Interview
Mike Johnson
© Warner Bros. Entertainment
Interview by Mark Osborne · October 26, 2006 | Last October, while preparing for our Animation Innovator event with Mike Johnson, we collaborated with the fine folks at AnimationTrip.com to get an interview with Mike about his work on Corpse Bride, some of which would be provided as part of our program book. Due to a few complications, we were unable to include the interview in the program book, but here we present to you the interview in its entirety.

Mark Osborne: Congratulations, first and foremost. I thought [Tim Burton's Corpse Bride] was a total masterpiece, I thought it was brilliant.

Mike Johnson: Thank you.

The essential Johnson: A selected filmography
The Nightmare Before Christmas (assistant animator, 1993)
The Devil Went Down to Georgia (director, 1996)
James and the Giant Peach (animator, 1996)
The PJs (1977)
Corpse Bride (2005)
I was totally blown away. I was just in awe of everything. I don't even know where to begin asking you questions.

I'm glad you liked it.

Are you happy? I know it's getting great reviews. I know it's doing really well, but are you exhausted?

A little bit, yeah. I'm very happy with it. Obviously, I'm close to it, so when I see it, there's a few shots that I wish we had time to do over, but on the whole I am very happy with the work. I'm kind of exhausted. There's been a lot of traveling and we just moved back to LA and we're unpacking boxes. So it's been kind of hectic, but it's fun—a lot of fun.

I know it must have been intense. I can't even imagine what a project of that magnitude is like to survive. Was it what you expected? Were you bracing for a challenge? Did it exceed your expectations?

I think in some ways, it was what I was expecting and, in some ways, it wasn't. I was fortunate that I had such a great team of artists around. The crew was fantastic: all the animators, the camera people, the art department. When they knew another Tim Burton animated feature was going to come out, we got the best people to line up and try to get in the door, so the crew was incredible and that helped a lot.

Some sorts of unforeseen challenges... there were a lot every day, just trying to pull it off. Trying to get the story to make sense took a while. The digital camera thing was a big challenge that we all snapped to two weeks before we were going to start shooting.

Oh really?

It saved us a lot of time.

I've been reading about some of that and I didn't know it came that late in production but it seems like it was a huge timesaver in a lot of ways.

It was a great thing. Our camera crew had to quickly switch from film mode to digital mode in those two weeks before we started shooting. It had been tough for a while. When I was first brought on the project I was pushing for digital stuff; I just didn't know technically how to pull it off. And the production had already committed to using these old film cameras.

Had they already gotten all those cameras?

We had 30 Mitchells stacked up on the shelf, and miles and miles of film stock and everything else. We were all set to go that way, but finally our producer, Alison Abbate, convinced someone at Warner Bros. that we should try to do a few tests before we got into it. She brought over somebody named Chris Watts, who's a technical expert at that. He helped develop it. Between Chris Watts and Pete Kozachik, they figured out a system and it worked out. The thing that I had never thought of that really saved us was they figured out how to use these still cameras—basically SLR [single-lens reflex] cameras—which made all the difference.

Looking at it, you would never know it. You guys got such rich, amazing detail and it looks as good as any film I've ever seen. It's really amazing what you guys did with it, so I'm thrilled to see that you guys could pull it off.

Well, we weren't going to do it if there was any compromise in the image quality, so that's what those tests were about. I'm no technical expert, but we could grab the images at such a high resolution that they actually had to be dumped down again to go back out onto film negatives, so we had more resolution than we would have had if we shot a 35mm film neg.

Not to nerd out, but were there unexpected problems that came up with digital? I'm hoping people are going to read this who might be testing the waters themselves.

We jumped into it and we were still trying to solve some problems as we were shooting. One of the things was that in low light situations—which was 90 percent of our film—stuff would break up and clump up. Greens would just turn into chunky black pixels so it took a lot of work to try and get around that. We shot a lot of dark scenes overlit: we just flooded the set with lights figuring we would dial that back down later, but that wasn't very satisfying for me. In the end, they did figure out a way to work that out but that was the only technical problem for us. Other than that, it was fantastic. I would never shoot film again, just because of the instant access to the animators' work. You can approve shots on the same day, strike the set and launch another shot. It really saved us.

It seems like a dream come true! I know from my experience that completing a shot is hard enough, but spending a sleepless night wondering whether or not [it's good] and that is if you can even see it the next daysometimes you can't even see it the next day.

Exactly. That's a big factor and it gave me the confidence to push forward on some shots that I wouldn't have wanted to try. We had some shots that took three or four weeks to complete.

Wow.

Like you said, on film every day [is spent] on pins and needles hoping that there isn't a big scratch in the neg or something. I mean, we just couldn't have done that. But if we shoot digital, we could check the shot every day. We knew exactly what we had in the can, so we tried some crazy stuff.
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