His beautiful stop-motion elegy to a dead dog is a perfect companion piece to his original live-action short and the visual and emotional touchstone of his work in between have found their most successful form in Frankenweenie. I reviewed the film here, and Ben did some excellent work on his visits to 3 Mill Studios, home of the production for the film, you can check that out here.
I caught up with Burton, legendary Disney producer Don Hahn and creative producer Allison Abbate to talk through the genesis of the film and the risks and rewards of making a black and white stop-motion animated movie.
On the personal nature of the film.
It was such a memory thing to me I started to remember other things, kids from school, weird teachers, physical locations of Burbank. So the basic themes of love and creativity – the basic side remained the themes but went from the Frankenstein structure to the House of Frankenstein structure in that they added the other monsters. But it was fun to go back and remember that weird kid – Weird Girl in particular I remember.
People think I’m quite negative, but I’m a positive person. You don’t feel part of culture, but you might have retreated into monster movies, or drawing. That’s a positive thing. They just spoke to me. Growing up in a place that was so bright I think they were a way of going into a different world. It’s a nostalgic choice, it’s an aesthetic choice, I love looking at it. I don’t just watch black and white movies, but there’s a certain element of them which I find beautiful and, in certain movies I find them more emotional when you take away the colour something else comes into play. I find that quite alluring and beautiful.
The inspirations and feelings you have earlier on stay with you. If you grow up liking a certain movie it’s always part of you. And no matter how hard you try to you can’t shake those feelings from earlier on in your life. I liked making Super 8 films. I wanted to be a mad scientist – not a regular one, a mad one. Reluctant sportsperson… That’s what’s fun about memories – it’s like a dream. If you have a pet and you’re young – it’s your first love. And with a dog it’s unconditional. It’s just there. Like a heart come to life. I had a dog, and it did die. I didn’t try to bring it back… it’s a fantasy film. If someone said to me ‘Do you want to bring your dog back to life?’ I wouldn’t! I saw on YouTube this Russian video from the ’60s where they kept a dog’s head alive… It’s fine in a movie but I don’t want that in real life.
On returning to Disney.
It’s a whole different time and place, being at Disney at that time was strange. I got the opportunity to make the film which was amazing, no other studio was letting people do a short film and it was probably at the lowest point in the history of animation. Now it’s flourishing but at the time they were in growing pains but I was grateful for the opportunity.
I felt that not every film wants to be in 3D, but in this film, with the black and white and the stop-motion – everything is made, I felt it was important to show the artistry of everyone involved. I’ve done films in Black and White, but in this case we painted the sets black and white and with the DP we talked about those old movies and we used some old techniques. We tried to treat it like live action movie. I wouldn’t have done it in colour, I felt the emotion was in black and white. And it’s to the studio’s credit because I think black and white still scares people a little bit.
On reuniting with Winona Ryder.
She still sounds like she’s ten years old… But that’s what I love about this film, working with Catherine [O’Hara], Martin Short and Martin Landau, because this film was so personal to me it was great that they all came on board. She hasn’t really changed at all. It was nice to go back and reconnect with people that I love. For [Winona’s] character it was what I connected to way back, the idea of an old soul.
Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara
On working with Tim Burton.
Martin Short: When you first work with him you have these assumptions, and by the time I worked with him on Mars Attack in ’96 he was TIM BURTON and so I was delighted to find that he was so collaborative. It dawns on you that he’s hired and now it’s your turn to be creative so the actor feels like in a partnership and it was same here.
Catherine O’Hara: He has his devotees now, when I worked with him on Beetlejuice Pee Wee han’t been released yet, but he was always going to be what he is now. Challenging, thrilling, collaborative. He guides you and you trust him. He’s not changed at all.
On finding their characters.
Martin Short: We saw the sketches of the characters, in fact that’s all we saw. Tim had a very specific idea about the parents, that he wanted them to sound like us but also he wanted something very intimate and great warmth between them. If you’re the creator of the character it becomes more personal so you have an ownership and an understanding of it.
Catherine O’Hara: That’s why I found playing the Mom character a challenge because I take everything about the character personally and Tim doesn’t talk about the big picture but I knew the responsiblity I had for creating this family.
Don Hahn and Allison Abbate
On a stop-motion Tim Burton film entering the Animated Family Film arena.
Don Hahn: To have someone who Tim Burton and Wes Anderson trust as a creative producer like Allison is really valuable. I managed the changing regimes at the studio and they were always very positive. This kind of movie is an artistic risk, it needs some time out in the marketplace. Making a black and white 3D movie is a risk and that’s what I like about it. There’s a million interesting CGI splashy, colour, funny movies out there from the other animation studios but at some point someone has to start pushing the boundaries of what animation can do. It’s supposed to be the medium that’s supposed to be able to do anything. Sometimes we get cornered into these little areas of entertainment. On one hand this is story of a boy and his love for his dog and on the other hand visually and creatively Tim’s pushed it out in different directions which hopefully other people will pick up on. I want to see other people’s experimental movies! Will they aways be blockbusters on their opening day? Probably not.
Allison Abbate: I feel that people understand the creatives risks are and that there is a market for these movies, and there is value for studios to have them in their repertoire. There will be more movies like this but will we have more money to make them? Probably not. I think we’d all prefer more breathing room is the movie is a success but I don’t know if breathing room makes you more creative or better at your job. People want to work [in stop-motion animation] and as long as they attract people like Tim Burton or Wes Anderson or Guillermo del Toro you’ll have studios who want to make the films.
On Burton’s return to Disney.
Don Hahn: Disney has changed, the audience has changed. There’s more trust in Tim and we talked a lot about the Disney name and the appropriateness of that for the movie and you look at Walt Disney’s films and find that he was a man who was really brave about what he put on the screen – look at Snow White, Fantasia – he wasn’t afraid of going to these dark places, but with a happy ending. Going there for a purpose. When John Lasseter first started at Disney I showed him round and said ‘Oh, yeah and Tim wants to do Frankenweenie’, and he said ‘Oh, that’s great’ and then he had dinner with Tim and that was that. He’s a great supporter of the film. I knew Tim back at Disney [at the time of the original Frankenweenie] and he was an inbetweener for The Fox and The Hound which was probably the worst casting of anyone in Hollywood, but the studio realised he was something special, he was different from the rest of us. His drawing style and his imagination was out-of-control great and I think it was very hard for the studio to funnel that, so that’s where Frankenweenie came from to see what he could do. And he went off and it was good that he did. He matured and grew in ways that he wouldn’t have done at Disney.
On the current and future state of studio-produced animated movies.
Don Hahn: I think right now we’re stuck in a rut. I think just like doing fairytale musicals in the ’80s and ’90s got us stuck in a rut and there was audience fatigue because of that. I think if we’re not careful CG movies will do the same thing. Why can’t we break out artistically and still tell good stories. It’s a boom time, there’s lots of money in animation but we’re making the same movie over and over again.
Allison Abbate: I think it will change, there’s lots of places to see animation now, you can see European movies, smaller movies. I think it’ll make the industry more diverse which is nice. Not all action movies are the same and I hope that you’ll get to see a lot of different types of animated movies, so it’s not that animation is a genre unto itself. That’s what I hope the future will be.