Producers Don Hahn and Allison Abbate Talk FRANKENWEENIE, Working with Tim Burton, the 3D Conversion, and How Kids React to Black and White

     May 9, 2012

frankenweenie don hahn allison abbate image

The black and white, stop-motion animated 3D film Frankenweenie, from director Tim Burton and based on the ideas in his 1984 live-action short, is a heart-warming tale about a boy and his beloved dog. After unexpectedly losing Sparky, young Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) sews him back together and harnesses the power of science to bring his best friend back to life, but quickly faces unintended and sometimes monstrous consequences for his actions. The voice cast also includes Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Atticus Shaffer and Winona Ryder.

During an early press day for the film, in which we got the chance to preview nearly 30 minutes of footage from the October 5th release, executive producer Don Hahn (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King) and producer Allison Abbate (Iron Giant, Corpse Bride) talked about collaborating with Tim Burton, the audience that they’re hoping for with the film, the decision to do this in black and white, converting it to 3D, what makes stop-motion so endearing to people, what happens to all the dolls once they’re finished shooting, the opportunity to get to see some of the sets at Comic-Con, and how the heart of the film is truly a love story about a boy and his dog. Check out what they had to say after the jump:

Question: What was it like to work with Tim Burton on this film?

DON HAHN ALLISON ABBATE frankenweenieALLISON ABBATE: I was around on The Nightmare Before Christmas, and that was another one that was a story from his youth. And then, there was Corpse Bride. This is very different because not only is it a story that he came up with so many years ago, but then it also has so many autobiographical features to it. For him, it was just a very personal process. Developing the story, the look of the environments and the puppets all seemed so very specific to what was in his mind’s eye and his recollection and his imagination. It’s been really fun. We’re getting to know him, as well as getting to know the story that he’s telling, and it really comes through in the movie.

DON HAHN: He’s such a visual director, too. It’s great to work with a director who started out as an animator. He has a vocabulary that the crew can relate to, and his notes are specific. He’s really involved in this project ‘cause it’s his story, in a strange, twisted way.

ABBATE: Design wise, we took the middleman out, so we really went from his sketches to the puppet, which was challenge. You have to really interpret and figure out what it looks like from the back and the side, and how it stands up. In doing that, there was a lot of back and forth with him, directly. That gave us such a great foundation, in having conversations about how they would move and what their personality was like and the movies that inspired them.

frankenweenie-posterA lot of the stop-motion animation movies are gothic horror. What is it about this medium that lends itself to that genre?

ABBATE: Because it’s such an auteur-driven medium, it does seem like that is the sensibility of the artists that have chosen to work in it, but I do think that it’s not a limitation of the process. Any story that you can think of, you can tell in stop-motion. If anything, I’m proud of the medium because it does speak to really artistic people who have very unique visions. They see this as a medium that they can work in. I think the future is bright. More people are doing it now. There are pockets all over the world now, that are doing this kind of film. I think it’s really heartening that you’ll start to see a real variety of genre.

What is the audience you’re hoping for with this?

HAHN: It’s a general audience movie. In context of Halloween and the release in October, it’s a general audience movie. I think it’s no different than The Nightmare Before Christmas. I may not take my five-year-old to see this ‘cause there’s some intense parts towards the end, but that’s the same for The Avengers and Chimpanzee. That’s a real parenting choice. But, we certainly made this for families to go see.

Had you always wanted to do this in black and white? Was there any resistance from the studio?

HAHN: There was not.

ABBATE: Tim [Burton] really was adamant that the story needed to be told that way. Everyone has been great about seeing it as a real opportunity to do something fresh and do something that’s going to stand apart from other things.

HAHN: And now that The Artist has come out and won Best Picture, we look like geniuses. We look brilliant!

Frankenweenie-imageABBATE: I’ve shown little bits to kids, and we’ve had little kids come in and see it, and for them, it’s just a cool-looking movie, especially if they haven’t seen a lot of old movies. They’re like, “Sweet! How’d you do that?!,” as if we’d done something special. It was just a funny thing, which never occurred to me. It’s a neat eye-opener. We bring all of our own sensibilities of what black and white means, but kids don’t really have that.

HAHN: Yeah, they don’t care.

How much do you want to reveal of the monster movie aspect of the film?

ABBATE: There’s certainly a plan for how they want that to unfold, but the monsters are so much the fun of the movie. It can seem a little bit intense, as it is, but it’s the ridiculousness of monsters running amuck in suburban Burbank. You don’t want to hide that, necessarily, because it does seem like that’s the romp part of the movie. That’s what makes it nice. There is a nice balance between a really sweet, emotional love story between a boy and his dog, and this kooky, crazy monster mayhem.

frankenweenie-imageThere’s a lot that goes into stop-motion animation. How do you prevent everything from getting out of control?

HAHN: It’s like managing Santa’s workshop.

ABBATE: As crazy as it is, and there’s a lot to keep track of, it is very organized. In some ways, it stops you from going out of control because, until you know what it is, it doesn’t exist. You can’t make it until someone decides what it is that they want.

HAHN: The advantage you have, though, is that you can manufacture multiple leading characters, so your actors are always available.

ABBATE: But with animation, in general, you’ve got to be very organized because you don’t want to shoot more than you need. In a lot of ways, everyone is just really smart about the decisions they make.

tim-burton-frankenweenieWhen you get through a week of work and you have 30 seconds or one minute, do you see this type of project as a marathon?

ABBATE: It is definitely a marathon race, and it is about pacing yourself. You have to pick your battles. It is definitely a long run.

How long is the whole process?

ABBATE: It’s about two and a half to three years. You’ll have a year of prep, and then shooting, and then post.

HAHN: And it’s surprisingly physical. If you have a puppet in the middle of a set, you have a little trap door that opens up, where a puppeteer has to crawl up underneath it, reach up and move the arm, and then go down through the door and go over and take a frame, and then crawl back in again. It’s incredibly physical, as opposed to hand-drawn or CG animation, where you’re sitting at a work station. These guys and girls are up and around, all the time. It’s exhausting.

allison abbate frankenweenieABBATE: The crew that I have in England is passionate about it and they give their blood, sweat and tears to it. It’s so lovely. Their expertise is so specific that the discovery of a type of hair that’s going to work, or just the fact that the hairs can even animate, you can see how far it’s come from The Nightmare Before Christmas until now. Those guys are constantly thinking about it. These artists will find creative ways to use stuff that we take for granted, and make it look like amazing stuff in these movies. It’s a different breed of people. They’re definitely specific artists.

What makes stop-motion so endearing to people?

ABBATE: I think that people like to make things. There is a craft to it. The people that make the costumes love to make costumes. The idea of making a costume of this size, and having it work and move, and the puppet can move around, technologically, you have to be really smart and really creative. It’s a neat mix of that, for the artists.

HAHN: There’s something very handmade about being able to touch and feel the puppet, and being able to create this life out of this inanimate object, more so than with pencil and paper or a computer. You can actually touch it and feel it, and that’s really satisfying for the animators and the crew.

ABBATE: In this, everybody is making the set. Everyone is there. Everyone is working on every shot. It is very collaborative, in that way. And, they’re like little toys. Everyone has that youthful sense of, “I want to play with those dolls.”

How has technology helped you, in the past 20 years?

frankenweenie-movie-imageABBATE: For me, the technology of the environments has been the most notable, and also the cameras. Going from these big film cameras to these tiny little cameras that you can move more easily through the sets has really helped open up the world. Also, the effects have changed. Just being able to put a green screen behind and have the huge expanse was hard for us. On Nightmare, we couldn’t do any of that stuff. We couldn’t remove rigs. Sparky couldn’t move, if we didn’t have a rig on him. That kind of technology helps you to push the level of animation, and also the level of the world.

What happens with the dolls, after you guys are done?

ABBATE: Well, Disney is great because they actually have two moving exhibits.

Frankenweenie-imageHAHN: It’s going all over, both internationally and domestically, and going to Comic-Con. You will be able to go down and see the sets, and see the puppets in the sets. That’s something that people really enjoy, especially since Tim [Burton] is so intimately involved in the designs and he’s such an iconic artist.

ABBATE: The nice thing about stop-motion is that you do have these things. It’s like our actors, so why not send them out. It’s going to be really nice because they are the actual sets and props and stuff. We’re trying to bring that process to people because it does blow your mind, a little bit. It’s really cool.

Are there places you can go in stop-motion that’s darker and more macabre because it’s animated?

ABBATE: I think so. One could say that. I don’t know that it’s just stop-motion. With animation, in general, kids are used to seeing animation and they know that it’s not real, so there’s a sense that there’s something fun about it and you are able to get away with more. In our movie, by the time we get to the end where we do have a little bit of the darker elements, we want the balance to be such, so that they are understanding the humor of the monster mayhem happening in the middle of a sweet suburban tone. In that sense, we have to be aware of the tone of it. Otherwise, they know it’s not real. When Sparky looks the way Sparky does, and Victor looks the way he does, you can go into that fantasy place.

At what point did you decide to do this in 3D?

don-hahn-frankenweenieHAHN: Right away. Before we started shooting, Allison had to gather up the technological approach to how to shoot 3D, and whether we were going to shoot in stereo on the set, or shoot a variety of elements and let a visual effects house combine those later, or a little bit of both. There were some people that said, “I don’t think 3D works in black and white,” so we had to do a test. We showed the test and they went, “Yes, it does work.” It’s spectacular in black and white because of the contrast and the artifice of it all. It was something that we thought of, from the beginning.

Which process did you opt for?

HAHN: It was all converting because we were able to give them the puppet on the set, and then pull the puppet out and just give them the set. They have a variety of elements to put back together in 3D.

Were there any conversations with Disney about toning the film down, at all?

HAHN: No. I suppose the billion dollars that Alice in Wonderland made probably helped that conversation.

ABBATE: Also, so much of it is this heart-warming story. There is something so emotional about the story and so poignant about keying into the concept of a little boy whose grief is so great that he does the impossible to bring his best friend back to life, that really overrides everything else. In some ways, that is really the thing that you take away from the movie. It’s such a Disney message that it’s front and center. frankenweenie-image

HAHN: And even with Walt Disney, himself, his movies never shied away from intensity, as long as it wasn’t gratuitous. As long as it was about the characters and you invested in the characters, and you’re invested in this love story about a boy and his dog, and the threats were real threats against those characters, he never shied away from it, and I don’t think we do either.

Don, how did you ever even get this finished, with everything you were juggling, at the same time?

HAHN: The one-word answer is Allison. Really, the first person I hired was Allison. Because she’s done virtually every stop-motion animated film over the last 10 years or so, and has become the go-to person for stop-motion, that was my key to getting the movie done. I’ve never done a stop-motion movie before, so we needed the best people, and that started with Allison. It’s true. The movie wouldn’t be here without her.

And if you missed it, here’s our interview with Tim Burton:

Tim Burton Talks FRANKENWEENIE, Working With Seth Grahame-Smith on BEETLEJUICE 2, BIG EYES and a PINOCCHIO Film with Robert Downey Jr.

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