Frankenweenie: Stop-motion Revival

Allison Abbate at the Frankenweenie press conference at the Corinthia Hotel London which opened the 56th BFI London Film Festival in October 2012.

Allison Abbate has produced some of Hollywood’s best-known animated features such as
The Iron Giant, Corpse Bride, and Fantastic Mr Fox. Her latest film, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year. She also recently visited Australia where she is an executive producer on Animal Logic’s Lego: The Piece of Resistance. She tells Brendan Swift about the art of stop-motion and animation and working with Tim Burton.

Q: What is about animation which fires you up because you’ve been doing it for a long time and been involved in a huge number of very successful films.

A: I just feel like there’s a magic to the filmmaking process where you really are getting to create your movie one frame at a time. I’ve worked in 2D animation, I’ve done 3D, obviously stop-motion, and really, it doesn’t even matter what the medium is – it’s just amazing to watch things come to life right before your eyes. So that’s, in particular, what keeps me coming back for more.

Q: What is it about stop-motion in particular because I guess the technology has changed so much that, in theory, you could replicate that look in a purely CGI manner these days.

A: For us – and I think Tim would say the same thing – it really is the artfulness of everything and variety of artists you get to work with. I see it as a medium which really showcases the artistic talents of other people because everything you see in the frame was made by somebody. So props, set pieces, the puppets – each of those puppets is a work of art.

Q: One thing I was reading which surprised me is that stop-motion is not as expensive as a full-blown CGI ‘Pixar’ type film even though it takes so much care and so much time to actually physically create these things in the real world.

A: In CG you have rough animators, clean-up animators, lighters, riggers, all those people – there are so many hands that touch the same shot that it takes just a lot of people a lot of steps to get a finished frame up on screen in those other media. In stop-motion, you are preparing the same way as any other film but once you’ve given those materials to the animator and you’ve set up the cameras and the lights, it really is that one person who brings the film to fruition. I think we can do it faster – so it’s faster and a smaller group – that’s what helps keep the price down.

(Story continues below.)

Filmmaker Tim Burton. Frankenweenie is his second Oscar-nominated animated feature after Corpse Bride in 2005.

Q: How has the technical side of stop-motion films changed between say Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie – that seven-year period, because we’ve seen a whole slate of new post-production processes and digital cameras and now 3D as well.

A: Corpse Bride actually was shot on digital cameras as well and that was really the first one we took the plunge. That is one of the biggest innovations in this medium because first of all you can see the shots immediately. I remember on Nightmare Before Christmas when we were shooting on film you might work on a shot for two weeks and you would have to wait for the dailies when you would see the shot and you didn’t know if it was going to come out… now, with video assists and frame grabbers, the animators can really see everything that they have done. And that, to me, really helps to allow them to have more confidence in the performance and have more freedom to dig deep into the performance.

I do think that the advent of visual effects and the ability to do rig removals gives you the ability to move your character anywhere you want; also to design characters that don’t need to stand on their own two feet so to speak. Something so un-glamourous as the idea of rigging has really helped to have a more ‘finished’ looking film. Also, set extensions and the use of visual effects for skies – it gives the film scope. Often times in stop-motion, films were small or felt like you were in an enclosed space, and didn’t have the scope of a big CG feature.

But when you come down to it the art of moving a puppet one frame at a time is not aided by any technology. That back-breaking work is the same as Ray Harryhausen did 50 years ago. It’s pretty much the same process – it’s just the things around it that help make it a little bit easier for that animator.

Q: You probably get asked this a few times but, Tim Burton, is he a weird sort of individual?

A: [Laughter] Everyone does ask me that and I have a really boring answer: no, the most surprising thing about Tim is how sweet and kind he is; so collaborative and while the visual is so paramount to this film, it’s really the heart. He leads with the heart and that’s what makes him a person I would make anything with – he really mines the emotional depth of his characters and the poignancy of his relationships.

Q: I’m not sure it’s fair to say his world view is so unique but certainly his visual style and artistic style is very unique but the way he is personally is not necessarily going to be as different…

A: It’s unique in the sense that I’ve worked in Hollywood for a long time and I’ve met very few people who are as sweet and tender and real as he is and I think that that is a huge statement to say about somebody.

Q: There wouldn’t be too many normal people in Hollywood would there?

A [laughs] Sadly no. He’s just lovely to work with and he really does put himself on the line for this film. We dug into his past, he was sharing his stories, issues and images that he had had when he was a young man and lost his beloved dog. And his love for old horror movies – there were so many correlations to his life that it was really a privilege to work with him because you really felt that you got to know him better through the process and how often do you get to work with a visionary like Tim and go down memory lane with him? We had fun.

Contact this reporter at or on Twitter at @bcswift.

This transcript was lightly edited for clarity. Frankenweenie was released on DVD on February 27.