Tim Burton previews his stop-motion feature 'Frankenweenie'
Nearly 30 years ago, a young animator and artist working at Disney on
projects like "The Fox and the Hound" and "The Black Cauldron" made a short live-action film,
using the company's resources, about a little boy whose dog, Sparky, is hit by a
car and dies. Learning about electrical impulses at school, young Victor
reanimates his beloved pet -- only to terrify the people of his small town in
the process, turning them into an angry mob.
Yet "Frankenweenie" (which was inspired by his own loss of a beloved dog as a
child in Burbank, Calif.) has seemingly haunted him for his entire career, and
now Burton has returned to that story, this time as a full-length film done in
stop-motion animation (for Disney, no less). Having produced "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and co-directed
"The Corpse Bride," two earlier stop-motion movies, Burton has taken solo
directorial reins for "Frankenweenie," which is without a doubt one of the
director's most personal projects.
"I just recalled that sort of first relationship, you know, with a pet
usually," says Burton about the story's origins. "The kind where it's
unconditional -- you know, you walk out the door and you walk back in, and it's
like you've been away for three years. And then also, because animals usually
don't live as long, it's the first death that you experience, or that I
experienced. So that was like a very powerful combination of the two. I think
that's where the story came from, the idea of never forgetting that emotion and
the trauma of losing that kind of relationship, but easily relating it to the
Frankenstein story. It's easy to kind of marry the two things without it seeming
like a stretch."
Burton is speaking to a small group of journalists who have been brought to a
Santa Monica screening room to watch 26 minutes of "Frankenweenie." The footage
more or less condenses much of the movie's plot -- ironically bringing it back
to its short-film roots -- which has been naturally expanded from Burton's
original live-action version (that film, by the way, is available as an extra on
the "Nightmare Before Christmas" DVD). This sneak preview of the film affords us
two immediate insights: This is very much a Burton love letter to the old
Universal horror movies, with "Frankenstein" the most obvious one, while also
paying homage to American and Japanese monster movies and further exploring
Burton's fascination with suburbia and outcasts.
The second thing is the beauty of the animation, which is done in black and
white (it will also be in 3-D). Despite all the impressive visual delights
afforded to us by modern-day computer animation, there is something deeply
intimate about stop-motion. It's the hand-crafted texture, the reality of the
physical puppets and sets, and the small quirks and imperfections that give
stop-motion a continuing resonance even despite its retro qualities. If the 26
minutes screened is any indication, "Frankenweenie" could be destined to sit
proudly alongside other modern stop-motion classics like "The Nightmare Before
Christmas" and "Coraline."
"It hasn't really changed," says Burton about the stop-motion technique when
we sit down with him after the screening. "It hasn't really changed since the
beginning of film. You know, that's the great thing about it. There are a few
little tools that help, but I think the great thing about this medium is that it
really doesn't change. And I think that the people who like doing it, that's
what they like about it.
"Technology can blur the lines," he continues. "We had such good puppets on
'Corpse Bride' that a lot of people thought that was done on computer ... each
form has its great element. There's great computer animation, great drawn
animation, you know, great every kind of animation. I think what you hope for is
that what you actually like about a certain form, you don't want to lose that.
We tried to let our budget limitations work for us, so a lot of (what we shot)
is kind of rough, but that's what we love about it."
Providing voices in the film are Charlie Tahan as little Victor, Martin Short
and Catherine O'Hara as his parents, and Martin Landau as the creepy scientist
teacher Mr. Rzykruski, who indirectly mentors Victor's experiments with
reanimation. The film is set in the fictional town of New Holland, which
executive producer Don Hahn describes as "Transylvania meets Burbank." Sounds
kind of like where Tim Burton grew up: "Well, that's the way it was," says
Burton. "That's why I always related the Frankenstein story to my own
upbringing, because it was so easy to see your neighbors as the angry villagers
-- because there was that kind of mentality. There was a kind of angry-mob
mentality that every now and then would kind of rear up. So it was all stuff
that seemed, even though it's in a Frankenstein movie, seemed like real life
too. What was real and not real is quite a blurry line in some ways."
Which sounds about as close to a definition of a Tim Burton film as one can
get. Rooted in real emotions and personal experiences, filtered through an
imagination filled with scary monsters and fantastical, odd landscapes, the
full-length "Frankenweenie" looks set to fulfill the promise of that short film
made three decades ago by that young, introverted artist.
"I'm kind of grateful that (the original short) was live-action because if it
had been animation, I probably wouldn't have gotten into live-action features,"
reflects Burton about returning to his story. "So it was a very sort of kind of
lucky break, in a way, in that now the animated version makes sense. I think
there are enough new elements, it feels like something that's personal, and it
definitely feels like something new. I didn't feel like I was just treading over
old territory. This is a different way to explore it."
"Frankenweenie" will give a theater near you a jolt on Oct. 5.