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Painstaking labor creates puppet magic


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POSTED: Friday, February 06, 2009

Stop-motion animation fans can rejoice at the opening of the feature film “;Coraline,”; which is the first to be made in stereoscopic 3-D. The set is staged with lights and cameras, a costume and hair department is on standby just as in regular film production. The main difference: The puppets become the actors.

Henry Selick, known for his work on “;The Nightmare Before Christmas,”; directs the film.

“;Miniature puppets, props and miniature sets were all used to bring Coraline's two complete worlds to life,”; Selick said.

The film took about 20 months to complete and required an entire week of production to obtain 74 seconds of movie footage. “;Stop-motion and puppet animation is pretty painstaking, but all good animation takes a long time,”; he said. “;We started with a handful of animators and a couple of sets. By the end, there were 30 animators and 50 mini sets.”;

And that wasn't the only time-consuming aspect of the production. Each puppet in “;Coraline”; took 10 people about three to four months to complete. The puppets were created using silicone, foam latex and resin with some metal on the inside. They required an outer framework that allowed a human animator to manipulate the puppet.

“;We're trying to impart the puppets with life,”; Selick said. “;It's like crossing a chasm on a tightrope. It's an actual performance where the animator starts at frame one and builds upon the performance. They are coaxing a puppet to life by adjusting his hair, hands or changing faces so that they can speak.”;

The characters' wide range of expressions required replacement heads and faces for the puppets. Alternate pieces were made in halves that replaced either the upper or lower half of the head. A seam line that ran across the face was later erased. Jack Skellington from “;The Nightmare Before Christmas,”; for example, had about 150 possible facial expressions, while Coraline has thousands. During a 35-second span, Coraline displays 16 different expressions.

The character of Coraline (voice-over by Dakota Fanning) required 28 different puppets, each about the height of a Barbie doll, and the character had nine costumes. Since animators handled the puppets frequently, dozens of duplicate costumes also needed to be handy.

Selick wanted the puppets to appear as if they had natural hair, so instead of using the traditional sculpted hair pieces, the crew experimented with human and animal hair and tinsel.

  IN NEIL GAIMAN'S story, Coraline finds a secret door that leads to an “;Other World”; with an “;Other Mother”; (Teri Hatcher) and “;Other Father”; (John Hodgman).

The interior rooms, fittings, wallpaper, sky and landscaping were properly matched up to create two nearly identical worlds, with one ordinary and the other whimsical.

“;The book has been compared to the story 'Alice in Wonderland.' But in 'Coraline,' (the girl) runs into a grim fairy tale that looks on the surface very bright and positive. It's pretty much a duplicate of the world she comes from, only better,”; Selick said.

Later, Coraline's discovery of three ghost children being held prisoner by the Other Mother forces her to explore what's really going on beneath the surface.

“;It's a classic fairy tale with a witch, enchantment and real magic, but it's set in our time,”; Selick said.

While the story may be appealing to girls in the 8-to-11-year range, Selick says there is plenty of “;boy stuff—creepy crawlers and scary stuff, too.”; The film is not intended for the very young and is recommended for children 8 and up, he said. “;I'd like to encourage people to see it in 3-D to get the full effect.”;

Selick said he was “;delighted”; with the story.

“;When I first read the manuscript, I was struck by the juxtaposition of worlds: The one we live in and the one where the grass is always greener,”; he said. “;This is something that everyone can relate to. We have all wished for a different partner, or different parents.

“;Coraline explores the idea of getting every wish answered, but it bites her in the tail. It reminds us to be careful of what we wish for and ... appreciate what's already around us,”; he added.