A Stereoscopic Vision

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Touted as the first movie to merge 3D stereoscopy—which gives viewers an illusion of depth—with stop-motion animation, Coraline is the latest visual phenomenon from Henry Selick, the director behind perennial holiday favorite A Nightmare Before Christmas. Based on Neil Gaiman's book, Coraline is about a curious little girl who finds a secret door in her new home that leads to a wondrous—and then nightmarish—parallel universe called The Other World filled with counterfeit parents and more. The Focus Features film is the culmination of nearly two years of production that saw Selick and his Portland, OR-based FX crew at Laika Entertainment build 150 sets, 250 jointed puppets, use real material like hair and popcorn and implement tricky techniques like "crushed space." Selick offers Creativity some insight into the making of the film and the challenges involved.

It's being said that Coraline is the first of its kind. Was the objective always to integrate the 3D stereoscopic aspect into stop-motion?
I was interested in it from the beginning but it took for the latest 3D system to be installed into theaters for that to have any validity. But, I've actually had 20 years of experience of shooting 3D. I shot a cheesy 3D rock video for the Viewmaster corporation and the guy whose system we used, Lenny Lipton—who is pretty much the godfather of the modern stereoscopic system that is in 99% of the theaters—I met him years ago and would check in with him every now and then to see what progress he had made. So, I had an early exposure and interest in stereoscopy and then when I directed A Nightmare Before Christmas, we would shoot some stills in 3D and would think that was by far the best way to capture what we were doing. It just sort of worked out timing-wise and technology-wise that when we finally got going setting up Coraline to go into production, the screens were coming online and it wasn't that difficult to get everyone onboard especially because it was used to support the story and not just be an add-on.

Director Henry Selick
Director Henry Selick
There are two separate worlds involved in Coraline and it seems the approach was different for each. How did you create the stereoscopic 3D effects for the Real World and the Other World?
The whole film's basically how Coraline views [both] worlds and we wanted to make the Real World feel diminished. The interiors feel a little claustrophobic and there are the usual things of using color, the way the sets are decorated and things are falling apart. It's sort of shoddy. I also came up with this thing called "crushed space" where almost all of the main sets in The Real World have very little actual depth. The floors, walls and ceilings are rigged at an extreme angle and it's not shot where you're aware of that. We did shoot it with some 3D so you get a sense of being slightly claustrophobic. A lack of freedom was what I going for and when we go to the duplicate sets in The Other World, there's all this magic. But eventually, they kind of look almost the same. The lines of perspective all line up exactly but they're built much deeper. I wanted to draw the audience into that space as much as Coraline is. It's a sense of freedom and we used 3D to enhance the actual space change in the different sets.

You used a technique in the film called "replacement animation." Can you describe what that is?
Replacement animation is deceptively simple. It was pretty much developed a long time ago by George Pal, who went on to do many live action films. But he did these stop-motion shorts called the "Puppetoons" and rather than just have jointed figures like King Kong, he wanted them to change shape for Disney cartoons where they would stretch and squash. A lot of his animation, where someone was running or there was a cycle, something that could be repeated, he actually hand-carved from wood complete replacement figures that had that stretch and squash. There might be twelve individual sculptures for a walk cycle and you'd see this thing stretching and shrinking. Even to this day, it's very impressive. It's that basic concept so for a lot of the facial animation, something like Jack Skellington in Nightmare, his entire head that was such a simple design was replaced. Every blink, every sound and grimace or smile was a different sculpture with in-between sculptures as well. So, we had several hundred.

With Coraline, we built on something that I did on James and the Giant Peach for [the] Miss Spider [character]. Because Coraline has hair, we couldn't replace her whole head; we're replacing her face and we split it horizontally. There's a line that we paint at in post-production so that she actually has hundreds of different combinations of expressions. Every mouth shape and every time she says a word, we're snapping on and replacing the mouth positions and then separately eyebrows and so forth. It's a way to get a real snappy, crisp and clear animation. We used it on her, the [Real Mother and Other Mother], the Wybie Lovat character and then partial replacement on some of the other characters.

What sequence was the toughest to direct and why?
Certainly, the final confrontation between Coraline and Other Mother when she's at her most frightening was a huge challenge. I wanted to surprise the people who read the book and I wanted to put something in there that wasn't expected, where the floor flies away and this giant metallic spider drops down. There was a huge challenge in how to build it, rig it and bend and stretch it in a controllable way. Also, the challenge was how to animate and move the characters when they're trapped in it. Something else I've mentioned is the "Fantastic Garden" set that is grown for Coraline, which is deceptively simple and pretty. hat took an extraordinary amount of planning, designing and coming up with all these rigs that would look like flowers changing shape or growing. Then, there was the choreography of it all and the big pull-back shot so it was a very challenging sequence.

It was created for 3D theaters but it has more exposure in 2D. Is that something you're happy with?
It was designed to take advantage of 3D, but because we didn't go for the really heavy-duty gimmickry of 3D where things are jutting out of the screen a lot, it's not like you're going to miss some of the incredible special effects in the 2D version. There are a few pluses in the 2D version. The colors are a little more beautiful and the contrast is better. So there are tradeoffs with 3D, things are starker and you have to use these polarizing filters for the 3D effect. It's a little more like being in a cave and 2D is a little brighter picture.
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