In the last two decades, stop-motion animation has fallen out of favor as a vehicle to create fantasy/horror characters. The process used by Willis O’Brien to create a giant ape named Kong or by Ray Harryhausen to chronicle the adventures of Jason and Sinbad has been usurped by CGI, for better and (often) worse. One of the few keeping the process alive in recent years is visionary filmmaker Tim Burton, who created 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and this year unveils his new stop-motion opus Corpse Bride. Featuring the voices of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, the film (opening September 23 from Warner Bros.) is based on an obscure Ukrainian folk tale about a young man with a case of wedding jitters who accidentally invokes the spirit of a dead bride, who pulls him into the underworld.
But while the film uses dimensional animation to create its distinctive fantasy world, it combines a traditional approach with cutting-edge technical innovations. Instead of laboriously animating one frame at a time and then waiting for the film to be processed, the animators are using digital cameras and “frame grabber” workstations so that each shot can be accessed immediately. The puppets are made with silicone skins that give the characters a more translucent look, and a small amount of computer-generated FX is being blended with the stop-motion to create a seamlessly sophisticated look.
Corpse Bride is filming at Three Mill Studios in East London, with Burton traveling back and forth to Pinewood Studios, where he’s shooting Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the same time. While Burton works on Charlie, co-director Mike Johnson handles the daily responsibilities on Corpse Bride. “The reason these projects are so rare,” explains Johnson, “is that it’s difficult for all the elements to fall into place at the same time, just having the space and the time and the financing and the crew; it’s a convergence of lucky happenings that make it doable.
“The reason they brought me on as a director,” he continues, “was because at the time, Tim was finishing Big Fish and was about to roll into Charlie. But this is very much his vision and his project. I was basically hired to channel what he would want to see, and because he’s busy with so many other things, he doesn’t have the time to devote three years to one film right now. I’m responsible for the day-to-day happenings, and he has the final overall say.”
Johnson first heard about Corpse Bride a decade ago when he was working on Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, another stop-motion feature produced by Burton. “That’s when Tim first conceived of it, and there were rumors and talks that it might be his next project, and then it went underground for a while,” Johnson recalls. “I had done some work for Vinton Studios and directed a few episodes of the PJs for them, and they were the ones who convinced Tim to get it off the ground again. So when they were looking for a director, they put me in touch with him.
“We started with Tim’s sketches, some of which were the ones we saw 10 years ago,” he continues, “and there were a handful that Tim had done for most of the primary characters, and a treatment of a few pages. From there, we went on to develop it and hammer out the plot. It’s based on a folk tale which is only half a page long, and we had to try and make that a satisfying story, so a lot of work went into developing it. [The script was written by Pamela Pettler and Nightmare’s Caroline Thompson.] But the design was a really interesting part of the process too, because we wanted to keep the look and charm of Tim’s original drawings, and translating those into three dimensions was challenging.”
For Johnson and a number of other animators, the prospect of working on a full-length stop-motion feature created by Burton was too good to pass up, particularly with the industry steadily moving toward CG-animated projects. “What’s appealing to me, and probably for most of the animators who stuck it out, is two things,” Johnson notes. “One is that you get to play with cool toys all day, and the other is that it’s a live performance in the sense that you can’t really backtrack on it. With computer animation, you can refine the shot endlessly until it’s polished and all the rough edges are taken off. Whereas with stop-motion, it’s straight-ahead and you have one chance to do your performance, so that brings extra energy to it.”
Overseeing a production of this magnitude is a huge undertaking. According to producer Allison Abbate, “It has been about two and a half years, but the script we are working with came in about a year ago, so we really had to work quickly on the storyboards and recording the cast so that we could start shooting. Even two years isn’t that much time for any animated movie, just because of the preproduction part of the storytelling and the cutting and stuff like that. I was a coordinator on Nightmare, which was fun, because I got to work in every single department. That was just a one-off adventure, and when this came up, I said, ‘That was the best adventure in my life; I’m doing it again!’ It’s the kind of medium that gets under your skin, because it has all the great stuff of animation, but it also has the coolest live action and lights and the physicality of the real space. Stop-motion is like a live-action shoot in that you have real cameras and real space, but we’ve got 31 stages out here and it’s all happening simultaneously.”
In order to maximize their working area, the production has divided the studio floor into several dozen smaller sets, as well as a full-time “puppet hospital” in which the characters are carefully maintained. Once a figure is ready to go on set, it is placed in a temperature-controlled storeroom to prevent the silicone from sweating. For each setup, director of photography Pete Kozachik and his team light the set and program the camera moves before turning the set over to an animator.
“We try to lock everything down in storyboard form first,” explains Johnson, “so our shooting ratio is ideally one-to-one. But our storyboard ratio is 20-to-one, so that’s where we do most of our exploring. Once we have the boards as we like them, the camera crew comes in and frames the shot and lights the set, and if there’s a camera move involved, they’ll program it. At that point, the animator is there to roughly block out the shot, and when that’s done, everyone steps away, we close the curtain and it’s just the animator and the puppet until he gets to the end of the shot.”
As with traditional animation, Corpse’s voice performances were recorded first in order to give the animators something to work with. In addition to Depp as protagonist Victor Van Dort and Bonham Carter as the Corpse Bride, the cast also includes Emily Watson, Albert Finney, Joanna Lumley, Richard E. Grant, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Paul Whitehouse, Tracey Ullman and longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman.
“It’s very helpful for the animators,” notes Abbate, “to see the way their faces move. These puppets are very much state-of-the-art, because Pete Saunders at McKinnon & Saunders has designed the head mechanics so we can get such subtlety of motion. Their skins are different from Nightmare, where a lot of it was replacement animation or just plain latex, while this is a silicone-latex combination which makes them look like they have a lovely, dewy skin. That’s why you can really get these Helena Bonham Carter- or Johnny Depp-like expressions.”
Conversely, it was also helpful for the actors to see the characters they were playing in advance. As Abbate recalls, “Most of the puppets were pretty much made when we cast the voices, so we would bring them to the recording sessions, show the actors test animation and let them actually move the puppets. It was very sweet; they were very gentle with the puppets and didn’t want to hurt them, and it was also very inspiring for the actors.”
Johnson offers a tour of the various sets, some of which are still in the process of being lit, while others are already in the middle of a shot. The director cautions many of the sets are “hot,” meaning that if anything is bumped or dislodged, the effect could be catastrophic for the unfortunate animator. In one setup, assistant animator Brian Leif Hanson is blocking out a sequence where Victor wakes up in the land of the dead, where he meets the skeleton Bonejangles (Elfman).
As Johnson explains, “He sings a song called ‘The Ballad of the Corpse Bride,’ which gives Victor her back-story and how she got where she is. There’s a slightly surreal moment where we go into Bonejangles’ eye, everything goes to black and when we come up, there are these multicolored skeletons tormenting Victor with this dance, so Brian is testing it out for us. The whole scene is a homage to the Disney classic The Skeleton Dance.”
And on the subject of stop-motion skeletons, one of the biggest surprises of the entire shoot was the day that FX legend Harryhausen paid a visit to the Corpse Bride company. “It was like getting a visit from God!” recalls Abbate. “It was a wonderful surprise. He knew some people who were going to be here, so he decided to come with them and we were absolutely floored. I couldn’t believe the awe he inspired with those guys. With stop-motion, there really isn’t a school to learn it. The people who do it are people who watch it and loved it and tested stuff out at their houses, so he’s really a god to them. He’s such a lovely, pleasant man, and it was really fun to see people get his blessing on the work they were doing.”
Johnson moves on to another set in which animator Tim Allen is toiling on a massive sequence involving a number of characters. “Basically Barkis—the villain of the film, voiced by Richard E. Grant—has just gotten married,” Allen explains. “It’s the gloomiest wedding ever, and Barkis is telling us how wonderful he is in the speech. You can see the camera creeping down the length of the table, and then we pass right between the puppets and move in on a close-up. We’ve already downloaded half of this shot. We’re coming in for the close-up now where the camera goes right down the aisle; it’s a big shot.”
“This also triggers the scene where the dead rise up into the land of the living, and they invade this wedding banquet and wreak havoc,” Johnson adds. “This is another example of how using digital camera has helped us out: This is a shot with 12 characters, and—“
“And 696 frames,” Allen interjects.
“It’s a shot I don’t think anyone would have dared to do just with film,” Johnson continues, “in case there was a scratch on the negative or anything else happened in the course of the weeks it takes to shoot it. But with the digital process, we can download it at the end of every day and we know we’re safe to keep moving forward. It has enabled us to do these marathon shots, which is great—but the animators maybe aren’t quite as grateful for it.”
Allen plays back the rest of the sequence stored in his frame-grabber, and stops working for a few minutes to talk about it in greater detail. “At the moment, I’ve only got two characters to deal with, but earlier on, there were 12,” he says. “Every puppet has many adjustments; it can be each eye—you’ve got the eyebrows, the blinks, the pupils moving—maybe the hair is shifting, and one of these characters also has a moving mustache and beard. The bodies move subtly, and each character has many movable parts, so it’s up to me to decide what to do.
“In this shot specifically, everything has to be kept to a minimum, because our focus is on Barkis at the end of the table, so his gestures have to be very grand, like he’s doing a big mime,” Allen continues. “With all the other characters in the foreground, their movements have to be very minimal so that we’re not distracted by them. It’s like organizing a stage: You need to know who the main character is, and all the extras have to do something and we have to know they’re alive.”
One of the greatest challenges in creating a shot that is nearly 700 frames long is that at 25 frames per second, there are an awful lot of things that can potentially go awry. “Going back to the topic of the sweaty puppets,” says Johnson, referring the use of silicone skin, “a bigger problem on a shot that stretches over the course of a couple of weeks is the set expanding and contracting. When we turn off the lights at night, it gets cold. The wood contracts minutely, but it’s noticeable on the frame-grabber the next day, so they have to turn on the lights and have it warm up and swell.”
“There are so many elements that can go wrong,” says Allen. “Last night, the rig had dipped, so the camera had moved down and I had to readjust that. In theory, that can happen every night. Last night, a bulb blew out, and when you change the bulb, the lighting may be a bit different. There are all of these potential [problems], and the longer the shot is, it’s more likely that all of them will go wrong at some point!”
On a nearby set, director of photography Kozachik and his team are lighting a forest exterior, complete with atmospheric mist. For Kozachik, one of the ongoing challenges for the past several months has been maintaining Burton’s overall vision while still allowing the creativity of the camera and animation teams to come through.
“He’ll have a few things that he’s a stickler about, and many other things he likes to be surprised by,” Kozachik says. “In terms of Burton’s specific ideas, there’s character design, especially the Bride, because you’d think he would want that to be special. I know he sketched for a long time, and we worked on that from the very inception. We went through a lot of stuff about color, right down to the hair, and how long it was and what body shape she would have, what kind of lipstick she would wear…all of that stuff was really intensive.”
With the tour nearing an end, Johnson leads the way to a final setup, where cameraman Simon Jacobs is lighting an exterior church set. “This is for the final sequence,” says the director, “and as you can see from the storyboards we’re working from Victoria [Watson] walks in and sees Victor and the Bride as their ceremony begins.”
“At the moment, we’re just shooting the inside,” says Jacobs. “The animator hasn’t come to this set yet; it still belongs to the camera crew, so they’re setting the look of the lighting. The sets are all modular, so they can come together in sections and the art department can pull them together in half a day. They’re designed to be semi-portable.”
With so many people working long hours just to finish a few seconds of footage each day, it seems surprising that everyone involved appears so sanguine in the face of ever-growing deadline pressures. Perhaps it’s a personality trait shared by stop-motion artists, but at this stage of production, the crew is surprisingly low-key.
“We ramped up slowly,” says Johnson, “so we’ve been shooting for 37 weeks, and we have about 45 minutes in the can. We have about 12 weeks to go at top-speed, full-out capacity and still need to get another half-hour, so the clock is ticking. That’s another thing on these films: They take so long that there is a real burnout factor, so we’ve paced ourselves until now, and at this point it’s full speed to the end!”
Whether or not Corpse Bride does anything to promote the cause of stop-motion animation remains to be seen, but for many of the people who have worked on it for the past couple of years, it has been a dream project. “People are going to notice what we’ve done,” Johnson says. “Nightmare has become a classic over the years, and it continues to get a larger and larger following, so I believe people will be really excited about this movie.”
“When we put the first trailer out on the Internet,” he continues, “we received over a million hits that first weekend, so people are really anticipating this film, and stop-motion is as viable as it has ever been. As long as I’ve been doing this, people have said, ‘Stop-motion is dead!’ but it’s not. Next year there will be two major stop-motion features coming out, and when has that ever happened? So things are as good as they’ve ever been.”