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CCI: Frankenweenie Producers Bring Tim Burton’s Story to Life

Tim Burton, the visionary behind such animated modern classics as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, returns to stop motion in October with Disney’s Frankenweenie, an extended version of his 1984 live-action short. Produced by Don Hahn (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast) and Allison Abbate (The Nightmare Before Christmas), Frankenweenie hopes to build on Burton’s pedigree while returning to one of his original stories.

“I feel like I’ve been chasing the high of Nightmare Before Christmas my entire career,” Abbate told Spinoff Online at Comic-Con International. “It was such an amazing time and place to be in. Corpse Bride was wonderful to get back into stop-motion animation and really set the bar for what we could do. [Frankenweenie] seemed like the perfect storm of the conversions of all things. It’s his original story, it’s based on a time in his life when he lived in Burbank and was growing up and had a dog that passed away. The medium is at a place right now where you really can do anything. You can get such emotional performances out of these characters. It was really great.”

Hahn was at Disney during the time Burton’s original Frankenweenie short debuted, and recalled the impetus to bring Burton’s short to life.

“As with many people, I’m a fan of the original short and I was actually at the studio when it was made,” he said. “I also felt like there was probably a lot more to it than Tim had the time or the money to do. The studio said, ‘This guy has talent, let’s give him $10,000 and see what he can do,’ and it’s the Frankenstein myth, so there’s this whole mythology that he probably didn’t get into that much. He agreed when I first talked to him about it. He said, ‘Yeah, there’s things that would be really fun to expand.’ He brought in John August, our writer and it grew from there. It was really the idea that it was half a statement when he made that short. The short’s great by itself but I think so much more could have been done.”

The short was deemed highly controversial by Disney. “The studio didn’t know what to do with it,” Hahn recalled. “It came out in front of the Pinnochio VHS cassette. Nobody knew what to do with it. It was this little odd black-and-white thing from a 20-year-old kid. It was this oddity. Now it’s become this cult classic and Tim’s become an icon, but it really was a white elephant when it came out.”

Tim Burton studies a model of Sparky

Although Frankenweenie may have been controversial in its original 1984 incarnation, Abbate said kids are more likely to understand the concept now, even if the animated adaptation forces them to deal with loss in a real way.

“We learned a lot in the last 25 years. I think kids are much savvier, much more able to take things on,” she said. “It is going to be hard for some kids and some parents to — it’s not the scariness of the movie, it’s the fact that it deals with loss and it does make the family be responsible for talking about it and explaining it through. I do think it’s a beautiful story. There are ways we opened it up. We added more before he dies so you get a sense of him as a character and we do absolutely have other bits of the story. The short was a 30 minute story just about his dog dying and the craziness that ensues. It does seem like that’s a harder thing to place than letting people have a whole movie to experience the arc and the rise of this event and the story. I think it’s really great for families and it feels very Disney. It feels like a movie that makes you think and makes you feel and makes you care about the characters. That is a Disney movie.”

Hahn explained why Burton opted for traditional stop-motion animation rather than CG for Frankenweenie.

“Tim felt strongly that this was a movie about bringing the dead to life and that’s what stop-motion animation is,” he said. “You’re taking these inanimate objects and bringing them to life, literally like the Frankenstein story. Part of it is he and I and Allison and all of us are fans of stop motion and you just don’t see it that often. I think the audience does, too. The audience has an appreciation for something that’s handmade. We see a lot of great computer graphics films out there. Brave just came out. There’s nothing wrong with them, but I think it’s also that the audience is hungry for something fresh; something where you can see the hand of the filmmaker in it and that’s certainly what this movie delivers.”

Despite the advances in technology, Abbate said the process for making a stop-motion film has remained largely the same — it’s just easier to put together now.

“It’s interesting because it is still the old process,” she said. “We use technology helping us to make it easier to see it, new digital cameras, certainly puppet advancements to make the puppets better and more subtle. It still is a guy in a room pushing a puppet one frame at a time. It is kind of that — it has a foot in each world, the modern and the old fashioned. That is what seems very appealing especially to authors and really amazing artists. It is neat that they go back to this art form to tell their stories. It’s nice because more of them are coming out. It’s starting to seem like we’re seeing more and more of them. We can’t keep our animators down because they’re in high demand. It’s been interesting to take Nightmare, which was really one of the first ones and they said, ‘You can’t make a movie out of this.’ But we gave it a shot and it seems like it’s taken people a long time to go, ‘Wait a minute, I can make a movie out of that too.’ It’s neat to see how it’s taken off. It’s not a CG or that kind of trajectory. I do think there are more out there and there are going to be more out there.”

Beyond the draw of stop-motion, Abbate highlighted the story, which at its core is about the love between a boy and his dog.

“It’s about a dog and everyone can relate to that relationship whether it’s their own dog or their grandma’s dog or a friend’s dog,” she said. “There’s that core relationship that people can relate to. I also think that black and white is such a big part. Even when ‘Nightmare’ came out, people said, ‘That looks different, I’m not sure,’ but there’s something about that imagery that gets under your skin. It is so — it sticks with you and grows. That’s the same thing I’m seeing with black and white. We know we were inspired and excited by movies when we were little — you’d see ‘Frankenstein’ or any of those old black and white movies. You’d see those characters and you’d love them, you remember those characters. You remember Boris Karlov. Young kids don’t really have exposure to that. So the fact that you can give them this gift of showing them that and tapping those buttons that we had tapped when we saw those movies, maybe they’ll go back and look at The Mummy or Frankenstein or The Creature from the Black Lagoon. That’s what you want. You want to go and be able to share the wealth of the medium with them. I think the way holidays worked with Nightmare, I think old movies are going to work with Frankenweenie. There’s a lot to chew on.”

Hahn further states the references to old horror films helps adults to recall the early sojourns into black and white storytelling.

“Obviously, it’s in Tim’s style, and he has a very definite handwriting and a very definite storytelling style,” he said. “It’s meant to be a general audience movie, though maybe not for the little ones, because there’s some scary parts. It’s based on a Halloween story. Definitely something to take your family to because the adults can enjoy it as much, if not more than, the kids. In many ways, Frankenweenie being an homage to Frankenstein is shot in black and white, also an homage to all those great 1950s monster movies that we grew up with. We’ve had test screenings, which have been phenomenal because the kids register it on the surface and the adults are going, ‘Oh, there’s the Creature from the Black Lagoon and there’s Godzilla.’ It has those multiple layers we always look for in our movies.”

In fact, Abbate characterized Frankenweenie as a love letter from Burton to the black-and-white horror films.

“That’s one of the reasons he was so adamant about making it be in black and white,” she said. “There was something emotional about taking the color out and something emotional about telling a story about loss with a loss of color. It stuck with him as a kid seeing those horror movies. Misunderstood monsters and those themes play so much in his films, so it does seem like for him, you couldn’t do it without shooting in black and white. The hope is that kids will just get it.”

Beyond making the movie, the references to older films and the resurgence of Burton’s stop-motion animation, Hahn says Frankenweenie has a personal edge that he hopes will make it stand the test of time.

“I know Tim’s storytelling style and his graphic style. This is a very personal movie for him and he’s designed the characters himself,” he said. “I know it has the potential to have that lasting power. What lasts for people isn’t necessarily technique. I don’t think any of us go to the movies to see a technique. It’s the heart of the story and the entertainment value and this absolutely delivers on that level.”

Frankenweenie opens Oct. 5.

Related: The Art of Frankenweenie

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