Coraline: Henry Selick’s Screen Vision

During the years of writing Coraline, Neil Gaiman followed with interest the feature film work of director and animator Henry Selick.  He had gone to see The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) the first week it was released, and then saw James and the Giant Peach (1996) as well. He remembers, “Henry was on my radar as a remarkable creative force. I would talk to my agent and he would say, ‘There’s this guy Henry Selick; you two would like each other.’ So when I finished the Coraline manuscript, I gave it to my agent and asked him to send it to Henry. This was about 18 months before the book was published.”


Juxtaposition of Worlds


Selick reflects, “When I first read the manuscript, I was struck by the juxtaposition of worlds; the one we all live in, and the one where the grass is always greener. This is something that everyone can relate to. Like Stephen King, Neil sets fantasy in modern times, in our own lives. He splits open ordinary existence and finds magic.


“Coraline is very appealing to me, and I hope that she will be very appealing to children seeing the movie for a variety of reasons. She’s brave and imaginative and has got an overwhelming curiosity; if she sees something interesting, then she has to know about it. I loved that her ‘grass is always greener’ scenario turns out to be scary. When Coraline – an ordinary girl – faces real evil and triumphs, it really means something, as Neil has said.”


The director adds, “Neil invites the reader in to participate in Coraline’s adventure, and I wanted to do the same for the moviegoer.”


Gaiman says, “Within a week, Henry said he wanted to do it. Producer Bill Mechanic – with whom he had worked before – bought the movie rights, and Henry started work on the script immediately. By sheer force of never giving up, Henry has gotten the movie made.”


Selick feels that “this was an ideal opportunity to take all I know about storytelling through animation, bringing those tools to bear on a story with a strong lead character.


“Neil was there with help and advice right from the start, yet was not overly precious with his book and would step away when I needed to focus. You want to honor the important parts of a book in adapting it, but you also have to invent and change as well.”


Japanese Illustration


Once Selick decided that he would take the look of the movie into a different realm than Dave McKean’s artwork for the book, he brought revered Japanese illustrator and designer Tadahiro Uesugi on board as concept artist. Selick offers, “We’re going for both a classic storybook look and a strong graphic look, and Tadahiro is inspired by American illustrators of the late 1950s and early 1960s.”


Uesugi worked on the concept art in Japan for over a year, and then traveled to the U.S. to meet with Selick and illustrator Michel Breton. Uesugi would then remain in close contact with Breton from thousands of miles away; having established his brush-strokes and palette of colors with Breton during the U.S. trip, the two could continue collaborating on designs long-distance.


With a new draft of the script approved, Coraline entered pre-production in 2005. Art direction and storyboarding came first, as storyboard supervisor Chris Butler oversaw storyboard illustrators in visualizing every scene and character.


As crucial as this might be for live-action movies, for animated features it is doubly so. Butler explains, “It’s not like live-action, where you can use multiple cameras or do retakes. The animators are moving one frame at a time, so you need to know exactly what shot you’re getting before you actually do it. The benefit of the storyboards is that we work from the script to map out the entire movie in advance in picture form – often with some newly visualized ideas incorporated — and that material goes directly to the camera department.”


This phase of pre-production helps in getting what the director sees in his mind’s eye up on the screen. The process is adhered to through production, with the shooting schedule divided into sequences.


Moving storyboarding into the 21st century and beyond pen-and-pencils, Butler and his department worked with Wacom’s Cintiq LCD flat-screen monitors, which entail using an interactive pen directly on the screen. There are over 1,000 levels of pressure sensitivity on the pen-tip and eraser for precise image control, while the screens have adjustable stands for optimal working angles.


Butler enthuses, “With Cintiq, what we are able to do is build the entire movie out of our storyboard panels complete with sound, music, and dialogue. We can watch it with Henry to make sure it’s going to be fine.”


Stop-Motion Animation


But how best to animate Coraline’s adventure Stop-motion animation, the sole province of The Nightmare Before Christmas and the dominant one in James and the Giant Peach, was always in the forefront of Selick’s vision for Coraline. Despite his and Mechanic’s considering elements of CG (computer-generated) animation and/or live-action, Selick decided that “this story was perfect for stop-motion animation.”


“It is,” agrees Gaiman. “Stop-motion combines imagination with a tangible reality and solidity, and Henry’s work in the medium catches my heart.”



“It’s puppetry without strings,” is how Coraline animator Amy Adamy describes the stop-motion art form.

Lead animator Travis Knight adds, “Every shot is a high-wire act.”  “You can do anything in stop-motion,” states storyboard artist Ean McNamara. “It’s like sculpting with light.”


Storyboard supervisor Chris Butler says, “You get to lose yourself in the fantastical. When you’re working on a stop-motion movie, you’re working on something special that you hope will be seen for decades to come.”


The stop-motion animation process was, is, and always will be distinctive, specialized — and uniquely enthralling to audiences. Single frame by single frame (and there are 24 frames per second in a motion picture), animators subtly and painstakingly manipulate tangible objects (characters, props, sets, etc.) on a working stage. Each frame is photographed for the motion picture camera. When the thousands of photographed frames are projected together sequentially, the characters and environment are animated in fluid and continuous movement. It is movie magic crafted by hand.


Coraline’s characters are brought to life through a unique art form. A stop-motion feature can be compared to a live-action feature in that there are physical sets that must be built and dressed; and players who need to be coiffed, clothed, properly lit – and directed.


But the entire world of the movie springs from the imagination, particularly from the creative minds of the animators, who move the cast members by a matter of millimeters for each individual frame. It is in that very movement where the one-of-a-kind nature of this moviemaking begins to emerge.


Henry Selick reflects, “The miracle of stop-motion, and one of the reasons it’s so magical for me, is what you see when you see a stop-motion animated character come to life; an actual performance through the puppet by the animator. They have to move forward, hitting their marks and saying the lines like any live actor would.”


The very first example of cinematic stop-motion is cited as the 1898 short The Humpty Dumpty Circus, in which British emigres Albert E. Smith and James Stuart Blackton used the pioneering technique to bring a toy circus of animals and acrobats to life.


European animators were the first to use puppets and other objects to relate a coherent narrative, but it was California’s Willis Harold O’Brien who made it more of an art form over decades of refinement. O’Brien’s career spanned short films, the 1925 feature The Lost World, and with sculptor Marcel Delgado the original King Kong (1933). The ball-and-socket metal armatures created for the latter set a template that is still used today. O’Brien was honored with an Oscar for his work on Mighty Joe Young (1949).


One of O’Brien’s apprentices on the latter film was Ray Harryhausen, who would build upon his mentor’s techniques and whose “Dynamation” would inspire generations of animators, including Selick. Harryhausen masterfully combined live-action and stop-motion animation to get humans and creatures interacting in such fantastical films as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).


Hungarian Animator George Pal


Hungarian animator George Pal (Gyoergy Pal Marczincsak) had arrived in Hollywood in the early 1940s, where he produced a series of “Puppetoon” short films for Paramount Pictures. Unlike O’Brien and Harryhausen’s techniques, Pal’s team used replacement animation, which required up to 9,000 individually hand-carved wooden puppets or parts, each slightly different, to be filmed frame-by-frame to convey the illusion of movement. This, too, is stop-motion animation, but from a different vantage point.


Several of Pal’s short films were nominated for Academy Awards, and Pal himself received an honorary Oscar in 1944. The director/producer continued to use puppet animation in such feature-length productions as The Great Rupert (1950), tom thumb (1958), and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962).


Millions of adults and children from two generations are well-acquainted with the work of Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass. Using a stop-motion puppet process they dubbed “Animagic,” Rankin/Bass gifted television viewers with such classic holiday specials as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970). Bass directed the team’s feature films The Daydreamer (1966) and Mad Monster Party (1967), which utilized the same process.


In 1982, Disney conceptual artist Tim Burton made the short film Vincent with Disney animator Rick Heinrichs. Shot in expressionist black-and-white and narrated by Vincent Price, the picture was done in stop-motion.


A decade later, Burton hand-picked a team of artists and animators to create what would become the groundbreaking stop-motion musical The Nightmare Before Christmas, from his original story, tapping his onetime CalArts classmate and Disney colleague Selick to direct the feature-length film. The director remembers, “It was a very, very hard project, but we knew it was going to be a pretty cool movie. What we did with Nightmare was to take stop-motion into new arenas in terms of camera moves, lighting, mood and so forth.”


One more decade later, Selick would be doing the same with Coraline, while also joining the Oregon-based animation studio LAIKA, Inc. as supervising director for feature development.


Located in Portland, LAIKA has since 2003 counted Philip H. Knight, co-founder and CEO of Nike, Inc. as its Chairman of the Board. The company’s commercials division is named LAIKA/house.


Today, the 550-people strong animation studio specializes in the production of features, commercials, music videos, and other media, using a wide range of techniques; CG in addition to stop-motion, and (regular) 2-D in addition to 3-D. In fact, Selick’s first project at LAIKA was the 8-minute CG Moongirl (2005), which had its origins in a contest at the studio for a short film idea. CG modeller/compositor Michael Berger’s idea was picked, and Selick was chosen to direct. Exploring the other side of the Coraline process, Selick adapted the story as a children’s book for Candlewick Press, with illustrations by Peter Chan and Courtney Booker, two of the key artists who worked on the short.


The company also had a hand in the Oscar-nominated stop-motion feature Corpse Bride (2005), directed by Mike Johnson and Tim Burton, which was made in the U.K.


On Coraline, it was envisioned that the storied stop-motion process would be practiced as never before so that the story could be “seen through Henry’s world,” notes Neil Gaiman. “I was so glad when he called ‘Action!’ for the first time, and I knew it was going to be fun. He was the artist who, with vision and humor, would make something special – with cool stuff in it.”