‘Coraline’ director talks 3-D animation

By David Orlikoff

It’s hard to go a full day in downtown Chicago without seeing some reference to Henry Selick, usually in form of The Nightmare Before Christmas apparel. People associate the film with Tim Burton and Jack Skellington’s iconic face, but while Burton wrote and produced the film, it was Selick who directed it.

But what he is most famous for is really where his heart is-directing unparalleled feature length stop-motion films. Coraline, adapted by Selick from the Neil Gaiman graphic novel, is his third film meeting this criteria.

The Chronicle sat down with Selick to talk about his new film, his style of filmmaking and shooting in 3-D.

The Chronicle: What drew you to the story of ‘Coraline’?

Henry Selick: I liked the universal aspect that everyone at some point wishes they had a different life. And then I liked the combination of Alice in Wonderland meets Hansel and Gretel-a Grimm brothers’ fairy tale set in our times without being overly modern. I think it’s a timeless story. And finally, just the delicious details of the world and the other world that Neil Gaiman came up with. The strangely creepy idea of buttons for the eyes of the living people as if they were living dolls.

When did you decide this film was going to be in 3-D?

I first proposed this five years ago to our producer, Bill Mechanic, but the system wasn’t out in theaters yet so he was totally against it. Then as it came online probably four years ago, we decided we [would] shoot this in 3-D. And the story itself, the idea of a better world, I felt that 3-D could help draw us into the Other World as Coraline is drawn into it.

How does this movie differ from other 3-D movies?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of bringing things out into the audience too much and letting it become a gimmick. It gets tiresome and can be very hard on the eyes. I wanted to hold off on the sort of typical punch-you-in-the-eye shots and keep those to just a few special spots and mainly focus on what happens behind the screen. It wasn’t just a Hollywood producer saying, “Get things jumping off the screen Henry. This is what the medium does. You’re crazy.” It was also my [director of photography] and lighting and camera people who were trying to crank it up, and I had to calm it down until finally when things go bad in the other world I wanted that almost uncomfortable level of 3-D to make it part of the story.

Were all the sets real?

Yes, it’s all constructed; it’s all up to the scale of Coraline, so each seat in the theater is 2 to 3 inches probably. It would have been easy to create all those dogs in the theater in CG, but there wouldn’t really have been a point. So we built the entire theater and shot it in three directions and populated it with 500 dogs. We can’t do better CG than Pixar or DreamWorks, but we can do stop-motion better because that’s what we love and what our craft is.

What sets ‘Coraline’ apart from past projects?

What’s different about Coraline is the humans are more expressive. There is a greater range of emotions that Coraline can do. Coraline is somewhere between cartoony animation and live action. And it’s sort of a difficult place to stay on track because a lot of animators want to do more cartoony things.