Corpse Bride: Tim Burton’s Animation, Starring Johnny Depp

In 1993, “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,” directed by Henry Selick, was Burton’s first foray into the craft of stop-motion animation.
Three years later, Burton produced “James and the Giant Peach,” based on the tale by Roald Dahl, the author of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” in which Johnny Depp plays the lead role.

This is the fifth teaming between Burton and Depp, a remarkably collaboration that in artistic impact and mutual fertilization approximates other fruitful collaborations, such the one between Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.

The tale of the “Corpse Bride” and the hapless groom she spirits away to the underworld on the eve of his earthly wedding was borne from a Russian folk tale about unintentional nuptials between an unfortunate man and a deceased bride. The romantically macabre story captured the attention and imagination of writer-director Tim Burton, who worked for ten years to bring it to the screen as a stop-motion animated picture.

The film boasts the “Tim Burton look,” the darkness of his humor and the quirkiness of his characters. Indeed, throughout his career, Burton has created an eclectic body of work that evidences his distinct artistic style, while exploring wildly divergent stories and characters across different mediums.

His films include the recent hit “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” along with “Big Fish,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Sleepy Hollow,” Mars Attacks!” “Ed Wood,” “Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Batman Returns,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Batman,” “Beetlejuice,” and “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.” It is a testament to the strength of his unique vision that these disparate films all bear the mark of Burton’s inimitable style. In turns funny, poignant, terrifying and touching, all are original, inventive, and unmistakably Tim Burton.

“Corpse Bride” marks composer Danny Elfman and Burton’s twelfth film together. Elfman’s distinctively haunting music has been an intrinsic feature of films, such as “Edward Scissorhands,” “Batman,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Beetlejuice” and, of course, “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Their partnership began early on in Burton’s career, and the two artists have complemented each other ever since.

Voicing the film’s characters is an incredible cast of actors, led by Johnny Depp as Victor, Helena Bonham Carter as the Corpse Bride and Emily Watson as Victoria. Depp worked simultaneously on “Corpse Bride” and Burton’s hit film “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Many of his recording sessions took place at the end of a “Charlie” shoot day, when he would get out of his Willie Wonka costume and into the recording booth to voice Victor.

Depp had never voiced a character in an animated film before, but the actor, a Burton devotee, jumped at the prospect of working with the director on both projects.

“Corpse Bride” marks the fifth time the actor and director have united, Depp also having starred in Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” and “Sleepy Hollow.”

Stop-Motion Animation

What I love about stop-motion animation is that it’s so tactile. There’s something wonderful about being able to physically touch and move the characters, and to see their world actually exist. It’s similar to making a live action film if youre doing it all on blue screen, it doesn’t give you the feeling of actually being there, which the stop-motion process does.

Origins of the Film

After doing “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” I was looking for something else to do in the same medium, because I love stop-motion animation. It’s such a special art form. Joe Ranft, a friend of mine, gave me a little short story, a couple of paragraphs from an old folk tale, and it seemed right for this particular type of animation. It’s like casting you want to marry the medium with the material. This seemed like a good match.

Impact of Stop-Motion Animation

The process of stop-motion animation is an incredibly painstaking endeavor. The puppets are manipulated in extremely tiny increments sometimes a mere half-millimeter at a time. Each pose is photographed as one frame, and then the animators return to move the puppets in another small increment, and the process is repeated, and repeated, and repeated some more. A crew may work twelve hours to come away with a total of one or two seconds of footage at the end of the day. Unlike in live-action film, however, in which filmmakers are stuck with the inconvenience of working with actors who can only be in one place at one time, in stop-motion they are able to duplicate their puppet actors and their sets in order to conserve time. Director Mike Johnson had the considerable responsibility of ensuring that the animation remained consistent throughout the shoot.

“Nightmare Before Christmas” spawned a new generation of stop-motion fans it has a certain texture, a presence that just can’t be achieved with computers. It’s because of his interest and his passion that these big projects can get rolling.

Co-director, Mike Johnson

Mike really has sensitivity to the medium. There are not many people who truly understand the process, and it’s hard to communicate that to people when they don’t come from that rarified world.

Johnny Depp

Each time Ive worked with Johnny he’s something different. Johnny is interested in being a character and not necessarily interested in his persona, and I find it very exciting to work with actors like that. Especially ones that are perceived by the public as being “People Magazine” Most Beautiful People, or whatever they call it. He’s really willing to take risks that don’t have to do with image or money. And each time is just different and better. It’s great to find people like that you can communicate with on an almost subconscious level.

Danny Elfman

My longtime collaborator Danny Elfman voices skeletal hep cat Bonejangles, the leader of the Skeleton band, The Skeletones, that rock the underworld nightly at the Ball and Socket Pub. It’s Bonejangles and his band who musically impart the tragic tale of the Corpse Bride to a terrified Victor. Elfman also penned the film’s three other songs, including the introductory number “According to Plan,” in which Victor and Victoria’s parents spell out their impending plans to wed their offspring for the purpose of their own self-interest.

Long before I ever got into movies or ever thought that I would have the opportunity, I would go see Oingo Boingo in clubs in L.A., and their music was very theatrical,” recalls Burton. “It was kind of weirdly like movie scores in some ways. So I always remembered that, and when I had the opportunity to make “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” I asked Danny to be a part of it. It was great because neither of us had ever made a movie on that scale, so it felt like we were embarking on this at the same time, doing things wed never done before, and I think that made a connection between us that has lasted.

Carlos Grangel

“Corpse Bride” first began to take shape in the sketches I made to give form to the characters living in his imagination, based on the tale of the brokenhearted Corpse Bride and her unwilling spouse. I gave these rough drawings to character designer Carlos Grangel, who took the ideas and ran with them. Carlos basically took some simple sketches that I did and expanded upon them. My sketches are often quite crude, but he was really sensitive about trying to understand what the feel and the look of it all was and then flesh them out, so to speak.

Puppet Creators Mackinnon and Saunders

Mackinnon and Saunders were charged with bringing the multitude of characters, both living and dead, to life. The process begins with the creation of a metal armature, which serves as the skeleton of the puppet, providing structure and stability, and which is able to be manipulated into the full range of movements that will be required once animation has begun.

They do such beautiful work, and they really raised it to a new level for this film. These puppets are so real theyre very sensitive and textural. The animators need that structure that provides the subtlety and the range of emotions in order to bring them to life. The mechanical working of the puppets are incredible, they really work like living things.

In the past, as in “Nightmare Before Christmas,” puppets’ facial expressions were animated using a series of “replacement heads,” each of which provided fractional changes of expression that, when put together, created the emotion and expression that brought the character to life. It was very effective, but inherently limiting as far as the range of expression they allowed.

Film’s Look

What Mackinnon and Saunders created was an intricate gearing mechanism, contained inside the puppet’s head, which could be reached through the ears and various access points hidden in the hair. The gears are manipulated using allen keys and wrenches that change the faces in tiny increments, allowing for infinitely more poses and mouth shapes, making the characters smile, frown, raise their eyebrows express any and all emotion, rendered in an incredibly subtle fashion.

The medium offers very specific challenges that may not readily occur to anyone not directly involved with the process. For instance, all props that appear onscreen must be heavily weighted enough that they don’t shift from frame to frame as the animators move the puppets around the set a shift so minute that it would not be noticed during the incremental, step-by-step animation process could become glaringly obvious when inanimate objects began shifting about in the finished film.

One effect that appears effortless onscreen but was actually extremely complicated to execute is the look of the “Corpse Bride” gauzy, flowing, tattered wedding dress and veil. The fabric appears to be floating on air, which is very difficult to execute one millimeter at a time. The diaphanous look was achieved with a series of nearly invisible wires that ran through the fabric, allowing it to be manipulated in the necessary tiny increments. The veil and its accompanying flowered tiara took ten months to develop, but the end result is, undeniably, eerily breathtaking.

There’s almost an expectation of crudeness when people think of this medium, because something like claymation has limitation in the material. But when you have someone like Tim behind it, he pulls the resources together to make something incredible. These puppets are miracles of engineering.

It’s amazing to see my sketches become this incredible creation, that’s the beautiful thing of it. The puppets and the props and the sets are all extraordinary, and everyone’s work has completely surpassed all expectation. It’s one of the most beautiful processes that I have ever been involved with.

Film’s Two Worlds

“Corpse Bride” takes place in two very different worlds, the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead. As it turns out, there is very little lively about the Land of the Living, and much to live for in the Land of the Dead. The Land of the Living is a very dull, dreary, sad kind of place where people are very repressed and don’t have much enjoyment, which is a bit of a trick because it still has to be visually appealing we wanted it to be a place where you wouldn’t want to live, but was interesting enough that youd want to watch.

While the Land of the Living is characterized as a gray place, it is actually host to quite a range of rich, muted, monochromatic colors. The designers were inspired by the photography of the Victorian era, softly hued hand-tinted daguerreotypes and glass photography. In vibrant contrast to the stuffy world above, when Victor gets whisked off to the underworld by the Corpse Bride, he finds that there is a good time being had down there by all. For the Land of the Dead, Lowry created a very bright, colorful, crazy world. The implication of course being that the dead are free from all the restrictions that they once suffered in the Land of the Living, so now theyre able to drink and go crazy and have parties and have fun and make jokes and live full lives. And their clothes change, the buildings change, everything gets a bit wackier and crazier.

The Land of the Dead is a fun-house mirror image of the Land of the Living the noble statue of a man astride a horse in the town square above ground is a skeleton riding the skeleton of a horse down below. The buildings are decaying versions of what lies above, yet in their state of decomposition are actually quite a bit more vibrant than in the Land of the Living.

Tim Burton (co-director, producer)
“Corpse Bride” marks Burton’s second film released in 2005. Most recently, Burton directed the fantasy adventure Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, starring Johnny Depp and Freddie Highmore. Based on the beloved Roald Dahl classic, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” opened to impressive critical and box office success and continues to entertain audiences everywhere.

Burton’s previous film was “Big Fish,” a heartwarming tale of a fabled relationship between a father and his son. The film was hailed as Burton’s most personal and emotional to date, earning respectable reviews and box office. Big Fish starred Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Jessica Lange and Billy Crudup.

Prior to “Big Fish,” Burton directed “Planet of the Apes,” a project that brought him together with producer Richard D. Zanuck, the former 20th Century Fox studio head who had greenlit the original film in l968. Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” starred Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan and Kris Kristofferson and was a summer 2001 box office hit.

All of Burton’s films are known for the highly imaginative and detailed world he creates to surround and inform the story. They include “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”, “Beetlejuice”, “Batman”, “Edward Scissorhands”, “Batman Returns,” “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Ed Wood,” “Mars Attacks!” and “Sleepy Hollow.”

Burton began drawing at an early age, attended Cal Arts Institute on a Disney fellowship and, soon after, joined the studio as an animator. He made his directing debut with the animated short Vincent, narrated by Vincent Price. The film was a critical success and an award-winner on the festival circuit. Burton’s next in-house project was a live-action short film called Frankenweenie, an inventive and youthful twist on the Frankenstein legend.

In 1985, Burton’s first feature film, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” was a box-office hit and the director was praised for his original vision. “Beetlejuice” (l988), a supernatural comedy starring Michael Keaton, Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin and Winona Ryder, was another critical and financial success.

In 1989, Burton directed the blockbuster “Batman” starring Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger. Following the triumph of “Batman,” the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) awarded Burton the Director of the Year Award. The film also won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction. “Edward Scissorhands,” starring Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder and Diane Wiest, was one of the big hits of the 1990 Christmas season and acclaimed for its original vision and poignant fairy tale sensibility. In 1992, Burton once again explored the dark underworld of Gotham City in “Batman Returns,” the highest grossing film of that year, which featured Michelle Pfeiffer as the formidable Catwoman and Danny DeVito as the Penguin.

In 1994, Burton produced and directed “Ed Wood” starring Johnny Depp in the title role. The film garnered Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi) and Best Special Effects Makeup. Burton conceived and produced the stop-motion animation adventure “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,” an original holiday tale that has become a seasonal perennial. He also produced 1993’s “Cabin Boy” and 1995’s summer blockbuster “Batman Forever,” as well as the 1996 release of “James and the Giant Peach,” based on Roald Dahl’s children’s novel.

Burton produced and directed “Mars Attacks!,” a sci-fi comedy based on the original Topps trading card series, starring an elite array of 20 leading players including Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Danny DeVito and Annette Bening. In 1999 Burton directed “Sleepy Hollow,” which was inspired by Washington Irving’s classic story and starred Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson and Michael Gambon. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Costume Design and Best Cinematography and won the Oscar for Best Art Direction. Honors from BAFTA included Best Costume Design and Best Production Design.

Burton authored and illustrated a children’s book for “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” released in conjunction with the film. Burton’s next book of drawings and rhyming verse, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories, was praised by The New York Times for “conveying the pain of an adolescent outsider.”

Mike Johnson (co-director)

Mike Johnson hails from Austin, Texas where he spent his childhood bending and breaking plastic dinosaurs in a futile attempt to re-create scenes from his favorite Ray Harryhausen films. Years later, Johnson moved to San Francisco and got his big break as a rigging assistant on Burton’s animated classic “Nightmare Before Christmas.” After “Nightmare,” Johnson went on to animate for various stop-motion productions such as “James and the Giant Peach” and the Emmy Award-winning children’s series “Bump in the Night.”

In 1996, Johnson set up his own animation company, Fat Cactus Films, and over the next few years produced and directed an eclectic and critically acclaimed mix of stop-motion projects including commercials, music videos and short films. His award winning animated short “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” has been screened in film festivals around the world. In 1998, Johnson moved to Portland, Oregon to direct three episodes of Eddie Murphy’s Emmy Award winning television series, “The P.J’s.” In 2002, things came full circle when Burton asked Johnson to join him in directing the stop-motion feature, “Corpse Bride.” Johnson currently lives with his wife and son in London, England.