Tim Burton may now be considered a filmmaking visionary, and one of a fairly small number of directors working inside the Hollywood studio system to still legitimately be called an auteur, but his unique genius wasn’t always embraced and celebrated. When Burton first conceived of the idea for “Frankenweenie,” he envisioned it as a full-length stop motion-animated movie. Owing to budget constraints and a lack of enthusiasm for that form on the part of his employer Disney, however, Burton instead made drawings of how he imagined the characters and directed it as a live-action short in 1984, starring Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern. The plan was for the film to debut theatrically pegged to a re-release of “Pinocchio,” but Disney fired Burton before the movie was completed — feeling the project was too scary and weird — and for years it was shelved.
Flash forward almost three decades later, and Burton is now set to debut the full realization of one of his first and most personal filmmaking visions — and to do so for Disney. “Frankenweenie,” filmed in stop motion-animated black-and-white, and 3-D, harkens back to the classic horror films of Burton’s youth, in telling the story of a boy who uses his love and knowledge of science to re-animate his recently deceased dog. Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is something of an outcast, but perhaps not the most unusual character in the strange little town of New Holland. When his dog Sparky dies, Victor gets an idea from his teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau), and channels some of the frequent lightning that strikes down on New Holland. His secret soon gets out, however, and other kids use it to re-animate their own pets — with decidedly less warm and fuzzy results.
“The reason I originally wanted to make ‘Frankenweenie’ was based on growing up and loving horror movies,” says Burton. “But it was also the relationship I had when I was a child with a certain dog that I had. It’s a special relationship that you have in your life, and very emotional. Dogs obviously don’t usually live as long as people, so therefore you experience the end of that relationship. So that, in combination with the Frankenstein story, just seemed to be a very powerful thing to me — and a very personal kind of remembrance.”
For the movie, then, Burton returned to all those original drawings he made in the 1980s, and also came up with others for all of the new characters in the movie — characters frequently modeled on the look and traits of characters from classic horror films of the 1930s, and indeed, named in homage in several instances. Many of the same artists and animators Burton worked with on 2005’s “Corpse Bride” were hired, and producer Allison Abbate came on board as well. “Because it was such a memory piece to begin with, I started thinking of other aspects of my childhood — other kids I remembered from school, and teachers, and even going back to the architecture of Burbank (where I grew up),” says Burton. “It became a weird, fun thing, which I wouldn’t do with any other project — just in terms of thinking about actual (people) and places, and personalizing everything. All those elements made it feel like a whole different thing than when I started.”
The end result also feels personalized in another way, bringing together a quartet of actors who’ve worked with Burton in the past, though not for many years — Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, the aforementioned Landau and Martin Short. “I love all those people, and haven’t worked with them in a while,” admits Burton. “You always pick people that are right for something, but it was great (to have each of them back) because I felt like for me, since I was trying to make emotional connections to the material, they each had that (already, knowing me some). And Catherine and Martin are so great — they each do three characters. That’s something I’d missed — their sense of improvisation, and ability to go from one character to another.”
Still, even though the story itself was rooted in childhood memories and loves refracted through early professional experiences, Burton also had strong feelings about how he would — and wouldn’t — want to re-visit the story. For him, the unique combination of black-and-white cinematography, stop motion animation and 3-D post-conversion were all crucial to the tale he wished to tell. “There was (initially) this ‘Celebrity Death Match’ scenario of 3-D versus 2-D — they tried to turn it into all or nothing,” says Burton of press reaction surrounding the release of his “Alice in Wonderland,” the first big 3-D studio film to follow in the wake of “Avatar”‘s huge success with the 3-D format. “And I still feel like it’s valid in some films, but not every one. The more choice the better — that’s how I feel about all of that,” he says. “But I was always very excited about using them (all on ‘Frankenweenie’) because for me black-and-white and 3-D, because of the depth you can get and the clarity of the shadows, is amazing. I thought the 3-D element would be really fun to see, but also added to the stop motion process — when you have puppets and real sets and you see the texture that the artists have put into the models. With the 3-D and black-and-white, I felt like you would be able to really see (and appreciate) the artists’ work and be in that kind of space. If the studio had said that it had to be in color I wouldn’t have done it. But they were fine, they were cool about it. I was surprised but grateful, because for me, making it in black-and-white helps give the movie an extra and slightly weird emotional depth that would have been different in color.”
Written by: Brent Simon