‘Coraline’: Henry Selick on the Fantastic Garden

Animator Henry Selick takes us behind the scenes on Neil Gaiman's fantasy adaptation.

Perfected by writer-director Henry Selick on such films as “Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach,” stop-motion animation involves filming puppets in miniature environments, one frame at a time, with flexible still-camera-size digital medical cameras (two, for the Stereoscopic 3-D effect). His masterwork, magical gothic fairy tale “Coraline,” goes way beyond anything done before with stop-motion.

Amazingly, very little of Coraline’s Fantastic Garden set piece–which is not in Neil Gaiman’s original novel — is aided by CG. The scene was impeccably hand-crafted by artists over months of painstaking production with hand-made manipulated puppets and thousands of paper flowers. “I really wanted to have a lot of atmosphere, which is a hard thing to do with stop-motion,” says Selick. “I wanted the world and the characters to feel alive.”


Miserably lonely in her family’s ramshackle new house in the country
and neglected by her workaholic parents, 11-year-old Coraline seeks refuge in a
parallel universe where another set of fantasy parents play and cook and
cultivate a fabulous garden. (Of course all is not as it seems.)



There are three versions of Coraline’s Other Mother: one close to
the real mother (but with better skin), a taller angry Mother; and the final
nasty witch spider model. The puppets are built on a delicate metal skeleton armature; they have plastic silicon skin and hand-made costumes and replaceable heads stored in trays with a range of expressions: scowls, smiles, pouty lips. (Some seams are painted out in post-production.) “We made huge strides with expression‚” says Selick,
who uses mangled stand-in puppets for lighting and blocking camera rehearsals. Because Coraline was in almost every shot, the production went through 20 Coraline puppets.

CoralineOn a good day during three and a half years of filming on fifty or so black-curtained
one-fourth-scale miniature sets at the gigantic Laika warehouse in Portland, Oregon, an animator would shoot ten seconds of footage. (David Strick photographs Coraline’s 50 stages.) Selick employed 30 animators at the film’s peak. “I loved running it, rushing around nudging and coaxing. It’s so slow. But it’s exhausting. I was working with the best artists in the world focused on the stage. It’s a bizarre craft.”

As complicated and huge as the Fantasy Garden set-piece is‚Äîit took two months to plan, two months to build and three months to shoot–Selick insists his animators did everything by hand, per usual, except for one set of CG blue flowers that had to move in
precise formation.

“We build little mechanical things that give the impression of shape-changing, growing flowers,” says Selick. “If it won’t work we try to mechanically build around it. That’s the way we come up with the most interesting solutions to problems.”

Selick’s team of artists, riggers, electricians, lighters, costumers, makeup artists, voice actors and animators crafted all the elements of the scene, from the 7-inch tall Coraline puppet and the smaller black cat to miniature trees, leaves and blades of grass and glowing black lights. Riggers moved such moving pieces as the father’s fully articulated two-foot-long praying mantis flying tractor. (Visible sticks, wires and hands are removed after the fact.) (Here’s Portland Monthly’s feature on the film.)

After the first filming, on a second pass, CG enhanced the light effects and patterns. “We wanted the lights to move through the foliage,” says Selick. “We were going for an ethereal atmospheric look. We’re always looking for the telling detail that opens up the believability of what you are looking at.”

[Originally appeared on Variety.com]

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