Tim Burton on Ray Harryhausen, stop-motion and the personal touch of 'Frankenweenie'

Posted by · 1:02 pm · February 4th, 2013

The last time Tim Burton made the awards press rounds, he was a nominee for 2005’s “Corpse Bride.” Interestingly enough, after a few decades in the live action trenches carving out his own identity and aesthetic on the screen, it’s been only in the animation arena that Oscar has taken notice. He’s back again this year as a nominee for his most personal film in some time, “Frankenweenie.”

Eight years ago, though, he was questioning whether stop-motion animation would continue to find a place or whether computer animation would dominate. What has happened, though, is a touch of hybridization, as exemplified by films like fellow nominee “ParaNorman.” And Burton seems a bit more hopeful for his chosen method going forward.

“I remember a number of years ago when they said they wouldn’t do hand-drawn animation anymore and it looked like it was going to be all computers,” he says. “Fortunately they did more hand-drawn, so I feel the same way about stop-motion. You hope that it transcends what the studios feel about box office. It’s still an interesting art form.”

He gravitated toward the art form largely because of the physicality of it, which makes perfect sense when you consider the heavy art department influence on his films. And it’s something that stretches back a long way for him, too. His first experiences with stop-motion came with the Ray Harryhausen effects in films of the 1960s like “Jason and the Argonauts” that he would watch with wonder while growing up in Burbank, California.

“It was strong and goes right inside you and sticks with you like a dream,” he says. “Harryhausen was always a singular artist. It was like he was an actor; he was like the character. There was a personal feeling about the medium and the way he sort of infused it that made it a strong, visceral experience. The way all the monsters died, there was just a real sense of emotion in there that was really interesting.”

With notions like that in mind, “Frankenweenie” became an exercise in memory perception. But first a little background.

The film is a revisitation of the 1984 short film that in essence got Burton fired from Disney all those years ago. After graduating from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia with future animation greats like Brad Bird and John Lasseter, he and a number of his classmates made their way to the Walt Disney Animation Studio as grunts of a sort, animators in the trenches.

“At that time it was a new program,” Burton says, “and I guess it seemed to attract an interesting group of people who wouldn’t have these sort of strange opportunities. And to be fair, I was really lousy at it. I wasn’t really suited for it. I always admire animators because it takes two sides of your brain at one time. It takes patience and it takes creativity, and I found that my patience wasn’t quite up to it. Sitting at the desk, there was something about it that I couldn’t quite click with.”

But stop-motion, again, was always something that stuck with him. So it’s ironic that he’s come full circle with the property that got him booted from the company that would go on to distribute an Oscar-nominated feature version, but it’s also part of the meta narrative of the material: It became a memory piece.

“I started thinking about all the kids I knew in school and certain teachers, certain specific locations in Burbank, the feeling of the classes,” Burton says. “And the other monster movies, adopting this ‘House of Frankenstein’ structure, putting different monsters into one movie. All of that made it feel different and sort of expanded on those memories. And when I was first at Disney until now, there’ve been lots of incarnations. But it’s where I started, so it certainly has some resonance with me. To go back and revisit that story and expand on it and do it in stop-motion, it felt very positive for me.”

Even still, Burton isn’t the sort to revisit his work. He can’t remember the last time he looked at his introductory animated short, “Stalk of the Celery Monster.” At a recent MoMA retrospective of his work over the years, he says he just “wandered through like a zombie. I find it difficult to watch films I’ve done. I don’t feel like Norma Desmond sitting there running them all night long.”

Which makes something as personal as “Frankenweenie” special, and frankly, rare for Burton these days. No matter what you do, you try to personalize art, he says. So there are touches to be found in the high gloss of things like “Dark Shadows,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Planet of the Apes,” films that have felt more superficially “Tim Burton” than things like “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood” or, indeed, “Frankenweenie.” But the new film was a personal process, he says, “to relate it to a memory of something.”

With that in mind, Burton says he doesn’t really have anything on deck at the moment. His “Alice in Wonderland” has wrought desperate fairytale money-grabs like “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” which he jokes about, and the experience of his latest Oscar nominee has seemingly had an effect on him. He pauses for a moment of introspection.

“I’m taking a moment to sort of feel it out,” he says. “I haven’t done that in a while and I maybe need to do that for a second.”

“Frankenweenie” is nominated for Best Animated Feature Film and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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