Exclusive: The Art of Coraline with Henry Selick

The director takes us through the visuals of his masterpiece.

by | May 9, 2009 | Comments

Coraline

Henry Selick, the animation mastermind behind such Certified Fresh classics as The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach adds another gong to his cabinet with Coraline, based on the novella by Neil Gaiman. Its dark tale of a young girl who finds a portal into an alternate reality will please adults and children alike and it’s both visually stunning and wondrously entertaining. Now, set against a gallery of stills from the production, Selick takes RT on an exclusive journey into the art of Coraline

Coraline

“Coraline is kind-of relentless, like animators like me. She’s going to get there one way or another and she’s not going to be tied in place because her parents won’t allow her to do something. She’s going to find a way to get to what she wants. Of course, what she wants can get her into deep trouble and that brings up the other aspect about her I love — how brave she is. She doesn’t have guns or superpowers but she still faces incredible evil and manages to win. You can read the book in much less than a day, and so when you’re working on it you do have to think the character through. You talk to animators and figure out what the poses are which’ll work for her. You have to define her and it doesn’t just happen. Over a long period of time you get to know her on different levels.”

Coraline

“If 3D is used well it’s a tool for telling a story. If it’s only used as a gimmick, which for some films like My Bloody Valentine 3D maybe that’s what the audience wants, I think it’s less powerful. If it’s used to enhance the story and draw the audience into the film, I think it could be the equivalent of what sound or colour was to cinema. There’ll be a bunch of bad 3D movies made and the good ones will win out. It’ll just take some time. The new system, Real-D, which uses technology invented by a friend of mine, Lenny Lipton, it’s great. It’s so much better than the 50s version, the anaglyph system with the red and blue lenses. It still has room to improve, it’s very dark, but I think the reason we’re seeing so many 3D films now is a combination of the emergence of this technology and people always looking for something different — why would you go to a movie rather than download it or wait for the DVD?”

Coraline

“It was very challenging to shoot in 3D at first; it took four months to work it out. I know a lot about 3D, I know Lenny going back 20 years, but the main thing is that it’s like learning a language. It’s easy to use too much because it’s cool. For me it was about coming up with a script for when and how to use it based on story. Then it wasn’t so difficult. It’s easy to get carried away, and I’m especially happy we kept a lid on it.”

Coraline

“It was great to get Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders involved. Really funny people can be hard to be around because you feel dull and slow, but they were great. I threw them a total curveball in that when I first recorded them, we spent the whole day, finished all their lines, and as I was listening to playback I thought it was good but not great. I couldn’t figure out what was missing. So I asked them to switch parts and they didn’t freak out. They gave it a try and then in five minutes time everyone was beaming. Of course, Dawn French is Forcible — what were we thinking?!”

Coraline

“The sets for the film are very extensive and some are quite large. Ultimately we rented a warehouse which was twice as large as we needed and inevitably the sets grew to be twice as large as we’d planned! We took advantage of what we had and there was a sense of trying to give the movie scale and have it not feel like a tabletop movie with toys in a limited space. We built where we could and didn’t keep things flat. We gave a lot of topography and gradations to these worlds.”

Coraline

“We had to create two versions of the world, just like we had to create two versions (sometimes more) of the characters. There’s always this interplay — here’s the house in the real world, kind-of run down and shabby and divided into flats, well what’s it like in the other place and how do we differentiate? One of the main points of differentiation was how we used 3D. We built everything deeper. We didn’t just turn up the 3D but we built the world deeper in the Other World to give a greater sense of freedom. This Other World is trying to seduce Coraline into staying there. So the two worlds designed together is a thread that runs through the entire film and it was always about making the real world feel limited but knowing that we had to live there at the end of the film and feel OK about it. Specially, the look of things, the design, the delicacy of some adjustments, everything was thought of at once and had to be built individually.”

Coraline

“There are far fewer camera shots in the real world. There are more locked shots. The real parents are the same, they don’t learn any lessons. Mom’s still grouchy at the end. In the Other World, we upped the flamboyance of Spink and Forcible, the French and Saunders characters. We made that broader. There were more differences between the supporting characters in the Other World. We formed them differently.”

Coraline is out now.

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