The high point of Comic-Con remains Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie,” which opens Fantastic Fest on September 20 and hits theaters October 5. First, for all the naysayers who want Burton to stop remaking studio titles and fairy tales starring Johnny Depp (as voiced by one questioner in Hall H), this is a strictly personal project that takes the filmmaker back to his animation roots at Cal Arts and Disney; the original live action short was included in his recent traveling museum exhibition.
Not only has Burton shot a black-and-white stop-motion 3-D feature of that original 1984 short (following his other stop-motion hits “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride”), but he and Disney have fashioned a fabulous 50s-style trailer worthy of TV’s “Chiller Theater,” see below. “Prepare for Big Screen Chills!” He likes to shoot live action animation on little sets, he told the crowd in Hall H. “The puppets are so tactile.”
Inspired by the death of one of his favorite dogs as a child in Burbank (which he calls “the comedy capitol of the world”), Burton has brought back Victor and his revitalized Sparky, adding a Vincent Prince-inspired teacher (voiced by Burton regular Martin Landau) and a host of other imitative monster creatures brought to life by the young scientist’s weirdo classmates (the cast includes Burton regulars Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short). For the classroom scenes, all Burton had to do was “remember all the strange kids and teachers I went to school with. Everybody felt strange in school, I’d walk into school and start to freak out… I used to have a dream about going to school, which was a nightmare.”
The original short was intended to go out in front of an animated feature like “Pinocchio,” but Disney “got freaked out,” Burton recalled. “They forgot that Disney movies are founded on stuff that has heart and is scary. To me this is a perfect Disney movie.” And this feature version “is the more pure version of it,” he added.
Producer Allison Abbate walked me through the must-see Comic-Con “Art of Frankenweenie” exhibit, complete with detailed sets, maquettes and props, which debuted at Cine Europe and will also be shown at Disney California Adventure in Anaheim and Orlando before visiting Japan, Spain, Mexico, the UK and Canada.
Burton shot the film in London on as many as 35 small black-box sets at once with 25 top animators (who begged to get this job). While digital cameras and frame grabbers have improved the painstaking stop-motion process, it’s still laborious, slow work. Besides Burton, Laika (“ParaNorman”), Henry Selick (“Coraline”) and Aardman (“Wallace & Gromit”) are the top practitioners. After dressing and lighting the set and clothing the intricate maquettes (puppets), animators move them in the space, one frame at a time. There were 200 characters in the film. “It’s more facile to get in tight,” says Abbate.
Executive producer Don Hahn, who is making the “terrifying” transition from 2-D to stop-motion animation, praises the quality of the textures; finger prints on the puppets build “a real attachment with the audience.” Hahn pitched a feature of Disney-owned “Frankenweenie” the first day Pixar chief John Lasseter started as the head of Disney Animation. Burton and Lasseter studied at Cal Arts (along with Selick and Brad Bird) and knew each other in their early Disney careers. Lasseter said, “great,” and called up Burton. “John loves animation. He doesn’t care if it’s pixels, puppets or pencil,” says Hahn.
Photos and video from the Art of Frankenweenie Exhibition, plus the new trailer, are below: