This may be one of the odder set visits we've been invited too. Usually, when traveling to other parts of the country to watch an acclaimed director make art, he is standing on a vast soundstage as actors and various outstanding crewmembers dive into the script at his command. But Henry Selick is not that kind of filmmaker. His catalogue is made from stop motion works of genius, all of which are considered classics in the animation genre. His now legendary Nightmare Before Christmas is considered one of the greatest holiday films ever made. And he quickly followed up that masterwork with the ingenious Roald Dahl adaptation James and the Giant Peach. His iconic imagery is instantly recognizable. And he has truly captured the hearts and minds of audience members worldwide.
At this particular moment in time Selick is hard at work on his latest creation, a fantasy entitled Coraline. It is set to be the very first three-dimensional stop motion animation feature film ever produced, with its narrative spine based on Neil Gaiman's beloved children's book of the same name. The story revolves around a young girl that has just moved to Ashland, Oregon. Feeling isolated both at school and at home, she discovers a secret doorway in her new bedroom that leads to an alternate version of her life. Awaiting her there is a new mother and father that are willing to bestow her with the love and the gifts that she truly wants and needs. But, as with most popular children's books, not all is as it seems.
A few months ago, we traveled to Portland, Oregon where Nike co-founder and Chairman Philip H. Knight has established the Laika Entertainment House animation studio. In 2004, Selick joined Laika as the supervising director for their feature film development department. Coraline will be their first full-length, theatrically released project. And at this current moment in time, the entire studio is devoted to this potential blockbuster.
The Laika Entertainment House floor is jam-packed with all of the colorful sets that will be utilized on screen, and in almost every corner, there is some sort of stop motion character making a quick name for itself. Each and every member of Gaiman's world is present and accounted for. There are also a couple of new faces that didn't originally stem from the book. Like Wybie, a nosey next-door neighbor. These highly articulated puppets are endowed with Selick's trademark look, borrowing slightly from Dave McKean's illustrations, but taking on an appearance that is more reminiscent of the work seen in Henry's previous films.
When meeting Selick in person, it's amazing how much he looks like his own creations. The man is a dead ringer for Jack Skellington, and upon shaking his hand inside one of the official story conference rooms, it is clear that he has devoted himself internally to this exciting, new world. He is the master of this Universe, and he is truly in love with it. Before leading us out onto the studio floor, where we would see some of the stop motion animation taking place one frame at a time, Selick took us on a personal tour of his latest creations.
Set upon a long table, all of Coraline's cast members stood in unison. Immobile. Waiting to be manipulated by Selick's team of highly trained magicians. Henry brought us down the line, introducing us to each character as they related to the story. It seemed important that we had some knowledge of the original source material, "Are you familiar with the book?", Selick asked. Most of our tiny group nodded a sullen no. "The movie is different. Of course it was important for me to make this for fans of the book. Of which, I was one of the very first. You will see certain things that are right from the book. And then certain elements will shoot off from there. Tonally, and as far as the story is concerned, the film and the book are pretty much the same thing."
The first character that Henry picked off the table was Coraline, "She does not look like Dave McKean's illustrations. She is a little different from the book. But she is very much in the same spirit. She has the same curiosity. She just has this need to explore. She can't help going into places where she shouldn't go. All of that is intact from the book. She is in virtually every scene. It is her story. There is not a lot of other things going on. We don't really ever cut away from her. Everything is based on this character. We have Dakota Fanning. A lot of people seem to know her for her screaming. But she is an incredibly good actor. I think you'll agree with the voice work that she has done for us."
As originally told in the book, Coraline and her family were from the U.K. Selick and his team have changed the story's location to Ashland, Oregon. The family has moved there from Pontiac, Michigan, and Dakota has brought a very Midwestern flavor to her voice work. Selick explains, "When I wrote the screenplay, I chose Oregon because I wanted to keep some of the characters British. There is a Shakespeare festival in Ashland. I could have set it anywhere in the world. But no, I set it here. The next thing I know, I'm moving up to Portland and making the film. So things have worked out."
With the exception of Coraline, most of the on-screen characters have Other World doppelgangers that are strikingly different from their Real World counterparts. The two major characters in this Other World are Coraline's Other Parents, odd mirror versions of their original selves. Next to the Coraline puppet is Father. As Selick fondled the outer edges of the figure's plastic body, he explained, "John Hodgeman does the voice of Father and Other Father. You might know him from The Daily Show. He also plays the PC in the Macintosh commercials. He is a very bright guy. He has written some very funny books. You will see Other Father in the alternative world."
All of the Other World characters have one striking resemblance, "All of them have button eyes. The alternative characters are also all so different in other ways. Other Father is a little bit smoother. I like to think of him as Dean Martin. He actually ended up being more like Bing Crosby, though. It's kind of a nice contrast to the well-intentioned, bumbling real dad." Next to Father and Other Father stood Real Mother, who looks a lot like a stop-motion version of Susan Mayer, "This is Real Mom. It was pretty important to not make her sweet and likable. She is a hardcore bitch. And you know what? I really like her. Teri Hatcher has done a really nice job with the voice. She holds the family together. They have moved because of a new job. Mom and Dad are writers. They are really intent on a deadline. They have no time for Coraline."
Here, Selick skipped down his line of characters to go to a large gruesome Spider-woman type creature that still held some of Other Mother's facial elements, "Here we have Other Mom. In the book, when Coraline goes to the other world, Other Mother seems like a real mother. Except that she has button eyes, and bone-like skin, and long black hair. If Coraline was a goth girl, she would think this was cooler than in real life. But we had to do this slowly. So she meets what is really her Real Mother. But with a lot of plastic surgery. There are some slight adjustments. And she has all of this generosity and warmth. She is sexier and prettier. She makes things for Coraline. She actually has time for Coraline. That is who this Other Mother is. But when Other Mother gets angry later on in the story, her true nature is revealed. And she will transform. When Coraline stands up to Other Mother, and demands that she is let go, Other Mother turns into this Spider-like creature." The puppet is pretty menacing, and should scare a lot of the younger kids in the audience.
The rest of the cast is made up of supporting players. There are the eerie Ghost Kids, which look as though they could have floated directly out of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. Next to them stood a strange blue Russian man in a piss-stained tank top. His limbs are very skinny, yet he has a massive gut. And he smells of stinky cheese. In the book, he is known as Mr. Bobo. For the film, his name has been changed to Mr. Bobinski, and he will be voiced by Deadwood's Ian McShane. Henry gave us a little bit of background on this strange puppet with hairy armpits, saying, "In the Real World, he claims to have a mouse circus. In the other world, he really does have a mouse circus. And they're cute, jumping kangaroo mice. But that is just a disguise for the rats. The rats turn out to be the Other Mother's spies. They are something very cute and funny, but they are also revealed to be something else."
Equally important to the storyline is Coraline's pet The Cat. He is yet another lovable character that Selick can't help but dote on, "He is a very important character. He is like Coraline's guardian angel. He is in both worlds. He can travel back and forth between them, because he uses a special cat door. He loves the game of getting in and out of the Other World, where he tries to get away from Other Mother. He can speak in the Other World. Coraline insulted him in the Real World, so he kind of has a chip on his shoulder. But he provides support and some important information. Of course, he is not expecting Coraline to throw him at the Other Mother, but they all escape together. He even forgives her for getting thrown."
Last, but not least, Selick introduced us to Coraline's downstairs neighbors, "This is Miss Forcible and Miss Spink. They have three Scottie dogs. In the Other World, there is a whole theater full of them that put on a show. They turn into scary bat dogs. We tried to make them scary, but they are also quite funny. And that went into the design of them." The two woman are bulbous, chunky and wrinkled. They are dressed to the nines in eveningwear. And they, too, are quite creepy. Probably the coolest design seen on the table is the Scottie Dog Bat creature, which will make a very nice collectable toy someday with its precious little face and horrifying winged body.
After taking us through the story and its characters, Selick walked us out onto the Laika studio floor, where a number of puppeteers and set builders were hard at work. We actually got to watch a moment of film making, which consisted of an animator carefully moving The Cat's mouth and arm less than one-third of an inch. It is a very tedious process, one that isn't very fun to watch. After witnessing one fourth of a second in actual screen time as rendered for the screen, we moved on. Since The Cat can talk in the Other World, we wondered if other animals can also speak. "No." Selick said with a laugh, "Just The Cat. The Cat is Keith David. You might know him. He is a character actor. He was in "Crash". He was the lead voice in the biggest video game from last year, Gears of War. He has done a lot of animation. He has a very rich, animated voice going all the way back to Gargoyles. Keith does a Nat King Cole tribute. He plays piano and sings just like Nat King Cole. We'll see what you think of him. He has a big chip on his shoulder, though. Coraline called him a Wuss Puss in the real world."
During the studio tour, we passed by a set clearing that finds Wybie on a bicycle in the woods, near a ditch. He is one of the few new faces that populate this filmed version of the Coraline myth. He was solely a creation of Selick's mind, and there is a pretty good reason why he is in the script, "I created him as someone to eventually be a friend to Coraline." Selick informed us. "There are two versions of him. In the real world, he is this sneaky, weird kid that follows her. He spies on her. She calls him Spybie, and she hits him. She doesn't like him a whole lot. Ultimately, he's a pretty sweet kid. It is his Grandmother's house that Coraline has moved into. He is someone that you don't really know. Is he part of the bad things that happen? We don't know. He gives Coraline a doll that looks just like her, and this unintentionally sets things into motion. Which leads her to this other world. So, in this world she finds him to be annoying and weird. He is an awkward and shy kid. But in the Other World, the Other Mother has made a version of him that is kind and sweet. And he can't talk. That is the thing that Coraline likes the most about him. It's fixed him."
In the book, there is no real catalyst to sets things in motion. A lot of the book is told from Coraline's perspective, so we are able to see the things that are going on in her head. This proved to be a little difficult to pull of on screen. Selick said, "In the book, there is an eternal dialogue. We are let into Coraline's wants and feelings easily. There needed to be something or someone to do this on screen. We introduce Wybie as a big scare at the very beginning of the film. He wears a weird mask, and he is spying on the new people that moved into this house that his Grandmother is renting out. We don't know who or what he is. And he appears like the Headless Horseman. Coraline is freaked out by him. She is exploring the grounds. She is looking for this old well. And Wybie shows up. He was invented to put another kid in there to say things to. Because there was no one for her to speak to. I just felt an unbalance in characters. I thought we needed one more kid to fill out this world. It took a longtime to develop this character. I had a neighbor named Wybie. Which is short for Wyborn. Coraline gets a lot of mileage out of calling him "Why Were You Born". I am hoping to win over fans of the book. I don't think there will be a lot of anger over this new kid. He is pretty cool and unique. And funny. Again, you don't know which side he is working on."
We are shown a lot of the landscape which makes up Coraline's version of Ashland, Oregon. It is slightly different from the real thing. The atmosphere is damper, and it is not as bright as the real Ashland, Oregon. Though they did nail the look of the Shakespeare festival. We asked Henry if the people that populate the film are anything like those folks you might find in Southern Oregon. His response proved to be interesting, "No. There was one crazy instance. You have to get legal clearance for certain names. And it turns out that there is someone named Bobinski that lives in Ashland. So we had to change the spelling a little bit. I'd say that Wybie is based on some of the youth culture in Ashland. He has his own self-made bike. It has a starter motor in the back. It is run on a battery. He wears a fireman's jacket. He is a mixed race kid. He is at one with nature. But he is also a little bit of a hipster. He is the most like the people in Ashland. The state of mind of being in Oregon did have a huge impact on this movie. Just coming here and doing rewrites. It helped to think about what it was like to move where they have long, grey winters. Spring is exciting, and then summer comes crashing in with these long heat waves. We end our film in the springtime. Though, we were originally going to end it in the summer."
When asked what the biggest challenge of bringing the book to the screen proved to be, Henry's response was quite large in scope. "We had to see if we could bring Coraline's story to life. She is not an outlandish character. She is very true to real life. She is not cartoonish. And she is the straight man of the show. That was the greatest challenge in bringing the book to the screen through animation. There were certain moments that proved to be challenging. You saw that these are puppets. They are made of metal and silicon. They are made of plastic. Can we get the audience to believe in them enough? The story has to be unsettling. I think it is working."
The film will hit theaters just as a tidal wave rush of other projects arrive on the big screen rendered in 3D. The film certainly looks amazing in this format, but will it live on in a two-dimensional world? Will the story remain in tact once it hits the home theater market? Selick seems to think so, "While I am working on it, most of the images I see are in 2D. We are only checking shots in 2D. We will later see these shots rendered in 3D. So, I do think it is going to work great however you see it. I'd prefer it if the number of 3D theaters in the World went up. I do think that is the better experience, because we are using it as part of the story. With 3D, another reality is created. It has a different feel to it. But we are not cranking it up, where we are shooting stuff out of the screen the whole time. In the end, the story and the characters are the main thing. I hope they work well enough in 2D. Now there is Hi-Def. DVDs. Blu-Ray. There are some really good 3D options coming to home screens in the very near future. This includes something that wouldn't require glasses. Phillips Electronics and Real D are creating this system. This film will work in 2D, and it will work quite well. But I think 3D is a more memorable experience. And that will be coming to home screens soon enough."
To show off just how awesome the 3D version of this film actually looks, Selick took us into a small makeshift theater full of sawdust and old wood benches were a white screen had been painted on the wall. Here in the studio, he let us take a first look at some of the footage from Coraline in its three-dimensional rendered form. How did it look? Well, it certainly appears to be in synch with his other films. The stop motion animation is beyond anything he has tried to do in the past, and it has an otherworldly feel to it. We were allowed to watch the scene where Mr. Bobinski performs a bit of twisted ballerina dancing in his real world apartment, and it is a moment that instantly transports you into another plain of existence. The 3D is some of the best we've seen yet, and that, combined with this type of stop motion animation makes for a truly unique experience unlike anything before it. Two more scenes played out in their entirety for us: The Circus Mice in a musical number, then Miss Forcible and Miss Spink in their Scottie dog theatrical number. Both proved to be a madhouse of moving props. It almost seems impossible that this was all done with the human hand. There is little to no CGI touch-ups in the footage that is presented, and it is an amazing spectacle to behold. If the rest of the movie looks this fantastic, this should prove to be Selick's best work to date.
You will have to wait until February 2008 to see it for yourself. And trust us, this is something you will definitely want to experience in theaters when it opens. Coraline is shaping up to be another groundbreaking film from a truly iconic filmmaker. We can't wait for Henry Selick's Coraline to hit a theater near you. Stay tuned for more on this project as the release date approaches.