Coraline's journey: Henry Selick adapts Neil Gaiman for first feature made in stop-motion 3D

To direct Coraline, the first stereoscopic stop-motion animation feature, Henry Selick spent nearly four years “on location” in Portland, Oregon. It’s where the puppets and the 130 sets for Selick’s spooky Alice in Wonderland-style tale were designed and built. “With these animated movies, especially stop-motion,” Selick says, laughing, “you have to be there for everything!” Actually, Selick was already in Oregon, in mind and spirit, before he knew he would relocate there from California.

While adapting the screenplay from Neil Gaiman’s novel, Selick set the movie in Ashland, Oregon. The town, which sponsors a Shakespeare festival, seemed like the right fit for Coraline’s eccentric neighbors. In Selick’s imagination, Ashland also harbors the Other World, a parallel universe that his inquisitive adolescent hero, recently displaced from her home in Michigan, would find when she fell through her rabbit hole—a secret portal in the living room.

Coraline, from Focus Features, will open on every digital 3D screen in the U.S. on Feb. 6. Unlike previous stereoscopic films (an industry term for 3D), it was shot entirely in 3D, and takes advantage of recent innovations in that technology. For instance, Coraline has several “morphing” sequences where characters transform, revealing their dark side. Morphs are a Herculean feat in stop-motion animation, which employs puppets and three-dimensional sets adjusted incrementally for each shot. “In stop-motion morphing, unlike CG, you have to actually sculpt all the in-between shapes,” Selick explains in a telephone conversation from Portland. “Ultimately, that’s what we did, although we used computers to design the ‘in-betweens.’”

Selick is the Renaissance man of stop-motion animation: His credits include visual-effects designer, production designer, screenwriter, producer, director and one stint as a body double. He’s directed two stop-motion classics, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996). He also directed Monkeybone (2001), which blended stop-motion animation and computer-graphic images into a live-action film. A New Jersey native, Selick began his education at Rutgers and then headed west to CalArts, the prestigious art institute in Valencia, Calif. (Tim Burton was his classmate.) He remained on the West Coast and now, at 56, lives in Portland with his wife Heather Ryan and their two sons, Harry and George. The boys voice minor characters in Coraline.

Pre-production on the film took two years, and production went on for 18 months, in part because Selick and his collaborators were creating two visually distinct worlds. “Coraline discovers another version of the same life she has with her parents in the real world,” Selick explains. Coraline’s mother and father are writers on a deadline, so the 11-year-old is often left to her own devices. When she stumbles upon the Other World, where her parents are attentive and dinner is served on time, Coraline is delighted—even though her Other World mother and father have buttons in place of their eyes.

Stop-motion photography is almost contemporaneous with the invention of motion pictures, and while it has changed with advances in technology, especially after the advent of digital media, stop-motion animation remains a handmade art form. It’s the domain of model-makers, puppet-makers and animators, “facial animation” teams, set construction teams accustomed to manipulating miniature objects, and puppet doctors who repair fractured limbs. “These puppets,” Selick explains, “have to last for years.” On Coraline, all the puppets are all less than a foot high, with metal “skeletons,” and faces and bodies sculpted from clay and cast in a material that suits their character.

Puppets are not simply posed; their expressions, for instance, might require the fabrication of dozens of replacement faces. “A stop-motion animator gives a performance through the puppet,” Selick explains. “It’s slow, a frame at a time, but it’s an actual performance.” When Selick tells an animator that a scene requires Coraline to act frightened, the animator may respond by repositioning dozens of parts of the puppet’s body, or even exchanging it for one of Coraline’s 28 duplicate puppets. Then test shots are made until everyone is satisfied with the result. “For a director,” Selick says, “it’s very similar to working with an actor.”

Coraline’s real-world house is a crumbling Victorian with a withering orchard, while her Other World home is freshly painted and framed by a flowering grove. Selick, who is also the film’s production designer, distinguishes the two sets in ways that support the storytelling, using the stereoscopic medium to cleverly enhance his design. “In the real world, I wanted things to feel claustrophobic, tight and uncomfortable,” the filmmaker explains, “and I literally had the sets built with crushed space. The background wall is very close. The floors are extremely raked, but not in a way that you notice.” These compact spaces reflect Coraline’s discomfort in her new home, while Selick’s sets for the Other World illustrate her initial feeling of freedom. “In the Other World,” he says, “there is maybe four or five times as much depth.”

To bring the audience even closer to his puppet characters, literally and figuratively, Selick and his longtime collaborator, DP Pete Kozachik, toyed with the standard treatment of the left and right “eyes,” the duplicate frames which projected together create the stereoscopic image. It is worth understanding this aesthetic choice because it explains why Coraline possesses an oddly realistic look. In Selick’s words, the puppets “make the creepy things in the story more charming” and “add creepiness to the charming stuff,” so having them appear life-size was essential.

In a live-action 3D film shot with two cameras, in order for the projected image to appear realistic, the distance between the centers of the two lenses—the “interaxial” distance—is calibrated to mimic the distance between our eyes, the “interocular” distance. That’s about 2.5 inches. Coraline was shot with one digital camera, mounted on a small rig powered by a stepper motor. (The motor allows programmed stops in the rotation of the camera.) The camera shot the “right eye” image and then moved approximately one-half inch to 7/8ths of an inch, whatever the puppet’s interocular distance was, to shoot the opposite “left eye” image. The effect is that the puppets appear human in scale. Selick acknowledges that while these technical decisions are significant, the remainder of his work can be compared to that of a live-action director. “If you cast well, and you’ve got a good script,” he observes, “90 percent of your work is done.”

Dakota Fanning was always first on Selick’s list for the lead character, and the young actress agreed early on to voice the role. “Then we built the other voices around her,” Selick explains. They include Teri Hatcher (“Desperate Housewives”) as Mother and Other Mother, and Keith David (Crash, Mr. & Mrs. Smith) in a wonderful turn as the unnamed cat who accompanies Coraline in both worlds. Author Neil Gaiman suggested a British comedy duo, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, for Coraline’s neighbors, belle dames Miss Forcible and Miss Spink. “In the case of stop-action animation,” Selick explains, “it takes three characters to make one final stop-motion performance. First, there is the voice actor. Next is the puppet fabricator, like Georgina Hayns, who builds the character. Then there is the animator.”

Selick and 20 key crew members moved to Portland to make Coraline, and the filmmaker admits that at first, maintaining his equanimity in the Lilliputian universe where he’s usually most at home wasn’t effortless. “It takes a long time to get your communication worked out—what you’re going for. A lot of animators want to do something very cartoonish and that’s not what I was looking for here.” Eventually, Selick explains, a core group forms “with everyone in tune. That makes it easier for the new people coming onboard. Then it’s a wonderful feeling because there are so many creative people working side by side. At a certain point on Coraline, our only enemy was exhaustion.”

Coraline received a PG rating, and Selick is disappointed at how that has shaped the marketing and promotion of the film. “I think critics are going to say Coraline is scary,” he explains. “Well, hell, yes, it’s scary and that’s great! It’s one of the main things that a kid likes—a good scare. We’re saying no one under eight years old, but Neil’s book was bought by people of many ages, and they’ll see the film.” Gaiman’s Coraline spent weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List in 2002. For Selick, the courageous girl he discovered in that novel remains more than an inspiration. “I still love her,” he says, “I’m not tired of Coraline at all! I see the puppet, but I don’t think of her as a puppet. I think of her as a living character.”