Tonight, the AFI Dallas International Film Festival presents its Tex Avery Animation Award, sponsored by Reel FX, to a director many people may never have heard of. Yet he’s already created at least two major animation landmarks as well as an instantly recognizable “house style.”
Most people think Tim Burton directed The Nightmare Before Christmas. The official title of the film is even Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. But it was Henry Selick who directed it, who fleshed out what was originally a poem by Burton.
Like Burton, Selick was a student at CalArts (where they first met), and like Burton, he started in professional animation at Walt Disney Studios. But when Selick became an independent animator, he turned away from drawing cartoons and toward three-dimensional figures. He even directed Pillsbury Dough Boy commercials.
SELICK: “The 2-D was just what most people did to make a living. But I started experimenting with cut-outs and then I made some life-size cut-out figures in 3-D space. It was just sort of a progression to get the drawings to stand up off the page.”
It was Tim Burton’s success with Batman Returns in 1992 that made Disney eager to work with its former employee-turned-hot-young-director. It was willing to make The Nightmare Before Christmas — taking a chance on stop-motion animation, which Disney didn’t do, taking a chance on a story far darker than Disney’s trademark family fare.
It took a chance, as well, on Henry Selick, who’d never shot a full-length movie before. The risks paid off. Nightmare was the first full-length, stop-motion animation feature from a Hollywood studio. And it became a holiday favorite (Disney even re-released it in 2000 for the holidays).
Most recently, Selick wrote and directed Coraline – based on Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel about a girl who uncovers a spooky alternative family. Coraline has been hailed as by critics as one of the finest 3-D movies ever made. It is certainly the first full-length stop-motion animation film ever made – in 3-D.
With Coraline, Nightmare and James and the Giant Peach, Selick has made major features with highly distinctive worlds that combine the gloomy and the giggly — working with writers (Neil Gaiman, Tim Burton, Roald Dahl and James) with chiming sensibilities. Indeed, Gaiman sent Selick the script of Coraline before his publisher had even agreed to it.
The three films have similar feels and their stories, Selick admits, revolve around a similar event, a Wizard-of-Oz like trip into a fantastical world that ends with the better-and-wiser main character returning home. There’s more than a passing resemblance here to the experience of going to the cinema to visit the wonderfully weird worlds inside one of Selick’s own movies. Actually, Selick notes that the “we’re not in Kansas anymore” inspiration was partly behind his use of 3-D in Coraline: He wanted a transforming visual effect similar to the black-and-white-turning-into-color sequence when Dorothy lands in Oz.
With the renaissance of full-length animation in the past two decades, a number of recognizable “house styles” have developed: Pixar’s bright, pop-smart CGI look (Toy Story, WALL-E), Aardman’s funky-whimsical-ingenious Brit claymation (Wallace and Gromit) and Selick’s comedies with their creepy twists and intricately gothic looks (Laika is the name of his production company).
Selick has caught flak for creating kid features darker than the typical family fare — as did Dahl, as have Burton and Gaiman. But for all their creepiness and their groundbreaking artistry, Selick insists his films are actually quite traditional — and something of a return to his roots in animation.
SELICK: “A lot of what Walt Disney was actually drawn to originally – you know, classic fairy tales. So I would say I have more in common with early Disney, that mix of light and dark and fun with scares.”