Animated Shorts: Neil Gaiman on Bringing Coraline to Film

New one-sheet poster from Henry Selic's 3D stop-motion animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman

Animated Shorts: Henry Selick, 2
Animated Shorts: Henry Selick, 2
If Neil Gaiman sounds a tad exhausted, it’s understandable. He was supposed to have had a few days off before a press junket. It was during that time he was woken up at 5:00 a.m. to be told he won the John Newberry Award for his effort The Graveyard Book. That meant flying out to New York City, to not only accept the award for the best children’s book of the year, but also appearances on the likes of National Public Radio and The Today Show.

Still, he’s glad to be adding the Newberry to his vast collection of honors, including the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy Award and who knows how many comic book-oriented ones.

“I am! I am!,” Gaiman happily exclaims. “I’m hoping to be getting a real medal to hang around my neck. Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time (another Newberry winner—ED) is one of the books that that got me to read. I’m so knackered, though!”

Normally an elegant, considerate and highly intelligent speaker, one can hear the exhaustion in Gaiman’s voice. At the same time, there’s also a feeling of satisfaction. It’s not just from the Newberry. It’s the pre-screening reaction from the film version of his novella Coraline .

Neil Gaiman (l), author of the book Coraline, visits director Henry Selick (r) at the LAIKA Entertainment production offices during shooting of the first stop-motion animated adventure to be conceived and photographed in stereoscopic 3-D, Focus Features
Neil Gaiman (l), author of the book Coraline, visits director Henry Selick (r) at the LAIKA Entertainment production offices during shooting of the first stop-motion animated adventure to be conceived and photographed in stereoscopic 3-D, Focus Features
Gaiman and Sellick

One screening of the movie and it’s totally understandable. Coraline is a refreshingly dark yet lively film, thanks in part to Gaiman’s base story, but also in large part to the directorial sophistication of Henry Sellick . From the opening sequence through the final credits, Sellick has infused the film with the curves and crazed carnival feel of an old fashioned rollercoaster. This stop motion masterpiece may not look like the latest technological wonder dominating the ad dollars in Orlando, but don’t let that fool you. It’s truly an involved and involving blend of stop-motion and CGI, packed full of Lewis Carroll-like fancy and Lovecraftian fright. It will even kept those who read the novel on their toes.

“I love the fact that little girls going to the movie are coming back wide eyed,” he said, “and Coraline hasn’t been watered down or softened. She’s still that kid. That in itself is amazing.“

This brings up an interesting story regarding Gaiman and the world of film. Way back when, when it was announced Terry Gilliam acquired the rights to Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s collaboration Good Omens, it was asked if Gilliam could turn it into a good film.

“I don’t know if it will be a good Neil Gaiman movie,” the author quipped. “I don’t know if it will make a good Terry Pratchett movie. One thing I do know is it will make a good Terry Gilliam movie.”

The fact is Coraline is directed by stop motion master Henry Sellick (Nightmare Before Christmas, James & The Giant Peach, Monkeybone), so, given the usual way Hollywood works, the film by all rights should be a "Sellick" movie, right?

“That’s a really good question,” Gaiman responds, “because it goes back in some ways to Stardust. I have no idea if Stardust is a good Neil Gaiman movie, but I do think it was a pretty good Matthew Vaughn film.

Coraline goes exploring in a scene from Focus Features
Coraline goes exploring in a scene from Focus Features
Coraline goes exploring

“I think Coraline is a bit of both. It’s definitely a good Henry Sellick film, which is what I wanted. I’ve also been happy when I’m talking to people who have not read the book, who don’t know anything about the book. What’s been interesting thing about that is I keep hearing things that surprise me and make me happy, which is people saying ‘I didn’t know where it was going to go next. I was into the film and I didn’t know how it was going to end.’ That was the Neil Gaiman bit of it.

“It’s still the same basic plot,” he adds. “Yes, Henry’s wiggled with things and made things in the words of the Simpsons he ‘embiggened’ a few things. In the end of the day, it is that story.”

If anything, the film ended up more a collaboration between the author and the director.

“It was lovely!” said Gaiman. “The joy of making of someone spending essentially the better part of 3½ to 4 years making a essentially stop motion movie is that nobody can actually bother you, because he is off in Portland, Oregon making your movie. I got to make some great and wonderful suggestions. They were things like Saunders and French for the roles of Mrs. Forcible and Spinks. They darn near stole the show and are completely awesome. Henry didn’t know who they were. I loved that I got make that happen.”

As it was, there were some very interesting changes made to the movie, among them the addition of a whole new character, Wybie.

“He’s a kid next door,” said Gaiman. “Yes, he’s a bit lonely. Yes, he’s a bit eccentric. He’s also very much a boy, where Coraline is very much a girl. In the book she never much gets an age, but she’s about 11 or 12. They are both at that age where communications between genders is difficult and very problematic.

“I developed him because in the book nobody talks to Coraline. Nobody she has a conversation with actually listens to what she has to say. It really got incredibly claustrophobic. In about 2000, Henry first handed me one film script that was incredibly faithful. I read it and immediately told him that he had to open it up. The script was too faithful. It was not going to make a good movie. So he went away for a year, then he sent me a saying ‘you’re going to be mad at me.’ So I read it and it was really good. Wybie was one of the things he added.”

The one-sheet for Coraline

Another touch Gaiman found delightful was Sellick’s final incarnation of the other mother, who is inspired in part by HP Lovecraft and also by Lucy Lane Clifford’s short story “The New Mother.” .

“I loved it,” Gaiman admits. “He took something implied in the book and made it more and literal.”

Most important, is Gaiman appreciates that Coraline works in its current format. “I’ve been a fan of Aardman for years, but I’ve been a bigger fan of Svankmajer. Bare in mind, I wrote Coraline for a little girl who favorite film was Svankmajer’s Alice. That was for Holly. Now she’s grown up and went into film.”

Then again, his films have ranged from SFX-laden live action (Stardust), to heavy-duty motion capture CGI (Beowulf). According to his current bio, we should expect the number of films with his name attached to them to double. Gaiman is constantly balancing what of his works would work best in animation or otherwise.

“I know it when I see it on a case by case basis,” he said. “The Graveyard Book, for example, I have a lot of people who are saying they would love to see it animated, but I keep saying no. I want that live action. I have a scriptwriter and director, the wonderful Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, the upcoming Ondine). Death: The High Cost of Living, that has to be live action.

“It’s very, very interesting. You try to figure out what works and what doesn’t for different media. I don’t know if there’s any specific way to answer. I kind of know it when I see it. I was talking to Henry last night about things of mine that he could do. He mentioned one project, one that I hadn’t even thought of. I thought, ‘Oh! Of course! That would make a great animated project.’ “

So is there a domain Gaiman feel he must move to next? He feels there is.

“I’d like to try some original theatrical stuff,” says Gaiman. “Stuff specifically created for the stage. I mean I worked on the Wolves In the Walls adaptation. It’s also nice to look over the Stephen Merritt adaptation of Coraline. There has been many theatrical things based on my stuff. Still, I would like to do an original one.”

If it’s anywhere as near as original as Coraline, then it should be one heck of a production.


New York International Children's Film Festival (NYICFF), the nation's largest film festival for kids ages 3 – 18, returns to the Big Apple for its 12th annual festival. The NYICFF showcases the best new animation, live action and experimental film from around the world, with filmmaker Q&A's, hands on workshops, red-carpet premieres, panel discussions, audience voting, and the NYICFF Awards.

It will open Friday, February 27, 2009 at 6:00pm and will be sponsoring showings throughout the city for the next several weeks. It will kick it off with the US premiere of Mia and the Magoo at the DGA Theater. There will also be a Q&A with director and a reception follows.

Other films that will either be returning or making their debut include: Battle for Terra, Secret of Moonacre; Son of a Lion; Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger; Azur and Asmar; Circus School; West of Pluto; Tahann, Heart of Fire; Dragon Hunters; Sita Sings The Blues and Heebie Jeebies. There will also be a number of short film programs, including one for tots. If that isn’t enough, it all ends with an awards presentation, with the winners being declared by the kids who attend the films.

Full schedule of screenings and events can be found at

NEXT COLUMN: Mike Jelenic talks about his work on the upcoming Wonder Woman DVD.


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