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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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."
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."
Movie PictureWhen 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.