February 5, 2009
Coraline, the first stop-motion feature film to be presented in 3D, is being released in North American theaters on 6 February 2009. Neil Gaiman, author of the multiple award-winning novel upon which the film is based, stopped briefly in Montreal on his promotional tour for the film. I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with him about the choice of animation versus live action for interpreting Coraline and The Graveyard Book, as well as some of his ideas about animated adaptations of his other works.

Arin Murphy: You’ve explained that Coraline was very firmly a stop-motion idea in your head. Your Newbery-award winning novel The Graveyard Book has been optioned by Neil Jordan, who’s going to be doing a live-action adaptation of it. Did it ever cross your mind that that could be done in animation of some form?

Neil Gaiman: No. No, I wanted what I was seeing in my head. For The Graveyard Book I’ve always seen real people, and part of the fun will be how they’ll do the ghosts. But the idea of making anything less than very, very real people and sets in which you can walk around and tap on headstones – it just seems wrong. On the other hand, now, I would love to do something like The Wolves in the Walls as animation. Whether 2D or 3D or stop-motion — as long as it felt like Dave McKean, that would be amazing. Henry and I have started chatting in a lazy kind of way about Odd & The Frost Giants as an animated project. That may well work as a cool animated idea. So I think there are definitely things of mine out there that I do want animated… I just didn’t want The Graveyard Book. For me, in my head, it’s live-action.

I think it’s wonderful that as an author you can say, “I feel this about this book,” and people will actually say, “Great, let’s actually explore that direction.”

I think it’s so incredibly lucky. I think as well there’s part of me that worries that if you made Coraline as a live-action film and really made it well, you’d end up with The Shining for kids. You would wind up with something… I don’t know if you’ve been on the Coraline website, but they have this wonderful thing where you can put buttons over your eyes?

Yes, I can’t bring myself to do it.

It’s really disturbing. It’s so much more disturbing. The fact that these [stop-motion puppets] are little dolls and you kind of know that they don’t have [real] eyes behind the buttons… that somehow makes it kind of okay. [pause] Not very okay, but kind of okay. They have buttons. Doing that with real human beings might be really seriously disturbing.

Well, there’s that one moment in the film where they say, “If you want to stay with us, all you need to do is…” and they push the buttons across to her. In the book that gave me pause as well, because when you read it, you visualize it. If you saw a real live flesh and blood person with buttons sewn in their eyes—well, just think about your button trailer!


Everything’s fine until you actually put the buttons up, and then you smile—

And I have no idea how actually sinister that smile would have been without the buttons there. There was this weird thing where I knew that if I just put buttons up in the right way, and I did the [demonstrates] smile, it was going to be absolutely terrifying. Just for a moment.

Yup. It worked.

Shouldn’t have done, but it did.

Thank you so very, very much.

You are so very welcome. Thank you for coming.

Previously on fps:

Interview With Neil Gaiman, Part One
Coraline (review)

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February 4, 2009
Coraline, the first stop-motion feature film to be presented in 3D, is being released in North American theaters on February 6. Neil Gaiman, author of the multiple award-winning novel upon which the film is based, stopped briefly in Montreal on his promotional tour for the film. I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with him about the development of the project through its various stages.

Arin Murphy: Neil, congratulations on the imminent release of Coraline.

Neil Gaiman: Thank you. Yes, three days to go!

I was lucky enough to see it at the press screening last week.

Did you get it in 3D, or 2D?

I saw it in 3D.

Oh, good!

It really is quite the experience, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s not quite like anything else. And you know, it’s a lovely thing when you can actually say, “It’s not like anything else.”

Well, some of that is due to the story.

That’s true. But story aside, the way Henry uses 3D to delineate space is something nobody’s done before. You get that one needle gag five seconds into the movie, almost just so he lets you know that he could do this, if he wanted to. [It’s like saying] we can do this, and now we’re not going to. Now we’re going to use 3D in a way that isn’t about throwing things at the audience. This is the film you’re going to see, and we will simply make it good.

And he does a fabulous job with it.

It is awesome.

Were you thinking cinematically when you wrote Coraline?

No. I was thinking story when I wrote Coraline. When I finished I thought, “You know, somebody’s going to make this into a film, and I would like to see it… and if I had to pick anything, I would like it to be stop-motion.”

I had seen and loved Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, and had liked it enough that I had taken note of who directed it. Which meant that a few years later when James and the Giant Peach came out, I went to see that. And while I had problems with it, I loved it; the genius was there. I just thought there were some missteps. Like the going from live action to stop-motion; that seemed wrong. I wanted it to have been stop-motion all the way through. I wound up asking Henry about [it] many years later, and he said it was the budget; they could not afford to do it entirely stop-motion, and they played the hand they were dealt. So when I handed in the manuscript for Coraline I asked my agent, “Could you get this to Henry Selick?” And about a month later I found myself in an editing suite watching poor Henry as he struggled with the madness of Monkeybone, and very shortly after that he gave [Coraline] to [producer] Bill Mechanic, who bought it for Henry.

And Henry wrote a script, and sent it to me. And I said, “I think it’s too faithful.” And it was. It felt very, very laboriously faithful. You know, it kept turning into a silent little girl walking down corridors.

Which works in a novel –

Well, which works in a novel because you’re inside her head. You know what she’s thinking, you know what she’s feeling. But without benefit of voiceover or turning to the fourth wall and talking, you don’t have that.

So then Henry went away, rather sadly, and came back about a year later with a second draft script, which was essentially the script of the film you saw. But at this point it had to be live action, because Bill Mechanic had some sort of deal with Disney which precluded him from doing animation of any kind. And I believe that Michelle Pfeiffer was meant to be the Other Mother… And I’m sort of watching and thinking, “Well, that’s okay, I suppose, but I really wanted stop-motion.” And then 9/11 happened, and it became slowly apparent that Bill Mechanic’s funding was never going to [come through]. Eventually, the rights lapsed. And I wound up doing something you’re never meant to do, which is giving them – I think they got about nine months to a year of free option. Because I believed in Henry.

That’s such a wonderful statement of faith.

Well, it was a particularly wonderful statement of faith because the book had since come out, been published, been a huge success, and now had lots of large shark-like entities swimming around going, “We will give you real money, we will get a lot of money….” But I like Henry. And I trusted him. And I trusted somehow that things were going to work out. And then Henry wound up at Laika, and he showed the script at some point to [Laika Vice President of Animation and stop-motion animator] Travis Knight, who was a fan of mine anyway. And Travis loved the script.

Bill Mechanic did not like stop-motion. He thought it was antiquated and that nobody was interested, and that [the film] should be done in CGI. And he was pushing Henry incredibly hard to have him make it half CGI and half stop-motion, something like that, so that it would go out of antiquated puppetry animation into cool modern animation. Thank God Henry came up with 3D and said, “What if we did this instead?” There were enough bells and whistles in the 3D concept that they abandoned the CG idea, which made me so happy. And it made me happy because, look, if I’d wanted a CG movie when I finished writing I would have given it to my agent and said, “Could you get it on John Lasseter’s desk.” He’s the best at [CGI]. I didn’t. What I said was, “Can you get it to Henry Selick,” who is non-pareil in what he does. The only stop-motion person I like as much as I like Henry, but who works in a completely different direction, is Jan Švankmajer. And I guess it may say something about why I wanted this to be stop-motion that when my daughter Holly (for whom I originally wrote Coraline) was five years old, her favourite movie was Jan Švankmajer’s Alice.

Jump to part two of the interview.

Previously on fps:
Coraline (review)

Previously on The Critical Eye:
Neil Gaiman on anime and Miyazaki

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February 2, 2009

I tend to be very protective of the books I’ve read and loved, and I feel that most film adaptations don’t do their literary sources justice. Author Neil Gaiman’s repeated positive references to the progress of the stop-motion animation film adaptation of his Hugo-award winning short novel Coraline on his blog and in interviews have kept me hoping for the best, and I’ve enjoyed the vignettes and teasers Laika has released. Nothing in the promotional material gave me cause for concern: Henry Selick seemed to be treating it with respect. And that’s not a surprise, because when Gaiman completed Coraline he handed it to his agent and asked her to send a copy to Henry Selick before it had even been published. When the author trusts the filmmaker enough to do that, it eliminates the need for excessive amounts of anxiety on my part.

Director and scriptwriter Henry Selick has created a fantastic (in the true sense of the word) adaptation of the world in the multiple-award-winning book by Neil Gaiman. The screenplay is remarkably faithful to the book, with the exception of the addition of a new character. Wybie, a boy approximately Coraline’s age, was created by the filmmaker to serve as a foil for Coraline. In a book an omniscient narrator can share a character’s thoughts with the reader, but in a film that character sometimes needs interaction with others to evoke their feelings or thoughts. Wybie serves his purpose, and doesn’t detract from the story or from Coraline herself in any way. And whereas the book has Coraline very deliberately planning her final triumph over her Other Mother, the film has a more immediate and action-based conflict and resolution. If you’ve read the book, you’ll have expectations of the mouse circus: it’s delicious in film form, too. The pacing is excellent, the balance of dialogue to action is good, and each character is well-defined. All in all, the screenplay is a success.

My other concern about the film was its use of 3D technology. Too often this technology is used as a gimmick or a way to prop up what might otherwise be a less than successful sequence. This concern, too, was laid to rest in the enjoyably chilling opening sequence. Coraline is the first animated stop-motion feature to be filmed entirely in 3D, and successfully uses stereoscopy to create a seemingly more realistic stop-motion animation. There’s no gimmickry here, only a serious use of the technology to enhance the entire experience and to create the feeling of a stage with depth instead of a flat screen. There are a couple of things in the opening sequence that move out toward the audience, a nod to the experience the technology can give, but in general the technology is used to create the sense of depth and space. It makes the story more real instead of pointing out its meta-reality.

The animation is outstanding. The smoothness of the motion, the camera moves and angles are justifiably jaw-dropping. The production design is incredible. Apart from the unity of style throughout the design, the colour palette and texture are big players in the film. There’s a certain excitement knowing that the animated film you’re about to see has been actually constructed in tangible, physical form. The magic is real; it’s not an effect. Of course, the star of the film is also only twenty-two inches tall, but that doesn’t make it any easier to build her world realistically. Textures and fabrics need to be to scale, and everything needs to be as realistic as possible. For certain close-up shots of hands and such things, larger models need to be built to provide the proper sense of proportion and scale. The animating team also used rapid prototyping technology to create the multitude of facial expressions exhibited by the puppets. Working from scans and casts of original sculpts, the rapid prototype department built multiple replacement faces in CG modeling programs, which were then “printed” by three-dimensional object printers to create the puppet faces for the replacement animation technique, hand-finishing each face before applying it to the puppet.

The film features excellent voice acting from a strong cast. There’s no stunt casting here: every voice actor has been cast for a genuine talent and what they bring to the role. Dakota Fanning manages a wonderful balance between eleven-year-old bravado composed of aggression and fear, while Teri Hatcher’s Mother and Other Mother are a terrific contrast between mundane and just too good to be true. The delightful John Hodgman voices Father and Other Father.

Bruno Coulais' score fits right into the film without being memorable on its own, supporting the story without calling attention to itself. The children’s choral pieces successfully contribute to the unsettling feel of the film, particularly in the opening sequence. The score features lots of harp, which creates an idyllic feel for the Other House. Much of the music makes one think of a music box, a parallel image for the falseness of the world beyond the secret door. There’s a fun little They Might Be Giants ditty sung for Coraline by her Other Father, too.

While the film projects a strong message of self-reliance, overcoming fear, and being careful about what one wishes for, it also features creepy visuals and chilling concepts, and could well serve as nightmare fodder for younger children. (Heck, I know adults who are unsettled by the notion of buttons for eyes and who refuse to see the film.) Parents considering bringing a child to the PG film should view the available trailers and excerpts available at www.coraline.com, and evaluate their child’s maturity level and story preferences carefully beforehand. (On his blog, Neil Gaiman addresses this problem by saying much the same thing: You know your child better than the filmmakers and the MPAA do.)

Stay till the end of the credits for a credit cookie, as well as a bonus “for those in the know.”

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November 21, 2008
For the first time in a long time, I saw a Disney film and missed the publicity hype preceding it. Except for some of the recent commentary scanned on Cartoon Brew (a testament to my level of Busy; this blog is a pleasure in life that you need to take your time to read), I managed not to see any web banners, marquee posters, or newspaper, radio or television ads.

At a much earlier time, I read of the changes to the stewardship of the Bolt in the wake of restructuring changes at the Walt Disney Animation Studios. I knew from the Brewmasters' reports that the film had changed markedly from its original vision, but I hadn't really thought about it lately.

But time had passed, and Bolt was not really on my mind as the studio was gearing up for the film. I managed to side-step the Disney hype machine this one time. So I'm writing this based entirely on my impressions of what I saw in the cinema on Wednesday.

Bolt is a winner.

There are tons of laughs in the film, but you don't feel like you're having your buttons pushed, and the dialogue is really snappy, but not in the way I find a lot of mainstream animation features tend to do it - lots of pop culture references, "aren't we clever" one-offs that get dated quickly. The lines are truly clever and fit the characters' perfectly.

Also, it's no secret that I'm not a fan of stunt-casting. The celebrity voice talent do their job well and don't get in my way of enjoying the film. They make their characters more believable and serve characters, not the other way around.

I did see the trailer for this film just this morning, and I must say I'm glad I went into without any preconceptions. As a result, the opening scene was more thrilling and taut than I think it would have been if I knew what was coming.

This is a fairly conventional Disney family feature, but I don't mean that in a bad way. Yes, it's safe. But it doesn't draw away from the fact that the film is engaging, the timing and pacing are dead-on, and the character animation is above-average. I can't help but wonder how much further the character animation could have been pushed if it were hand-drawn. Like Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda, there is a point where the animation style changes and I wonder, why does all digital animation that touts the CG label feel it has to be hyper-realistic? However, I don't really spend much time on it because I thought that the animation I was watching was well-done.

Speaking of techniques,
I did watch this film in 3D (as well as trailers for Blue Sky's next Ice Age instalment, and Pixar's Up), and as much as I get annoyed by reading reviews that solely focus on a new technique or "gimmick" I liked the use of 3D in the film (as well as the trailers) because they all finally got something right. Unlike Beowulf, I never felt like the whole point of making Bolt was so we could watch it in 3D. Instead of setting up shots so that the viewer would get the feeling of things being moved toward them, the enhancement was used to convey a feeling of depth. There was very little effort made to break the fourth wall. Instead, the screen was the boundary for the actors on a stage.

The next Disney feature regardless of technique better be good, because a lot of viewers will be disappointed if it doesn't entertain as much as Bolt.

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