A puppet is posed, the camera clicks a frame, then an ever so slightly different pose, and another click. Creating stop-motion animation must be one of the most painstaking artistic processes of filmmaking, and yet the visionary work of director Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach”) is so seamless that you’d think it just comes easy to him. With “Coraline,” based upon the best-selling novella by Neil Gaiman, Selick was in production for 18 months (following another two years of pre-production) on the first stop-motion animated film ever to be photographed in 3D — a thrilling, suspenseful fantasy of adventurous youth and parallel realities. After her family relocates to an eerie country manor, 11-year-old Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) discovers a secret passage to another world that looks exactly her own, except every meal tastes like a decadent banquet, parades of mice perform acrobatics and her parents pay her far more attention… but why do they have buttons for eyes, and why does something seem so sinister behind the façade? Selick chatted with me about what scared him as a child, the Oscar-nominated movie he’d like to see in 3D, and how he feels about Tim Burton getting all the credit for his hard work.
“Coraline” delves into some dark corners of the imagination. How does it feel knowing you’ll be giving nightmares to little children for years to come?
I’m hoping parents take the PG thing seriously, look at their kids and say, “Are they ready for it or not?” We’re not out to traumatize three-year-olds. We’ve been thinking it’s more, you know, eight and up. Below that, only the very bravest children should go to the film. If they’re ready, I think they’ll be the brave ones, the parents will be scared, but the children will hold their hands and assure Mommy and Daddy it’s okay.
It’s not overt, though. It’s more about the scariness of the imagination, like in Grimm’s fairy tales.
Yeah, it hasn’t been done for a while in animation. The fact is, the first Disney films were tapping into the same sort of primal fears of Grimm’s fairy tales, [like] the death of Bambi’s mother. If you go back and see them, you realize the Queen actually wanted Snow White’s heart delivered to her in that box. That’s the order she gave to the hunter. Pinocchio’s best friend is turned into an animal, and it’s not a funny animal. In some sense, Neil’s book tapped into classic fairy tales and just put it in a modern setting. They’re classic because they’ve been told for hundreds of years, and kids love a good scare.
What fantasies scared you as a kid?
One of the first films I saw was “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” when I was four or five. It’s kind of a cheesy movie, but it has Ray Harryhausen’s special effects, and the Cyclops is stop-motion. Cyclops, that’s like this primal fear. I had dreams for years that the Cyclops was a small creature living in our huge fish tank at home, and at night, it was going to grow to full size and come after me.
Constructing a story one frame at a time, how do you maintain such patience? Are you as patient in other aspects of your life?
I’m… [laughs] Yeah, I can’t talk about my life because I’m not very good at most of the other aspects, but I have great patience for animation. I learned very early there’s a price to pay: a huge amount of time and a certain level of frustration. But the reward is phenomenal. You are literally giving life to puppets. It’s every kid’s greatest dream that their toys — their stuffed bear or their G. I. Joe, whatever it might be — come to life. That’s what we get to do. As a director, I’m not the one animating every frame, every shot. I’m moving around like a surgeon on rounds, or a farmer checking in on all the plants being grown, pruning and adjusting. For me, it’s a very exciting job. I work with some of the finest artists in the world. I’m in constant motion, making thousands of decisions a day. But for the animators themselves, it’s a great labor of love. Sometimes those sweet little puppets seem to be nothing more than vampires sucking your life out before your eyes.
At least a couple of your films had you dabbling in part live-action. Besides the immediacy of not needing to spend six times as long on a shoot, what do you like about that kind of filmmaking that you don’t get from animation?