Henry Selick Dives in The Life Aquatic

As we reported earlier this week, director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, Monkeybone) has been brought on to produce stop-motion effects sequences for the upcoming feature The Life Aquatic from filmmaker Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums).

When we heard about this, we had to track Selick down and learn more.

The Life Aquatic will star Bill Murray as a marine biologist/adventurer. Sharing the screen with him at various times will be some 25 animated characters brought to life through painstaking incremental movements by primary animator Justin Kohn (Nightmare, James, Monkeybone) and crewmate Tim Hittle (Canhead) at Selick’s studio in San Francisco.

Animation Magazine Online: So what kind of creatures are we going to see?

Henry Selick: Most of the sea life that you’ll see we will create in stop-motion animation. In some cases, it’s highly detailed and very close to realistic, though Wes likes to put a spin on everything so sometimes it’s a slightly "off" interpretation of something you know, and sometimes it’s wildly different. At the end of the day, they should all look like creatures that could exist, but I can’t really say what sorts of creatures [they are]. While there’s a lot of different characters, almost all of them are only on screen for a very short time–a couple seconds here, four seconds there. It’s stop-motion used in a very different way. I think the fact that it doesn’t look like CG will add sort of a fable quality, which is a big aspect of the film.

AMO: Will it be anything like what we’ve recently seen in Elf, were we get glimpses of Rankin-Bass-style stop-motion North Pole critters?

HS: I haven’t seen Elf, but don’t think it will be like that at all. Again, our characters are highly detailed and sophisticated. It’s not a stylized, overly simplified version of reality, but a very different version of it.

AMO: What kind of fabrication went into the characters?

HS: Fairly traditional fabrication–metal ball and socket armatures with other machined parts. Then we’re using a few new materials for body parts. We’ve [in the industry] used foam latex for some 50 years but there are some other materials that have come along that have properties that are more flesh-like, more like living tissue. There’s a material called Dragon Skin and other types of silicones that are used by people who make prosthetics for real human beings who have facial disfigurements. They can create a really good piece and blend in perfectly. So a lot of advances in materials have happened there.

AMO: Are you performing lip-sync with any of the characters?

HS: No. There are no talking characters.

AMO: Did Wes want any different animation styles between the different types of characters? Are some animated more smoothly than others?

HS: Yeah, we talked about that and he said he wanted something between Ray Harryhausen and James and the Giant Peach. So we’ll see when we finish our first shot what we have.

AMO: Is Wes a big fan of stop-motion? How did he come to the decision to use it over CG?

HS: He liked James and the Giant Peach and Nightmare Before Christmas. I don’t know that much about other things he may or may not like in stop-motion, but he doesn’t seem to like computer graphic imagery very much. He’s dead-set against it and seems to avoid using it wherever he can.

AMO: Do you see stop-motion making a bit of a comeback in the visual effects realm?

HS: For stop-motion, it’s basically a losing battle. CG can do anything, though it does have kind of a canned look. But that’s just a matter of better art direction, animation, design and lighting, and some people are going to overcome those things. I don’t know about stop-motion making a comeback. From my perspective, I find it interesting that there are a few people who still want to do it. It’s hanging on by its fingernails.

AMO: Is Wes giving you a lot of free range with the animation or is he more directly involved?

HS: We are running things like creature designs by him. He’s a very particular guy. In some cases he does very simple storyboards on his own and we re-draw them and together we revise things that don’t click. To save time we’re doing very elaborate animatics so that we can get the animation agreed upon before we go because he doesn’t really know how stop-motion works and probably doesn’t quite understand that there’s not going to be a lot of takes. So there’s a certain amount of free range, but for comfort on both sides, I am trying to run things by him. I didn’t feel like I had to reinvent myself to fit into his movie. It was a fairly natural fit. I’m a big fan of his as well and hopefully it’s all going to work out.

AMO: How’s your adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s book Coraline coming along?

HS: Bill Mechanic, the producer, has had a hell of a time getting all the financing together but he has finally started one movie with Disney as a distributor. He’s hoping by the end of this year or January to have the financing [for Coraline] together. There’s a bit of impatience on my part because it’s taking a long time, but he’s the best producer in the world for me to be involved with, so I’m hopeful things may free up come January.

AMO: When we spoke a year ago, you said it was going to be mostly live-action with some stop-motion elements. Is that still the plan?

HS: That’s still the plan. There’s a magic bedroom with all these toys that come to life and those will be done in stop-motion. Then there are other opportunities. Bill’s deal is with Disney, and if they turn around and say "You know, we really like your stop-motion and think it would work better that way," then I’d certainly consider doing it all stop-motion. I’d be just as excited about doing that and maybe a little more so.

[Coraline] may be the next thing I do, though I also have a few other projects cooking, nothing I can talk about yet. Not that they’re secrets, it’s just bad luck.

Selick and crew will begin shooting animation for The Life Aquatic next week and plan to have it completed by April. The film still has a few more weeks of live-action principal photography slated and will be released in 2004.