Interview
Mike Johnson
© Warner Bros. Entertainment
I think one of my favourite moments was the piano duet. Any sequence involving the piano is great but the duet is a piece of acting. I read the animator who had done most of those shots was a concert pianist. I read that after the fact, and I thought, "Oh, that makes sense." But even when I was watching it I felt so genuinely truthful and it's really amazing that level of detail can be sensed. I thought that was really amazing, but how long did that stuff take to do?

That took a while. We had two pianist animators on the show. One was Phil Dale, who is a fantastic legend in the stop-motion world, and he did the first piano scene, where Victor is at the piano and Victoria comes down. And then Mark Waring is the animator who did the duet with Corpse Bride and Victor, when they're in the pub in the Land of the Dead. So for that scene, Mark Waring really nailed it. There was so much non-verbal information that had to be conveyed. I'm really happy with the way that one came out. It was a tricky scene because it was a big blank spot in the script: "Victor and Corpse Bride reunite at the piano." So we had to storyboard that one many times and Dean Roberts was the storyboard artist who really helped crack that one. I'm very happy with the way the puppets, the facial mechanics, worked. I'm glad you liked that one. It really took a long time to come together but I think in the end it worked out.

Speaking of facial mechanics, the AWN article goes into the puppetmakers a lot, into the Mackinnon & Saunders. I'm reading that and I'm getting some of it, but it sounds like they're mechanically designed [with] watch parts [inside].

Yes.

They sound like unbelievable little inventions or little pieces of art in themselves.

Yes.

But I still can't understand how they make all the expressions. One article said there were three different gears inside that create all the different expressions. Do you have stunt heads or could one head perform all the different expressions, and you only used certain stunt heads for different gags—

No. They were amazingly designed. They had more than three gears. Pete Saunders is the man who built these things. They're pretty outrageous. Basically, each corner of the mouth can go up or down. There's more hinges and paddles in there than I can describe. There's paddles around the lips, the chin, the eyebrows. They're just incredible. One head—one design—covered the whole range of expression for all of Victor, Corpse Bride and Victoria's emotions. For Barkis we built a second head. As the story evolved, he came more and more to the foreground and this was after the puppet was already completed. We needed a second head to cover the wider range of expression he would need to do. So we had two heads for Barkis and then there's one shot with Finnis, where he goes into that grin at the beginning.

That's an amazing shot by the way. I was thinking, "How did you do that?"

That was a stunt head. We had a second grinning Finnis head that was built just for that shot. But other than for Victor and the main characters, that one head covered the full range.

That's amazing.

Pete Saunders and Ian McKinnon, those are the guys who run the puppet shop. They started doing that stuff in those Lipton Iced Tea commercials and that's where they got going with that approach, but those puppets were much bigger. Those heads were really large. The big challenge was to get it down to the size we needed and eventually they did that.

So you say you put an Allen wrench in the ear to tweak it, but how many different controls are inside each ear? Are there three different sockets?

No, there's one. If you put the Allen wrench into the right ear, you crank it clockwise: just the right corner of the mouth goes up into a grin. You crank it counterclockwise and it goes down into a frown. So you do that with both sides of the head: raise or lower both corners of the mouth. Then there's another active point at the top of the head which opens the jaw. When the jaw opens you can further refine the motion, because there are four little lip paddles around that jaw—around the jaw hinge—so that helps get the expressions. And then there are two paddles for the eyebrows that raise and lower and can angle down—from anger to surprise—so there's a lot of stuff going on in there.

It's really an amazing feat. In an age when everyone seems to be thinking about CG, and trying make stuff in CG and try to perfect CG, it's weird. CG is trying look more organic and I think a lot of people are trying to find a way to make CG more organic and it seems like you guys were trying to make this stuff smooth, not to emulate CG but I'm sure there was pressure from the studio to sort of make it not look all "stuttery."

There wasn't pressure from the studio really, but it was one of my intentions, one of my hopes going into it, not that we would imitate the look of CG, but I just knew that audiences now—a lot of kids—I mean everyone that was raised on the Pixar films and CG is the standard that they're used to and I just didn't want to draw too much attention to the fact that there are "weird puppets." I wanted people to just watch the film and not be distracted by stop-motion and to show that we could create things that are as subtle and as flowing as CG.

Well you definitely advanced stop-motion. You definitely brought it into the future and it's really an amazing feat: with digital stills and with all that technology inside the heads. It's still old-school technology and it's so great to see it performed so well.

It's fun. That's what's exciting, I think. We're all inspired by the tradition of stop-motion and that's why we work in it. But it is nice, and it's evolved and there are things that move forward even though it's basically the ancient technique.

It's very soulful, and I'm really—I can't speak! I'm a stop motion fan to begin with but it really surprised me. It exceeded my expectations.

Cool. I'm so glad. I like to hear that.
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