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The Passions of Henry Selick: A "Coraline" Interview

by on October 4, 2008

The last stop in my tour of Laika Animation was to have a sitdown with Henry Selick himself, the great stop-motion animator and the writer/director of this project. Henry’s a guarded guy, but he was willing to be open with us and answer our questions with great insight and humor. In this roundtable interview, Henry goes over all of his travails in getting the movie off the ground, and making Gaiman’s brilliant and dreamlike novella work as a movie.

There are some spoilers in the following interview, although nothing so big that it would completely ruin the story.

Q: What drew you to the book of Coraline?

Neil Gaiman (left) and Henry Selick (right)HENRY SELICK (“HS”): I was introduced to Neil [Gaiman, the author] before the book was published. He’d been writing it for years. It was always his “side project” while he was doing other things, and he was getting near the end [of it]. I just felt in tune with it immediately. Neil’s an incredible writer. He can write about anything and it would draw you in. But I think the main point of the book that I liked is [this]: everyone’s imagined a different version of their own lives, so what would you want that to be, and what price would you pay to have that? And I liked that the hero is a kid, who faces really dark, scary things. And wins. There’s lots of individual moments and inventions, but underneath it all, that’s what did it.

Q: I read that you optioned the book before it had been published. Were the Dave McKean illustrations a part of the book at that point?

HS: They came a little bit later.

Q: Did those influence you visually, or affect how you came about with the style of the film?

HS: It’s been an interesting journey. When I got the book, it was practically finished, although there were a few adjustments made later. It felt like I could convince somebody that I should write the screenplay, because it’s already written. I just felt like I could make this book [without change] into a movie. But that wasn’t entirely true. It’s always a journey to get from one place to the other. So, in a similar way, when Dave McKean’s sketches came in, I just thought, “Oh, these are great! We’ll just do this!” But, y’know, I couldn’t even explain, but over time the visual design and the journey took us to a different place. [Dave’s] a brilliant artist, and he made his own film; I’m sure he’ll be making more. There were never any disagreements. It just took on a life of its own and evolved to where it is today. I loved his stuff and expected to work with him, but we just never did.

Q: How much did you have to do to determine the look of the film? When I read it, I had images of guys like Jan Svankmajer and styles like that. Did you have an immediate take on the look of the film, or was it something you had to struggle to find?

HS: Originally, I took this to Bill Mechanic, the former head of Fox and just started an independent studio, and I brought him this project and tried to convince him to let me do the adaptation. He loved it, but he said, “This is a live-action movie.” I said, “No, I want to do it in animation,” but he said, “I’ll only do it if it’s live-action.” So I nodded my head and agreed to that, and we even went down that path to some degree, but I was always writing it for animation. So, to directly answer your question, I was in a make-believe period of, “Okay, we’re doing this live-action,”, and met with various people, but I was also developing what would visually work the best. I love Jan Svankmajer’s work. He’s a big influence on myself. I’ve met him; he’s brilliant. But that heady Eastern European style…it’s powerful stuff and it seems like a perfect fit, but it’s not who I am.

I was looking for our own path that wouldn’t be repeating Nightmare Before Christmas or James and the Giant Peach. Maybe a little bit more like the short films I’ve made: Short Bob in the Lower Dimensions. I wanted recognizable beauty. I didn’t want it to be a challenge [on the eyes] all the time, or only for hardcore Gaiman fans. The look and the style has its own journey and path; sometimes, it skewed a little too cartoonish or a little too live-action. I came across the work of Tadehiro Uesugi, who’s a famous Japanese illustrator and artist. He’s heavily influenced by American magazine illustrations from the late 50s and 60s, and there was something very refreshing and powerful in his work that I realized we could never capture in 3D, but I wanted to try to get it in our sets. He’s all about beautiful design, delicate colors, and then there’s always one or two elements of very realistic light or reflection of water that takes the whole picture and makes it feel real. So we hired him, and he did a lot of concept art. [If] you look at his concept art, and you look at the movie, you can see some influence.

It’s not always about, “Well, if we do this, it’ll be better for an audience.” The movie takes years to develop, and it goes through a number of processes to get where it is.

Q: So it grows very organically as it goes along?

HS: Yes. We didn’t know where we’d end up. I didn’t know where we’d end up. I always knew it was going to be animation, and finally the conditions were right in coming up here [to Laika Animation]. Bill was a little reluctant, but he’d rather get the movie made than not, and now he’s a big supporter of the film.

A scene from 'Coraline'Q: When did 3D get into it, and how did you try to use it in a narrative way?

HS: I know a lot about 3D just from geography. I’ve spent most of my professional life in the San Fransisco area, and got to be friends this guy Lenny Lipton, who’s pretty much the modern father of 3D. Stereoscopy, as he prefers calling it. I did a rock video with him twenty years ago in 3D, and I would always check in with him. He was a fan of stop-motion films. So I saw what was happening in cinema, with the comings of these new digital projectors. And simultaneously, I was still looking for our Wizard of Oz device, like going from black-and-white to color. I can’t just do that; it’s really tired. What can I do [to differentiate] between these worlds? And it was right in front of me: we can use 3D. But let’s not go overboard. Let’s not only have it perfectly flat in the real world and then HUGE 3D in the Other World. So we use it very subtly, and here and there we crank it up.

The movie is Coraline; it’s her point-of-view. The life she has is bland and claustrophobic, so we took the sets – this was a tough concept to get across to people – and literally crushed sets, so that the floors were raked like this. [Henry indicates with his hand an angle of practically 45 degrees.] You shoot it with a little 3D in the cameras, and you think, “It just doesn’t feel very comfortable here.” And then you go to the Other World, and you build the same set but you build it deep, and you add color and you redress it, and suddenly you can breathe and it has a warmth. It just seemed like a perfect fit for the story, but we also use it for a few effects here and there. Not for stuff coming out at you from the screen, but mainly it’s internal. When the Other World goes bad, and it’s too much of a good thing, we also crank up the 3D at times to where it goes beyond an effect, and things feel wrong in a powerful way. It’s organic; it’s not scientifically planned, but there’s a script for the 3D-ness of the film. And then, of course, you have to bear in mind that not every screen will be 3D, and so the film will have to work anyway on its own.

Q: Now that you’ve talked about adapting the book from a visual perspective, how was it adapting the book from a storytelling/writing perspective? What were the major hurdles, and what came easily?

HS: Major hurdles? Well, books have a kind of language with internal dialogue and things like that; how do you bring that to a screen? Ultimately, it resulted in creating another character, this annoying neighbor kid Wybie. It’s a dangerous thing to do that to books, but I just could not find another way to flesh out Coraline. Just the cat in the real world? She didn’t know he could talk. So it took a long time, but I’d like to think Wybie went from a device to an important character. And he has a backstory that is connected to the house, so it pays off nicely.

Q: So you’ve integrated him. You’ve put another Chekhov’s gun in there.

HS: [laughs] Yeah. Another condition with Bill, and I wasn’t opposed to it because I was more comfortable with it, was setting it in the US. But I wanted to hold onto…well, at least Spink and Forcible. They had to be British. So where was I gonna set that in the whole country? I was living in California at the time and I discovered this well-known Shakespeare festival in Ashland, Oregon, and I thought, “Hmm, it’s rainy, miserable there a lot of the year, and they might have moved here thinking they’d get parts.” And I set it there, having no idea I’d actually move to Oregon to make the movie! It’s a risky thing [to make changes], but I think the fans will be okay. I love the characters and I wanted to hold on to quite a lot of the book, so Spink and Forcible, I think we’ve captured them pretty well. Bobinski we’ve made similar, but he’s more in-your-face. He’s kinda rude, but he’s…he’s probably never taken a bath. He does those exercises on the roof and he’s just like a big spider.

Working on an intricate set of 'Chef'The two most important things in adapting that I wanted to keep was holding onto the essence of Coraline and not making her overly heroic. Not making her Kim Possible, giving her incredible fighting skills. It still had to feel that she’s skeptical. She doesn’t trust adults. Ultimately resourceful, brave, and tenacious. That was the most important thing to hang onto. The book was written over many years; it was actually inspired by Neil’s older daughter, when she was growing up, and then his younger daughter. So she actually seems to change ages in the book. I always liked that, and I think kids can regress, so she can say to her father, “I’m not five years old!” and then act exactly like a five-year-old. Also, the relationship with her real mom. The real mom at the end of the book is not suddenly nice and caring and warm and touchy. She’s the same. There’s no real lessons learned; she doesn’t remember being rescued. It’s Coraline who sees everyone in a new way – she appreciates them.

Q: Everybody on the set spoke of your love of doing practical, in-camera effects. What’s your take on those kinds of gags or effects?

HS: There’s those CGI films, Pixar, Dreamworks, doing CGI effects with great stories, but what I know and I love, and I think the audience does too, is real stuff. When you go out on our sets and you see what you see, it’s pretty amazing. It has something the others don’t. It really exists. It’s not drawings or in a computer. With the effects, every movie needs effects. Fire, and smoke, and mist, and rain. We went outside [to a CGI studio] and got a bid, and it was half the cost of our movie. And these were friends of mine! So I said we’re gonna do as much as we can in-house, and we brought in Brian Van’t Hul, a great talent, as our visual effects supervisor. He’s got an Academy Award from working on The Lord of the Rings and King Kong with Peter Jackson, but he has an appreciation for both kinds of effects. So there’s a mix. There’s a huge amount of in-camera effects. There’s fire that’s replacement [the stop-motion technique of switching static pieces from frame to frame], and so you think “That’s not real”, but it moves and it’s beautiful so you just accept it. We have a crude “rain machine” that looks really good. We attached wires to a lot of the trees in the background so they’re moving gently. Just worked really hard to get a lot of atmosphere on the sets. We tried to do everything in-camera, but ultimately it was easier to shoot the foreground and then create the sky [later]. We can’t build that many 40-foot skies.

Q: We saw the caricature builds of Joe and Jerome Ranft. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with Joe, and how you felt in 2005?

HS: As part of the story, there’s the moving-in day. Joe and his brother Jerome – they have another brother as well – they’re big, strong guys and they got asked to help people move so many times that they got sweatshirts that said, “Ranft Bros. Moving Company”. I wanted to put them in the movie, and got permission from Joe’s widow to do so.

I knew Joe since he was 19, a huge, overweight, out-of-control maniac, going to punk rock clubs with me at two in the morning. Over the years, I saw him take classes with the Groundlings and study story and get better and better with drawing, and just evolve into one of the world’s great storytellers. Someone who, in the animation tradition, told stories through pictures, in storyboards. There’s a lot that’s been written about him. Personally, he’s been a huge part of the films I’ve worked on – Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach. Two things I can say about Joe. He had this incredible ability…everybody could give up, and he never did. He never stopped; he was able to keep going and going, even if he had to trash a sequence. You edit these movies before you make them, and sometimes you’d do a sequence ten times. You might throw it out, saying it isn’t working. It’s very dispiriting. And Joe had this incredible ability to…you know, recover one night and go back until it was working. So he had that, and he also had this incredibly dark, twisted side to him that was funny as hell. He did these short stories and illustrations about this maniac kid who’d accidentally electrocute his dad in the bathtub; who had bugs burrowing into his brain and commanding him to do awful things. He had plates made one Christmas of his character, Billy. He was one of the best artists, best talents, and best people I ever worked with.

Also, when Joe Ranft jumped in the mosh pit, you better watch out. He was 6′ 6″, and at the time 240 lbs., so he cleared a path.

Q: It’s funny how even after the pressure of Bill Mechanic to make it live-action, there’s all this focus on real textures and real cloth. It’s not live-action, but it’s sort of a different form of reality.

HS: I wanted to be able to go in for the close-ups and not have it all fall apart. I mean, we had somebody who could do miniature hair. If you can’t go in for close-ups in a film, you’re always outside looking in. The audience doesn’t have a chance to get that direct access that you can get through a close-up. The close-ups led a lot of the detail work.

Q: Ever have any details that you missed, that you regret not catching?

HS: There will be. It’ll be hard for me to watch the movie for, about, five years. But what I’ve learned from Nightmare and James is that those mistakes are what gives a movie its soul and character. Human faces aren’t the same on both sides. Asymmetry – things are unbalanced. That’s part of the process. If you do everything by hand, there’ll be mistakes. A lot of them. And honestly, as I’ve learned from the past, they don’t bother me as much.

Movie poster for 'Coraline'Q: Is that maybe what the movie Coraline is about? The temptation of perfection?

HS: I don’t want to oversimplify it, so I’ll answer that this way. This is a new company, Laika Animation, and they’re doing CG as well as stop-motion. At one point, we did a test that maybe one world would be stop-motion and one world would be CG. We did a test with the Other World as CG, to let it be more smooth and shiny and liquid and the things that CG could do well. But when we put them side by side, it felt like we were going to this cold place. The life she was trying to escape, which was boring and flat, was more appealing.

So that’s sort of the message, a small part. In the book, right away the Other Mother, in addition to buttons for eyes, has long black hair that moves like sea snakes and white pasty skin. And that Coraline would have to be a hardcore Goth to consider staying there. So we decided to gradually do that. She eventually gets there but first she just has buttons, and everything looks exactly the same but better. And over time, that Mother changes into the Beldam, the witch that she truly is.

Q: I’d have imagined the CG/stop-motion mix going the other way around.

HS: We tried it both ways, and it just didn’t work for us. A lot of the fans of Neil Gaiman have been worried, seeing images on the Net, that the movie is going to overly Disney-fied, and that it’s too bright and colorful. I’ll put it this way: the book lives in tones of grey to black. We go lighter, but we also go very dark. We just don’t live there as long. I think that if the fans of the book come see the film, they’ll realize we fought to hold onto the essence of almost every element in the book. We chose to hold off [on the darkness] when Coraline first goes to the Other World, and the whole movie’s that way. There’s humor in the film, but it’s not gags. We want a lot of people to like it, but I was always thinking of the fans of the book, and that the movie holds on very tightly to all the important elements of it.

Read Toon Zone News’ on-the-set visit to Laika Animation Studios to watch the making of Coraline.

Many thanks to Yannina Diaz and Deette Kearns at Focus Features for all their generosity and passion in getting this press event together, and for my fellow press guys Joe Fordham from Cinefex and Jeff Lester from Newsarama for being good company. And, of course, to Henry Selick and everyone at Laika Animation for their willingness to share their amazing artistry with us, both behind-the-scenes and on the screen.

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