A Look at Henry Selick
Noell Wolfgram Evans) The Walt Disney Company is known for family
friendly entertainment while filmmaker Tim Burton is not (unless
you're a part of the Addams Family). So it was a surprise to many
that in 1993 the bright and sunny Disney teamed up with the dark
and brooding Burton to produce a groundbreaking animated feature.
The result of that unique marriage was Tim Burton's The Nightmare
Before Christmas, a landmark in the development of the Disney
animated film. Many are surprised to learn, though, that perhaps
the true genius behind the film was a little known director named
originally conceived the story of Pumpkin King Jack Skellington's
takeover of Christmas in the early 1980's when he worked at Disney
(for a brief but productive period). He arrived there during a
very uncertain time in the company as the last members of the
old (original) regime were filtering themselves out and new managers
began plotting their own directions and ideas. Burton was able
to utilize the 'pockets' created in this new atmosphere to his
benefit as in between time on studio pictures such as The Fox
and The Hound he was able to work on more personal projects.
Two of which were the short live action film 'Frankenweenie' and
a short stop motion animated film called 'Vincent'. Both can be
looked at as vintage Burton. Vincent's morose story, extreme lighting
and foreboding atmosphere all hearkened back to the days of 1920's
German Expressionism as well as laying the groundwork for his
films to come. One of these films would be Nightmare. During his
time at Disney, Burton wrote a poem called 'The Nightmare Before
Christmas'. Intrigued by it's visual possibilities he created
a number of sketches to accompany the piece and the more he worked
on it, the more he realized that the story would be best served
in a visual medium. Unfortunately he was not able to convince
any of the executives of this and, having taken it as far as he
could, he filed everything away. (As a side note, he was forced
to file things away at Disney because as an employee of Disney,
everything that he created at this time was the property of the
company.) Before he put everything away though, he shared it with
a number of friends and colleagues, one of whom was a young, daring
artist named Henry Selick.
himself a Disney artist, having joined the company just after
his graduation from CalArts. He came on as a member of Disney's
Character Animation Design Program and quickly found himself working
on such films as Pete's Dragon (1977) and The Small
One (1977). In 1979 he took a short absence from the company
to work on several of his own projects, with backing from the
American Film Institute. One of these shorts, 'Seepage', became
a critical success and multiple award winning film. In 'Seepage'
Selick used stop motion and watercolor animation to bring to life
the story of two people talking while sitting next to a pool.
Full of acclaim and knowledge, Selick returned to Disney where
he was immediately put to work on The Fox and the Hound
(1981). While it had several interesting passages working on the
picture failed to satisfy his creative urgings and so he again
took leave from Disney, this time on a permanent basis.
By 1986 he
had his own production company, Selick Projects. Through the company,
he worked on a variety of television spots which included reinvigorating
the Pillsbury Doughboy as well as a series of award winning commercials
for Ritz Crackers (you may remember the ads which featured crackers
skiing down a mountain of cheese). His most famous works created
during this time were done for MTV. Selick created a memorable
series of bumpers for the station that included the Clio Award
winning 'Haircut M' in which an insect carved 'MTV' into a bystander's
was able to parley these high profile (and profitable) pieces
into more personal projects. In 1990 he wrote, directed and produced
'Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions'. This six-minute film comprised
live action, stop motion and cut-out animation seamlessly. It
also features a soundtrack composed by The Residents who created
music for a number of 'quirky' projects including 'Pee-Wee's Playhouse'.
'Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions' went on to amazing critical
acclaim, that year it finished first at the Ottawa Animation Festival
and second at the Chicago Animation Festival. Perhaps more importantly
though, this was the film that brought Tim Burton and Henry Selick
Selick had actually met, not at Disney, but when both were students
at CalArts (along with future Pixar man John Lasseter). It was
at CalArts that Selick first shared his true talent for filmmaking
when he produced the shorts 'Phases' and 'Tube Tales'. Each uses
a number of intertwined animation techniques to present a uniquely
'Selick' way of looking at the world. To those who saw the films,
it was a view that they would long remember. Years down the road
Burton, fresh off of the massive success of Batman and
Beetlejuice, was being courted by every studio in town
for his next project. In an effort to find a story best suited
for his unique talents, he approached various studios to look
through their 'story archives' hoping to find a hidden gem. When
he contacted Disney he was surprised and excited to find that
they had the rights still to The Nightmare Before Christmas.
With an excited charge he decided that this would be his next
film. Although no one would ever call this a typical Disney film,
the studio was excited to work with the hot director and immediately
green lighted the film.
leapt into the endeavor, working hard to 'deepen' the characters
that he had created nearly a decade earlier. Working with Danny
Elfman (who contributed the music and songs to the film (as well
as providing the singing voice of Jack)) he fleshed out the story
of Jack Skellington. During this process he began to believe that
although these were his creations, he may not be the best director
for the film. Rather, he believed that perhaps he would be most
beneficial to the film working at a distance in a creative capacity.
Knowing that this was to be an animated film, Burton didn't have
to look far to find the perfect director for the project in Henry
Selick. He knew that anyone who could create the technical and
emotional intricacies of 'Slow Bob' could easily guide his animated
film. And an animated film he knew this was going to be. Granted
the story may have a base in the literary world (in Clement Moore's
'The Night before Christmas') but the style and feeling can be
traced back to Rankin-Bass. The studio that produced such stop
motion holiday programs as The Year Without a Santa Claus
and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was a major influence
over Burton (as well as many other animators). In fact, just try
and find an animation fan who can't recount for you the epic struggle
of Yukon Cornelius and the Bumble.
came into Nightmare with a challenge: To take stop motion
animation where it had never been before. It was a challenge Selick
felt up to but he knew that if he were to complete it, he would
need a special crew and working environment. Although this was
technically a Disney film, Disney surprisingly allowed Selick
a large amount of freedom in its production. With this freedom
Selick set up Skellington Productions to create the film. With
the tools in place, Selick was handed a fifteen million dollar
budget and the orders to create magic. This is not to imply that
Burton disappeared at this point, rather he remained a very active
contributor, pouring over the look and details of each character,
helping to shape their feel and design (he spent days once deciding
on the pattern of Sally's socks).
Productions took up residence in over 40,000 square feet of warehouses
in San Francisco. Placed into this space were 20 sound stages
which contained dozens of sets of all shapes and sizes. These
sets could not be just erected in the most convenient location,
they had to be set in the most practical as each had to be specially
constructed for its specific scene. They had to be sturdy to allow
for animators to climb over them, yet flexible enough to build
trapdoors and breakaway sections so the animator can easily maneuver
his/her characters across the board.
all this movement, Selick decided to use a Mitchell 35mm camera.
This was a practical and sentimental choice as the Mitchell was
the camera that helped bring King Kong to life. With this link
to the stop-motion past in place, production began. Work on a
stop-motion picture, particularly one as intricate as Nightmare,
is a painstaking process, even before the first frame of film
is shot. Every item on screen had to be created and then constantly
retouched. This constant care is of course because a puppet and
prop are moved continuously to get a fluid shot. This movement-by-movement
process continued for over two years until finally in 1993, the
film was complete.
Before Christmas was released in time for Halloween of that
year. Largely due to the drawing power of Burton, the film became
a success. With his name in the title, many in the public assumed
that the picture was completely Burton's from start to finish.
Those who read the credits and discover otherwise though would
go on to sing the praise of Henry Selick. In his review of the
picture, Roger Ebert said:
director of the film, a veteran stop-action master
named Henry Selick, is the person who has made it all work.
And his achievement is enormous. Working with gifted
artists and designers, he has made a world here that is as
completely new as the worlds we saw for the first time in
such films as Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
and Star Wars.' 1
went on to bring in ticket sales of $51 million. It followed its
theatrical stay with a successful VHS release and its DVD is one
of the better packages to date. The film has so grown in popularity
that in 2000, it was re-released to theaters for the holidays.
Over time people have come to appreciate more and more the dark
nuances and emotional layers that permeate the film. On it's surface
it is a technological marvel but it's also the rare film that
has a deep and complex soul inside.
studio was extremely happy with the end result and hoped that
the same team could take another film and push it to similar success
both commercially and critically. Selick's 'reward' for his phenomenal
effort was to film the adaptation of James and the Giant Peach
by Roald Dahl. Dahl had always been leery of Hollywood and was
reluctant to turn his stories over to them but with the promise
by Disney of Selick at the helm and Burton in a producing role,
the Dahl family relented and James was on his way.
feature was no less complicated than his first. It told the story
of James and his attempt to flee his evil aunts. Through a magical
twist he lands inside of a giant peach where he meets a number
of insects that journey along with him. Selick's original plan
for the film was to shoot James as a live action boy and have
him interact with stop motion creations through the entire story.
When that became too cost prohibitive, he explored making every
element stop motion. Again Disney balked at the cost and so a
compromise was reached, the beginning and end of the story are
told in live action, but the center, James' time in the peach
is an animated feast. While stop-motion is the main form of animation
used in the film, cel, CG and paintings were all integrated into
the stop-motion action. While the result is at times breathtaking
(the ocean scenes alone are worth a viewing), the film it's self
wasn't able to gather a resonance with the public. Released in
1996, the film did modest business but never reached the cultural
'phenomenon' that Nightmare had become. Still its animation was
first rate and the story was told with a caring daringness. If
nothing else, it signaled that Henry Selick was more than just
The Nightmare Before Christmas, he was an artistic force
to be reckoned with.
film, Selick changed the name of his studio to Twitching Images
and again took up some, smaller personal projects before returning
to the silver screen with 2001's Monkeybone. This live
action/animated mix was an adaptation of an underground comic
book of the same name. One of the central characters of the film,
Monkeybone, is an animal closer to a sock monkey than a real primate.
Rather than go the hand drawn animation route to bring Monkeybone
to life (ala Roger Rabbit), Selick choose to have the creature
live as a stop motion puppet. Selick explains:
motion) has a great textural quality that CG doesn't
quite achieve. The wrinkles there are real and by it being
it's a performance. An actual performance with
incredible charm.' 2
Charm is a key word in Selick's vocabulary as he returns to it
continuously to describe what he does.
an inherent charm as well as a certain reality
(in stop-motion) that you can't get any other way.
Real materials, real cloth, real puppets are there on the
screen bathed in real light.' 3
it had a wildly distinctive look and the animation and live-action
interaction was cutting edge, Monkeybone failed to ignite
the box office. Although Selick's films are not consistent blockbusters,
they are among the most interesting and innovative animated efforts
being shown. They each feature completely different tones and
stories but the stories that they do tell share a depth and complexity.
Each features a number of emotional and technical layers which
help add a personal tone to each production. If there's one thing
that you can see from Henry Selick's film career to this point,
it's that he remains the most exciting kind of artist because
you never know what he will do next, but you do know that it will
be imaginative, innovated and nearly perfectly executed.
1 'Tim Burton's
Nightmare before Christmas' by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times
2 'Monkeybone: Animation 101' by Bob Strauss, Los Angeles Daily
3 'He Kept His Nightmare Alive' by Bill Jones, The Phoenix Gazette
Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio. He has
written for the Internet, print and had several plays produced.
He enjoys the study of animation and laughs over cartoons with
his wife and daughter.
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