Tim Burton’s characteristic gothic vision returns to the screen this Friday with Frankenweenie, the black and white, stop motion-animated, feature-length adaptation of his 1984 short film of the same name.
The original film heralded the ’85 release of Burton’s first feature – Pee Wee’s Big Adventure – and starred Barret Oliver, Daniel Stern and Shelley Duvall. Oliver played a young boy whose dog is killed in an accident and resurrected in Frankenstein-like fashion.
The animated redo expands on this idea and introduces a slew of monstrous surprises as well as a talented vocal cast of Winona Ryder, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan and Atticus Shaffer.
Shock Till You Drop met with Burton in Austin, Texas where the director was showing off the film before a Fantastic Fest crowd.
Shock Till You Drop: When the news first broke that you were going to do this project, I thought there must have been something pretty special about the short film that made you want to live with it a bit more, explore it on another level.
Tim Burton: Yeah, basically, it was a few different things like going back to my original drawings and doing stop motion. Black and white stop motion. It wasn’t a good idea to just go back and revisit it. Because it was a memory piece in a way, there were other memories about kids in school and sort of archetypes there. The texture of Burbank [California] and the teachers, other monsters and things that have stirred in my mind for a few years. So, that and the idea of doing it stop motion, the idea of bringing a dead thing to life which is stop motion, just seemed to make it a whole new project for me.
Shock: And you approached screenwriter John August with sketches, the short and idea and just said “Let’s crack this”?
Burton: Yep, and I kind of used the model of those movies where they did the classics but as the years went on there were House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula where they did the mixture of things. That was the model. I tried to use my memories of other kids in school, this type of kid, that type of kid and so that’s what we talked about. Delving back into those memories.
Shock: Those “House of…” films were a mixed bag, weren’t they?
Burton: First it was Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, then they added Dracula. They weren’t that great. But the Abbott and Costello movies were good.
Shock: Technically, has stop motion evolved much?
Burton: Not really. It’s still the same thing, moving things one frame at a time, but it’s gotten technically easier in a sense to do rig removal and you can re-time shots. The technology has made it a little easier, but at the root of it, it is what it is. Stop motion animators are a unique breed of people – they’re in a dark room all day moving things one frame at a time.
Shock: Tonally, the movie has some darkness. Was there any concern from the higher ups?
Burton: No, it helped that the budget was lower than most of Disney’s projects. [laughs] That does help. It takes the focus off of you a little bit. But I think they understood the root of it. It’s about a boy and his dog. That’s the heart of it and there are moments like the dog getting hit by a car, but ultimately the story is quite positive. The thing I’m always amazed at, if you look at Disney movies from the beginning of time, they all had a sense of darkness in them. Snow White to The Lion King. The father gets killed, the guy gets killed, someone wants to kill the kid. [laughs] And that was rated G. People tend to forget the darkness of Disney films.
Shock: For this, you’ve called in some familiar actors to lend their voices. Do you find it fortunate that you’ve become a director who has built a reliable acting troupe?
Burton: It was great to work with people I haven’t worked with in a while like Winona and Catherine. To bring them in on a project like this was special. It was special for me to reconnect with these people and it was really nice. Finding the right kids was tough but I felt really good about the cast. It’s a weird mixture of kids and adults but that’s what was fun about making it.
Shock: There was never a notion of doing this live-action again was there?
Burton: No, did that. Re-looking at the drawings, there was something in them that I wanted to recapture that I could not do with live-action.
Shock: The film sounds like it was a very personal project for you.
Burton: It was. It really was. And that’s the great thing about the process. It takes a while so you’re living with it for a long time. It’s just building it shot by and shot. Also, I just love black and white and we tried to go for it so the photography was emotional. Computers are great, but to see the characters move through actual shadows and reflections, it just made it special.
Shock: To see a black and white film, it almost seems like it has to be an independent release. It’s nice to see one going wide like Frankenweenie is.
Burton: With all of the things people see on the Internet, people, well, I’m sure they’re still wary about black and white, but they see so many things now they’re used to all kinds of formats.
Shock: Where to next for you? You’ve hit us with a number of projects this year, two you directed, one you produced…
Burton: Well, with something like Frankenweenie coming out, it’s hard for me to think about anything else right now so I’m just seeing this one happen. [laughs]