The Personal Tale (Tail?) Behind the Creation of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie

Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie” is a heartwarming tale about a boy and his dog, and based on the very personal connection the acclaimed filmmaker had with his own dog.  Burton explains: “The reason I originally wanted to make ‘Frankenweenie’ was based on growing up and loving horror movies.  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—a very personal kind remembrance.”  Continue reading for more behind-the-scenes details from Walt Disney Studios on the creation of Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie,” and click here for all the images, trailers, and materials for “Frankenweenie.”

Tim Burton © 2012 Disney Enterprises. All Rights Reserved.

From Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The making of “Frankenweenie” in stop-motion animation was a labor of love, involving a huge crew of artisans, animators, prop makers, puppet makers, designers and artists over a two-­‐year period.  “There are a lot of people that go into making a film like this,” Burton says.  “The thing that makes it different than say a live-action film is that it happens in very slow-motion time.  In live action you have to make quick decisions all the time, in stop motion it may take a couple of days or couple of weeks to do a shot depending on its complexity.”

Animation Director Trey Thomas holds up the Mom puppet for Director Tim Burton to review in the Puppet Hospital. ©2012 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo by: Leah Gallo

 

Stop-motion animation is one of the oldest animation styles and is a very hands-on process.  There are 24 frames per second in the stop motion for “Frankenweenie.”  This means that the animator must stop and position the puppet 24 times to get one second of filmed action.  On average, one animator can only produce 5 seconds of animation per week.  Multiple puppets of the same character allowed animators to work on more than one scene at once.  There were as many as 18 animators working independently of each other at one time.

Animator, Jens Gulliksen, animating Victor on the Pet Cemetery set. Photo by Leah Gallo ©2011 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

There may have been easier ways to make the film, but Tim Burton believes that stop motion was the perfect choice for “Frankenweenie.”  He explains, “There’s a beauty to stop motion, and there is something in it that mirrors the Frankenstein story of where you’re taking an inanimate object and bringing it to life.  There’s an energy to that, that you can’t quite get in any other form.”

Says producer Allison Abbate, “Stop motion animation is so handmade and so intimate. I feel like those attributes of stop motion are what make it perfect for telling this story, because it is as if you can feel the effort and artistry that goes on within the shots.”

Director Tim Burton reviews the character maquettes in the Puppet Hospital with Producer Allison Abbate. ©2012 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo by: Leah Gallo

 

Executive producer Don Hahn agrees, adding: “There is no better world than the world of stop motion to be able to transport the audience into this town of New Holland, into Victor Frankenstein’s home and up into his attic to see him work.  It is a sense of fantasy that only stop motion can deliver.  That’s why the audience has an emotional attachment to it.  Because you can see it—you can see the movement and the fingerprints and the textures and you can feel the sense of lighting as if you’re really there.  The stop-­motion technique is really terrific for this movie, and of course, something that no one is better at than Tim Burton.”

VICTOR and SPARKY © 2012 Disney Enterprises. All Rights Reserved.

 

Over 200 puppets and sets were created for the film; there were 17 Victors and 12 Sparkys.  Since each animator worked independently on different scenes, multiples were needed.  They also needed backup in case a puppet required repair.  The first puppet designed for the movie was Sparky and the scale that they established with him set the standard for the whole rest of the film.  Tim Burton had a very specific vision for Sparky’s character and really wanted him to act and move like a real dog.  The armature needed to be very intricate and four inches is literally the smallest they could make him and still have him display all the behavior and personality that was required.  Once they had his size fixed, the puppet makers were able to scale the rest of the characters and sets properly.

Animator, Matias Liebrecht, animating Victor on the Attic set. Photo by Leah Gallo ©2011 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

Incredibly talented artists were able to take Tim Burton’s original drawings and sculpt them into three-­dimensional sculptures, which were then cast in a combination of silicone and latex.  Their costumes were all sewn with miniature stitches to keep in scale.  Wigs were made for them from real human hair and then applied strand by strand so that the puppets had a more realistic hairline.  Inside each puppet there is a metal armature, which acts like a skeleton and gives the animator the ability to move the puppets and act out the scenes with incredible subtlety and finesse.

The Puppet Hospital on the “Frankenweenie” set was always full.  The highly trained model makers spent months repairing limbs, fixing hair and skin issues and mending costumes that were ripped or dirty.  This team even found time to create all of the generic background puppets as well as a few of the main characters from scratch.

The film is set in the fictitious town of New Holland, which executive producer Don Hahn refers to as “a mythical 1970’s suburban town — a Transylvania meets Burbank kind of place.”  Above the town a replica windmill sits on a hillside, a constant reminder to the proud inhabitants of their Dutch heritage.

(Pictured) BOB'S MOM. ©2012 Disney Enterprises. All Rights Reserved.

 

In order to create the design of the sets to mirror the suburban 1970s and bring New Holland to life, the filmmakers brought on Academy Award–winning production designer Rick Heinrichs, who had worked with Burton previously.  Much of the visual style involved Burton’s imagining of the sets, so he and Heinrichs worked closely together to realize them.

As Don Hahn says, “What Rick has done is marry the sets and the style of the puppets together.  So you feel like it’s a cohesive place you’re going to.  If movies are kind of in the transportation business, then the two of them with their style have transported us into this world.  It’s very much from their personal style and the hand of Tim and Rick.”

(Pictured) EDGAR. ©2012 Disney Enterprises. All Rights Reserved.

 

The sets for the film were built on tabletops.  The vast majority of the miniature props for the sets were made by hand and hand-­painted and detailed.  The attention to detail was incredible—even the blinds worked.

Tim Burton was adamant that “Frankenweenie” be shot in black and white, and for very good reasons.  The director explains, “The black and white is very much a part of the story, the character and the emotion of it, and that was always very important.  There’s an emotional quality to black and white; like another character.  Seeing this kind of animation that way, there’s a certain depth and a certain way people and objects go in and out of shadows that’s quite interesting, and again very much a part of the story.”

In order to create the tone of the sets, a palette of grays was designed.  Puppets were painted in black and white, as were some of the sets.  Some of the objects like the grass and the flowers that couldn’t be rendered get in black and white were kept on set in color.  Tests were done to see how a color would convert to black and white, and, in some cases, the color would be retained on set as it came into black and white with a richer quality; for example, dark red drapes showed better in black and white than gray ones.

(Pictured) PERSEPHONE. ©2012 Disney Enterprises. All Rights Reserved.

 

Rendering the finished film in 3D added another element of visual style important to the overall feel and look of the film.  “The images are very crisp and clear in black and white,” says Tim Burton, “and then the 3D element gives it a certain kind of depth that is unusual and amazing.  With stop motion and 3D, it’s a way for people to actually feel like they’re going on the set.  You see the texture in the puppets.  You see things that you don’t normally see.  It’s the closest thing to actually walking on the set of a stop-­motion animated film.”

Don Hahn is a fan of 3D with a purpose.  “If you go to the movies, you want to see a 3D movie that makes sense to be in 3D,” says Hahn.  “I don’t think ever before was there a movie more suited for 3D than ‘Frankenweenie.’  It allows you to be there and not just look at the movie at arm’s length, but actually be in the movie with Victor and his mom and dad and his dog Sparky and feel like you’re standing side by side with them.  So the idea for 3D for this movie is a match made in heaven.”

“Frankenweenie” opens in theaters nationwide on October 5, 2012.  For more family movie news, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page too.

About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.