Back when Tim Burton discussed Big Fish with VFXWorld, he mentioned in passing how much he preferred the creative vibe in London, as he segued to Corpse Bride, the stop-motion animated feature produced at 3 Mills Studios in the city’s industrial east end.
“Well, you know, there’s something about the hand-made thing—if you’re ever over in London, you can come over here and visit the energy where you see sets and moving puppets . . .”
Well, it just so happens that I got the opportunity to visit the set of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride in March, and Burton was right: there is something special about “the hand-made thing,” even though there was a significant digital component to the production as well. Indeed, the puppets, the sets, the energy were eventful to witness firsthand, particularly on such a signature Burton movie where graphic style is everything. The thing is, you can’t really appreciate the craft of stop motion until you observe it up close. Yes, it’s slow, meticulous and painstaking. Or, as actress Helena Bonham Carter observed in Toronto, “All animators are anal because it’s all about the detail.” And when you’re shooting two or three seconds of footage a day, one frame at a time with a still camera for 50 weeks, that’s about as detailed and labor intensive as it gets.
Based on a slight 19th century Russian folktale, which the late Joe Ranft introduced to Burton while they wrapped up The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride concerns Victor (Johnny Depp), a young man who accidentally pledges wedding vows to a mysterious Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter) while his betrothed, Victoria (Emily Watson), waits bereft in the Land of the Living. Though life in the Land of the Dead proves to be a lot more colorful than his strict Victorian surroundings above ground, Victor learns about love, romance, sacrifice and liberation from his Corpse Bride.
3 Mills (where director Danny Boyle shoots his movies and home to a lot of TV productions) has its own fascinating history. The current buildings have existed since the 18th century but the site reportedly goes as far back as the 11th century, when it housed a mill. The setup for Corpse Bride, though, consisted of 23 animators (vs. 65 at Aardman) and other crew spread throughout Stages A, B and C, as well as the production office housing the fabrication department (or puppet workshop), art department, camera department and storyboard department.
According to producer Allison Abbate (Nightmare and Iron Giant), most of the animators are English, of course, with ties to master puppeteers Mackinnon and Saunders in Manchester, Aardman Animations in Bristol and elsewhere. But there were several Americans that jumped at the opportunity, too, having specialized in stop motion at Will Vinton Studios or CG practitioners looking for a change of pace. As for the art department, nearly 40 experienced model makers and set builders were recruited from the Harry Potter and Star Wars films.
It’s week 41 out of a 55-week schedule. Our first stop in the production office was to gaze at—and even touch—some of the remarkable puppets, which are the hallmark of Corpse Bride, pushing stop motion to a whole new level of achievement, thanks to Pete Saunders and company at Mackinnon and Saunders. In addition to the principal puppets, we saw several others, including Scraps the dog, Maggot, Corpse Bride’s Peter Lorre-sounding confidant, and Mayhew, the jowl faced driver for Victor’s family.
The first new wrinkle is that the skin on the heads is comprised of soft silicone as well as foam. Meanwhile, San Francisco-based Merrick Cheney, as he did with Jack Skellington on Nightmare, created his signature steel armatures that serve as the vital skeletal structures with the assistance of Tom St. Aman.
But the most groundbreaking advancement for the lead puppets, courtesy of Mackinnon and Saunders, is an ingenious gear mechanism enabling a greater range of incremental movement on the faces. Thus, you no longer have to rely on the tedious old replacement head system.
“The mechanical faces are a lot more sophisticated,” explained director Mike Johnson, who makes his feature debut on Corpse Bride. “It enables us to get much more expressive performances than you could with replacement animation. A little more subtlety . . . an eyebrow can just ease a few frames longer. Little paddles and gears allow us to get the tiny increments. Put an Allen key inside an ear and Victor smiles; put it inside the other ear and he frowns. Originally the puppet makers wanted to do it the way it was done on Nightmare with replacement faces because they had proven it could be done. It was a little scary to take on these mechanical faces, even though they had done it for Lipton Ice Tea commercials, but the heads were much larger. So to get them down to the size of a walnut [to fit the gear mechanism] was the big challenge. It took some pushing, but in the end they did it and delivered amazingly.”
Johnson, who hails from Texas, is a stop-motion vet recruited by Burton to oversee the day-to-day directing chores while he was making Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on the other side of London. Johnson worked on Nightmare and James and the Giant Peach, and directed three episodes of The PJs at Will Vinton Studios. He also made the award-winning short, The Devil Went Down to Georgia.
“[As co-director], Tim oversees everything and has final say on the look of it all . . . it’s definitely his vision . . . he’s demanding in that he knows what he wants to see. Sometimes there’s a vague feeling what he’s after that he won’t describe in detail that you have to dial in . . . stop motion is barely controlled chaos. I check in with the animators nearly every day. Directing animators is like directing performers . . . we’re always dealing with something unexpected, but overall it’s going smoothly. But it’s absolutely personal for me. It’s hard not to get attached to these puppets as if they were real characters and real people, especially over the course of two years.”
One of artists recruited by Johnson was Graham Maiden, puppet fabrication supervisor who made most of the puppets and sets for The Devil and was lead supervisor on Chicken Run. “We’ve come a long way from Chicken Run, where the heads were made of plasticine and there was a great deal of replacement,” Maiden offered.” You can manipulate the puppets by making the mouth smile and the eyes close. We can move brows, cheeks, even a moustache. Others are more basic with replacement mouths; others have wires and paddles in their lips so you can move the mouth [different ways].”
Holding up a Victoria puppet that’s about to be used in a scene where she gets dressed by maid Hildegarde (voiced by Tracey Ullman), Maiden continued “There are three paddles inside the lower jaw: they each have little ball joints that are locked in. They are adjusted with Allen wrenches.”
The three leads, Victor, Corpse Bride and Victoria are typical of Burton’s style: they’re tall, thin and have very tiny feet. (Character designer Carlos Grangel basically ran with Burton’s rough sketches.) In fact, they are taller than previous stop-motion puppets, ranging from 12 to 18 inches.
Maiden then showed a sample of the wiring for the veil: “The most difficult thing was having Corpse Bride walk with a veil because it has to be transparent, it has to animate and it has to be very fluid . . . like it was underwater. It took four months, but we actually got tiny wires that were stitched into the lace and it’s quite sheer and the animators said it worked out quite well.”
Johnson concurred: “Just from an animation point of view, probably any shot involving the Corpse Bride’s veil flowing in the wind was the most difficult . . . There are some shots where it’s a computer-generated veil and some where it’s cloth on the puppet, so, hopefully, people won’t be able to tell which is which. It’s a credit to the animators that when the trailer came out, it was the practical veil and people at Pixar were convinced that it was computer-generated.”
There were 300 puppets in all for the 30 featured characters, some reportedly costing as much as $30,000 each. Corpse Bride alone has 14 puppets and 12 for Victor. “They’ve all got their own certain problems,” Maiden added. “But Corpse Bride’s skin has paddles and strings patched within the foam and silicone, and they are attached to the gear system. They can smile and they can frown. Positioning is crucial . . . We had a lot of problems because they have sharper eyes and we’ve got paddles in there. And if you twist too hard, you get those horrible Altered States-looking foreheads. You have to be very careful the way they are positioned. We initially asked for metal for eyes and ended up with urethane, which is softer and gives a little . . . Puppet making is puppet making wherever you go. People who work in animation are used to the slow process. You tend to go wild on the weekends.”
Maiden further explained that the fabric is made of foam and that the hair is a combination of resin and silicone. We saw some more puppets in a corner: One of the smaller ones is a head carried along by beetles from the music club in the Land of the Dead. One of the most amusing is Maudeline, Victoria’s insufferable mother (voiced by Joanna Lumley). She has a beehive for hair and Maiden referred to her as “Donkey Bollocks.”
Over in the workshop, Shannon O’Neill, formerly with Mackinnon and Saunders and, fittingly, a jeweler, demonstrated the gear mechanism in one of the Corpse Bride puppets. It very much resembles a Swiss watch. “The Allen key fits through the hair and in the ears and now she’s smiling.” O’Neill turned to a Victor puppet without his skin and adjusted a gear so that he smiled too.
“Mackinnon and Saunders always used one gear [in the back of the head] just to open the jaw,” she continued. “The difference with these is they wanted the animators to move them without touching their faces too much. Each side is operated independently. One gear makes it smile; another makes it frown. It extends the life of the skin. We’ve never worked this small with this much going on. The eyes are ball and socket joints. The eyebrows and lips move with little paddles inside them.”
O’Neill, who worked on Mars Attacks!, added that it’s a wonderful irony that Mackinnon and Saunders were able to make such innovative strides on Corpse Bride, given the fact that after investing a lot of R&D on Mars Attacks!, their role was minimized when the decision was made to transition to CGI.
In observing actual shooting on various sets, we witnessed the aesthetic disparity between the two worlds. Land of the Living is a monochromatic world of oppression, comprised of shades of gray and black-and-white. Land of the Dead is more Mario Bava-influenced with blue, purple, orange, yellow, green and black. Production designer Alex McDowell said he drew on eastern European influences for Land of the Living and injected a bone-like quality to the buildings in the Land of the Dead, which looks as though the color has bled down through the ground.
“Land of the Dead is the most challenging because in stop motion everything is fabricated from the ground up . . . you can’t go out and buy anything,” suggested art director Nelson Lowry, who worked at Will Vinton Studios and on James and the Giant Peach. “At least for the Land of the Living you can take from a building or tables and chairs. Alex sent me on my beautiful way after three months of pre-production and artwork. Everything is molded and cast because you need duplicates. We have puppet scale, which is normal, and 1/5 scale. We had to interface very tightly with the character development people because the characters are so stylized that they would look like monsters if the environments weren’t as stylized.”
There were similar challenges for director of photography and visual effects supervisor Pete Kozachik, who was nominated for an Oscar on Nightmare. “We did have to split these two worlds apart and find a way of making them instantly recognizable but not be making two separate movies, which is quite a trick having seven crews working on different sequences. Color was a way to separate. I tried to throw everything we have in our camera toolsets to separate as well. Keep real staid and level and sensible when shooting the real world and shoot it in near black-and-white. No fancy camera moves, no fancy angles. We maintained a whole different take on camera work in Land of the Dead. Again, not too much color but the presence of it becomes a surprise. We didn’t want the Land of the Living to be too boring so we ended up mixing it up a little bit.”
The sets we viewed included the town square (bathed in an exquisite green), the exterior and dining room of Everglot Mansion where Victoria and her family live, the church, the jazzy Land of the Dead club and Elder Gutknecht’s study. They are the largest stop-motion sets ever constructed, as high as 16 feet and as deep as 30 feet. To accommodate the larger size of the puppets, the upper floors of the buildings were scaled down, so they weren’t always out of frame. Plus, the ground floors had to match puppet scale for entrances and exits.
“We’re trying to make Corpse Bride as beautiful as we can and Victor as pathetic as we can,” added Kozachik. “And we’re doing what we can to enhance the other characters. We are taking this a little further afield than if we had live actors. It’s operatic and expressionistic.
“We start with the storyboards and edit those, which are constantly evolving and changing as we’re shooting. The most active directing part of it is when an animator is about to start a shot and we’ll work through the shot and act it out a little bit to get the timing down to the single frames. We get three paces for a shot. The first is a block to check the lighting and then a rehearsal, which is shot on twos or fours, and then we hone in the performance, and the final, which is shot on ones, 24 separate poses for one second of screen time.”
Lowry added that there were plenty of add-ons at the last minute: “Lots of oversized spiders and maggots were added so we had to add some oversized props that came up at the last minute. You might walk around and see some miniatures and then all of a sudden an arm in a chair that’s [much larger].”
The most exciting shot we witnessed was part of the show stopping Remains of the Day number at the club, starring skeleton Bonejangles (Danny Elfman) and his dancing mates. In typical Elfman fashion, it’s very bopish, with Bonejangles dipping up and laughing maniacally, and the skeletons diving in and out of frame. The four-second scene took nearly three days to complete.
Animator Trey Thomas admitted that it was an extra challenge because of the shadows: “That definitely adds to my frustration because you’re seeing in two axes, so it gives away a lot of mistakes that normally wouldn’t be seen if you didn’t have the shadows, so it adds a little extra time and pain. We keep the fixes in post to a minimum so they can use the digital money to really plus things.”
Thomas worked with Johnson on both Nightmare and James and the Giant Peach, but in recent years has worked in CG at Disney and DreamWorks. “Facial controls are a little bit more complex and more sophisticated, elegant and subtle. These guys are a lot more realistic and less cartoony. It’s nice to do stop motion again. In the states, it’s pretty much dried up. [But] when I heard they were doing this, I dropped everything and moved over here. It’s such a pleasure . . . the puppets are so tactile; it’s like playing with dolls. Just working in this environment is inspiring. All these sets and props and puppets. It’s such a pleasure to work with. I was feeling so bummed out with computer animation, so here I am.”
Added animator Drew Lightfoot (The PJs), who helped build a custom rig so the skeletons move in unison: “I previously worked on quiet, emotional moments with minimal movement. But here it’s very loose. I have the background characters do whatever they want because you’re so focused on the main characters in the foreground . . . Victor has a greater range of facial expressions in ‘Remains of the Day’ than the skeletons, which have an articulated jaw that can just flap in the breeze. So they’re very complicated little puppets.”
Animator Tim Allen (a vet of stop-motion TV in the U.K.) said he enjoyed the challenge of shooting scenes with the villainous Barkis, Victor’s rival for Victoria (voiced by Richard E. Grant), one of the few characters they explored as they proceeded. We watched a rehearsal clip of Barkis hiding under the table when the inhabitants of the Land of the Dead return from the underworld.
“I got one of the bigger lip synch shots and I got one of him being particularly sinister trying to suggest his plans to Victoria’s parents,” Allen explained. “It’s a hint of proper gentleman, as he is, with some seedy evil undercurrent. And they liked that shot and we went from there. I did have one 28-second shot and it’s entirely Barkis doing his self-congratulatory speech in front of 12 characters sitting around a table. Mike didn’t give me any direction at all about Barkis and left it to my discretion, so I was very lucky. What I love about him—I mean, Richard Grant’s voice is brilliant, so that’s a great start—is that he is the most wonderfully obnoxious English gentleman. That’s always fun. He’s so in love with himself, almost sensually so, because he likes to stroke himself. And on top of that, is that he is a genuinely evil character.”
The other great breakthrough on Corpse Bride is that it was photographed digitally—a first for stop motion. It was shot on 24 Cannon SLR digital still cameras with Nikon lenses, which, among other things, shortened the editing process. “The digital cameras enable us to see our shots as soon as they’re done, so we can see a test and refine in the same day, which you could never do with film,” Johnson affirmed.
The digital technology also provided greater flexibility with camera moves, as armatron rigs allowed the cameras to get much closer to the puppets and move three-dimensionally around them and the sets, witness the sweeping opening and the whirling 360-degree turns on the bridge between Victor and Corpse Bride.
Another small rig was designed to allow a small video camera to be mounted on the back of the still camera. The storyboards were all JPEG images, but many of the still frames were converted to QuickTime to avoid loading down the system. For video assist, they used Vinton Capture, software written for Vinton Studios specifically for stop-motion animators. Corpse Bride was edited on Final Cut Pro.
“Shooting digital was first of all a scary proposition,” admitted Kozachik. “We didn’t get a studio OK on it until literally film cameras had been loaded, tested and ready to go. But then somebody at Warners thought it was a cool thing to try. So it was a matter of embarking on some R&D to make sure we got the kind of detail, [consistency and stability] that we were happy with. We pretty much got that, thanks to a bunch of really technically savvy advisors. That took three months. I think it just shifted my job into an electronic realm. Now it’s about monitors and light values. The images we are getting are easier to acquire than film. It allows easier choices to make.”
As vfx supervisor, Kozachik also worked closely with London-based Moving Picture Co. (MPC) on the 460 digital shots supervised by Jessica Norman. Corpse Bride was color graded by Max Horton in the MPC DI lab. MPC’s work entailed traditional stop-motion enhancements, including rig and rod removals (taking out the puppet rods and motion-control rigs that managed the complex camera moves around the miniature sets) and multi-element composites using fog and smoke. The team created some complex 3D elements, such as the Corpse Bride’s fluttering veil, where it was critical that the motion exactly matched that of the stop-motion puppets. Bats and crows were also CG enhanced for more complicated moments.
MPC set up a satellite office onset at 3 Mills to facilitate instant feedback and hands-on supervision from the directors and Kozachik. This facility enabled the team to deliver final shots while the first unit was still shooting.
“Definitely going down the R&D road created some mistakes in terms of the dynamic range of the camera chip, so having DI is great and you can change your mind on things,” Kozachik said. “It has speeded up my lighting job a lot. Some of the most difficult things to do on set can be easy as opposed to post. So if you know what comes easy in post and what comes hard on stage, you make your choices and convince the director that it’s all going to be fine. [MPC] asked me if I wanted to add grain. I don’t see why. I could see why they would want it to look more like the shots around it. But I don’t miss it. It still feels like a movie and not a fancy video.”
As for competing with CG animation, Johnson conceded: “Audiences are now used to the super plasticity of these computer-generated characters. We’re not trying to compete with that but people expect a certain look to the characters and we’re trying to bring stop motion forward.”
Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, from Warner Bros. Pictures, opens Sept. 16 in limited release and wide throughout North America on Sept. 23.
Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.