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"Coraline" post-premiere party offers an up-close look at how this stop motion movie actually came together

"Coraline" post-premiere party offers an up-close look at how this stop motion movie actually came together

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For a few years now, American animation studios have been identifying their films by unique methods of production: Disney (hand-drawn animation), Pixar (CG), Dreamworks (CG), and Robert ZemeckisImageMovers Digital (performance capture).  But until now, America did not have a feature studio dedicated to stop-motion animation.  Sure, stop-motion would show up from time-to-time on American TV, most notably on "Robot Chicken.But aside from a few independent films, stop motion was rarely utilized in feature films.

That is until last Thursday. When "Coraline" premiered in Portland, Oregon.

Photo by Todd James Pierce

In a word, the movie is stunning. Not only in the presentation of its stop-motion world, but also in its storyline, its use of music, its color palette, and the pervading sense of darkness that undergirds the entire project.

To begin with, this movie is the first stop-motion feature to be filmed in stereoscopic 3D, adapting cameras designed for medical procedures to the stop-motion set.  And unlike other animated films presented in 3D (such as "Beowulf" or "Meet the Robinsons") in which the 3D effect feels like an aspect of post-production, the 3D presentation of "Coraline" feels integral to the project, as though the film were originally imagined in 3D.  

Photo by Todd James Pierce

One of director Henry Selick’s greatest abilities is to immerse audiences in dark, atmospheric environments.  For me, the primary beauty of one of Selick’s earlier films, "The Nightmare Before Christmas," is not the story but the exploration of the film’s inventive world. Similarly the exotic world of "Coraline" is stunningly beautiful: from Coraline’s iridescent blue hair to the details of each miniature set.

The story, itself, is the darkest narrative I’ve seen in an animated film in years.  And I love it.  One of my primary criticisms of recent animated fare is that the stories have been cleaned up, stripped of danger and therefore of their power.  But here, Selick bravely places Coraline (and her family) in mortal danger throughout the movie.

Photo by Todd James Pierce

In a nutshell, the film follows a young girl, Coraline Jones, as she moves to Ashland, Oregon. Where she finds that her parents are too busy with their own careers to pay attention to her.  Bored and lonely, Coraline discovers a parallel world built by a creature who looks a great deal like her mother—though a slightly more beautiful version, except for her black button eyes.  Also there, a slightly more handsome version of her father.  And a more picturesque version of their house.  But as Coraline explores this parallel universe, she discovers the true motives of her “other mother.” Namely that she would like to possess Coraline’s life and perhaps even the lives of her real parents.

If there is a moral here, it is one very different than that of recent Disney films, namely that your actual life, complete with its pleasures and burdens, is better than the idealized world one might see in books or on TV.

Guests at the post-premiere party drink up next to the miniature
sets that were used in the creation of "Coraline."
Photo by Todd James Pierce

It is here that the film gains a great deal of its narrative power: it doesn’t seek to emulate the narrative strategies of recent Disney or Pixar films, with their mix of dramatic scenes and comedic moments.  There are no comic characters in Coraline at all.  Nor does it broach the punny post-modern playfulness of the Dreamworks franchises.  Rather, Coraline seeks its inspiration from early Disney films, those developed in the 1930s and 1940s.  

In those early Disney films, children were repeatedly placed in danger—and the danger was real.  Coraline’s trek through a gloomy forest is reminiscent of Snow White’s chilling encounter with haunted trees.  When Coraline returns from the “other world,” she finds her real house empty, her parents missing—a moment that harkens to Pinocchio’s return home, after leaving Pleasure Island, to find Geppetto gone. Coraline’s disappearance down the hole to the other world is of course tied to a similar journey Alice once made.  But more to the point, this movie has the good sense—and strength of conviction—to ignore current narrative trends in animation and instead discover a greater power by exploring older (and darker) animated antecedents from 60 years ago.

Teri Hatcher works the red carpet at "Coraline" 's world premiere.
Photo by Todd James Pierce

The film premiered last Thursday in Portland, Oregon—not far from Laika Studios where the film was produced.  The red-carpet affair was attended by Phil Knight (who owns Laika, also the co-founder of Nike), Henry Selick (the director), Dakota Fanning (voice of Coraline), and Teri Hatcher (the voice of Coraline’s mother).  And the after-party was held at a nearby museum, with sets and workstations from the film occupying a top floor gallery.

In the gallery, guests had the opportunity to examine the ornate beauty of Coraline’s house and interior rooms, from manmade cracks in the floorboards to the texture of the furniture.  Artists in side workstations demonstrated the process of constructing the metal-and-silicone puppets, each figure capable of expressing a range of precise gestures. One fabric replicator (a knitter) demonstrated the process of making Coraline’s sweaters from miniature skeins of wool.

Photo by Todd James Pierce

In the abstract, this attention to minutiae might seem obsessive, but having seen the movie twice now, I can tell you that this obsession to detail, along with the film’s lush color palette, are exactly what makes the 3D world of Coraline so compelling.

And beyond this, these workstations drove home a second message: in the 21st century, human hands, rather than computer processors, are still capable of creating a distinctively beautiful film.

Photo by Todd James Pierce

From the perspective of story, this film is far more complex (and entertaining) than any stop-motion film produced by Aardman Animations  (who have created "Chicken Run" and the Wallace and Gromit series).  It delivers a sense of story—and narrative uniqueness—that rivals the best Pixar films.  The character of Coraline feels real, from her carefully observed gestures to her pre-teen speech patterns.  In terms of technical beauty, I cannot think of a more gorgeous film produced in the past two or three years.

Pixar has Up in the wings, which in animation circles has very good buzz, and Walt Disney Animation Studios has "The Princess and the Frog," which has mostly good buzz.  But presently Laika has not only broadened the world of American feature animation.  It has delivered a film that has set the bar very high, a gorgeous motion picture that I strongly suspect will be remembered next year at Oscar time.

Photo by Todd James Pierce

Did you enjoy today's article? If so, then head on over to ToddJamesPierce.com to check out some of this author's other articles.

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  • I'm extremely confused by the article, mostly because it starts out with this line:

    "But aside from a few independent films, stop motion was rarely utilized in feature films.

    That is until last Thursday. When "Coraline" premiered in Portland, Oregon."

    Well, that implies that because of Coraline, stop motion is now frequently utilized in feature films, which is basically not quite accurate.

    Or is it referring to the lack of studios known for producing stop motion features before the existence of Laika?   Well, there might not be much, but Laika certainly can't be known as the first studio to make stop motion features...

    I mean, early on, it just doesn't sound like he is aware of the existence of stop motion features before Coraline.   But, later on, it's obvious he's aware of Nightmare Before Christmas and even Aardman.

    I just really need a lot of explanation on what exactly the two paragraphs was referring to.

    Laika can't even be considered to be a studio dedicated to feature films yet.   They have two movies (Coraline and Corpse Bride [co-produced with Will Vinton Studios]) and the rest of their roster is filled up with short films and commercials.   Rankin-Bass, Will Vinton, and Aardman are all the same way.

    So far, Skellington Productions seems to have been really the only production company that we could even count as being feature-only since they only turned out two films...

  • The "until last Thursday" is in reference to the line that said America did not have a feature studio dedicated to stop-motion animation.

  • But Laika isn't dedicated only to stop-motion.  The studio has done a bunch of other commercial work in CG and other mediums as well.  In fact, Selick himself produced a CG short at Laika before Coraline even came out.

  • According to Laika's website, Coraline is their first project under the name of Laika.

  • Correction, that should be "first stop-motion

    feature made under the name Laika".

  • I have now seen this film twice, and I must say that Coraline is, hands-down, the best animated film I've seen in years. It is stunningly beautiful, beguiling, creepy, and does not condescend.

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