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  • The Mouse Circus in the Other World. Photo: ALL IMAGES AND FILM © 2009 LAIKA, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The Art of Animation

The intricate animated detail of the stop-motion feature film ‘Coraline’ demanded the best craft-work 

In anticipation of Real to Reel: The Craft Film Festival, we've delved into the Crafts archive to rediscover the talents behind the big screen.

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‘I thought the storytelling was Alice in Wonderland meets Hansel and Gretel; it’s a certain type of fantasy that goes to a darker, scarier place,’ explains director Henry Selick of Neil Gaiman’s book Coraline, which he has adapted into an animated film. ‘I think scarier films for kids are healthy, and they’re entertained by them. I loved the character of Coraline more than anything else. She was very appealing and I wanted to bring her to life.’

When translating the original text – which follows a little girl Coraline as she discovers what appears to be a more exciting life in a parallel universe – the greatest challenge for Selick was often Gaiman’s thoughtful descriptions. ‘Neil came to me directly because he liked what I’d done on The Nightmare Before Christmas, so I saw the pages before it was even published. He’s a far better writer than me and it took a while to get the adaptation to work at all. There were certain small, beautiful details – wonderful delicious things such as the Other Mother looking hungrily at Coraline – that I had to come up with a less delicate way of showing.’ 

To date, it’s the most ambitious stop-motion film to be made. The production took over 200 people, nearly two years to complete and involved 30 animators working on 52 sets. Selick wanted to use minimal special effects to make the animation as real as possible, which means that everything the viewer can see on screen, someone has painstakingly created by hand. ‘Stop-frame animation has a timeless quality that’s perfect for fairytales. It can’t do many things that computer animation can – it has a much more limited palette – but people still desire things that seem real, where the stuff really exists. When we’re making a film, our studio is like a toy factory.’

Take the fantastical flower garden in the parallel universe, a huge crafting feat in itself: ‘We had to come up with different ways of making flowers blossom,’ recalls animation rigger Oliver Jones, whose job was to source – for the many different blossoming, moving rows of blooms – whatever household objects, toys or trinkets he could find. ‘There were great second-hand stores nearby that always had something I could use for inspiration,’ Jones says, one of many who previously worked on Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride and had just finished filming Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox. ‘I don’t think anyone had ever done anything quite like that garden before. The difference between this film and previous stop-frame films is that in nearly every shot there’s trees blowing and grass moving.’

Coraline with Mr Bobinksy, her upstairs neighbour. Photo: ALL IMAGES AND FILM © 2009 LAIKA, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Thin medical style tubing and bandages (‘they took on colour really well and were flexible’) were used to create hand contraptions to help foliage to move, while motorised wire pulleys with levers were built in under sets so that hundreds of blades of grass blew in the wind at the touch of an animator’s button . As well as 2D, the film was also shot in 3D as a device to draw the audience in. The Other World sets were deeper and with greater sense of dimensionality than Coraline’s colourless ‘real’ world, echoing the storyline exactly. 

Although Jones was mainly responsible for the greenery, other riggers propelled puppets and helped the 100-strong mouse circus spin and leap madly around. The circus was particularly special because, where the other puppets all had armatures (a separate skeleton inside them), the mice were so small they had to be built solidly. Rather than an animator manipulating the arms and legs, a new mouse was made for every single move, from an arm being raised to a foot taking a step. ‘The mice were made as solid pieces of plastic. There were thousands of them, and every one was individually painted,’ remembers Jones. ‘It was astonishing. It’s hard to get your head around the amount of detail involved, even when you’re working on the film.’

The costume department, headed by animation veteran Deborah Cook, was equally creative. Her team started from scratch, testing out fabric samples and creating textures by stitching onto their surface experimentally to come up with something that would work on puppets so tiny. ‘You can pick up a fabric that suits a human, but it might look like a thick stage curtain on a puppet, so we did test costumes to see how fabrics moved and how they creased. The weave on some fabrics was just too colossal for our scale and one crease would be as big as Coraline’s entire arm,’ says Cook, who spent time researching the huge range of fabrics needed in Los Angeles, San Francisco and London.

Animator Kent Burton works on the Other Garden. Photo: ALL IMAGES AND FILM © 2009 LAIKA, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Coraline’s yellow raincoats were hand-dyed, waterproof, coated to make them non-reflective, and screwed through the puppet’s armature with wire so that they moved with her body in a realistic way. They were so intricate that only four were made; by contrast, there were 40 pairs of pyjamas, carefully overlayed digitally on the computer so that the pattern of dots line up and you can’t tell when she’s wearing a different pair in the same sequence. Several stunt versions were pre-folded for particular scenes. 

Such creative freedom meant that the costume department was able to commission miniature-knitter Althea Crome to create a special star sweater and a pair of stripy gloves for Coraline. ‘They said that they’d always wanted to have fine knitting and because this movie has a magical  element to it, they wanted something magical too,’ says Crome, who first started miniature-knitting when her children were young. After a few false starts (she nearly couldn’t find the right combi­nation of threads, that worked in front of the ­camera, in time), she spent around three weeks making each of the teeny tiny sweaters and seven pairs of gloves. ‘I find the perfection of the scale fascinating. When I first started doing this I realised that I couldn’t use yarn, and I had to try threads instead – and now I make my own needles with stainless steel wire. The first swatches for Coraline were too finely knit for the camera, so I had to make the stitches and gauge a bit bigger.’

Whichever aspect the viewer focuses on though – whether it’s costumes smaller than a thumbprint, five-inch wigs that use up to five miles of gold thread, the tricks that help characters fly through the air, or the intricate sets with a forest of cherryblossom made of popcorn and 3,500 flowers which all light up – there’s simply no avoiding that this animation is all about crafts. The effort involved is astounding; the end result a joy to watch. It really is a hand-crafted film, and in an age where computers seem to be taking over, it’s refreshing that the animation is photographic rather than digitally generated, without whizzy gizmos or special effects. For this storyline, it’s exactly fitting. As Selick says, ‘In the end Coraline faces down pure evil with no weapons for power or cosmic abilities; all she has is courage and a couple of good friends.’ 

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2009 edition of Crafts magazine

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