Tuesday, May 5, 2009

'Nightmare' and 'Coraline' Director Selick Talks About Animation and Pixar's 'Up'

For a man whose artistry requires the methodical and laborious arrangement of miniature figures and props, Henry Selick is awfully fidgety.

He shifts from side to side, standing or sitting. When he talks, his hands and arms are in constant motion and he rarely makes eye contact.

Maybe he just doesn't like interviews.

Or, maybe he's just channelling the restless energy that's made him one of the finest directors of animated films in Hollywood.

Selick was in Las Vegas recently at the National Association of Broadcasters convention for a showcase and discussion of his work. Attendees were treated to clips from the classic "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "James and the Giant Peach," and Selick's latest animated success "Coraline."

In an animation industry where movies can be created entirely within the confines of high-tech computers, Selick is content to work in a medium that's been around almost as long as motion pictures themselves. Stop-motion animation, the intricate manipulation of characters and sets one frame of film at a time, is known to have existed as early as 1898. Like many filmmakers of his generation, Selick idolizes Ray Harryhausen, the stop-motion animation master known for the sword fighting skeletons and towering cyclopes of such films as "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" and "Jason and the Argonauts." At an early age, Selick was fascinated that "these living nightmares were just small, posable puppets made of steel and rubber."

In the mid-70s, Selick attended CalArts with such future film luminaries as Tim Burton, John Lasseter, Brad Bird and Joe Ranft. He eventually landed at Disney, where he trained under "Old Man" Eric Larson and later worked with Glen Keane as an animator on 1981's "The Fox and the Hound."

Selick worked on various independent projects, but always kept his hand in stop-motion animation. In the 1980s he created station identifiers for MTV and directed a handful of Pillsbury Doughboy commercials.

Selick's breakthrough came when Tim Burton asked him to direct 1993's "The Nightmare Before Christmas," the first stop-motion animated film produced by a major studio. Almost everything that ended up on screen was created in camera. As Selick puts it, they used "ancient technology with just of couple of new-school things." Those new-school elements included fire and fog effects and Jack Skellington's loyal ghost dog Zero.

"Nightmare's" darkly humorous world and inventive animation proved very popular with audiences and its popularity has only increased in recent years with its annual 3D holiday release in theaters. While Selick himself didn't work on the 3D conversion of "Nightmare," the format has always interested him. As digital motion picture technology has continued to advance, Selick's decision to make "Coraline" (released earlier this year) in 3D seemed obvious. His intent was to use 3D to add depth and detail to the viewing experience. "We never wanted to use it as a gimmick," he says. "There are only like four poke-your-eye-out moments. I mean, honestly, that works great, but 'Coraline' is really the story of a girl distracted by a version of her life."

Not letting the visuals get in the way of the story immediately hearkens back to Selick's former classmates at CalArts, who know a thing or two about animated films. Selick is continually impressed with Pixar and gives high praise to their upcoming release "Up," which will open the Cannes Film Festival on May 13th before being released nationwide in the U.S. on May 29th. Having seen portions of it, Selick feels "Up" has a story that goes to new territory, much like "Wall*E" did. "It's a powerful film of life and death and dreams," he says, "and I don't think anyone else (besides Pixar) can get away with it."

Selick is not so enamored with Pixar, however, that he's ready to jump entirely into the world of CG animation. While CG effects were used throughout "Coraline" to smooth out motion and facial expressions, it was still hands-on manipulation that brought everything to life. "CG can do everything better than stop motion," he says, "except be an absolutely real thing."

"Sometimes people want things that are handmade."

According to Selick, "Coraline" will be released on DVD some time in July.

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