Special Effects guru Henry Selick talks about The Life Aquatic

The Life Aquatic is filled with haunting, beautiful shots of underwater creatures. They look realistic, magical, and, at the same time, somehow impossible. Henry Selick is the man behind this wizardry. Instead of using the trendy shortcut of digital imaging, Selick employed the old-fashioned, classical tool of stop-motion to breath life into this universe.

Also an accomplished director [The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach], Selick sat down with the LatinoReview for an exclusive one-on-one interview to discuss his work. He also gives us the dish on his soon-to-be high profile new project, Coraline, which he is writing and directing.

The underwater scenes are incredible. Can you talk about your vision for those shots?

Henry Selick: It starts with Wes Anderson. We tried to strike this balance between fantasy and reality, between articife—something you might see in the theater—and movie-making. So the idea was, these are creatures that you know aren't real, but you'd like them to be.

So in striking that balance, how much of your work (as an animator) is technical, and how much is creative?

Henry Selick: In animation, the two sides are married pretty closely. Whatever the vision is, and whatever the design is, you have to find a way to bring it to life. So one feeds the other. Sometimes you have a built-in limit where you know, "We can't really go here," because the animation can't really do that. But sometimes you purposely go there, and you still find a way. Like the blowfish. When they find that airplane that crashed at the bottom, there's a blowfish that blows up—"

Beautiful shot, by the way.

Henry Selick: Thanks. It's a stop-motion creature, done a frame at a time. We had to find a way to make a bladder that we could inflate a little bit while we're animating the fins, and so forth. So it's a marriage, between technology and design.

How long does the stop-motion process take?

Henry Selick: In all animation, if it's done quickly, you'll know it. And if you're very slow and careful with it, it's going to look a little more beautiful. It's just compressing time into seconds. We're only creating ten seconds a week of finished film, with a very small crew. In the bigger films that I've worked on, we're creating a minute a week of finished film.

It was an interesting choice to not reveal the shark until the very end. But I'd imagine that it consumed a good chunk of your time. How much of your time was spent working on the shark?

Henry Selick: The shark was always going to be a huge challenge. You're saving it to the end, so it can't be a disaster. It's supposed to be gigantic, so we had to make our stop-motion puppet huge. We were working on the shark from the first day. While we did everything else, we were always working on the shark.

What's Wes's involvement in the process? Is he hands-on, hands-off? Does he give you cart-blanche?

Henry Selick: It was a really good relationship. As far as the design goes: in his writing, he'll describe something that he sees in his mind. He's not much of an artist, although he can do sort of diagrams and things—but he'll write something, such that it's a "jaguar shark"—

Which is fairly evocative already...

Henry Selick: Yeah! Or the "sugar crabs," where we literally used candy designs and put them on the shells of crabs. So he always comes up with an original, striking concept. And then I would do the initial drawings and color passes, and submit.

So you draw all the concept drawings and storyboards?

Henry Selick: Yeah.

What's more challenging—the initial concept drawings, or the execution to fulfilling that vision?

Henry Selick: They're both fun. But usually the execution is more challenging. There were a couple of creatures that were BRUTALLY hard to pull off. They just were difficult to do. The shark is eight feet long, and we had to sculpt it—

Was that a full-scale, eight-foot model?

Henry Selick: Yeah—so first we built lots and lots of drawings, then I did work with another illustrator to do another photographically real final images—including the shark—and then we sculpt a small one. And Wes is over in Italy shooting, and we're in the San Francisco area doing our work, and when we get that approved, we sort of cut that into sections, and scale it all up and build the giant thing.

This sounds like a lot of work. Were you ever tempted to go to the "dark side" and use a little digital, a little CG?

Henry Selick: It was always off the table. I think Wes would have preferred to have more of the hand-made mistakes in the work than to go the CG side.

So there aren't any CG shots at all?

Henry Selick: There are no CG creatures. There are a few creatures that we did as water-puppets, which are mainly in the background. There's a paisley-octopus, there's a sea-snake, there's a constellation-ray, and those three things were done as puppets in water. So they're not animation, but they're shot faster than live speed, so when you play it back, it's slow.

Gotcha. Was there ever anything that you wanted to do, or tried to do, but said, "Okay. That's gotta go. We can't make that happen."

Henry Selick: No, we found a way to solve every problem.

Really?!? No compromises?

Henry Selick: Well . . . there is one creature—there was a sequence that got cut from the movie, and hopefully Wes will put it on the DVD. It's called the hydronocous-inverticus. It's a creature that turns itself inside out. And then it's another creature. . . . [Deep sigh]

I can't even wrap my mind around what that model would have to look like!

Henry Selick: [Nods] Yeah. It was hugely challenging. I think they used it in the first online trailer. I know Wes will put it on the DVD, because it's a neat scene with Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray visiting Goldblum's headquarters, and seeing one of these rare creatures in an aquarium. They look at it, and suddenly it turns itself inside-out.

Now when you're working on all this, how mindful are you of trying to stay resonant with the tone of the scene, and of the overall film? Do you look back at the script?

Henry Selick: You're always trying to stay in-tune. But even the overall tone of the movie—as Wes starts shooting—it shifts. A lot of the things that Wes does is on this razor's edge of believability and unbelievably, and can you take the audience there? For example, the little [fantastical insect] that crawls across Bill Murray's hand, originally when we animated it, we had it crawl on, and then look right at Bill, and then yawn. [Laughs.] And it's very funny. And hopefully it's also on the outtakes. But the tone of the film just shifted enough—

A little too comic?

Henry Selick: Yeah. Wes felt that it was too cartoony, so let's shoot it again and make it more realistic.

You've had experience writing, directing, producing. How would you rate this challenge in the context of the other work you've done? What fires you up more?

Henry Selick: There are pleasures and pain in every aspect of it. When you're writing, it's all up to you, and you don't have to make any compromises. And when you're directing, there's this intense pleasure you get from working with all these really talented people, and pooling the efforts towards a common goal. I like all the aspects of film-making. The animation does take a long time, but I knew that when I got into it. You're compressing hours and hours into seconds, but that's what gives it the magic.

You're working on Coraline right now, is that right?

Henry Selick: Yeah, and I'm very pleased. Coraline is Neil Gaiman's book, it sold a lot, it has a big fan base. It was originally conceived to be live action, but I never really wanted it to be. I always thought that it would work better as an animated film.

So it is all animated?

Henry Selick: Yeah, it's going to be all animated. It's sort of an Alice in Wonderland story. It's going to be a little while before it gets up on its feet. I'm working with some composers; I want to get some songs in it.

Any names in mind yet?

Henry Selick: Do you know They Might be Giants?


Henry Selick: They've done a lot of work the last couple of years for TV and so forth. They're going to right some songs for us.

How about voices? Any thoughts on the cast?

Henry Selick: Just a little bit. It's a story that doesn't have lots and lots of characters. It's a smaller ensemble. There are these two old actresses--English actresses--in the story, and at one point they're revealed in their younger days in their glory. So I wanted to use the same voices for both [older and younger characters.] There are a couple of British comedians who have been around: Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. They've been a comic team for a number of years. They're friends with Neil Gaiman. [Saunders] played the fairy-godmother in "Shrek 2," and people love her voice. And I think she has done a reading of Coraline you can buy. Anyways, not big celebrities, but incredible character-actors.

So that's the approach you want to go for the rest of the film—mostly unknowns?

Henry Selick: Yeah. More whoever's the best person for the role.

So when is that slated for release?

Henry Selick: [Laughs] It's animation, so it will be at least two and a half years.

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