“Frankenweenie” is not only Tim Burton’s best film since “Big Fish” (another rite of passage story), but also a lock for a best animated feature nomination. In fact, while the Oscar could even be Burton’s to lose, it’s shaping up to be quite a race with two other tantalizing retro movies yet to come: Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph” (November 2) and DreamWorks’ “Rise of the Guardians” (November 21). Burton’s overdue at the Oscars; thus far his only nomination was for stop-motion “Corpse Bride.”
Still, it’s hard not to be seduced by what is being regarded as Burton’s most personal movie. During the making of “Frankenweenie,” the director would gently rebuke, “That’s not the way it was,” in reference to recreating what it was like growing up in Burbank in the 1970s.
It’s as though his entire ethos is encapsulated in this heartwarming yet cautionary tale of a boy and his dog. And what better way to evoke the “Frankenstein” myth than in stop-motion? The inanimate puppets themselves are stitched together and brought to life like the misunderstood social misfits from the Universal gallery of iconic monsters that Burton closely identified with in adolescence. And of course it had to be in black and white and in 3-D.
“Being an animator back then, doing live-action, was really fun and exciting and got me into a whole other world, which was great,” Burton suggests. “But over the years, loving stop-motion and looking over the original drawings, it also became a memory piece, thinking about other aspects of that time: remembering all the kids and teachers and even down to the architecture of Burbank. So the idea of going through the original drawings, expanding the monsters as a sort of “House of Frankenstein” motif in black and white and 3-D, made it feel like a whole different project even though the heart of it and the root of it stayed the same.”
The trick was figuring out how to organically enlarge the scope, so Burton presented screenwriter John August with a list of monsters he wanted to reanimate with dire consequences in the second-half. The result is more like a Grimm fairy tale told through the prism of Burton Vision.
It turns out that Burton wanted to turn “Frankenweenie” into a stop-motion feature for decades. It was even pitched at Disney during the Michael Eisner era but went nowhere. Then, when Pixar’s John Lasseter took over Disney Feature Animation in 2006, one of the first ideas that Don Hahn resurrected on the very first day was “Frankenweenie.” Lasseter immediately jumped at the idea of reuniting with his old CalArts and Disney alum. They set up shop at 3 Mills Studios in East London, where Burton had previously made “Corpse Bride,” with Hahn serving as exec producer and Allison Abbate (“Corpse Bride”) producing alongside the director once again.
But, for the first time, Burton declined having a co-director and was adamant about black and white. He didn’t mind 3-D but insisted that it be done as a post conversion like “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” “It’s the first black and white animated feature; it’s what makes it different and stand out from all the other animated movies out there,” touts Hahn.
Burton also reunited with animation director Trey Thomas (“Coraline,” “Corpse Bride”). They had more than 200 puppets by the famed Mackinnon and Saunders to play with along with 200 sets and 35 stages. But Burton wanted a low-tech approach, with no Rapid Prototype 3D printing a la Laika (“ParaNorman”). He didn’t want it to look too pristine and was helped along by working in gray scale. In fact, the only character with movable mouthpieces was the kindly scientist, Mr. Rzykruski, (voiced by Martin Landau), who was designed as a tribute to Burton’s boyhood idol, Vincent Price.
“He wanted his vision and his vision alone and so I was there to help him realize that vision,” Thomas explains. “He was collaborative, but he didn’t want it to be a collaboration. He wanted it to be his, singularly, and that was it. And I think we got it.”
And what was the greatest challenge? Why, Sparky, the heroic bull terrier, of course. It was based on a real dog, comprised of 300 joints because of the thinness of his legs, supported by special rigs. Burton demanded no anthropomorphizing whatsoever. For instance, after watching the puppet roll over, Burton decided he wanted him to spring back up, but the puppet wasn’t capable of that. They had to quickly modify it.
“There was a lot of that trickery where we had to shoot around things and get puppets that are multi-purpose and popping puppets in between and doing some They didn’t want to disappoint Burton or begrudge the vision that had festered in his brain for 30 years.
“As an American living amongst English people, you really have to distill the essence of what it was like living in Burbank in the ’70s,” Abbate explains. “Once you can find that way in for the artists and the puppet makers and prop makers, it’s helpful to clarify it for audiences, too. Everyone brings that little bit of their experience to it. That’s why some of the props are personal. Tim creates this place and allows you to bring your own stuff to it as well.”
It’s about turning the personal into the universal, which is what Burton has been doing all of these years as the Prince of Goth.