On the Set of Neil Gaiman's 'Coraline' with Henry Selick

Coraline goes exploring in a scene from Focus Features

When Coraline—the titular young heroine of Neil Gaiman’s book and the upcoming film adaptation—opens the only locked door in her family flat, she ends up in a fantastic Other World that is a strange mirror to her own. There, the button-eyed Other Mother promises to always love Coraline and give her anything she wants …as long as Coraline agrees to stay forever and have buttons sewn over her own eyes. Although drawn to a world where the food is good and the entertainment abundant, Coraline refuses, and must use all her wits and courage—not just to escape, but also to save her real parents and the spirits of other trapped children from the mousetrap world the Other Mother has created.

While the fifty-five year old Henry Selick, director of The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, won’t be mistaken for a young girl anytime soon, he also had to draw upon his considerable wits and courage in adapting Coraline for the big screen. After all, not only is Gaiman a popular author with a devoted following likely to be critical about any deviations from his text, but Coraline is the first feature film from new studio LAIKA Entertainment, the first animated film distributed by Focus Features, and the world’s first 3-D animated stop-motion feature. On a recent overcast day in Oregon, Selick met with journalists to talk about the perils and the joys of commanding such a large project…and about the hero at the heart of his new film.

“I was introduced to Neil before [Coraline] was published,” Selick said in a soft but emphatic voice. “He’d been writing it for years, it was always his side-project while he was doing other things. And I just felt in tune with it, immediately.

“And, you know, Neil’s an incredible writer,” Selick added. “He could write about anything and I think it would be, it would draw you in. But the part of the book I liked is: everyone’s imagined a different version of their own lives, and what would you want that to be, and what price would you pay to have that? And I like that the hero is a kid, who faces really dark scary things.”

Ironically, it’s the perception of how Selick will interpret those ‘dark scary things’ that has drawn some degree of controversy on the ‘Net. “Images have come out that have made [Gaiman fans] very worried that the film has been overly Disney-fied, and that it’s too bright, colorful,” Selick said. “Now, in the book when Coraline goes to the Other World, right away this Other Mother, in addition to button eyes, has ‘long black hair that move like sleepy sea snakes,’ and white pasty skin. And, you know, Coraline would have to be a hardcore Goth to consider staying there.”

Selick shifted in his seat. “So we decided—it wasn’t just myself, but it was a good call, I think—we gradually moved into that. At first, it was only buttons on Other Mother’s eyes, and things seem almost exactly the same, but better. And over time, the Other Mother changes, evolves into ‘the Beldam,’ the witch that she truly is. We chose to hold off on that. So [initially] there’s fun. There’s humor, but there’s not gags.”

In the film, as in the book, Coraline meets Other World versions of her eccentric neighbors, but the theatrical routine of actresses Forcible and Spink in the film is much less threatening, much more absurd. And whereas the mouse circus of odd Mr. Bobo [now called Mr. Bobinsky in the film, and voiced by Deadwood’s Ian McShane] is only lightly touched on in the book, it’s a tour-de-force sequence in the film as the Other World tries to seduce Coraline into staying.

The humor in the initial Other World sequences wasn’t the only alteration to the original story. “I was also looking for our own path,” Selick said of the search for the film’s tone. “One that wasn’t going to be repeating Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. You know, maybe a little more like some of the shorter films I had made, like Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions.”

Eyes closed, Selick raised his hands up while he spoke, as if painting the words while saying them. “I wanted, you know, recognizable beauty. I didn’t want the movie to be a challenge all the time, or only for hardcore Gaiman fans.”

This desire for recognizable beauty resulted in the Other World being more immediately alluring, featuring an insect tractor that flies Coraline over a fantastic garden, a sequence that took many years to develop. “The look and the style of the film,” asserted Selick, “has had its own journey and path.”

That journey—and the many unexpected turns and twists it took—started even before the publication of the book: Selick had optioned Coraline from a galleys version in 2000, even before the illustrations by Dave McKean had become part of the final product. “And then when I saw Dave McKean’s sketches, I thought, ‘Oh, these are great! We’ll just do this.’ But over time, the visual design, the journey, took us to a different place.”

For a brief time, that place looked like as if it might be live-action. “Originally, I took this to Bill Mechanic,” said Selick. “He was the former head of Fox. And he’d just started his independent label. I brought him Coraline and, you know, tried to convince him to let me do the adaptation as well. And he loved it, but he said, ‘this is a live-action movie.’ And I said, ‘Well, no. I want to do animation.’ He said, ‘I’m only doing this if it’s live-action.’ So I nodded my head and agreed to that and we even went down that path to a degree, but I was always writing it for animation. It was sort of a make-believe period of ‘Okay, we’re doing live-action,’ and I was meeting with various people. But I was also developing visually what’s going to work the best.

Selick opened his eyes and regarded everyone at the table. “You know, I discovered—well, I didn’t discover him, he was already very well known—the work of Tadahiro Uesugi, who’s a famous Japanese illustrator and artist, heavily influenced by American magazine illustrators of the late 1950’s and ‘60s. And there was something really refreshing and powerful in his work that I realized that we could never capture in 3-D, but I wanted to try.

"[Uesugi] is all about beautiful design—you know, sort of delicate colors. And there’s always one element or two elements of very realistic light or reflection or water, that takes the whole image and makes it feel real. So we hired him, he did a lot of concept art.”

Selick smiled. “Although you look at his concept art, and you look at the movie, and you say, “Well, you can see some influence.’ They don’t quite connect. This movie has gone through a number of processes to get where it is. We couldn’t tell you where it would end up. I always knew that it was going to be animation, and in coming up here, that happened. And finally, the conditions were right.”

By here, Selick means LAIKA, created in 2005 by Nike co-founder Phil Knight in Portland, Oregon. After having acquired Vinton Studios in 2003, Knight formed LAIKA, with LAIKA/house doing commercial/video production work, and LAIKA Entertainment doing feature film work. Selick joined the latter as supervising director for feature film development and brought Coraline with him. About that transition, Selick said, “Bill [Mechanic] was a little reluctant [to let the option go], but he’d rather get the movie made than not. And, of course, he’s a big supporter of the movie now that we’ve got it made.”

Strangely, one of the changes Selick made to Coraline in adapting the screenplay presaged the move to Oregon. “Another one of the conditions of doing this movie with Bill was—and I wasn’t opposed because I was more comfortable with it—to set the story in the U.S., but I wanted to hold onto—well, at least with Spink and Forcible, they had to be British. So I thought, ‘where in the whole country am I going to set this?’ I was living in California at the time, and I discover this Shakespeare Festival, well-known, in Ashland, Oregon. And I thought, ‘well, it’s rainy and miserable there a lot of the time of the year.’ And they might have moved there thinking they could get parts. And I set it there, having no idea I would actually move to Oregon to make the movie!”

Selick knew that making changes to the book would be, as he put it, “a risky thing.” “The fans…” Selick said and paused, considering. “I think they’ll be okay. I wanted to hold onto quite a lot from the book. So Spink and Forcible, I think we’ve captured very well, and Bobinsky, we’ve made him—you know, I think he’s similar, but I think he’s more ‘in your face.’ In adapting the book, the two most important in adapting I wanted to keep was, one, holding on to the essence of Coraline: not making her overly heroic, not making her Kim Possible; you know, giving her these incredible fighting skills. It still had to feel that she’s skeptical, she doesn’t trust adults, and ultimately, resourceful, brave, tenacious. You know, that was the most important thing to hang onto. And at times in the book—you know, it was written over many years. It was actually first inspired by Neil’s older daughter, when she was growing up, and then his younger daughter. So Coraline actually seems to change ages in the book—and I always liked that. You know, kids, they regress. They… So she can say to her father, ‘I’m not five years old, anymore!’ and then act exactly like a five year old.”

Eyes closed Selick chose more words, seemingly plucking them from the air with his fingers. “So that was the most essential, and then there’s the relationship with her real mom. You know, the real mom at the end of the book is not suddenly loving and nice and warm and touchy. She’s the same. There’s no real lessons learned. It’s Coraline who comes to [see things] in a new way.”

One of the challenges for the film Coraline is to make the audiences also see things in a new way, and to that end LAIKA Entertainment expended considerable resources: at the height of production, hundreds of animators, lighting and camera men, puppeteers, costumers, builders and other production staff worked simultaneously on the fifty-plus sets ensconced in the Hilsboro warehouse. A master of the small things that make stop-motion feel so tangible, Selick pushed for the production of costumes made from real cloth, and Coraline and many other characters sport real hair, something almost unheard of in stop motion films.

And then there is the 3-D, in which a proprietary capture system synchs up the camera movements and allow each shot to be taken twice, one for each of the viewer’s eyes. Because there are still very few theaters in the world that can show 3-D movies, Coraline had to be planned so that the movie worked without the 3-D process but still brought something extra to those who see the film in special stereoscopic theaters.

Asked about the decision to use 3-D with Coraline, Selick referred to it as being the film’s “Wizard of Oz moment…you know, going from black and white to color to show the change between these two worlds. I can’t do that, that’s really tired. It seemed pretty obvious: we can use 3-D. It’s perfect.”

But Selick was wary of going overboard with the approach. “Let’s not have it perfectly flat in the real world, and huge 3-D in the other. We use it very subtly, and here and there, we crank it up.”

To increase the feeling of being stifled experienced by a bored kid, the rooms in the real world sets were built with forced perspective—they look essentially the same on camera, but the sets are at harsher angles, more shallow, giving the viewer a subliminal feeling of discomfort. “With the crushed sets and floors raked like this, we shoot with a little 3-D in the cameras, and you realize, ‘this just doesn’t feel very comfortable here.’ And then you go to the Other World, and you build the other set, but you build it very deep. And you add color, and you redress it. And suddenly you can breathe and it has a warmth.”

Continued Selick about the 3-D, “It just seemed like the perfect fit for the story. We use it for a few effects here and there—stuff coming out of the screen. But mainly it’s internal, and also when the other world goes bad, too much of a good thing, we also crank up the 3-D at times to where it goes beyond an effect and things feel wrong in a more, in a powerful way. So there’s been a, you know—it’s organic, it’s not scientifically planned, but there’s a script for the 3-Dness of the film.”

Despite his love of the craft of stop-motion animation, and his command of the form’s technical challenges and advantages, Selick, like any good adapter of another’s material, returns to the source, Gaiman’s book, as the measure of Coraline, the film. “I’ll put it this way,” he said near the end of the day’s talk. “The book lives in tones of grey to black. We go lighter but we also go very dark…we just don’t live there as long.”

Selick stood up, off to oversee more aspects of his Other World as the film’s production moves through its final stages. “I was always thinking of the fans of the book,” Selick said with emphasis. “The movie has evolved into something else, but it holds on very tightly to—I’d like to think—all the important elements from the book. I think that if people come see the film, the fans of the book will realize that we’ve really fought to hold onto the essence of almost every element in the film.”

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