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Henry Selick on 'Coraline'

The director of the new stop-motion feature talks to Richard von Busack about Tim Burton, living dolls and 'Monkeybone'

IDENTIFYING the director of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas seems as easy a question as identifying the occupant of Grant's Tomb. In the book Burton on Burton, edited by Mark Salisbury, Burton describes the making of this stop-motion holiday classic: "It was released as Tim Burton's The Night Before Christmas because they felt it would help. But it turned into more of a brand-name thing, it turned into something else, which I'm not quite sure about ..."

In fact, the credited director was then–San Franciscan Henry Selick.

Burton on Selick, from the same first-person account: "Henry's a real artist. He's truly the best. ... When I'd go up there [to San Francisco], I loved it, but most of the time Henry would just send me stuff—there'd be a few shots during the week—and so over the period of a couple of years it all came together. ... I would get a reel, and I had an editing room, and I would edit some shots when I was working on the second Batman movie."

Burton's clout after making the megahit Batman (1989), his character designs and his original three-page poem were reasons the film got made. But during the early 1990s, in Colossal Studios in San Francisco's South of Market district, Selick and a group of animators made the film itself, posing the doll-size figurines before a camera in rows of cubbyholelike stages, and giving them the infinitesimal moves that made them live.

Selick's new movie, Coraline, which opens Feb. 6, is all his, and it's a masterpiece of stop-motion animation: a scary and beautiful creation that is the highlight so far of our new year (review link here).

In from Portland, Ore., the animator sat down for a short interview. Selick still lives part-time in the Bay Area; summing up the troubles he's had with the Industry, he says, "the further north I went, the luckier I got."

METRO: What is Laika Studios?

SELICK: It's sort of the remnants of Will Vinton's studio [in Portland], owned by Philip Knight of Nike. I did a well-received short for it in CGI, Moongirl.

METRO: Did you have a rule of thumb about how often you wanted to use the 3-D frame-breaking technique during Coraline?

SELICK: It took a while to get a handle on the use of 3-D in stop-motion. We didn't want to shake people out of the story or to make it a gimmick. There's just a few times we use it—during the sequence of the tunnel, for instance. It's actually very difficult to edit away from that pop-out effect; you can't cut away from it quickly.

METRO: How would you explain the difference between CGI and stop-motion to a blind person, or a producer?

SELICK: It's a very different quality. The aim of computer animation is perfectly smooth, lubricated images. The aim is to get close to perfection. Stop-motion in the past did a good of that smoothness, as in the Ray Harryhausen films. When you put a toy through stop-motion, a GI Joe doll or something, and pose it 24 times a second, the dolls become real performers. They act. In CGI, the work is posed and then turned over to in-betweeners. The stop-motion animator never takes his hands off the project. It can never be perfect, and the effect shows. It's like crossing a tightrope over a deep canyon. Another way to put it is that it's like the difference between the warmth of analog vinyl vs. digital recording.

METRO: Why is there such a thin line between the cute and the uncanny?

SELICK: The Disney animator Ward Kimball—one of Disney's Nine Old Men—did an art exhibit where he put the picture of the face of a beautiful woman on several divided glass panels. When you moved the panels slowly apart, what was beautiful became unpleasant and then grotesque. It only took very fine degrees to get the effect. It's very subtle, but it's something we were all built to perceive.

METRO: This is what David Lynch calls the "eye of the duck" effect; if you moved a duck's eye a few millimeters from where it's placed in its otherwise adorable head, you get something monstrous. About the music: the haunting soundtrack of a girlish voice and harp solos made me think of Joanne Newsom. Had there been a stage when Newsom was going to be on the soundtrack?

SELICK: During the early stages, when we were doing tests and trying voices, we were playing her song "The Sprout and the Bean" a lot. The song happens to reflect Coraline's own interests and longings. We were thinking about using the song but that didn't happen. I'm very happy with Bruno Coulais' soundtrack. Two things about the soloist: her name is actually Coraline, which is a very rare name in France. And it sounds like she's singing French, but it's actually nonsense words.

METRO: Loved it. Incidentally, Shirley Walker did something like that for the Batman: Mask of the Phantasm score; the lyrics to the Carmina Burana–type death mass for Gotham City is actually the names of the film's animators sung in pig Latin. The characters in Coraline leak sawdust when taken apart: Is that a tribute to Jan Svankmajer's 1988 version of Alice in Wonderland?

SELICK: Svankmajer is a big influence, both his shorts and his features. But the reason we did this is to show the construction of the characters, that they're "living dolls." When we were making Nightmare, we didn't want to show gore, which is why Sally was stuffed with leaves: to prove she wasn't flesh and bone.

METRO: Speaking of leaves, are you a gardener? Coraline is full of references to that field, including the inside joke about a beneficial predator organic gardeners use, the praying mantis.

SELICK: Some of this is from Neil Gaiman's book, such as Coraline looking outside into the rain and deciding that it's a perfect day for gardening—that's the contrast between her and her parents, who write seed catalogs but don't garden themselves. I put some of my favorite plants from when I was a child in here, like the fantasy version of the snapdragons.

METRO: What was your earliest exposure to animation?

SELICK: I grew up in New Jersey, with summers down in the Deep South in Alabama. My mother took me to see a Ray Harryhausen film when I was 4 or 5. I dreamt about the Cyclops for years.

In New Jersey, I could get a real low-budget New York city TV station that broadcast a lot of Eastern European stop-motion animation, probably because it was inexpensive. One thing they showed a lot was Lotte Rieniger's 1926 film Adventures of Prince Achmed. It's in silhouette with paper puppets, but what interested me was the stop-motion she used to make the characters move. They used to show episodes of it. Of course, I was exposed to lots of Disney and Warner Bros. animation.

METRO: I saw the DVD of Monkeybone, a maligned film, and your commentary track and the deleted scenes really explained how the film was mangled—how the cartoon-within-a-cartoon was cut in half so that the punch line was lost and so forth. I thought your experience was a real cautionary tale for filmmakers.

SELICK: I've got a lot of scar tissue about that. Maybe someday I can put back the 15 minutes that are cut out. [Regarding Hollywood,] I seem to have better luck the more I go north. What I've been able to do on Coraline, I did with very few compromises. It exceeds what I've been able to do before.

METRO: Would you say your work today harmonizes with Tim Burton's films, or is it more dissonant?SELICK: I haven't seen him much in the last couple of years. I'm grateful to him, to have worked on the film about the lands of the holidays. At heart, it's his story. There are some issues about authorship, and I'd like to say that's all behind us. If I'm going to be associated with a Burton film, I'm glad I was part of a memorable one.

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