Sunday, October 11, 2009

Henry Selick Q&A

Last weekend I read that Henry Selick was going to be in the city for a special 3D screening of Coraline, along with a Q&A and reception afterwards. ASIFA-SF was hosting it, and it proved the perfect reason to go ahead and join as I'd been wanting to for a while now. ASIFA-SF is open to anyone - animation students, professionals, or just fans - to join for the low price of $25 per year, and there are chapters of ASIFA all over the country as well as internationally. They hold a variety of events, and are a great place to network as well as learn from professionals or see what's new in the world of animation.

For those of you not in the animation-know saying "Henry who?", let me explain why this was so exciting. Henry Selick has many great credits to his name, including Director of Coraline, Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, as well as some early MTV stop motion spots, just to name a few. He is another of the greats born from a passion for animation and education at Cal Arts (along with others like Tim Burton, John Lasseter and a number of other current greats).

I've been a fan of Nightmare Before Christmas since high school, when a close friend and I first caught wind of the production (taking place right under our noses, as it turns out). We obsessed over the soundtrack, created by one of our favorite singers/composers, Danny Elfman (who sang many of the parts on the soundtrack, including Jack, which they ended up keeping for most of the songs in the final film). By the time the movie came out, we had tickets for opening night and knew all of the songs by heart. We could only try to imagine the world that would be created for us, and were not disappointed. It's a movie I watch at least once a year, usually more, and even though I know it by heart, I still cherish the attention to detail, character design, and sincerity put into the film.

I know most people associate Tim Burton with the movie, for good reason - his name is all over it and the character design and story are his creation. But after seeing Selick's other films, you can really see how much of the movie is based off his style and personality.

As much as I could speak for days about my love for Nightmare Before Christmas, this screening was about Coraline, another movie I connected with before it was even released. But if you've followed my blog at all, you already know my love for this movie. So of course I was thrilled to see it again on the big screen in 3D. After watching it on DVD after it came out a few months ago, I still love being thrown into that world, but it's just not the same on the small screen. And the Real3D in the theater really pulls you into that world, wrapping itself around you and not just hitting you over the head with cheap gags.

The theater held less than 300 people and still had some empty seats, so it felt much more intimate than I was expecting (not to mention that we were 6 rows away from where he was sitting). I had convinced a friend of mine and fellow animation student to come along - and even bring her boyfriend, an animation appreciator. And, truth be told, I was not feeling like going this morning. Thank goodness I had two other people who did want to go and were coming over to carpool. I can be really good at stupidly talking myself out of great things sometimes.

We got off to a rocky start with the entire Metreon being evacuated due to a fire alarm 5 minutes into the movie. But eventually we got it all sorted out, everyone back in their seats, no actual fire, and only missing a little chunk of the movie - hey, it's digital, you can just pause it and restart! But you gotta love sitting in a theater full of animation nerds who react in all the right places, and are there to enjoy the movie, not be checking their cell phones or chatting in your favorite parts.

As the lights came up and the credits rolled to applause, the director was introduced and took his seat to more applause and a standing ovation. And then began the Q&A, beginning with some pre-planned questions from the interviewer, and then open to the audience. With Q&A you never know if the questions are going to be idiotic or great, and this happily had a majority of interesting and only a few can-I-strangle-you-now-for-wasting-this-great-man's-time-and-ours
queries. I was pleased to hear tidbits about Selick himself, as well as the film, that I hadn't heard before. But most striking was how this quiet, humble, passionate man could be such a strong and visionary voice.

I, being the nerd I am, took notes during the Q&A, which I'll give you in a minute. But for those of you Coraline and stop motion fans, if you read nothing else past this point, you may be interested to hear that Selick would love to release a version of the film that has had nothing composited out - meaning the line across the characters' heads for the eye movement, and even the rigs popping in and out of frame. He mentioned that if enough people are interested and let Focus Films know about it, it's a very real possibility that it could get released. As much as the film is gorgeous in its finished, clean state, wouldn't it be fantastic to get to see all the time, effort, and grit that went into it?

At the moment I don't have a specific email address to write to, but there are a few contacts listed on the Film In Focus site, which is where Selick directed us. Please send them an email if you're interested in getting this version released. If I get a more specific email address, I'll be sure to update here.

So on to my notes from the Q&A. They may be a little mish-moshed since the questions ranged in focus (man, people just could not get past the 3D and ask about other stuff for a while!), but I'll try to give context to what needs it.

- Henry talked admiringly of the pioneers in stop motion, like Ray Harryhausen. He pointed out that Coraline was made following the same techniques as the original King Kong, an interesting comparison. But also great to think about the strength of stop-motion that he is only using current technology to further it, not replace it.

- In reference to the 3D:
  • this was the first stop-motion film to ever be shot for 3D, as opposed to post-processing it. While the assumption was that 2 cameras were used, one for the left eye and one for the right, instead they used one that first took two pictures, repositioning itself for the right eye after the left had been taken
  • Selick spoke about how easy it can be to wear out your welcome with 3D, and instead chose to use it when it would be most effective. They also used physical depth in the sets to emphasize flatness and unhappiness of the Real World at the beginning, as opposed to physically deeper sets in the Other World. Then, once the Other World goes bad, they kicked in the 3D to really make it feel uncomfortable. (If you read the interview I posted about a few months ago with John Lasseter, this is very similar to his philosophy on 3D)
  • random trivia: Real3D, which are the only 3D glasses I've seen in theaters in the last few years, was created in the Bay Area, and so far is the most effective 3D display system created. Personally, I still see lots of room for improvement, as some people still get headaches and many things still are too blurry to be effective (especially in action sequences). But who knows if this is going to be a fad or really take off. Selick sees how it can emphasize the strength of your story, but doesn't want it to be overused because then people really will get tired of it and revolt against it.
  • he wants his animators to maintain the jitters and bumps in stop motion, including filming on twos and keeping some flaws in. But he still embraces being innovative...with things that make sense. This comment made me happy, as I worry that as technology advances, it could be easy to lose the character that is innate to stop motion, in concentrating on making it too smooth and clean. I feel that Coraline achieved a very happy medium, and would love to see that balance maintained. For example, they used CG modeling and 3D printing to create the crazy numbers of models they needed. But then they hand-sanded and -painted those models so that each still had a level of human attention and uniqueness you just don't get on a computer (not that that's bad, it just has its own place and needs to be done well)
- Selick was familiar with Neil Gaiman from his Sandman comic (which he's approached Gaiman about doing in stop-motion, but apparently Gaiman is holding out for a live-action version). Gaiman sent Selick the manuscript of Coraline - he could not find a publisher for it, so Selick helped it get published, but the entire time reading it was picturing it as a movie. He immediately clicked with Gaiman and equated him to a brother

- Selick loves the Bay Area (like I mentioned before, Nightmare was done here), and he is definitely planning on doing another movie here soon (if not the next film, then soon after). Hear that stop-motion students? Get your reels ready!

- he lauded storyboarding as breathing life into the story, and a necessary tool in pre-production. But he also said that when you begin filming, you can't stay locked to the storyboard. You have to start fresh if it's not working and be flexible to keep things alive. Nightmare was only a quarter of the way storyboarded (and only a few songs written) when they started production, and it made things much more difficult.

- Selick wrote the Forcible and Spink song in the Other World theater scene. He took inspiration from Terry Gilliam, who's made some of his favorite movies. Other favorites include the classics, especially Dr. Strangelove, and that he rarely sees current movies (although he does enjoy Pixar films and feels they're the highest level of animated storytelling right now)

- A final few thoughts on the characters in the movie:
  • the cat, although not in the movie very much, is the strongest character and feels that the cat is Neil Gaiman. He's a reluctant guardian angel (I love this description, and love that the cat was chosen to represent it)
  • Selick feels that Coraline is kind-of a mix of Alice in Wonderland and Hansel and Gretel
If you've made it this far, I hope it was worth the read. The event tonight only strengthened my love of this movie and Nightmare Before Christmas. If you had told me back in high school that I'd be meeting the director, chatting with him about animation, and getting him to sign my NBX DVD, I wouldn't believe you. And it still feels so surreal - especially the reception, which was about 100 people, Selick standing around chatting with anyone who walked up to him, happy to sign what people had brought, very grateful for the support, and very encouraging and excited to chat with the students. Isn't it a great feeling when someone you admire from afar turns out be an admirable person in reality? We need more people like that in this world.

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