According to Tim Burton lore, Frankenweenie, the live action short he made for Disney back in 1984, was intended to be a stop motion animation film. Nearly 30 years later, that original vision has come to life with the feature-length Frankenweenie, out this Friday.
Buzz has been surrounding the film for quite some time now. Last year, L.A. fans had the chance to catch an early glimpse of the work when the Tim Burton exhibit hit LACMA. Right now, puppets from the film are on display at a Frankenweenie exhibition inside California Adventure.
The hoopla surrounding Frankenweenie is deserved, at least on paper. As the first feature film to incorporate stop motion animation and black-and-white 3D, it is a massive experiment. It's also the first animation film that Burton directed specifically for Disney. On top of that, both the story — about a boy named Victor who resurrects his dog, Sparky, from the dead — and the artistic approach encapsulates everything that has made Burton a cult hero to so many over his decades-long career. But, more than that, Frankenweenie is a grand passion project for both Burton and the team that has come together over the course of a number of his films.
There's a theme running throughout Frankenweenie that goes far beyond the events in the film. It's the passion projects — the ones you love so dearly that you can't let go of them, even when it feels like all is lost — that succeed. Mr. Rzykruski, young Victor's science teacher, says this explicitly in the film in relation to experiments, but the sentiment is something that many adults watching Frankenweenie will know too well, regardless of their field. “I love that theme about this, that you have to love it into existence,” says executive producer Don Hahn.
Is love the magic ingredient for filmmaking? Are the projects for which filmmakers are most passionate the ones that succeed? I posed the question to Burton during a panel session at a recent Frankenweenie press day at the California Grand Hotel.
“Whether a film turns out well or not doesn't really doesn't have much to do with…” he answers before drifting into a new sentence. “You go into everything with that feeling that passion.”
He concedes, though, that some projects are more “personal” than others. Undoubtedly, Burton's personal ties to the source material for Frankenweenie are strong. It is, after all, a Burton film based on a Burton film.
The theme of passion projects can be in part credited to screenwriter John August, a long-time collaborator of Burton's who was also responsible for the screenplays for Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride. “I did my little Snoopy dance when Tim called,” says August of getting the Frankenweenie gig.
The story was quite different from anything August had previously done with Burton. “When I first handed it in, I worried that it was too simple. It was so straightforward,” he says of the screenplay. As it turns out, Frankenweenie is only superficially simple. The “boy and his dog” story ultimately expands into a whole world filled with varying themes and lessons, of which the idea of the passion project is one. “We can get to those other moments because we had this simple, sweet story at its core,” August explains.
Up next: Why did the new Frankenweenie happen in the first place?
Hahn, the producer whose credits include Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, pitched Disney the idea of a new Frankenweenie back in 2005 and got the go-ahead to present that to Burton. “I had three projects that I took to Tim and one of them was Frankenweenie,” he says. “He gravitated towards it immediately.”
But getting the okay to make the movie the way Burton saw fit, in black and white stop-motion animation, wasn't a breeze.
“All of us — Tim, at the top of the list, and Allison [Abbate, producer] and I — had to do a lot of selling for why black and white worked for this movie and why stop motion was so logical,” says Hahn.
Stop motion animation has a history that goes back to the early days of film. On a technological level, a lot has changed since then, but the process is still laborious. Frankenweenie consists of 24 hand-posed frames per second, and the animation team was responsible for getting roughly two seconds of footage completed daily. Trey Thomas was the animation director for Frankenweenie, essentially “Tim Burton's eyes on the floor,” he says. He has been working on stop motion feature animation since The Nightmare Before Christmas and his credits include James and the Giant Peach, Corpse Bride and Coraline.
“[Stop motion] has progressed a ton since Nightmare,” says Thomas, explaining how little footage they could store at one time during the '90s. “It was more like animating blind back in the day.”
Now, stop motion animators have tools that allow them to review footage while they're working. “There are huge safety nets these days, but the nuts and bolts of the process, of animating the puppet as a performance, beginning to end, hasn't changed at all,” says Thomas.
“The most complicated thing about stop motion is the effect of forces of nature has on animation,” says Abbate, the producer, who also worked on The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. “You wake up on a hot day and you don't realize that sets will have expanded, puppets will be drooping.”
She adds, “Technology helps us get to where we need to go a little bit faster, but sometimes there's no solution for the forces of nature.”
There was a lot of research that went into animating Frankenweenie. Thomas notes that they spent a lot of time studying dogs — bringing them into the studio, going to dog shows and watching a lot of videos — to lend believable movement to Sparky. The film is also filled with nods to the interests and personal experiences that have shaped Burton's best loved films. Everything from Burton's hometown, Burbank, to the classic horror films and mid-20th century B-movies he openly admires is referenced. “This is definitely [Burton's] world as a child,” says Thomas. “It's kind of his autobiographical fantasy.”
Yes, this is Burton's world, but it's one that's clearly close to the heart of everyone involved.
“This movie has been a labor of love, not just for Tim, but for every single person who has worked on it,” says Abbate. “There are long hours and road blocks that come in, with stop motion especially. If you don't love it, you won't make it to the finish line.”
Abbate isn't worried about what kind of reception Frankenweenie will receive upon its opening. “What I am nervous about is whether or not we'll be able to make the movie that, certainly, Tim wanted in his mind to make and that we all set out to make,” she says.
“I feel like we've made that movie,” Abbate adds. “I think that the audiences will find it.”