Stop motion animation is one of the world’s oldest animation styles, and a very painstaking, hands-on process. With two dozen frames filling each second of film time, animators must stop and reposition each puppet many, many times; on average, one animator can only produce around five seconds of animation per week. This is one reason Tim Burton’s stylish new 3-D stop motion film, “Frankweenie,” took almost two years to complete.
But matching that exacting level of technical production — if not quite step for step then certainly in terms of intellectual and emotional investment — was a voice cast meticulously attuned to their director’s very personalized vision and distinctive sense of style, including Martin Landau, who worked previously with Burton in “Ed Wood,” for which he won an Academy Award. For those thinking voiceover work is just an easy payday for actors, and a matter of matching a funny voice to a funny face, well… you couldn’t be more wrong, at least when it comes to someone like Landau. Here, he portrays Mr. Rzykruski, a science teacher of Eastern European lineage who inspires the movie’s main character, young Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan), by opening up his mind to a world of grander possibilities.
While Rzykruski’s physical look somewhat recalls Vincent Price, Landau went to considerable lengths to come up with his special take on the character. “Well, the script said he’s not from Hungary, and he’s not from Russia,” says the 84-year-old acting veteran. “With Lugosi, he had to be Hungarian and I had to work on that — that was my job. This was more generic European, but what it wasn’t was everything, if that makes sense. So I created it (slipping into voice) — a bit Slavic, but without being from any one particular place. I didn’t use Vincent Price at all. He would have played it very differently than I did.”
“I wanted to really create this guy (from the ground up),” continues Landau, “and the thing that pleased me most is that when you do a voice you really relinquish your performance in a sense because (you’re not controlling the physical) behavior of a character. No one tries to cry. Well, good actors try not to cry — how a character hides his feelings tell us who he is. No one shows their feelings except bad actors, and this character is so genuine and honest that I actually loved him, because he has the fastest brain-mouth coordination. So when I saw the movie — when they screened it for me at Disney — I saw that if I would have been on camera I would have played it exactly as they animated it, and that just floored me,” recalls Landau. “I fell in love with him because he’s passionate, and he cares about things. I really like this character. Unfortunately he doesn’t tolerate fools very well — what you see is what you get. He’s undiplomatic as hell, but if he was born in this country I’d like to put him up for the presidency, because he’d probably be the most honest guy in Washington.”
There’s an honesty to Burton too, according to Landau. In talking with him, it’s clear he feels a kinship and bond to him that spans time, and is untethered to corporeal proximity. Working with Burton on “Frankenweenie” was “like no time went by, or just that a bunch of time was cut out,” says Landau. “And it’s the same with Johnny Depp for me — I may not see them for a couple years but when I do it’s like no time went by. Tim is a dear friend, but there’s a degree of loner in him, and a degree of loner in me too, I suppose. For people that work with people all the time, and are exposed to lots of folks, time apart is also important as well — just to replenish yourself and re-think things.
It makes the time together all that much more special. “Good directors create a playground for their actors, and don’t end up directing too much,” says Landau. “And Tim is like that — a special guy. There’s not a lot of pretense there. …There are no periods at the ends of sentences with him. If you stand nearby on set (with he and I) you’d think, ‘Well, these guys aren’t talking!’ There are such short words and exchanges, but it’s a real connection of a certain kind. You don’t have to talk about it a lot. If you want to, you totally can — for hours, and he’ll listen and have ideas. But there’s just a kinesthetic connection with him.”
NOTE: “Frankenweenie” is now in theaters.
Written by: Brent Simon