Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Visit to the "Frankenweenie" Set

Jamie Portman of had the opportunity to visit the London set of the stop-motion film, Frankenweenie. Posted below is the in-depth article in its entirety, offering insights into Tim Burton's approach to revisiting this material, the expansion of the story from the original live-action short from 1984, the work of the animators, and much more. Beware of a few SPOILERS!:

LONDON - It's an undistinguished low-slung building on Sugar House Lane, a dingy street whose picturesque name belies the cheerlessness of this East London neighbourhood. Yet if you penetrate its drab exterior, you enter a wonderland -- the wonderland of filmmaker Tim Burton's spooky imagination.
This is where Burning Windmills Productions has taken up residence -- an appropriate name for the company behind Burton's upcoming animated feature, Frankenweenie. Both the company name and the film's title evoke memories of the legendary 1931 film, Frankenstein, and the scene where the townsfolk react in frenzy to the rampaging monster in their midst.
"Remember the scene where they run up to a burning windmill at the end?" producer Allison Abbate asks. "That's why we're calling our company that. And we definitely have a burning windmill in our movie!"
That, and a lot more. Frankenweenie, which Disney has set for autumn release with a high-powered vocal cast that includes Winona Ryder, Martin Short and Martin Landau, is Burton's much-anticipated full-length reworking of his 1984 animated short of the same name. Then, as now, with this tale of a boy named Victor who restores his dead dog Sparky to life, Burton was rendering affectionate homage to the horror films that enchanted him in his childhood.
That enchantment permeates the labyrinthine corridors of this astonishing studio. You arrive at the homemade laboratory where the young Victor, the kid who loves monster movies, goes to work on Sparky in the aftermath of his pet's fatal collision with a car -- and if you're reminded of the creepy setting in which Boris Karloff creaked into life in the original Frankenstein, Burton will be delighted.
Move on and you'll find the gloomy pet cemetery, which plays such a crucial role in the story.
"Of course, there's a graveyard, since this is a Tim Burton movie," Abbate says cheerfully.
Then you're suddenly in the midst of the actual filming of a dramatic moment. A dedicated science teacher has lost his job, condemned by the community for encouraging a spirit of inquiry among Victor and his fellow students. You watch the kids' beloved Mr. Rzykruski leaving a hostile PTA meeting, moving sadly down the aisle of the auditorium while a sea of faces watches his humiliation.
This sequence has a live-action intensity that surges out at you in playback. But of course, it's not live action at all -- and this is the miracle being wrought during every second of filming.
The scene is being shot in a tiny playing area maybe half the size of an average living room. As with all the production's 35 shooting units, Burton's artistic team is working in a toy-sized setting, where every prop is reduced to scale. And while Mr. Rzykruski and his tormentors will loom large on the big screen, just as the diminutive King Kong did nearly 80 years ago, they are, in actuality, small and brilliantly engineered puppets whose movements -- right down to the flicker of an eyelash or twitch of the lip -- are being meticulously created frame by frame by the tiniest of adjustments and manipulations.
Animator Mark Waring towers over his miniature performers as he sets up the shot. Remote-control cameras are in place, but that's only the beginning.
"There are 40 characters who've got to move, and I'll be right in the middle, trying to duck up and down out of the way of a shot," Waring says. "Rzykruski's going to be walking down this pathway, and all the other characters are watching him go, and will be turning as he passes. So I'm doing this literally frame by frame. All these heads turn a tiny degree. And I do it again and again."
Mr. Rzykruski's shifting facial expressions help heighten the drama of the moment -- which is why another animator, Danail Kreve, is available with a choice of 36 different miniature mouths to slot into the embattled teacher's jaw.
Welcome to the old-fashioned world of stop-motion animation. Its distinguished antecedents include: the 1933 King Kong; Ray Harryhausen's science-fiction adventures of the 1950s; Wallace and Gromit; and the groundbreaking contributions of Canada's National Film Board.
Burton brought the process into an eerie new dimension in 1993, when he produced The Nightmare Before Christmas, and then explored it further with The Corpse Bride.
The original Frankenweenie lasted only 28 minutes, but Burton is convinced there's an audience out there for a full-length version.
"We've added more to the beginning, so you get more of a sense of the relationship that the kid has with his dog," Abbate says. "We also added to the ending, so that now, it's not just about Sparky and whether the townspeople accept and embrace him.
"Here, the secret gets . . . out, and other people try to do the same thing, with disastrous results. So you set up that nice conflict of Sparky being different from other creations, because he was created out of love, not out of competition or power."
Burton also has a screen version of Dark Shadows currently in the works, so he isn't on hand today. But his inventive spirit is present everywhere. The puppetry, including an intriguing collection of Burtonesque monsters, is a prime example.
"They're all out of Tim's imagination," Abbate notes. "He's personally created them. He did the character designs, and they've been transferred directly from his drawings to sculpted puppets. Not since Nightmare Before Christmas has there been something which has spun so purely from the mind of Tim as this one."
The Victor puppet is a little over 15 inches tall. Sparky is 4.2 inches long, and there's one small puppet which is only five-eighths of an inch in size.
Burton's credits -- Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd, a controversial Alice In Wonderland, Beetlejuice, to name only a few -- reveal a filmmaker who shuns the conventional. Frankenweenie is no exception. Yes, there will be a 3-D release, but it's being shot in old-fashioned black and white -- and that, Abbate acknowledges, "makes it both controversial and exciting at the same time.
"This particular story hearkens back to a movie Tim was inspired by. He got excited about making movies by seeing those old black-and-white horror films. And he really feels that black and white underlines the emotional quality of the movies and the bereft feeling that Victor experiences when Sparky passes. He felt it was the only way he could tell the story."
Abbate is the award-winning producer of some of the most innovative animated movies of recent years - among them, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Corpse Bride. She's a huge fan of the stop-motion process.
"It's not just that it's fun, but that it's so old-school. Yet it still works. Everything that people do here is so creative. Everyone here is an artist, down to the tiniest prop."
And those props are tiny. Many can be held in the palm of the hand. "This is Victor's chair," Abbate says, passing over a miniature chair. "Feel how heavy this thing is." She's now holding a weighty thumb-sized book and lets it fall with a thump. Every tiny prop is meticulously crafted. Yet they aren't fragile. "That's because everything has to be so stable."
As with all classic horror movies, events start going horrifically wrong, as Victor's friends try to repeat his experiments using their own pets, often with hilariously creepy results. Abbate is mum on details, but she does drop tantalizing hints about a "mummy" hamster, a ferocious werecat, a Godzilla turtle, and monkeys who become something out of Gremlins.
So what is Burton creating here? An animated horror movie? A dark comedy? Not exactly.
"Most of the time, it's a heartfelt love story between a boy and a dog," Abbate says matter-of-factly. "But it's done with real affection for the old movies of that genre that inspired Tim."
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