Tim Burton is a true artist. He is not just a filmmaker. Not just an illustrator. Not just the grand poobah of whatever project he is working on, and he is not just god to a certain set of Goths that can’t get enough of Nightmare Before Christmas. He is an artist through and through. This fact somehow was made abundantly clear when I saw Tim Burton in action and witnessed the creativity, the love, the thought, the mindfulness and the immense amount of skill that goes on behind the scenes. Frankenweenie is an awesome example of his genius. A film that that is far more craft on crack than high tech movie making. It is the perfect marriage of old school and new school.
Tim Burton the man himself with his wild hair and all black ensemble, is a man of action and energy. Leading us through a maze-like collection of stages and production areas in the Three Mills Studios in the outskirts of London, his love for Frankenweenie is undeniable. The story, initially produced as a 29 minute short back in 1984, was funky and sweet. But apparently Tim could not just let it be. He resurrected the project from the grave and plucked this gem out for a new life, ironically not unlike Frankenweenie, the dog of the story.
But there is one aspect of the new production that really is a shame: The viewer, sitting comfortably with their popcorn and soda at their local Cineplex, won’t see what happened behind the scenes; what really went into making this film.
That’s where I come in.
Tim Burton is a ringleader, heading an enormously large team of camera people, artists, sculptors and set makers to create this world. He isn’t in one place directing the film, he is in twenty. He is the master of ceremonies, the man behind the curtain and the man who loves a dead dog.
The film, when finished, will be a 3D black and white feature. The sets, although predominantly black, white and grey, hold an array of other hues to get the depth and the feel of the objects they represent. The grass is green, the environments have hints of pinks and blues colors you won’t see but tones that will be apparent in the finished product.
Tim Burton said of these extremely detailed sets, “it’s always quite surreal when you see people on these working away… it’s amazing. That’s again why we love it. The process of it is just so unique. What I love is that everybody’s just been so good. You get these little details like blades of grass, that to me, that’s the beauty of film because it’s people making things like that is incredible.”
The location of Frankenweenie is based on Tim Burton’s own childhood in Burbank with ranch houses and homogeneous architecture that creates a perfect setting for the Frankenstein inspired tale to come. (As an aside, when asked if he was scared the first time he saw Frankenstein answering,” No, my parents – they were alarmed at how not scared I was.’)”
One of the amazing sets we saw was the school. He said “this is one of our bigger sets … I can’t stay in this room very long because it reminds me of my own, kind of traumatizing.” And he is right, his crew perfected the standard issue school design that popular in California in the middle of the last century. It’s an eerie depiction by design.
“It looks like all the schools in Burbank kind of put into one kind of horrible (version). It’s part of the emotional quality of it and part of the character of it is that it’s based on the whole kind of Frankenstein movies and the horror movies. (But) there’s a purity to it (and) a depth that will be really interesting. ”
“The whole point is to kind of go back into that feeling when you’re in school and you felt weird yourself, the other kids seemed weird. There’s kind of rivalry. Just like the friend that you thought was weird in school, in this case he happens to be more like Boris Karloff or Peter Lorre but it’s the same kind of child politics and kid sort of dynamics that you remember growing up. They’re basically all normal people in a way I guess, you know, sort of just a bit heightened. “
And telling the kind of story, in this sort of way, is a daunting endeavor. Not just the capturing of adolescence but the incredible amount of work that goes on with creating a stop motion film. “Being an ex-animator, this is probably one of the harder and most sort of painstaking forms of animation,” Burton said.
In the Three Mills Studio he said, “We’ve got about 30 setups going on- being worked on at a time. Things take a while to get set-up as you’ll see. ” A fact that I having seen first hand can attest to. “And then we have about 20 animators working at the moment. That’s why – in some cases – it takes such a long time to do these things because as you’ll see it’s a very painstaking process.” A process that will be invisible to the moviegoer, they will just see the seamless stop motion and fluid movements of the characters. It’s like magic.
Check out some of shots of the film and the work that happens behind the scenes in the puppet hospital – where all the characters are created - right here.
Princess 1 of 9One of the amazing characters from the film.
Tim Burton and Mom 2 of 9Animation Director Trey Thomas holds up the Mom puppet for Director Tim Burton to review in the Puppet Hospital.
Puppet Hosptial 3 of 9Tim Burton reviews a puppet mold in the Puppet Hospital.
Puppet Modeller 4 of 9Puppet Modeller Sam Holland works on a Victor puppet.
Fixing Hair 5 of 9Supervising Puppet Modeller Andy Gent and Hair Modeller Alex Williams in the Puppet Hospital.
Finishing TOuches 6 of 9Nadine Petterson (Junior Maintenance) touches up an Edgar puppet in the Puppet Hospital.
The Master at Work 7 of 9Director Tim Burton does a walk through in the Puppet Hospital.
Edgar 8 of 9A turnaround of an Edgar maquette.
Victor 9 of 9A turnaround of a Victor maquette showing his pajama design.
Frankenweenie opens everywhere October 5th.
Images via Walt Disney Company