Inside Dreamland: The Boundless Imagination of Henry Selick

The stop-motion artist behind "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Coraline" crafts films that must be seen to be believed.
Dan Schindel

The film has been marketed as ‘Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,’ but you’re the director. What do you think is distinctively yours about the film? 

It’s as though he laid the egg, but I sat on it and hatched it, so it came out looking a bit like both of us … It was my job in a way to make it look like ‘a Tim Burton film,’ which is not so different from my own films … But I would wager that in ‘A Nightmare Before Christmas’ most of the lines you laugh at are mine … Every shot of the movie is something I looked at through a camera and composed. I don’t want to take away from Tim, but he was not here in San Francisco when we made it. He came up five times over two years, and spent no more than eight or ten days here in total … But the bottom line was that Tim Burton’s name before the title was going to bring in more people than mine would.

Henry Selick was diplomatic and gracious when speaking to Leslie Felperin for the December 1994 issue of Sight & Sound. Still, Tim Burton receiving in-title credit for The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) has rankled many fans of the film over the decades, particularly as its cultural staying power grew more pronounced. (Selick was saltier on the subject in a recent interview, saying it was “a little unfair because it wasn’t called Tim Burton’s Nightmare until three weeks before the film came out.”) Like much of Burton’s output in this period, the movie was a touchstone for the Hot Topic set of the ’90s and ’00s. And while Burton continued to do steady work over this time (to a critical response which trended generally downward, even if box office returns remained solid), Selick struggled. The projects he did manage to pull together ultimately flopped, and it took a collaboration with another bigger creative name, Neil Gaiman, to break that trend with Coraline (2009). Yet even the propulsion this gave Selick’s profile would peter out, mired in a series of go-nowhere productions. 

As his latest stop-motion animated feature, Wendell & Wild, arrives via Netflix (once again, it should be noted, with the aid of a more powerful household name, this time Jordan Peele), looking back on Selick’s career reveals a frustrating history of false starts and thwarted opportunities. This is, to a certain extent, part and parcel of the industry for any director, and especially for those working in animation. Yet Selick stands out, not just for the cult following his released films attract, but also for what all of his unrealized projects might have added to the practice of stop-motion animation. 

In Selick’s comments on The Nightmare Before Christmas for Sight & Sound, he elucidates some basic premises of auteurism by delicately addressing what is “his” in the film. Burton is the film’s producer and has a “story by” credit (the script was based on a poem he wrote a decade prior, when he was a Disney animator), and the film superficially matches much of the rest of his oeuvre. It has a similar aesthetic to the familiar Burton “look,” drawing from a hodgepodge of dark, Gothic imagery, with the influence of everything from German Expressionism to Edward Gorey fully evident. The score by Danny Elfman, a frequent Burton collaborator, also makes it feel sonically of a piece with his filmography. But anyone who watches enough of both Selick and Burton’s films will recognize Selick’s signature as soon as the camera starts moving.

This very motion is Selick’s trademark, one of the most consistently electrifying elements of his work as an animator. Stop-motion is a field full of artists who have traditionally had to figure out how to generate intricate in-camera effects in order to fake even the most mundane phenomena. Traditional animation is limited only by what one can imagine and draw, but the tactility of stop-motion, which animates real objects, poses a consistent challenge, compounded by how painstaking and slow the process is. Crews must meticulously arrange the camera, set, and character models, snap a frame, adjust everything only slightly, and then take another shot. The Nightmare Before Christmas comprises 109,440 frames, meaning the crew had to repeat this process at least that many times. Within such strictures animators have had to figure out how to make things like flames and rain look convincing. Animation already distills film to its purest essence: images in sequence creating the illusion of movement. Stop-motion boils this down further, requiring extraordinary patience to generate life from still tableaus.

Keeping this in mind makes Selick’s style all the more remarkable. From the jump, The Nightmare Before Christmas rarely has a stationary eye. During the opening musical sequence “This Is Halloween,” which introduces Halloween Town and its gleefully morbid inhabitants, the camera swoops and floats and pushes through multiple environments, navigating it all in what look like long single shots. In the moment it’s enough of a visual pleasure, seeing the various ghouls celebrating their holiday, but thinking about the logistics behind the scenes is staggering. Stop-motion productions often create outdoor spaces with matte paintings and forced perspective, and here, the way Selick’s camera seemingly obliterates the parallax between foreground and background is riveting. Burton has since directed his own stop-motion features, Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012), and the contrast is clear. While these films have their own impressive technical accomplishments (Frankenweenie in particular features some great lighting for its black-and-white cinematography, aping Universal monster movies in miniature), the camera is much more reserved in both. 

Monkeybone

Above: James and the Giant Peach (1996). Below: Monkeybone (2001).

While he might not have gotten the public credit for the film, the success of Nightmare did give Selick the clout to direct his next feature, the 1996 Roald Dahl adaptation James and the Giant Peach. Here he expands his sense of stop-motion scale even further, finding ways to make the eponymous magically expanded fruit feel truly enormous. Much of the film sees the flying peach set against the backdrop of the open ocean, with its passengers interacting with a giant mechanical shark, a grotto of sunken pirate ships, and the New York City skyline. The crew skillfully shoots their sets with an epic sensibility that is still unusual for stop-motion, emphasizing deep-canvas backgrounds. When James talks to his insect friends on top of the peach at night, the starfield behind them is convincingly endless. The shark sequence in particular throws down a gauntlet of challenges for its animators—the shark is made of constantly moving parts, while at the same time it roils in the ocean waves, and it also pursues the peach. Unfortunately, Peach wasn’t appreciated nearly as much as Nightmare, and the film failed to even make back its budget, setting the tone for a good deal of Selick’s post-Nightmare career.

Despite the flop of James, Selick managed to push through an even more unlikely project: 2001’s Monkeybone, a $75 million graphic novel adaptation that freely mixed live action with stop motion. (James also incorporated both, but seldom simultaneously.) In the ignominious position of being one of the biggest box office bombs of all time, it was critically savaged upon release and has been all but forgotten since. The failure is unsurprising. The story features a man oscillating between life and a phantasmagorical limbo, battling his psychosexual repression embodied by a horny stop-motion monkey. It feels impossible that Monkeybone—an only marginally more family-friendly Cool World incorporating a mix of sensibilities from alt and indie comic books of the ’90s—could have ever found enough of an audience to recoup its budget, much less be a success. 

But a revisit is remarkably kind to Monkeybone. Where Nightmare saw Jack Skellington revitalized in his work by discovering a new aesthetic and James followed an orphan boy who found salvation from domestic misery in magic, here Selick imagines an unreal realm as a place to work through mundane psychological issues. After a car accident leaves him in a coma, cartoonist Stu (Brendan Fraser, a perpetually underrated performer here demonstrating tremendous skill at acting against animated costars) finds himself in Down Town, a place between life and death occupied by the figments of humanity’s collective unconscious. Here Selick and his crew put forth a continuation of the craft in marrying reality and animation which Richard Williams and Robert Zemeckis had previously taken to a higher level with Who Framed Roger Rabbit. They up the ante by combining a dizzying number of techniques at once, with some scenes seamlessly blending live action, stop-motion animation, traditional animation, computer animation, and even suitmation. Citizens of Down Town run the gamut from a catgirl waitress (Rose McGowan in makeup) to a minotaur with a Hypnos, the satyr-like god of dreaming (Giancarlo Esposito in makeup, with his lower half replaced by puppeteered goat legs). Monkeybone himself is an impressively convincing effect, believably occupying space with Fraser.

That this evolution in the form went ignored, its potential influence missed, is almost a tragedy. It makes sense, of course. This was right as Hollywood began employing CGI with gusto as an easy crutch to cut out the work of artists for backgrounds, sets, creatures, and more. Weird, madcap, and continuously overbrimming with imagination, Monkeybone is much more than a notable bomb, and feels ripe for reclaiming.

Coraline (2009).

It would be eight years before Selick’s next film, 2009’s Coraline—the premier feature production for Laika, the animation company built on what had once been the storied Will Vinton Studios, which specialized in (and trademarked) “claymation.” Once again, Selick’s crew both pioneered new techniques for the form and pushed it to dynamic new places. 3D printing and other novel fabrication methods were used to produce the puppet figures, allowing for smoother and more intricate animation with more detailed characters and sets than ever before. Yet again it features a protagonist venturing from the real world into another, more fantastical one—there Coraline is entertained by the likes of a mouse circus, an intricate trapeze act with flying dogs, and a garden of instantly blooming flowers arranged in the shape of her face. Like in The Wizard of Oz, it’s pointedly colorful in contrast to the drabness of the real world. But that color turns out to be a predator’s lure, a more intricate version of the witch’s gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretel. When its true nature is revealed, each of those whimsical elements turns sinister—the mice swarm to attack, and the mantis-like gardening machine tries to scythe her. Selick and Gaiman vibe remarkably well together, with the director easily evoking the celebrated author’s appreciation for an archetypal approach to mythology and folklore. 

Coraline has since become as beloved by one generation of young people as the previous one had embraced Nightmare. Viewers can appreciate not just its beauty and enthusiastically macabre tone, but also how Selick continues to experiment with his camera. One shot follows the point of view of a toy train as it travels down a kitchen table in front of several characters—a model within a model, on a smaller scale within an already-small scale. It’s another superficially simple concept that becomes incredible the more one thinks about it. At one point the train goes through a little tunnel and out apparently seamlessly in one shot, which seems rudimentary until one questions how the normal-sized camera could “fit” through the tunnel.

In 2010, Selick joined the Walt Disney Company and Pixar to found Cinderbiter Studios, which was supposed to be a new venture dedicated to stop-motion cinema. Yet after spending two years and $50 million on its first film, The Shadow King, Disney canceled the project in 2012. It would be three more years before Selick would link up with Jordan Peele on Wendell & Wild—a production which itself would take seven years to finally be completed and released. Yet again, Selick pushes the medium’s cinematography forward, this time doing much more work with POV. Multiple shots are seen over characters’ shoulders from within moving vehicles, enhancing the movie’s sense of immersion without the passive viewer ever clocking it. Selick is hardly overlooked or underappreciated in his field, but the fact that his opportunities to express his craft come increasingly far apart never ceases to agitate animation fans. Hopefully it is not another thirteen years before he gets to explore more of what a camera can do in stop-motion and continue to indulge his expansive imagination.

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