Set Visit: Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie

It was nearly three decades ago that a young filmmaker wrote, directed and produced a darkly comical short film take on Mary Shelley’s legendary monster. Starring a bull terrier named Sparky, brought back from the dead by a suburban boy named Victor Frankenstein, the 30 minute short was so unusual that it didn’t see an official release for years.
Today, that filmmaker is a household name and his gothic charm a quintessential element of more than a dozen full-length features. That’s why Tim Burton fans should be very pleased to know that in 2012, Frankenweenie is getting reanimated in more ways than one.

Set for release on October 5th, the Frankenweenie feaure expands on the short and makes use of black and white stop-motion 3D photography, similar to Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride and his 1982 short, “Vincent.”
Earlier this year, had the privilege to visit the film’s elaborate production stages at the London-based 3 Mills Studios and, in the months to come, we’ll be taking you behind the scenes for conversations with the men and women responsible for bringing Sparky (back) to life, including Burton himself. Today, we can share a bit about the expanded storyline and exactly what goes into tackling stop-motion puppetry on such a massive scale.
“Tim always wanted to make it into a feature and into an animated feature,” explains Producer Allison Abate, “We had to open the story up a little bit. Pretty much, the whole first act is like the short. We meet Victor and his beloved dog, Sparky. There’s a terrible car accident tragedy and the dog gets killed. Of course Victor, being a clever guy, figures out how to reincarnate him. Where the story diverges is that Victor is now desperate to keep his dog a secret. He doesn’t really know if what he’s done is a great thing. He doesn’t tell his parents and he doesn’t tell his school friends… Of course, the other kids at school get wind of it and kind of want in.”
While it was only teased on the set visit, there’s every indication that we’ll be seeing a lot more pet-based monsters than just the titular canine. Each of Victor’s friends is based on an icon of classic horror cinema and endeavors to create a monster representative of that fact. Sketches on the production office wall point to everything from mummified hamsters to Gamera-scaled turtles.
“It’s been fun making these kids,” Abate says. “What would Boris Karloff in ‘The Mummy’ actually be like at 11 years old? What is Igor like as a 12 year old kid?”
Because of the nature of stop-motion shooting, multiple sets are built as filmed simultaneously, each turning out just a few seconds of footage a day. Many of the sets that were being prepped for production were locations in Victor’s hometown, New Holland. 
“[Our setting] is a California suburb sometime between 1965 and 1975,” says art director Tim Browning. “There’s no real specific date but, from a design point of view, you approach it much the same as any other period drama. You do the research and try to find all the details of the architecture. Of course, on a project like this we have the luxury of making everything and having complete control. In live action, you have to rely very heavily on locations, purchased props and hired props. Here, you make every single thing.”

No stranger to stop motion productions, 3 Mills was where Wes Anderson shot The Fantastic Mr. Fox and, further back, where Burton tackled Corpse Bride. One major difference between Frankenweenie and those productions, however, is the sheer scale of the sets, which have to be enlarged due to the film’s leading canine.
“He’s one of the principal characters,” explains Browning, “and in real life he would be sort of bull terrier sized. He needs to be manageable… Our adult puppets are about 50 cm high whereas on ‘Corpse Bride’ they were more like 25 to 30.”
The other aspect of the sets that’s instantly striking is that they merge color and black and white. Though the film is being shot for the latter, some elements of puppet-making are simply easier to come by in color and others are designed to make use of the contrast.
“Back in the old days, set painting was geared towards black and white photography,” continues Browning, “and it became a whole new challenge when color came in. We’re re-creating techniques from the ’40s and ’50s that this film is homaging.”
One of the larger sets still being prepared is the outside of a house along with a roof and a swimming pool. Currently empty, the pool will be added with CGI and temporarily gives puppeteers a solid access point for manipulating the scene. For this particular setup, a second camera is going to be placed to record the mirror image that will be superimposed on the pool’s reflection.
“This kid here builds himself a little jetpack and rollerskates off the edge of the roof,” smiles Bronwing, “He’s trying to fly and lands in the garden there, ending up in an ambulance.”
Another set is the bedroom of one of Victor’s friends, simply called “Weird Girl.” Her room, too, is a mixture of black and white and color, filled with decidedly girly artifacts.
“Tim said that even though the set is black and white, he wanted it to look pink,” laughs Browning.
Because the film plays up the suburban setting, Browning points out that the goal is to push generic and boring to such an extreme that it becomes interesting. It’s not hard to see the world of Frankenweenie syncing up with that of Edward Scissorhands and, indeed, the project shows off aspects of much of Burton’s decades of filmmaking, borrowing elements from his entire oeuvre. The voice cast even includes several actors from past films including Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands), Catherine O’Hara (Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas), Martin Short (Mars Attacks!) and Martin Landau (Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow).
In the work-in-progress footage that was screened for press, many elements of the original short have been translated into Burton’s drawing style, including a “film within a film” that Victor shoots, starring his (still living) Sparky. This time, though, there’s an added gag as young Victor has been shooting his home videos in 3D and asks his parents to put on their glasses to watch.
Another scene shows Victor digging up Sparky’s body to begin his experimentation, panning across a pet cemetery where many of the crew have hidden the names of their own real-world pets amongst the gravestones.
There’s a lot more come from the world of Frankenweenie, so check back with as we update between now and the film’s release on October 5, 2012.

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