Director Tim Burton, animation director Trey Thomas and producer Allison Abbate share the secrets that helped bring Frankenweenie to life…
Disney animated features are usually based on classic children’s stories, with beautiful princesses in the starring role. In comparison, Frankenweenie stars a young Victor Frankenstein, contains numerous horror references and has the reanimated corpse of a dog as one of its lead characters.
It won’t surprise you to hear that this particular Walt Disney Studios film is the latest animated tale to come from the weird and wonderful mind of Tim Burton (Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas).
Frankenweenie is actually a feature-length adaptation of Burton’s own live-action short of the same name, which he made when he worked at Disney in 1984. Returning to the material was a joy for the director, especially as it captures the connection he feels to the story of a boy and his dog.
“It’s a special relationship that you have in your life and very emotional. Dogs obviously don’t usually live as long as people, so therefore you experience the end of that relationship,” Burton remembers. “So that, in combination with the Frankenstein story, just seemed to be a very powerful thing to me – a very personal kind of remembrance.”
Of course, the reason he always wanted to make Frankenweenie was based on his love of classic horror films growing up. His animated tale is a love letter to movies such as Frankenstein and Dracula, and several of the character names – Victor, Elsa Van Helsing, Edgar ‘E’ Gore and Mr Burgemeister – are inspired by those.
Frankenweenie also harks back to that era by being filmed entirely in black and white. Burton says the aesthetic of the film dates back to the monster films of the 1940s, with the really deep blacks and the saturation that was typical in that period of filmmaking.
“The black and white is very much a part of the story and that was always very important. There’s an emotional quality to black and white; it’s like another character. Seeing this kind of animation that way, there’s a certain depth and a certain way people and objects go in and out of shadows that’s quite interesting,” the director reveals.
At its heart, Frankenweenie is a heartwarming tale about a boy and his dog. After unexpectedly losing his beloved pet Sparky, young Victor Frankenstein harnesses the power of science to bring his best friend back to life – with just a few minor adjustments. He tries to hide his home-sewn creation, but when Sparky gets out, Victor’s fellow students, teachers and the entire town are affected.
When Burton originally conceived the idea, he envisioned it as a full-length, stop-motion animated film. Budget constraints forced him to direct it as a live-action short and at the time he made drawings of how he imagined the characters. This film revisited those original drawings and used others Burton drew of the new characters.
Many of those are modeled on the look and traits of characters in classic horror films. For example, science teacher Mr Rzykruski is a nod to Vincent Price, while Victor’s rival Nassor is an 11-year-old version of Boris Karloff and his classmate Edgar ‘E’ Gore is inspired by the actor Peter Lorre.
The film’s talented artists then took Burton’s original drawings and turned them into three-dimensional sculptures. Their costumes were all sewn with miniature stitches to keep in scale and wigs were made using real human hair that was applied strand by strand to give the puppets a more realistic hairline.
Inside each puppet there is a metal armature, which acts like a skeleton and gives the animator the ability to move the puppets and act out the scenes with incredible subtlety and finesse.
Burton had a very specific vision for Sparky’s character and really wanted him to act and move like a real dog. The armature needed to be very intricate and four inches is literally the smallest they could make him and still have him display all the behavior and personality that was required.
“Tim Burton was going for a believable style and he wanted the laws of physics to be in play and for everything to feel very real. So it was just a frame-by-frame process of getting the puppets to emote and to act realistically,” says animation director Trey Thomas.
A lot of research and preparation went into animating both dogs in the film – Sparky and Persephone. Thomas and his team looked at how dogs move, which included going to the Windsor Championship Dog Show – AKA Crufts – to film dogs in action. They also had a bull terrier come into the studio and act out some of Sparky’s action, while Poodles visited and played out the role of Persephone.
Sparky was an incredibly complicated puppet. There are over 300 joints in his body and because of the thinness of his legs he often needed to be supported with a special rig so that the animators could make him move realistically like a dog.
“Sparky never sits still,” explains producer Allison Abbate, “so it would have been impossible to stabilise him on those thin little legs. Now that we are able to remove rigs from the screen in post production, the animators have complete freedom to have him scamper and jump around like a real, little dog.”
Victor was the most complicated human puppet and his head mechanism contained not only paddles to move his lips and eyebrows, but also a complicated allen wrench system that allowed the animator to move his cheeks and jaw in tiny increments. This gave him the most subtle and varied acting capabilities.
Burton was also quick to point out that the use of stop-motion was the perfect choice for Frankenweenie. “There’s a beauty to stop motion, and there is something in it that mirrors the Frankenstein story of where you’re taking an inanimate object and bringing it to life. There’s an energy to that, that you can’t quite get in any other form,” he says.