In FRANKENWEENIE, Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) brings his darling bull terrier Sparky back to life after getting hit by a car. Encouraging his budding science experimentation are his doting parents Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein (voiced by Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara), neighbor Elsa Van Helsing (voiced by Winona Ryder), and Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by acting legend Martin Landau). However, once his friend Edgar (voiced by Atticus Shaffer) gets a hold of the magic formula, all heck breaks loose in the idyllic town of New Holland. Based on director Tim Burton’s 1984 animated short of the same name, the sparkling feature length stop motion animation 3D film showcases screenwriter John August and Burton’s teamwork at their best. Also bringing the story to life in a further behind-the-scenes capacity are producer Allison Abbate, executive producer Don Hahn, and animation supervisor Trey Thomas.
Since we had so much fun at the mini-press conference (held at Disney’s Grand California Hotel in Anaheim) for the electrifying and incredibly sweet film about a boy and his beloved dog, we wanted to share with you the thirteen (cue ominous musical stinger) most fascinating tidbits the cast and crew shared with all of us journalists.
13. All have high praise for Tim Burton. Catherine O’Hara says, “He’s so playful and lets you do whatever. He makes you feel safe. So you jump in and start playing.” Short adds to this saying, “Right away, you’re struck by the fact he’s just a funny guy and wants to laugh. He isn’t particularly dark at all. He’s really enthusiastic and very much wants to hear what your take is on it…Joyful, playful. As it narrows down, he gets specific as to what he hears.” Charlie Tahan states, “He’s one of my favorite directors. I was obsessed with NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. When I met him for the first time, he was surprisingly normal.” Atticus Shaffer concurs, “He is such a creative mind. He thinks outside the box. Very nice guy and very cool with me. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be able to work with him.”
12. Filmmakers chose to not set FRANKENWEENIE in a specific time period. John August says, “It was a deliberate choice. It sort of feels like the 50’s, the 60’s, the 70’s, but Pluto is a more modern reference. There’s other stuff happening that are current day things. I didn’t want it to feel it was all in a time capsule. Like back then they didn’t trust science. It’s a present day story. It takes place in its own little special bubble. That’s not now or then. We’re not seeing cell phones but it could be taking place now.” The same applies to the film’s visuals. Trey Thomas explains, “Tim’s really interested in keeping this old school. I think he really wants this to be retro feeling and old fashioned stop motion style. He doesn’t want this to be cutting edge technology thing. Or blur the lines between CG and stop motion. This is classic stop motion puppet animation.”
11. FRANKENWEENIE is a totally engrossing and engaging film – even for many of those who brought the film to life. O’Hara says, “The stop frame animation. You appreciate it as a story and you care about the characters. It’s a beautiful touching, funny, great movie. When you see Sparky in the movie, the way he jumps around, it’s just so real and so alive! I loved how the parents looked. Charlie’s voice is so lovely as Victor. In those moments it felt better than live action. Also the cat – Whisker’s transition is insane.” Martin Short concurs, “It’s a real work of art and love here. I think you lend your voice to things and think ‘I wish they’d done this.’ But in this, you just get completely lost. I was surprised at the amount of emotion. Sometimes in animation, we’re told to feel an emotion – the score soars, a tear drops. This is more sincere than that.” Shaffer elaborates, “It’s one thing to be a part of a Tim Burton animated film, and it’s another thing when you get to film it. Then you see it all come together, it becomes this giant world that you say, ‘I helped create that. It was my voice.’ I refer to it as a part of my soul going into the figure.”
10. This was not the scope Tim Burton had originally envisioned for the first production. Burton says, “The original – that was it. It was only after many years where because it was such a memory piece to begin with, I started thinking of other aspects – other kids I remembered at school and the teachers. When they did that MOMA show, I started looking at some of the drawings I did originally. Loving stop motion – it kind of built up in the sense that to do it in black and white, stop motion, where it could go back to the original drawings. Going back to the architecture of Burbank. So it became a weird, fun thing that I wouldn’t ever do with any other project in terms of thinking about personalizing everything. All those elements made it feel like a whole new thing. From FRANKENSTEIN to the HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN where there’s more monsters and that weird mashup things they started to do. It made it feel different. I didn’t just want to pad it out. The heart of it then is the heart of it now. I wanted it to feel natural. With black and white in 3D you can get the clarity in the shadows. I thought the 3D element would be fun to see. With the 3D and the black and white, it shows the artist’s work. Making it in black and white gives it an emotional depth that would have been different in color. I wouldn’t have done it in color.”
9. Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara play three different characters in the film. As one of those pairs of characters is husband and wife, only they were able to record together – something unusual when doing voice work. O’Hara says, “Especially for the parents, the tone was set for the movie. It helped us get the intimacy we needed.” The two create their voices after they see a sketch of their characters. Short says, “For the first session or two, he [Burton] wants to hear how you see it. When he starts laughing, you know you’re on the right track. Not necessarily laughing about how it’s said, but because it’s fitting into how he saw it. He didn’t know what ‘Burgermeister’ would sound like, but he knew he’d be disturbing, weird, odd. I said, ‘What if he had been a four pack-a-day smoker who had just quit.” O’Hara says, “When you have such a beautiful thing to work from – these images – that you want to honor that. I felt a great responsibility and great honor to voice those characters in his head because we get to collaborate with him. He knows them but how are they going to sound? We get to be part of that.” Short’s character ‘Nassor’ is modeled on actor Boris Karloff. He explains, “Before each take, I would YouTube the old series THRILLER. Then his voice became a little more like a lisp.” O’Hara’s ‘Weird Girl’ wasn’t modeled on anyone in particular but, “She’s probably a girl Tim went to school with because I went to school with some weird girls. I remember people at school that you’d try to avoid. They have to have a soft way about them – they can sneak up on ya’. I basically stole John Candy’s swallowing, not being able to get a thought out. He did it on SCTV [Stephan Seely]. He was doing a version of our makeup artist’s son. I wrote that scene so I don’t think John would mind.”
8. To find inspiration for their characters, Charlie Tahan and Atticus Shaffer poured over classic films. Tahan says, “I saw the original FRANKENWEENIE short. I had seen some of the 1950’s films before. I knew all the references, like Gamera and stuff. Basically I could just be myself. Victor isn’t like a crazy Burton-y character. He’s just a real kid.” Schaffer states, “I’m a fan of any classic film. During the audition process, they told me to have an ‘Igor’ like essence. The second or third audition they told me to do a Peter Lorre. That was really cool for me. I love doing impressions and this was a new impression for me to do. Challenge accepted. I rented THE MALTESE FALCON – I already had CASABLANCA. I studied his emotion – especially in THE MALTESE FALCON. He goes every different place in his voice. I was able to pick that up and formulate a character voice.”
7. The actors loved doing voice over work despite not being able to communicate through facial expressions. O’Hara says, “It was a relief for me. It’s very focused.” Short chimes in, “I think it’s just a different muscle. When you do voice, you are just working with your voice. You can create sounds but if you are being filmed, you wouldn’t perform that way. You’d make it organic and one. It’s just a different exercise. You don’t have to shave. I always thought I had the face for animation.” Tahan says, “I feel like it was easier for me.” Schaffer concurs, “They hired Tom Kenny to not only read opposite me but sometimes read the line in a Peter Lorre impression and then I would do an impression of his impression.” And if he was honored to be in the voice of ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ presence, he says, “In my mind I was bowing to him and saying, ‘I worship you!’ But in real life I was like, ‘Hey.’” Martin Landau says, “When you do a voice you relinquish control in a certain sense. The behavior of a character is what…how a character hides his feelings tells us who he is. No one shows his feelings except bad actors. When I left it, I realized behaviorally is what creates a character. When I saw it, if I had been on camera, I would have played it exactly how the animators created it.”
6. There’s a science debate that rages in the film that feels intensely relevant. Burton says, “I remember that when I was young. Not only science but art. Anything creatively thinking outside of the box, there was always this resistance to it. It’s grown in certain aspects. Which is strange because, on certain levels technology is running rampant, it seems like a strange juxtaposition of these types of feelings.” August says, “I’m so happy those pointed science speeches made it through – that’s me. Those are my frustrations that I’m delighted worked for the movie. We all recognize when the mob descends and decides what’s good and right, and what’s not good and right. These are stories about outsiders being pushed to the edge. Art can be pushed to the edge but science can be pushed to the edge as well. The anti-intellectualism is a current frustration.” Winona Ryder brings up another story thread, “If you think about what’s happening with teachers today, Mr. Rzykruski is a hero. I had teachers like that as well – Mr. Frank. I don’t know what I would’ve done without him. When someone is all for exploration and new ideas, small minded societies want to suppress them and they’re scared of that. That’s sad to me. But out of that can spring people like Tim Burton.” Martin Landau adds, “I’ve had good teachers. I worked with Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan – guys who put the bar high who were slightly eccentric and talented and demanding. All of those things interested you. Made you want to work hard.”
5. There are quite a few key sequences in the film that became challenges for the filmmakers for vastly different reasons. Hahn says, “This crew was willing to take on anything we threw at them – like a million sea monkeys and crowds of Dutch people.” August says, “One of the things you don’t do in stop motion animation is crowds or a bunch of things happening all at once. This was going to have a bunch of that. God bless ‘em. They didn’t panic when I wrote Dutch Day with crowds milling about.” Thomas says, “There’s always going to be limitations that make the film what it is. That’s what makes it charming. The most difficult to shoot was Dutch Day destruction. There were layers” Abbate concurs with August. “Typically you don’t see a lot of crowds. You need a lot of passes. You need a lot of space because it’s a huge expanse. I think there were certain sequences that were really hard to storyboard where you couldn’t get it right. Like the baseball sequence. We could not get that right for love or money ’til the very end. And then it’s like, ‘What were we so hung up on? It’s perfect!’ It’s emotional, it had to not give it away but not blindside people. That was relatively okay to shoot, but again, lots of passes as there’s bleachers and background. One of the most complicated ones was the slow dissolving pull out on Victor when he’s sad. They literally did it in camera. I never thought they were going to pull it off.” Thomas adds, “Because it was such a slow dissolve you had to do the action identical in two different sets and blend them.”
4. While they had free reign in creating the monsters of FRANKENWEENIE, the Sea Monkeys had to be licensed. The creatures came in quite early on in the screenwriting process. August says, “I’m not sure if that was on his [Burton’s] initial list but I knew he wanted some kind of watery creatures in there. Sea Monkeys felt like the right kind of addition.” Don Hahn continues, “…which was a very lengthy negotiation. We had to license them because they aren’t our characters. They are owned by a toy company.”
3. There was one crew member whose sole job was to make Sparky blinks. Thomas says, “When he blinks, we have to do eyelids that are in increments that are twelve open and close. Each character has a different eye style. We have sad blinks and happy blinks and angry blinks.” Abbate interjects, “We had a girl whose job was just to make blinks over the entire course of the movie.” Thomas says, “So for two years this girl was just cutting out these little blinks. Thousands and thousands of blinks.” After spending three plus years in the miniature world of Sparky, no one is ready to leave New Holland behind. Abbate puts it succinctly, “I’m going to have serious separation anxiety when this movie is truly finished. They get under your skin.”
2. There’s a palpable feeling of homecoming with FRANKENWEENIE as Tim Burton is working with talent he’s worked with way back when he was an outsider. O’Hara says, “He has a great consistency of taking care of his characters and visuals. I wasn’t aware that we were called because we were people in Tim’s life – theme for this movie.” Burton says, “I hadn’t worked with those people in awhile. For me, it being this project, since I was trying to make a lot of emotional connections to it, it was fun. You pick people who were right for something. It was more just trying to keep things real, pure, and simple. In the case of Catherine and Martin Short, I said, ‘you do three characters and you do three characters,’ because they’re so good at that. I missed working with them. Martin Landau has been an inspiration to me. You cast who was right but it was great working with people I love.” Of working with Burton again, Landau says, “It’s like no time has gone by. There’s no pretense there. What you see is what you get. We don’t finish a sentence when you’re working with him. It’s a kinesthetic connection.” Winona Ryder adds, “He doesn’t ever try to manipulate you or the audience into feeling sad. He allows you to feel your own emotion. In terms of his direction, it is very telepathic. The experience itself is the reward. It’s about the moment and now.”
1. FRANKENWEENIE handles the topic of death of a beloved pet with such great care, elegance, and zero condescension– even for younger audiences. August says, “I loved the short so I wanted to make sure we kept that primal relationship between a boy and his dog clear. I had my own dog who was about the pass away as I was writing this script. Having those same literal words I used in the movie to tell my daughter when someone dies they don’t really go away. They stay in a special place in your heart. Which is why Amy can’t see the movie quite yet because she’ll be like, ‘You stole that from my life!’ I love making myself cry. You write through tears and then you get through it. Then the challenge becomes, how do you stay honest in that moment and then get right back up into the adventure of the story.” Hahn says, “At its heart, it’s a simple great story about a boy and his dog. You can hang a lot on that. It was emotional and pure.” Burton says, “Dealing with those issues, it’s a wish fulfillment fantasy story.” Tahan says, “I feel like a lot of kids have or had a pet at some point. I think kids can relate to Victor in that way.” Shaffer builds off of this, “I can even relate to it, Right after we finished recording and were screening the film, my dog we had for six years passed away. As a message, it would probably be the fact that you can love something so much that you would go to every extent possible in order to bring something back or to honor its memory.”
FRANKENWEENIE opens on October 5.