For Tim Burton, this year is 2005 all over again. In 2005, the director first released the big-budget, live-action Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the summer, followed by the stop-motion animated Corpse Bride in the fall. The latter earned Burton his first and only Oscar nomination (for animated feature film). Cut to 2012. Burton’s big-budget, live-action horror comedy Dark Shadows, his eighth collaboration with star Johnny Depp, hits theaters this weekend. But waiting in the wings is Frankenweenie, a 3-D stop-motion animated monster movie that’s very dear to Burton’s heart.
Frankenweenie is a remake of the 1984 black-and-white, live-action short of the same name, which Burton directed for Disney at the tender age of 25. At the time, Disney shelved the PG-rated short, about a suburban boy who brings his dead pooch back to life, deeming it too scary. But when Burton became a big-name director, the studio gave the short a home-video release in 1992, and it can now be found on the DVD and Blu-ray editions of The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Burton originally envisioned Frankenweenie as a stop-motion animated movie, but opted for live-action due to budgetary concerns. “I’m kind of grateful that it was live-action, because if it had been animation, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into live-action,” said Burton. “It was a very lucky break in a way.” That’s because after actor Paul Reubens saw Frankenweenie, he hired Burton to direct his 1985 film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which led to Beetlejuice, which led to Batman, and so on.
Burton’s feature-length version of Frankenweenie isn’t due for another five months (Disney will release it on Oct. 5), but EW recently sat down with the filmmaker and picked his brain — hiding beneath all those famously unruly curls of hair — about the project.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is it about stop-motion animation that appeals so much to you?
TIM BURTON: It goes back to Ray Harryhausen. You look at his stuff, and you see the fur move! As a child, I recognized this artist. And there was something about stop-motion that felt more like a personal medium, especially because there were so few people doing it. Also, you go back to those kinds of stories, like Frankenstein or Pinocchio, about bringing an inanimate object to life. So here you have a process that does just that! It takes an inanimate object and you bring it to life. As hard of a medium as it is, there’s something so beautiful about that and the fact that it goes back to the beginning of film. The technique hasn’t changed — it’s still animating one frame at a time for 24 frames [to create a single second of film].
Is there anything that stop-motion allowed you to do this time around that you couldn’t have done back in 1984?
Actually, no. On Corpse Bride, our puppets were so sophisticated that people thought they were [animated] in the computer. It sort of undermined the beauty of the stop-motion technique. So, with Frankenweenie, we have a smaller budget and decided that the puppets are going to have to be a bit cruder. But that’s okay, because that’s part of the charm of stop-motion. I wouldn’t go back to the original King Kong and smooth down the fur.
But what has stop-motion allowed you to do with Frankenweenie that you couldn’t have done in live-action?
With my background in animation, I wanted to make the characters look more like my original drawings. There’s just more of a weird kind of energy in those drawings, and there are certain acting things that you can’t do with a real dog, you know? We wanted real dog emotions, and it’s a little easier to try to get that in animation.
In the original, you had the young actor Barret Oliver and all these normal-looking kids. But in this animated Frankenweenie, I was happy to see that many of the kids now look a little… off.
Well, I remember the school politics, and not only how weird you felt as a kid, but how weird everybody else was, too. It was easy to link those memories to old horror movies. I mean, there was a kid back in school that would remind me of Boris Karloff. And there was a weird girl.
Even though he brings a dog back to life, your main character, Victor, seems like the most normal kid around.
That’s how I felt as a kid. I felt very weird, isolated, and lonely, but at the same time I didn’t feel that way as a person. I didn’t feel like a weirdo. So you’re kind of in between a rock and a hard place — you’re treated one way, and yet you don’t really feel that way at all.
How much of Victor is a representation of your childhood? There’s a scene in the movie in which Victor’s dad encourages him to play baseball, and I know your dad was a minor-league player.
My dad was a sports guy, but he was never like one of those Great Santini dads where you either play sports or you’re going to go to hell and burn. I played sports, but I also liked making my little super-8 films, and I liked experimenting. I tried to capture that with Victor. He’s part of the quiet loner category. We weren’t overly demonstrative; we were just kind of like the quiet rebels.
When you finished the original short, Disney didn’t like it initially.
I don’t know if they didn’t like it, but they didn’t know what to do about it.
But they didn’t ask you to return to work afterward.
So do you get some sort of satisfaction out of the fact that, nearly 30 years later, here you are making Frankenweenie for Disney?
Sure, why not? But I’ve been back and forth to Disney a few times, so it’s kind of an open revolving-door policy. I’ve been around enough to know how absurd everything is. Any project that gets made is a miracle, and I’m grateful to each one, and each one is surreal. So I’m used to it. It’s okay. [Laughs]
Well, of course you’re part of a great group of people, including Brad Bird and John Lasseter, who were let go by Disney, only to return years later.
Those guys could have been making Pixar movies 10 years earlier! They had the talent. It was there!