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Layers: A Look at Henry Selick
(by 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 Henry Selick.
Tim Burton 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.
Selick was 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 coif.
Selick 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 together again.
Burton and 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.
Burton 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.
Henry Selick 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).
Skellington 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.
To capture 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.
The Nightmare 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:
Nightmare 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.
The 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.
Selick's second 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.
After this 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:
Even though 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
Noell Wolfgram 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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