ever worked with—he does stop-motion and CG—and his father Phil Knight, who's the backer of Laika Studios—y'know, I found people like to take chances, and have passion for new things. As far as making the film, it's all hard, but we love to solve problems. The people I work with: that's our life. It keeps you alive. You know, you'll run into an insurmountable problem every two days. You might not be able to immediately solve it, but you work away at it, and you find another way. You'll stage something differently. You'll redesign a scene so that you can pull it off. I'll mention two things—they weren't necessarily harder than other things—but the fantastic garden, where Coraline goes out and sees this garden, growing before her very eyes, that turns out to be a portrait of her. I think it's very beautiful. It was actually very difficult to come up with "How do we make these flowers grow?" The blue flowers, actually, we used CG to replicate a few blue flowers, but everything else was a rigged mechanical thing that changed shape. And it took a very long time, a lot of experimenting, to figure that out. And not just have it be one cool thing after another but sort of a story of discovery, and magic. Then another challenging scene was the final confrontation between Other Mother as a spidery witch [and Coraline]. And when the floor flies up, there's this coiled web that drops away. That was pretty hellacious. "How do we build this? How do we control it? How do we animate characters on it?" We built five different webs, and the big one's like twenty feet long. And, y'know, having all these rigs and supports to make it move.