Observant fans can easily trace the chains of inspiration linking a contemporary artist to an acclaimed master from the past. For veteran animator and director Henry Selick, working in stop motion has created a portal to his youth and childhood inspirations. “[As a kid] my mother liked to show me scary stuff,” says the Oscar-nominated director. “She took me to see a Ray Harryhausen film.”
The impression that Harryhausen and his litany of iconic monsters made on a young Selick catalyzed his prolific career in the medium of stop-motion animation. “For me, at that age, [the monsters] seemed totally real,” he says. “there was a part of me that knew those things exist.”
With an expansive array of classic movies to his name — including Coraline, The Nightmare Before Christmas and the upcoming Wendell & Wild on Netflix — Henry Selick has built a body of work comparable to his childhood influence in Harryhausen. So much so that several current filmmakers, such as the esteemed Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us, Nope), who serves as co-writer and executive producer on Wendell & Wild, have been inspired by Selick’s filmography. “We met up, and it turned out [Jordan] was a huge fan of stop-motion animation,” recounts Selick. “He knew all of my stuff. The logo for his company [Monkeypaw Productions], it’s stop-motion animation.”
Through a mutual affinity for their respective creative outputs, Selick and Peele put their heads together to craft the delightfully gothic world of Wendell & Wild. The film follows Kat, a troubled teenage orphan, as she enters a creepy new school. Before she can settle into the environment, two demon brothers (the titular Wendell and Wild) drag Kat into their mischievous scheme to create a spooky amusement park. Wendell and Wild’s plan places Kat on a path to confront her past and unravel the trauma that destroyed her life and hometown.
“The studio was based in Milwaukie, Oregon, which is part of greater Portland,” Selick notes. “Portland has always been a stop-motion hub, going back to Will Vinton Studios, which was ultimately acquired by Laika. Will Vinton was a pioneer of claymation techniques and through his studio, a community of talented artists and stop-motion animators blossomed in Portland, which continues to fuel the industry that is still here today.”
The film, which is produced by Selick, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Peele and Win Rosenfeld features an impressive voice cast that includes Keegan-Michael Key, Peele, Lyric Ross, Angela Bassett, James Hong, Tamara Smart, Natalie Martinez, Tantoo Cardinal and Ving Rhames.
A Walk on the Wild Side
Prior to Peele’s involvement, Selick had been developing Wendell & Wild — loosely based on a sketch of his two sons — since 2003. After becoming a fan of Peele’s comedy duo with Keegan-Michael Key in 2012, Selick began contemplating the prospect of a future collaboration. “I’m not known for comedy,” says Selick, “but I would love to have some of that in a project.” When Selick reached out to Key and Peele, he got a chance to witness the latter’s now famous creative fire firsthand. “ A critical thing is that Jordan wanted to do more,” says Selick. “He wanted to be a producer … and he asked me to pitch him some ideas. And the first one up was Wendell & Wild.”
Although initially lured by Peele’s talents as a comedian, Selick found himself more impressed by his command of narrative. “I think Jordan’s greatest genius was shaping the story,” insists Selick. “Early on, it was an even wilder, weirder film,” he says, “and then new executives came on in animation, and it was too wild and weird for them.”
Through tailoring the film for the new executives, Selick found Peele’s mind to be an invaluable resource. “Jordan was great,” he says, “he was so great at interacting with these new executives from DreamWorks, and they were shocked to find we were doing a PG-13, crazy ass movie.” With Peele’s aid, Selick found that trying to retain Wendell & Wild’s playfully chaotic energy wouldn’t be as arduous as he imagined. “[Jordan] was especially good at reshaping and addressing [the executive’s] needs and not hurting the movie.”
One of Peele’s primary alterations to Wendell & Wild was bolstering its diversity and representation. “In talking about our film, [Jordan] said he just would love for a stop-motion film to be made and represent the kind of film he wished he could’ve seen as a kid, with characters like himself on screen,” says Selick. With representation in mind, Peele and Selick decided on the vibrant aesthetic of Afro-Punk for their protagonist, Kat.
“[Afro-Punk] is this bridge between late ‘70s, 1980s Black punk music, of which there was quite a lot, and sort of this modern take on that type of music, but with new, amazing fashions,” says Selick. “It’s an outsider group. It’s never been a mainstream thing,” he says, “and that really spoke to me and to Jordan.”
In addition to arriving at the aesthetic organically, Selick serendipitously discovered a personal connection to Afro-Punk through a foundational band in the scene called Fishbone. “I met them in the 1980s. And I wrote and directed a music video of one of their songs called ‘Party at Ground Zero,’” he says.
Selick’s personal tether to the scene’s early roots also helped inform Kat’s design and characterization. “The lightning bolt moment was more than about look; it was going to be about how she connected with her father,” says Selick. “It wasn’t so much that [Kat] was a super rebel. It was her version of loving [her] dad.”
Although Peele (who also voices Wild) and his seemingly inexhaustible ideas relating to narrative may have caught Selick by surprise, his comedic talents did not. “I went to [Jordan] in the first place because I was just desperate to have some of what he and Keegan-Michael comedically could do. I wanted that flavor in a film I worked on,” he says. “[In the recording studio] he’d be with Keegan-Michael, and those guys would just come to life and riff and rewrite. We have hours of amazing stuff, and we videotaped it all.”
The Devil’s in the Details
Wendell & Wild boasts distinctive character designs inspired by Selick’s sketches and refined by the immensely talented Pablo Lobato. When it came to the process of animating the characters, Selick wanted to keep his team lean. “We had a small team on Nightmare Before Christmas, and I wanted to try and get back to that,” says Selick. “The main group was about 120 people.”
“We did a lot of visual effects in post,” recalls Selick, “because we shot a lot of bluescreen backgrounds. We had to create a lot of worlds in the backgrounds.” Although the size of Wendell & Wild’s team harkens back to his time on The Nightmare Before Christmas, Selick is grateful for the technological leaps within the industry between the ’90s and today. “We shot on film back then,” says Selick, “but we did bring motion control, computer control, into Nightmare in a big way.”
As the digital approach he pioneered in Nightmare evolved over the decades, so did Selick’s proverbial bag of tricks. “[During the ’90s] if a character was jumping, or something’s flying through the air, we had to suspend it,” says Selick. “We used this stuff called spider wire — it’s so thin the camera can’t see it — because that’s all we could do. So, you’d have a rig above it and wires down, and you’re winding it up to make them jump and winding it down.”
Even though there’s a twinkle in his eye while discussing former filmmaking techniques, Selick can’t suppress his appreciation for the modern method. “[Now] we can have a character jump, and there’s a metal arm that it’s on. [It’s] much easier, “ he says. “We can now digitally paint that out. You shoot a clean plate with nothing behind it, and then some artists just have to paint out that rig. So that gave a huge boost.”
The benefits of digital filmmaking extend beyond post-production for Selick, as he considers the dwindling size of the cameras themselves a tremendous boon. “The film cameras, the 35mm, were big, heavy machines,” he says. “They were these Mitchell cameras, which you could buy cheap because they were obsolete, but really good for animation.”
“We went to digital cameras, [which] are much smaller,” says Selick. “So they can go through windows and doors and things.” The increased mobility of the cameras helped produce several jaw-dropping shots within Wendell & Wild.
And while digital filmmaking provides many practical solutions, it’s not without drawbacks. “One of the downsides is that … you’re capturing every frame,” says Selick. “So, animators may be on a long shot — we call it navel-gazing — they’ll look at their first 15 frames over and over and over,” he says. “They lose their forward momentum, which we used to have more easily. We sort of have to push them along and say, ‘Stop looking in the rearview mirror; you have the whole shot ahead of you.’“
Even after decades in the industry, Henry Selick’s excitement for the medium of stop motion is as palpable as the joy he derives from the communal aspect of its creation. “It’s a whole army focused on getting one thing done,” says Selick. “We have a whole lot of shots going on at once, all behind these black duvetyne curtains to prevent the light from spilling. And it’s just what I was meant to do, to work with a team like that.”
Wendell & Wild premieres on Netflix on October 28.