Henry Selick: interview

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Master stop-motion animator Henry Selick discusses his fantastic new film – and labour of love – 'Coraline' with Time Out

With ‘Coraline’, was it always the idea to make a 3D film? And what specific preparations did you have to make for the shooting?
‘I have a pretty long history with 3D. I shot a 3D rock video 20 years ago. It was a demo piece for the Viewmaster Corporation – the people that make those little wheels, the ones that you put in the viewer and click through. It was for a singer called Marty Balin who had been the singer of Jefferson Starship. It was black and white, very crude. The main reason I bring it up is that the person who had invented that system, as well as the system that is now in use in modern day cinemas, the digital 3D, is a man called Lenny Lipton. Twenty years ago I met Lenny, and I would often check in with him and see how his mad-scientist experiments with 3D were going.

‘There was this early exposure to 3D, then that desire to shoot stop motion, and ultimately the “Coraline” project and Lenny’s 3D system coming into cinema just sort of coincided, and it was about five years ago that I said, “This is how we gotta shoot this.” At that moment, there were hardly any 3D cinemas in existence, so there was some resistance, but by the time we went into production three years ago, it was perfect timing.’

Why do you think the 3D revolution has come at this point in time?
‘I think that the technology of modern 3D is pretty damn good. It’s much better than the analogue method, with the red and green cellophane over your eyes. It’s better than the systems from the 1950s. I believe it’s first that the technology is better, and then that it has fuelled the “How are we going to get people coming to the cinema?” debate. Used well, it adds to the spectacle of cinema, and I think it’s used well in "Coraline". You can’t get that experience on your iPod.’

You’re best known for working in the stop-motion medium. Having seen digitally animated films by the likes of Pixar, do you think stop-motion will soon become obsolete?
‘I think stop-motion has always been semi-obsolete. And stop-motion animators – people like myself – love it so much that we’re always going to be looking for new ways to make our films. In the old days of Ray Harryhausen, stop-motion was considered an effect and just trying to be as realistic as it could be. But at the moment when “Jurassic Park” gave us digital dinosaurs rather than stop-motion, that’s when that whole world crashed. It made stop-motion obsolete as the ultra-realistic effect and it made all of us in stop-motion stop and wonder: Why are we doing this? What do we love about it? What justifies it? So, no, I don’t think there will ever be a time when CG renders stop- motion obsolete by being overly realistic. It’s not what CG actually does best. What stop-motion does best is present real objects magically brought to life in a very imperfect situation; the hand of the artist is there, the electricity of someone touching, massaging and torturing themselves to get life out of an inanimate object.’

When did you come across Neil Gaiman’s novel 'Coraline'? Did you read it with the animation happening in your mind?
‘Neil sent me the pages in 2000, two years before the book was published, and I’m really glad he did. It’s one of the few stories I’ve ever read where I almost immediately started seeing a film in my head. At the time, it was difficult to get a stop-motion project launched. CG had become the prominent form. Pixar have made some incredible films, they are great stories and amazingly well done, and Dreamworks have had their successes, Blue Sky too. So there were years at the beginning where it was like, “Maybe it’ll be live action, maybe it’ll be CG,” because it was hard to find support.

‘But as I was writing the screenplay, every time I got to the cat, and whenever I would start to imagine the cat in the other world when he can speak, stop-motion was the only way I could see him. It just wasn’t going to work any other way.’

Apart from being quite scary, the subtext – the idea of Coraline encountering another family as a reaction to her feuding parents – was very tenderly and very subtly done. Is this something that you were able to relate to? As a child, did you have escapist fantasies?
‘It’s funny… I had to be reminded by my mother. And, incidentally, my mother is a huge fan of my work. I told her about “Coraline” long before the film was made and she got the book and read it. She reminded me that when I was about five years old, I used to sit in the kitchen for hours and talk about my “other” family in Africa, my other mother and father. I had totally forgotten that. I definitely had this fantasy of another place and another life with wild animals, and I think that’s the point – that it was obviously what I desired.’

Author: Interview: David Jenkins



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