If “Frankenweenie” has an edge in the Oscar race for best animated feature, it’s because of the Tim Burton factor. He’s long overdue for an Academy Award and if it weren’t for the continued popularity of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (which he made with Henry Selick), there likely wouldn’t be three stop-motion movies competing for the Oscar this year. And Burton’s the first to admit that stop-motion movies are purely artistic labors of love that can’t compete commercially with their CG siblings, so an Oscar for Burton would finally be an acknowledgment of his stature and influence.
Plus, it would be fitting to honor Burton for “Frankenweenie,” which is the director’s most personal movie about his love of monster movies and the craft of stop-motion, growing up in Burbank, and, yes, an ode to his childhood dog (the premise of his original live-action short from 1984).
“For me, ‘Frankenweenie’ was a real memory thing and expanding on other monsters,” reflects Burton, who was in LA recently, “writhing in pain” from a broken arm as a result of falling on a slippery London street on the day of his daughter’s fifth birthday. “Just as a process, it was quite cleansing and fun to just think about people and places that you haven’t thought of for years: going back and remembering kids that you knew in school or teachers or whatever.”
Burton isn’t one for intellectualizing, but he admits that “Frankenweenie” offered a rare opportunity to revisit the past as both adult and child. It’s why there’s as much care and compassion in the kindly scientist, Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau), who was designed as a tribute to Burton’s boyhood idol, Vincent Price, as there is in his adolescent alter-ego, his heroic bull terrier, Sparky, and the gallery of misunderstood monster misfits.
“I have a different perspective now,” Burton suggests. “For me, from the beginning, it was such a personal idea, and then I got into that whole idea of ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,’ so it was fun to expand on almost everything whether it was the park or the classroom, which you don’t get to do on every movie. We tried to treat it like a live-action film and made it a reunion. It was so nice to work with people I haven’t worked with in a while: Martin, Winona [Ryder], Catherine [O’Hara], and Martin [Short].”
Burton also reminisced about Burbank, which hasn’t changed at all, except for the malls and movie theaters. “And that’s the horror for me of Burbank — all those great theaters that I grew up with are gone. Somewhere I have a Polaroid of one of the last screenings of the Pickwick Drive-In: ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘Batman’ together. There were a lot of theaters. And you remember where you saw every movie: The Cornell…Fifty cents for triple features like the ‘Godzilla’ movies and ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde.'”
And Burton concedes that his Disney homecoming has been strange and wonderful. Yes, he got to make two shorts (“Vincent” along with “Frankenweenie”), but it was a difficult transition at the studio for a new generation of animators in the ’80s. The old-guard was resistant to change. However, without the passionate support of fellow CalArts alum John Lasseter, Burton never could’ve made “Frankenweenie” as a stop-motion feature (in black and white, no less).
Speaking of stop-motion, Burton reiterates how much joy he gets from the hand-crafted medium, playing with the puppets and sets. Even though it’s a painstaking process that’s like working in slow motion, Burton took a more active role on “Frankenweenie,” given its personal importance. For the first time, he didn’t have a co-director and was present every day on set. “It’s a beautiful art form and just being around it gives me an energy so even if the studio says no more stop-mo, I’d find a way. I’ll animate in my kitchen (the ‘Addams Family’ project is a non-starter).
“The thing you try to avoid is redoing shots so I’d get a shot and see it and fool with the timing a little bit. Maybe only 5-10% of shots had to be redone. What I liked about the whole movie was that it was real lighting on a real set.”
And Burton insists on keeping it low-tech despite digital advancements in rapid prototyping at Laika and Aardman that improve efficiency and facial performance. In fact, Mr. Rzykruski was the only puppet with movable mouthpieces on “Frankenweenie.”
Burton even clarified a common misconception about his previous “Corpse Bride” being more high-tech than it actually was. “The puppets at Mackinnon and Saunders up at Manchester were more sophisticated than anything I’d ever worked with before. Literally you could take a screw and put it in the ear and it would make the mouth move. But at the same time, they were so good that a lot of people thought it was this subdued digital film. On ‘Frankenweenie,’ I wanted to see part of the beauty of the art form. That’s what I like about Ray Harryhausen where you can see the paint, you can see the texture, and you can see the fur move.”
As for black and white, it was obviously an artistic imperative because of its emotional power and Burton doesn’t recall much resistance from Disney. “The whole thing for me was just looking at every moment in black and white. I felt happy. I don’t know: there’s something about black and white that just calms me. It’s a very Zen-like thing for me. And it was just a way of [revisiting] every weird memory for me. I can’t say this about every movie but it was definitely the most enjoyable for me. Even for little kids that haven’t seen those old monster movies, we tried to create the feeling of them. Like my own kid [Billy], who’s so used to rapid fire editing and stuff, that showing him some of these old Universal movies or Ray Harryhausen films has been great and that he enjoyed them.”
What does Burton do next? He has no idea. But he has a lot of movie going catching up to do before the Oscars. He’s not even sure what to make of the current retro vibe among the animated feature nominees. “Technology is moving ahead so fast even before we know how to process it. There’s a certain amount of fear about what’s going on. Tweeting and Facebooking: How’s it going to affect us in a weird way?”
That’s why we still turn to Burton for his gothic brand of cinematic comfort.
The American Cinematheque will honor Burton and stop-motion on Monday, February 4, at the Aero Theater (1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90403) with screenings of “Frankenweenie” (7:30 pm) and “Corpse Bride” (10:00 pm). Burton will be on hand for a Q&A between screenings moderated by Geoff Boucher of Entertainment Weekly.