Interview: FRANKENWEENIE’s Allison Abbate
After talking with Frankenweenie producer Don Hahn, I had the opportunity to chat with Allison Abbate, whom he called “one of the greatest stop-motion producers of all time.” Allison has worked with some incredible directors including Wes Anderson, Brad Bird, and, of course, Tim Burton. Her credits include Space Jam, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. I had a great time sitting down to wrap with her about Frankenweenie, the art of stop-motion, and the state of animation in the movie business. Disney’s Frankenweenie comes alive October 5th!
Screen Invasion: I was just talking with Don and it seems that he was the first person to say “Let’s turn this in to a feature!” Tell me a little bit about Frankenweenie’s beginnings.
Allison Abbate: Yeah, I remember at the end of Corpse Bride Don came to town and we were talking about it. And I was like, “We should really do this.” And Tim was like, “YES!” The time was right. Because it took a long time between Nightmare and Corpse Bride to see that it was viable to make these movies, it took a little while to get the script going, but we knew pretty much after Corpse Bride we would be making Frankenweenie. And we just rolled the same crew. I pretty much had the same crew on Fantastic Mr. Fox, which I did, and then was kind of poised and ready to role right in to this one. And it has been great. It has been great working with Tim on something that is so personal to him based on something that he has really been kicking around in his head for 30 years.
SI: You have been working with Tim for a long time, how has that relationship changed over time?
AA: I was a baby on Nightmare Before Christmas so it was really my first movie that I took from beginning to end. We learned so much and it was one of those impossible tasks that no one told us it was hard to do. So everyone was like 25-years-old and we all had to make that movie and it was great. I really think we have been chasing that high ever since. So when Corpse Bride came, sort of the new age of stop-motion, which has really been ushered in in the last really 8-10 years, it was a great time. I was so excited to get back in to stop-motion animation and to work with Tim in this medium. He loves the medium. He comes from it in his animation background and it is so nice to work with him in a medium that gives him as much pleasure as the storytelling. So it’s just a great process of creative storytelling.
SI: What is it like working with an auteur like Tim Burton or Wes Anderson?
AA: I felt like I’ve always worked with them because I worked with Brad Bird on Iron Giant and Ivan Reitman on Space Jam, so I feel like I don’t know how to work with directors who aren’t auteurs. But what I love about stop-motion is that it is such a malleable medium, so that whatever the vision of the filmmaker- anything that you can imagine these people can make. Wes imagined orange furry characters, Tim imagined elegant black-and-white graphic characters, and the same artists made both. They just are so versatile and so talented. So for me I love watching the medium take on the personality of the man whose vision we are executing. It’s been good, but the process is pretty much the same, you need to get in to their heads to know exactly what they want, and then we make it.
SI: How has technology changed the process since Nightmare?
AA: There have been many changes since Nightmare. The animators could only see 3 frames in really foggy green and black, it was horrible to see it. We were shooting with film cameras so we would shoot for two weeks on a shot and then not know until dailles that Monday when you’re like, “It didn’t work! It got light blue on the second day!” Like you just wasted that many weeks of work with this big pop. There were no visual effects fixes. No rigs. Rigs could not be removed so everything had to be hidden. I can’t even believe we made a movie like that then. And now it really is the same old process, you know a guy behind a curtain pushing a puppet around the whole time, but you can open up the world a little bit, shoot with green screen and then paint in a huge suburban landscape behind or whereas in the past you would not have been able to do that. You can put rigs on characters like Sparky so that he is constantly jumping up and down and you’re not constantly encumbering the animator trying to hide pins or fishing fire, which just gives the animator freedom to do the performance that he wants without having to worry as much about the technology. So those are the ways that I think we embrace technology, but still you embrace technology in order to give you the space to really do the old school technology with as few burdens as possible.
SI: How would you like to see Frankenweenie come alive in a Disney park?
AA: I don’t know that much about Disney park rides because I never go to Disney, but I don’t know. It just seems like it’s the magical part of it, it’s the coming back to life, it’s the, you know, harnessing the power of electricity. So to me maybe something with a lot of sparkle.
SI: What kind of advice do you have for an artist trying to get in to stop-motion?
AA: I would just say just to do it because nowadays one of the great technological breakthroughs for people at the starting out level is every single phone and camera that you buy can shoot. We just shoot with pretty much digital still cameras now, so it’s the same camera that you can go get at the store. We just shoot one frame at a time and then string it all together. And now that people have iMovie and things like that on their computers, you can just take what you shoot and make your own movies. So to me it’s like really hone your creative vision and then make a little movie. You know just start pushing puppets around or start trying to create because it does seem like that’s what people can do now and they can get their voice out and experiment and try things. I would say most of the best animators in our business were kids who did it in their basement with their mom’s kitchen utensils, and that really is still the way to do it.
SI: Let’s go back to Frankenweenie, tell me about the story.
AA: Yeah, it’s about a little boy who’s so despondent at the death of his dog that he harnesses the power of electricity and brings him back to life, in a nutshell. One of the things I love about the story is that we kind of explore a little element of Frankenstein which you don’t really talk about that much, which is what would happen if Frankenstein had not rejected the monster, if he had created this creature and not pushed it away because really that’s the difference. You know, the monster, if you ever read Frankenstein, isn’t a monster to start with. He’s a tender soul that is just abused and rejected constantly and he becomes a monster. And so really that’s the difference. Victor re-creates Sparky and loves him and takes care of him and protects him and keeps him safe. Obviously, Sparky isn’t a monster, he’s an innocent, he’s an angel, he’s a hero. So that was one of the fun things was to explore that and really showcase that. And then also the flip side is the other kids at school who learn about the secret, but want to win the science fair or want to one-up Victor, they create these pet monsters and they actually are monsters because they aren’t created for the right reason. They’re not created with intention and responsibility. So I think that’s a really cool thing about the movie that you don’t expect when you watch the movie. You don’t expect there to be those Faulkner looking themesYou haven’t seen any footage have you? The imagery is really cool. Literally it’s so different form anything that’s out there. You know, a lot of animation is beautiful, but there’s so much color movin’ around and funny things going on and ours is just so different. I was at The Avengers and the trailer played and literally people were shuffling in having popcorn and then our trailer started and it was just like silence. They just watched it, they laughed at all the jokes, it ended and they went right back to eating popcorn. People just haven’t seen it, so there’s that moment of “wait, this is beautiful, what is it?” So that’s kind of a nice feature I’m excited about.
SI: So what’s it like watching a movie that you have been working on for so long with an audience?
AA: It’s hard. It’s hard work, but I’m always so proud of them anyway and I know that they’re good. It’s weird when jokes don’t play and you’re like, “What! That was funny! Come on, laugh!” But you learn. You learn maybe like that music is too loud and they can’t hear the joke or we cut away too fast and they weren’t able to take a beat and get it, or whatever it is. I think it’s important to hear it with an audience, especially before it’s finished. And then once it’s finished I just cry all the way through. I mean once the music swells it’s just like, “My baby’s out!” My god, when Iron Giant came out, when that giant takes the bullit, oh my god I still cry. I cannot watch that scene without crying and it was just that first screening with an audience that made me like-Brad and I just looked at each other and we were like, “We did it. It works.” So they are real babies. I think you always feel a little proud.
SI: Do you have any predictions for the future of animation?
AA: My prediction is that it’s going to get more varied. I feel like there is a lot of fare that’s out there, Paranorman, I just feel like it’s really opening itself up. A lot more studios are making movies. These kinds of movies seem like they are popular and viable and CGI movies are changing so that people have different sensibilities. Hotel Transylvania looks very different than The Guardians that’s coming out form Dreamworks. Certainly Wreck-It-Ralph looks very different. I really feel that this is going to be a new generation of a lot of different fare for people to choose from. And the quality is just so high that you can experiment with different mediums. That’s what I’m predicting.
SI: Are we in a new renaissance of animation?
AA: I hope so. Yeah, especially now that live action movies are all pretty much animated movies anyway. All those visual effects movies are animated characters basically, so even live action filmmakers are embracing that concept of prepping your movie and storyboarding out a movie and really spending the time doing that pre-production work. And I think it shows. Movies will be better and they will be more thought out.
SI: Any projects on deck to look forward to?
AA: Tim and I are talking about doing another project. We’re just kind of figuring it out, we’ll see. There will definitely be another one, no question about that.