AICN STORY #20,000!! Moriarty Visits The London Sets Of THE CORPSE BRIDE!!
Published at: Nov. 15, 2008, 4:47 p.m. CST by Moriarty
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
We didn’t plan for this story to be #20,000 on the site, but it’s appropriate. Celebrating films like this one is the reason that all of us at AICN continue to do this, despite a million different things pulling us away from the site, it seems. I think I speak for Harry when I say that it would be easy to step aside at this point and not do this sort of writing for the site anymore, but it wouldn’t be satisfying. I started writing for AICN because I love movies and need a place to vent my enthusiasm, and it continues to be the absolute best outlet I can imagine. All we can do is work to make the site even better as we move forward from here, and as long as people are making films like this one, it should be easy to stay excited.
A trip like this one is a mixed blessing.
On the one hand, I finally had an excuse to visit London, which I found to be one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited, and I toured a set totally unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
On the other hand, I spent 23 hours on planes between Sunday and Wednesday, and my body’s reaction to the extreme jet lag was a near-total collapse of my immune system for a few days after I got back.
But y’know what? Totally worth it.
Just before I left the house on Sunday, I posted a short announcement about my trip to London. I touched down at Heathrow around noon on Monday and caught a cab to Blake’s Hotel in Kensington, where Warner Bros. arranged for me to stay. I think the word for the place would be “posh,” and I had a totally bizarre but cool room and over-the-top great service the entire time I was there. To anyone who e-mailed me about getting together who I wasn’t able to talk to while I was there (which was an unfortunately high percentage), I appreciate the interest, and maybe I’ll have a longer trip next time.
Tuesday morning, just after 10:00, I was picked up and driven across town to the Three Mills Studios. My Russian driver took me past the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and more, giving me at least a quick overview of the city on our way to the studio. Three Mills Studios is actually built on the site of a mill dating back to the 11th century. The current buildings have been there since at least the 18th century, and have been used to mill flour and gin over the years. After making it through security, I was shown into the building that CORPSE BRIDE is using for office space right now.
Located right across from Stages A, B, and C, I was shown into the production office, and right away, I got an eyeful of the artwork created for the film, hung on every wall. I was told to wait while they got me a visitor’s pass. Fine by me. That gave me time to look at some of Tim Burton’s original sketches done at the very start of the process that helped set the tone for all the other design work in the movie. In particular, there was one image of the Corpse Bride that must have been one of the key things to suggest this story. The script is by Pemela Pettler and Caroline Thompson, with revisions late in the game by John August, but this is Burton’s baby, clearly.
Burton’s hired some amazing artists to help bring his vision to life, and I was blown away by the gorgeous interior paintings by Chris Baker that establish lighting and color ideas for each set. There are two major sets of locations in the film, and each is distinguished by a very different look. The Land Of The Living is largely painted in greys and blacks and whites, creating a monochromatic world of repression. The Land Of The Dead, though, looks very different. My first glimpse of it was a panoramic style sheet, dark black punctuated with deep cool colors, splashes of blue, purple, yellow, green and orange. My first thought was that this looked like a Mario Bava underworld, and nothing like the conventional versions of either Heaven or Hell, a choice I really like. Turns out, that’s a major thematic element of the film.
See, there are lots and lots of dead characters in the movie. It’s not just the Corpse Bride. Looking around the reception area, I saw designs for several of the dead characters, many of who appear only in the background of scenes or in one or two moments. There was an adorable little Skeleton Girl with pigtails, a Dead Dwarf General with a Napoleon hat and a sword driven through him, some of the Dead Kitchen staff with knives and cleavers sticking out of them like pincushions, and a Female Zombie A. It’s like you’ll be able to look at many of these scenes and pick out character gags in the foreground and the background all working at the same time. There were also photographs of the film’s main characters, so I was able to sort out some of what I’d seen the film’s teaser trailer, finally putting character names to faces and figuring out how they were related.
You’ve seen Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp) in the trailers, but I got my first good look at Pastor Galswell (voiced by Christopher Lee), the one who is supposed to marry Victor and Victoria (voiced by Emily Watson) in the film. I think the two characters that most intrigued me that I haven’t seen any sign of in any stills or footage released so far were Black Widow (voiced by Jane Horrocks) and Maggot (voiced by Enn Reitel), who are exactly what they sound like. Maggot actually lives in the Corpse Bride’s eye socket and crawls out to give her advice from time to time, like the most repulsive version of Jiminy Cricket that you can imagine.
About this time, Jules (the incredibly cool Warner publicist who handled all the arrangements for me in London) came to give me my pass and lead me upstairs to the office of Allison Abbate, the film’s producer. The last time I saw Allison was at the premiere party for THE IRON GIANT back in 1999. That was the end of a very difficult process, and both she and Brad Bird seemed ready to collapse from sheer relief that night. Seeing her again on this film, she seems like a whole new person, and the difference can be summed up in one word: support. When they were making IRON GIANT, Warner Bros. was having an identity crisis, not sure if they really wanted to make animated features or not, and even if they didn’t mean to, they jerked the filmmakers around and wore them down. On this film, the name Tim Burton seems to have bought them all sorts of freedom and studio enthusiasm, which translates into a different level of happiness for Allison and all the people she’s working with.
We started by watching a presentation tape that began with the trailer you’ve already seen by now, then moved on to a selection of scenes from the film, each with a title card before it. In order, I saw:
VICTOR LEARNS HIS VOWS
Much of the teaser trailer was pieced together from this scene, which begins with Victor walking alone in the woods, nervous about proposing to Victoria. He stops to practice putting the ring on her finger, using what he thinks is a branch sticking out of the ground...
... only to realize too late that it’s actually the dessicated, skeletal finger of The Corpse Bride (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter), who erupts from the ground as soon as Victor proposes, ready to accept the offer.
Victor freaks out, understandably enough, and takes off running through the woods, across a frozen river, and then out onto a bridge where he can see the home of Victoria and her parents, Everglot Mansion. For a moment, he thinks he’s gotten away, and then a murder of crows swoops down on him.
Seeing the scene in context like that, cut in sequence, I was amazed by how fluid the stop-motion animation is in the film. I think it’s a major leap forward from THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, which was pretty damn nice in its own right. Many of you wrote to us after the trailer premiered to ask if it’s CGI or some sort of combination of CG and stop-motion. It’s not. There are a few elements in the film that are CG, but I hear it’s less than 45 shots in the whole film, and even in those shots, it’s just one thing, like the Bride’s veil or the crows that attack Victor. It was important to the filmmakers to do as much of it using conventional stop-motion as possible.
The next title card came up:
REUNITED WITH AN OLD FRIEND
The Corpse Bride takes Victor to the Land Of The Dead in an effort to convince him to honor his proposal. As a wedding present, she gives him a bag filled with bones. Victor dumps the bones out on the ground, not sure what he’s supposed to do with them, and watches, amazed, as they shake, then draw together into the shape of a skeletal dog.
Turns out, it’s Snaps, the dog that Victor had when he was a little boy. The Corpse Bride wants Victor to be happy, and figures this’ll do the trick. When Victor realizes that it’s Snaps, he is overcome by emotion. “Sit up!” he says, and Scraps does. “Roll over,” he says, and again, Scraps does, his head staying in place while his body does 360-degree loops. “Play dead,” he says, only to be rewarded with a puzzled look from both Scraps and the Bride, which makes Victor sheepishly say, “Sorry.”
BACK AMONGST THE LIVING
When the Bride and Victor come back to the Land Of The Living, the first thing she does is stand in the sunlight to soak in it. It’s a beautiful, atmospheric moment. Victor finds himself almost charmed by the Corpse Bride, and I can see why. She’s the perfect Tim Burton glamour girl. Her one good leg is very good indeed, and she’s lovely in spite of the whole dead thing. I noticed a bit of the CG veil in this scene, but just for a few shots again.
Victor makes an excuse and tells the Corpse Bride to wait for him, saying he’ll be right back. He takes the opportunity to leave her there and head straight over to Everglot Mansion so he can see Victoria. Instead, there’s a nasty surprise waiting for him there...
THE HONEYMOON IS OVER
Upset by Victor’s actions, the Bride literally cries her eye out. She feels betrayed by him. She believes that Victor should honor the proposal he made to her. Victor tells her the hard truth, that he would never marry a dead woman, which only ends up hurting her again.
VICTOR AND THE CORPSE BRIDE MAKE UP
Out of all the scenes on this presentation reel, this is the one that really knocked me out. The thing I judge any animation by, in the end, isn’t technical accomplishment... it’s performance. If you can take simple drawings or computer code or lifeless puppets and you can create honest emotion and the illusion of real life, then that’s what makes animation great. The scene starts with Victor and the Corpse Bride sitting side-by-side at a piano. She starts playing first, a melancholy tune. Victor, whose heart is broken, recognizes something in her, and he can’t help but respond. He joins her, playing a melody that perfectly counterpoints hers, and they find themselves drawn into a beautiful duet. This was the first new bit of Danny Elfman’s score that I heard, and the way it races through a whole range of emotions so nimbly is impressive, and by the end of the piece, the Corpse Bride’s hand runs up and down the keys, disconnected from her arm, carried away by the music.
THERE’LL BE A WEDDING AFTER ALL
This was the first glimpse I got of the film’s true villain, Barkis Bittern (voiced by the great Richard E. Grant). When Victor disappears, Barkis steps in to marry Victoria, convinced he’ll be given a huge dowry by her parents Maudeline (Joanna Lumley) and Finnis (Albert Finney). This is the scene where the decision is made to marry them off, and I like how the various characters are played, exaggerated but still recognizably human.
As the clips finally ended, Allison rejoined me to discuss the clips, and to tell me more about the film in general.
One of the things that has been important to the filmmakers since day one is that this not play out like a sequel to THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. It’s obvious from looking at the footage that they’ve accomplished their goal. NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is twisted fun, a gift-wrapped apple with a razor blade inside, like something made by a naughty child. I wouldn’t accuse it of being a particularly deep film. CORPSE BRIDE seems to have a mor mature subtext at work about the cycles of life and acceptance of them. Eventually, the film’s two worlds collide when all of the people from the Land Of The Dead come into the Land Of The Living. The first reaction is chaos, of course. After all, the dead returning to Earth is basically a zombie plague, right? But in the midst of everyone freaking out, a little boy steps out of the crowd, looking at one of the Dead, and says, “Grandfather?” Because no matter how outrageous some of these designs are, these aren’t monsters. These are family members and loved ones who have moved on to a different life. Not better... not worse... just different.
After we talked a bit, Jules came in to tell us that Mike Johnson was available, so we headed downstairs so Allison could introduce us. He was standing out front, and we shook hands as we headed over to the stages where the film’s sets are currently housed. Johnson’s tall, surprisingly young, and seems a hell of a lot calmer than I’d be if I had a September release date set in stone and an unfinished movie in front of the cameras.
So who the hell is Mike Johnson, anyway?
Fair question. Johnson is one of the film’s two directors, and he says this is very much a collaboration with Tim Burton. “Tim’s all over this film. It all gets filtered through him. When he was shooting CHARLIE [AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY], he was here all the time.” Johnson’s the man in charge on a day-to-day basis, though, and he’s got the experience. He’s taught at the famous CalArts Animation school, he made a great short film, animated to the famous Charlie Daniels song, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” and he also managed the Herculean task of creating a stop-motion animated weekly half-hour show when he directed THE PJs.
The first building we walked into was the fabrication department, where the puppets are cleaned, repaired, customized, and clothed. I was my first close-up look at the puppets being used in the film, and I was amazed. These are large puppets, about a foot high in most cases, and there are some innovations in the way they were built. In particular, the head mechanisms used here are a breakthrough, designed by Peter Saunders in Manchester. Each head contains several different clockwork mechanisms, each of which can be controlled by a tiny allyn wrench inserted into either ear or the back of the head. By using the wrench, you can adjust the brow, the eyes and cheeks, or the mouth, so the animators make their adjustments to the character without ever touching the face directly. I love the original KING KONG, and one of the things I love is how you can see the fingerprints of the animators in the fur of KONG, like a constant breeze. Let’s face it, though. The state of the art has gotten a hell of a lot more... well... state-of-the-art. There’s such a degree of precision possible with these puppets that I have to believe that’s one of the things that gives the footage such an unnerving degree of fluidity.
Another important decision was made only weeks before filming began when the production switched from conventional 35mm motion picture cameras to digital still cameras to photograph everything. After all, if you’re making your film at 24 frames per second, why not approach each frame as a separate digital still, where director of photography/visual effects supervisor Pete Kozachik will have total control over the final image, allowing Tim Burton and Mike Johnson to create something that will be uniquely stylized?
It’s a beautiful vision they share, and I loved walking around that workshop, looking at the minute detail work going on all around me. Skins were being created and pulled over the mechanical limbs and metal frames of the puppets. One artist was creating bodices for The Corpse Bride, dozens of them, each decayed and distressed in the exact same way. I asked how long each bodice lasts once put on the puppet, looking at how incredibly delicate the fabric was. “Depends on the animator,” the artist answered. “There are American animators down there who need a new one every few days, and there’s one guy who has had the same bodice since the start of the shoot. It’s all in how they handle it.”
On another table, they were creating full-size puppets for Maggot and Black Widow. Johnson explained, “We built these guys at several scales. Maggot’s very small when you see him crawling around on The Bride, but when we cut to his close-up, like when he’s crawling across Elder Gutknecht’s book, we need something this size.”
At the bottom of a flight of stairs, I was led into the rigging department. You’ve seen some of the character designs by now. Tim Burton loves those long spindly limbs, impossibly stretched, but those don’t really give the puppets the support they need. The rigging department is charged with cockblocking physics, basically, putting gravity on hold while the animators work. Tiny invisible wires, stands with hidden arms, special revisions to the puppets themselves... whatever they need to do to get a shot on film, frequently requiring a MACGYVER-esque level of spontaneous invention... they do it. “Whatever you want a puppet to do, you need to build that puppet to do that thing. If the director and the animators suddenly get a new idea, we have to modify the puppet. Each of these puppets costs about $30,000, so this is very careful, meticulous work.” I saw some butterfly puppets on a shelf right next to a full-sized Bride on the shelf, ready to go, as well as a perfectly fleshed-out Skeleton Girl, an exact realization of the design I’d seen in reception. On an adjoining shelf, two different Victorias flank an Elder Gutknecht, one in a wedding dress and one just in regular garb. I wanted to pick one up and see how much they weigh, but I didn’t want to give anyone heart failure.
Instead, I followed Johnson out of the rigging department and over to the soundstages they’re using right now to house around 35 different sets at once. I’ve never seen a set-up like it. We walked past row after row of black curtains, subdividing the whole soundstage into lots and lots of little stages, a different crew at work on each one. They’re not recording sound, so what does it matter if they’re stacked up one right next to another? All they have to do is have enough space to capture something on film that will fool us into believing in this whole giant interconnected world. There are 22 animators working, each one responsible for 6 seconds of film every week, with about a minute and a half of total footage being generated each week. They’re working at peak capacity right now, as we saw when we went from set to set, Johnson checking playback at about 2/3 of them. In some cases, we saw less than a second of moving footage, but Johnson and the animators compared notes on the finished frames, on the compositions of shots, on little bits of business still being fine-tuned, even as they’re in progress.
The sets ranged from the very large, like the front of Everglot Mansion, with a section of the town built next to it, to inserts where they’ve got just a corner or a wall, to no sets at all for some of the character close-ups they were shooting. Like I said earlier, some of these scenes are overstuffed with gags, especially the crowd scenes when the Dead show up in the Land Of The Living to start wreaking havoc. One animator was shooting two little Dead children and their Dead dog all standing at the edge of things. Another was working on a scene in a pub where Victor, feeling threatened, picks up a Dead Dwarf General with a sword driven through him and uses him like a weapon to fend off everyone else. I saw tables being turned over by mischievous ghosts. I saw a church full of the Dead and the Living alike. I saw Elder Gutknecht’s study, the same scene built from two different angles, being shot on two different sets at the same time. I saw a number of different Victors being used on different sets. “There are probably a dozen of them we can use at any given time,” Johnson said. Imagine how much time you could save shooting a giant-budget Hollywood action film if you just had a dozen Tom Cruises sitting on a shelf, and you could put one of them on each different set shooting at the same time. If Spielberg saw these sets, he might try to figure out how to make that happen.
On one set, a very thin mesh screen had been stretched across the set, invisible to the naked eye as you walked in, so that it would hold a lighting effect in a very clever optical trick. “It’s called bridal net, ironically,” Johnson said. The effect captures and suspends a beam of light through a window and into the middle of the set. As I asked Johnson questions about each of the sets, he pointed out tricks as to how things were built or how they were being shot, obviously just as impressed by the artists and craftsmen he’s working with as I was.
He led me into the main art department, where I met Nelson Lowry, the art director on the film. We talked about the special challenge on a film like this one. “It’s not like you can just got and buy things to use on the set. Scale is an obvious issue, and beyond that, it would just stand out. This whole world is so carefully detailed.” The script for the film was in flux even after production began, so when the art department started, they had to anticipate for anything they might require, building picture frames and silverware and books and glasses and tables, all the thing necessary to fill out the world and make it feel properly lived in.
They are also responsible for building the environments dreamed up by Burton and his production designer Alex McDowell (FIGHT CLUB, THE TERMINAL), and I saw some large-scale sculptures of sections of road and the mountain where Elder Gutknecht’s study stands, an important location in one of the scenes that I saw shooting. The character, voiced by Michael Gough, is a stooped skeleton with a long beard and a cane, one of the wisest figures in the Land Of The Dead. His study appears to almost be made of books, there are so many of them stacked around. In one of the books, he finds a loophole that would allow Victor and the Corpse Bride to stay married, although one of them will have to pay a very steep price to make it happen.
After the art department, I was led back to the first office building, where I was shown the storyboard department. There were three artists working when I walked in, but the department’s been much larger in the past. Over the course of production, they’ve turned out over 40,000 storyboards. “If we just shot what these guys turned out,” Johnson said, “we’d have a pretty great animated film.”
Our final stop was in editorial, where Jonathan Lucas (who’s worked as assistant editor on films like TROY and FAST & THE FURIOUS) was hard at work putting the film together. It already exists as a story reel and a tightly edited soundtrack, and Lucas’s job now is to take each new jigsaw puzzle piece as each animator finishes and drop it into the proper place. As I discussed that presentation reel with Allison earlier, we talked about how much I love it when Danny Elfman actually sings in a film. Johnson and I also talked about CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, where Elfman performs the Oompa-Loompa songs (“I hear there’s one musical number where there are 10,000 Ooompa Loompas singing and dancing at once,” Johnson said), and they told me that there are actually four new songs in CORPSE BRIDE. One is performed by Helena Bonham Carter, one is performed by Victoria’s parents, and one is sung by Jane Horrocks (LITTLE VOICE) as Black Widow and by Maggot, who channels Peter Lorre as he does. That fourth song sound like one of the key pieces of the film, though, the backstory of how the Corpse Bride died in the first place, as performed by Elfman as a character named Bonejangles. Johnson asked Lucas to bring the scene up on the Avid, and we watched the rough version that exists right now, complete with storyboards and unfinished animation. It’s a classic Elfman moment, and the Corpse Bride’s backstory is very sad. You’ll feel for her once you see why she was out there, alone, in the middle of the woods, wearing a wedding dress and dead.
For lunch, I joined director of photography Pete Kozachik and his wife and art director Nelson Lowry at the studio restaurant, which stands on the far side of a bridge, part of the old mill section of the studio. We talked about how CGI has become a crutch for filmmakers and what can be done to remedy that. I found them all engaging and really passionate about what they’re doing, smart people who are already looking for the next challenge they can face. After lunch, Kozachik took me back through the soundstage, set to set, and I got to see how he assesses the work that’s being done. There were several sets that required very special lighting, and I was struck again by how lovely each frame of this movie is. Even after all the care on the set, Kozachik talked about how he’s looking forward to that final digital pass on the film when he can tweak everything to make sure it’s perfect.
I sat down to chat with Johnson a bit before I left, and I’ll transcribe that for another article. I also got a chance to say hello to Richard E. Grant, who was touring the sets with his daughter, and I think I stammered something about my lifelong adoration of WITHNAIL & I. Evidently, these sets attract tons of visitors, anyone even tangentially related to the production. Helena Bonham Carter’s brought her parents, and everyone loves to show this off to family. I can see why. I have every confidence now that CORPSE BRIDE is something special, and in an age where computers are so often called upon to do everything, almost reflexively, it’s good for the soul of a film lover to see something this grand that’s being built by hand, one frame at a time.
My thanks to Warner Bros. for arranging the visit, to Jules and Darren for co-ordinating it, and to Allison and Mike Johnson and Pete Kozachik and Nelson Lowry and everyone else who made the set visit such a pleasure.
I’ve got all sorts of stuff brewing for next week, including a peek at the newest graphic novel by one of the hardest working guys in rock’n’roll right now, Doug TenNapel. Thanks for sharing the first 20,000 stories with us here at Ain’t It Cool, and here’s hoping we’ll see you when #30,000 rolls around, too. Until then...