Indeed, if it weren’t for the ever-vigilant AD department, on most sets it probably would. Which is why the sense of quiet calm that hangs over this corner of 3 Mills Studios in East London is so odd. Even eerie. Because while everyone clearly has purpose, and no one seems to be slacking, that ever-present sense of panic isn’t… present.
“One of the things that he always said was that he really wanted to realise this fully, and animated. So this is kind of a little bit like his dream come true, and you will see his imprint over every frame” The ‘he’ being described by producer Allison Abbate, is of course, the film’s director, Tim Burton. She’s giving HeyUGuys a brief introduction to the world we’re about to step into on our visit to the set; although even a quick glance at the artwork and storyboards that adorn the production office would render that introduction redundant.
Abbate has taken time out of her day to act as our tour guide for the morning. Initially that seemed like an incredibly generous thing to do, as we wander through the workshop, looking at the array of sets and props on display, it’s clear from her exclamation that, ‘this is one of my favourite things’, as she inspects a miniature parking meter that she’s getting as much enjoyment from seeing them as the mob of journalists following closely behind.
It’s easy to understand why. The workshop is set in a sizeable warehouse, and almost every surface is covered in an incredible work of art, whether it’s miniature clogs and cheeses that decorate the Dutch-themed stalls that will appear in a carnival scene, or the model windmill that – given a little extra height by the table on which it’s sat – towers well above us.
On the other side of the room is a second, much smaller windmill, “That would be a toy windmill Victor would have,” notes Abbate. It’s used in the opening sequence which, in a nod to Burton’s original 1984 short, features a stop-motion monster movie made by protagonist, Victor. “we had to recreate what a little kid would make for his set. This is just kind of a weird, cardboard boxes as libraries, and we had to animate it like a kid would… the animators had fun with that”
On another table sit several other small buildings. At one point in the film, a giant monster rampages through the town; these quarter-scale houses are perfectly in keeping with that monster, so that as Abbate puts it, “when that guy steps on a shed, he’s actually stepping on a shed that’s in the right scale to him” of course, when dealing with scale on a project as intricate as Frankenweenie, creating a model that’s one-quarter the size requires a lot of fine detail, even down to the paint job, as Abbate points out, “a lot of times, when they do a paint texture, they have to devise the ability to do a texture, and then to recreate that texture in a different scale.”
In addition to being monster-fodder, the small buildings are also used by the VFX department, giving them real textures to use when compositing additional houses into the neighbourhood. Although some may question the use of any computer generated elements in a stop-motion movie, Abbate is a staunch defender of the practice, “I think as a tool, it’s incredibly valuable, it helps to open up the scope of the world, and in that sense, it’s fine to use it” she continues, “we definitely utilise all the tools that are at our disposal, but these movies are stop-motion movies, so we try to find stop-motion solutions for all of the shots that we want to create.”
One of the more unusual things about the items scattered around the warehouse is their colour palate, or rather, lack of one. The choice to shoot in black and white is not only unusual, but actually quite bold, given that most movies aimed at a young audience aren’t just colourful, but often gaudily-bright. For Abbate and Burton, however, there really was no other choice, “I think he’s so inspired by the old horror movies from his youth, that he wanted to evoke the feeling that he felt when he saw those movies, and then also, rightly so, the black and white really underlines the emotional journey of the movie.”
And Abbate is also confident that the target audience will be onboard, “I personally, have been asking a lot of children, and interestingly enough, younger children don’t necessarily have the stigma that older generations have, because it’s been so long since there’s actually been a black and white movie. It seems exciting that it’s going to be different.”
As we continue to tour the warehouse, we move towards a black curtain which covers a large section of one of the walls. A sign pinned up next to it reads, ‘please drive carefully through our village’. On the other side, the quiet calm becomes an almost silent still. Walls of black drapes form a maze of corridors and mini-stages. On each one, an animator works on a shot – carefully moving a puppet a few millimetres, checking the movement is fluid on a computer screen, before capturing it and starting again.
On one of the stages, animator Chris Gilligan positions a rotund character on the stage, “this is Bergermeister pontificating a little bit” explains Gilligan, “They’ve called a PTA meeting, and he’s just starting to talk here”. Two things stand out about the shot Gilligan is working on – the bright red curtain lining the stage, and the row of disembodied heads in front of it. “we just found a red curtain, so it works nicely” Abbate reveals. As for the heads, “tricks of the trade, in order to convey looking through the audience, we just put a whole bunch of heads on sticks. It’s hard to do crowd shots, especially in this medium, so we try to find tricks we can use.”
Next door houses the classroom, where substitute teacher Mr Rzykruski gives Victor and his classmates their first real introduction to science. Here we’re met by animation director Trey Thomas, who enthuses about the puppet, “He’s the only character in this movie that we have using this method, which is my favourite. It means replacing all his mouths to represent an expression, or a phonetic shape, so [the animator] replaces them every frame, or every couple of frames to get the lip-synch”
This method isn’t uncommon, a variation was recently used to animate several of the characters in Coraline. What is unusual, however is that each of the mouths are sculpted by hand, as Thomas explains, “Lots of places do them with computers these days, there’s a rapid-prototype technology on Coraline, but it has kind of a computer-flavour, and we didn’t want to have that. I think the hand sculpted gives it a little more texture, and it doesn’t feel like the ‘splineiness’ of computers”.
While only Mr Rzykruski has interchangeable mouths, interchangeable ‘blinks’ are used on almost every character in the film. Made from carefully sculpted hard plastic, they are, essentially, the characters’ eyelids; it might take up to fifty stages of replacement – 24 slightly different ‘blinks’ – to allow a character to close their eyes and open them again. Because they’re so small and so easily lost, and because each one takes about three hours to sculpt and paint, the fabrication shop add a special layer of ultraviolet paint to each one before they’re sent down to the floor. As head puppet fabricator Andy Gent puts it, “if we lose thirty a day, we start to get into a lot of trouble”.
It would be easy to overlook something as subtle as a puppet blinking, but these fine details are what create the characters in Frankenweenie. Indeed, one of the characters, Weird Girl is almost defined by this, as Abbate reveals, “the fact that she doesn’t blink so much underlines her weird personality”. What’s particularly interesting about Weird Girl is, while many of the other characters are based on horror movie archetypes, Abbate attributes her origins to the Staring Girl character in Burton’s ‘The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy’, as well as the fact that, “everyone knows some weird girl”.
Joining Weird Girl in the supporting cast are Nasser, who Abbate describes as “sort of boris Karloff from The Mummy”, Toshiaki, “a Godzilla-y, Japanese mad scientist”, Edgar ‘E’ Gore, unsurprisingly, “kind of like the Igor character”, and Bob.
Working our way along the temporary, fabric-lined corridors, we eventually come to a stage much larger and much brighter than those we’ve seen already. It’s at least thirty feet long, and the set runs almost the entire length. On it, two suburban houses, each with a large garden, separated by a hedgerow. In one of the gardens is a support rig – a metal structure, painted fluorescent green so that it can be easily removed. It was being used to raise Sparky, Victor’s dog (and the titular Frankenweenie), into the air, but due to a fairly major repair job, the puppet has been taken to the fabrication workshop – a.k.a ‘the puppet hospital’ to be fixed, and so now the rig stands empty, serving as a placeholder so that the repaired puppet can be returned to the same spot.
In the adjacent garden is the Victor’s neighbour, Mr Bergermeister, the same character, although not the same puppet, as we saw on the red curtain-lined stage in the PTA meeting scene. Having multiple versions of the same puppet is essential to the smooth running, and relatively quick turnaround of a film like Frankenweenie. Even still, and with as many as 12 versions of Victor, and 14 of Sparky, scheduling can cause issues, as Abbate laments, “sometimes you can’t shoot shots because the gym teacher’s busy on another set, and she’s not available, or Bob’s Mom is on another stage and she can’t come off”.
Leaving the shooting stages, we head back out through the workshop, along a series of corridors and up a flight of stairs, to the puppet hospital. Inside, about a dozen artists are hard at work, hunched over workbenches littered with puppet parts. It’s cramped, and it’s crowded, and there’s the ever so slight frisson of film set chaos in the air – at least by the standards of Frankenweenie.
This is the domain of fabricator Andy Gent and his team, who spend their days breathing building, repairing and rebuilding the film’s cast members. To describe this team as ‘busy’ would be an understatement. Manufacturing a ‘blink’ takes them around three hours, a full rebuild on Sparky, just over a week.
Because of the scale, the work on Frankenweenie is even more intricate than on other stop motion projects, as Gent explains, “they’re fairly tall for animation purposes, but that meant the quality of everything in the world could just be refined that little bit more”.
Of course, even with puppets that average 45cm (about 18 inches) tall, there are some shots that can’t be achieved. “Occasionally we have to have over-scale things. If we’re looking at things close up.” Gent draws our attention to a fabricator, hunched over a not-quite-recognisable shape, “here’s a little sea monkey over here, and we’ve got a close-up shot of his hand, so we’re just starting to do an over-scale one, so we can do a creepy, close-up shot, which obviously that little one wouldn’t hold up to on a big screen”.
It might be the fumes from the various pastes and potions used on the puppets, or it might be the sight of hundreds of tiny, lifeless, disembodied eyes, arms and legs lying around the room, but we eventually decide to call it a day in the Puppet Hospital, and indeed on the set of Frankenweenie itself.
Before we can leave, however, Gent calls us back, desperate to show us one last thing. In the far corner of the workshop, inexplicably decorated with pictures of actors who – Gent assures us – have absolutely nothing to do with the film, is a fridge. Gent opens it. Inside, a collection of tiny objects. They’re difficult to make out it the dim light of this corner of the workshop, but Gent knows what each of them is, and begins gleefully pointing each out, “dead rats, vampire bats… Screaming mouth… that was made for a really big, giant scream” He pauses, feeling the need to give an explanation, “We’ll keep these guys in here because it gets so hot that they get difficult to use. It’s not like our standard fridge at home, we’ve got monsters in there”.
You can read the first instalment of Frankenweenie Unbound here.