Interview
Mike Johnson
© Warner Bros. Entertainment
Well it's amazing and it really shows. I know you mentioned the story process being a tough part of this. Can you give me a picture of what that part of the process was like when you came on? Was there a script? Were there any storyboards at that point? I know it had been in the works for years just in drawings, sketches and things like that, but where was it at?

When I came on there was a stack of drawings that Tim Burton had done. We had about twenty drawings that just showed key scenes—story scenes he wanted to hit—the Bride running through the woods. It had initial designs for a lot of the main characters, and then there was a short treatment of just a couple of pages.

So from that point, we had to try to stretch that out into a feature-length story. The original folktale that it's sort of inspired by, this old Russian folktale, it's also very short. If you were to write that out it's probably just a couple of pages long, so we started storyboarding stuff right away and we got our first draft in from Caroline Thompson, which helped lay the groundwork for some of the ideas, and then other writers were brought on as we went. But for an animated film most of the storytelling is ideally visual: non-dialogue, visual gags. Especially in this film, we had a lot of visual gags. Most of it we worked out in storyboard so basically we knew where we had to get from point A to point B. But it was just filling in, connecting the dots. We took a long time storyboarding a scene, maybe 20 or 30 times.

I was really blown away at how tight it was.

Thanks. We were boarding it until that last day of shooting it. It was funny: first going in, we were going to have storyboard people around until we started shooting and then shut down the storyboard department. Then that never happened, we had storyboard artists right until they packed the cameras up.

You hope that you'll be done in story earlier, but it never happens.

It never happens.

I know you were extremely busy every day of production, but did you get to animate any shots, maybe even tests early on or anything?

I never got to animate any shots just because the schedule is so demanding. By the time we were in the heat of production, my day was broken into five- and ten-minute windows and I had to shuffle from place to place. So there would never have been any time for me to actually animate anything, but in the very beginning before we brought on any animators, when we were developing some of the puppets, I got to do a few animation tests: some early tests with the figures' facial expressions and stuff like that. That part of it was fun.

Do you miss being able to animate or are you over that now?

I don't miss it because it's so hard [laughs]. It's so hard! For me, I've worked with animators and they tend to fall into two categories: they either love it and they work quietly sitting in the zone all Zenned out as they're doing it, or they're, like, water torture. I fall into the second category. For me the process is—I love stop-motion, but the physical process of animating these puppets is very painful for me. So if I can work with animators who can do it, that's my preference. I think it's helped me a lot, having done it, to know what goes into it. I know what I'm asking of these people; I respect their efforts. I think that's really important. I donít think someone could really direct stop-motion without having spent their time in the trenches and know what goes into it.

I don't know if I could animate again. You described the two different sides of it, the Zen side, and the water torture. I've experienced both; I love the Zen side when I can fall into that, but most of the time it's the water torture.

I know. Finding that zone is tough. Once or twice, I've been, "Wow! Wow! This is amazing!" but most of the time it's [groans].
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