Last Friday I was invited by a friend to hear noted animator Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, Imdb filmography) speak at CalArts. While his visit was primarily a recruitment for his Portland-based mini-studio, LAIKA Entertainment, he and his colleague Mike Cachuela dropped a few nuggets about filmmaking and future projects that the wide world might find interesting.
Mike worked with Brad Bird on Ray Gun — a now-dead project about a sci-fi detective — as well as on The Incredibles. Ray Gun sounded cool; it was killed by a dumb studio exec. [Now that Brad Bird has an Oscar, maybe it can be resurrected. -Ed.]
Mike attended CalArts based on the reputations of Henry Selick, Brad Bird and John Lasseter — all contemporaneous graduates who went on to create a golden age in animation.
Henry Selick then spoke. He began by offering a brief history of recent animation, as he sees it. After Walt Disney died, he said, it was the dark days. The Disney musicals, starting with Little Mermaid, marked the comeback. On top of that, PIXAR launched the computer animation revolution (thanks to visionary and school chum John Lasseter).
His own career was good luck. He did many popular MTV promos (some available on the Nightmare Before Christmas DVD) which led him to reconnect with friend Tim Burton and make Nightmare Before Christmas and now Corpse Bride.
LAIKA is a Portland, OR based mini-studio founded by Nike CEO Phil Knight. (He must like companies with an intermediate K sound, Selick joked. Really, though, it is named after the first Soviet dog shot into space.) Selick runs the animation division, which seems to be the only division that has made any movies. They have just added a computer animation department and completed an eight minute CG short called “Moongirl,” which he screened for us.
In “Moongirl,” a country boy and his pet squirrel find themselves inside the moon where a girl named Lorelei stewards the secret merry-go-round that keeps the moon bright. Together, they fight off moon monsters and restore the moonshine using fireflies. It was an imaginative little piece and I wouldn’t be surprised if it competes at the Oscars for Best Animated Short. The level of animation was nowhere near PIXAR level, however. Selick talked about how he wanted the CG to look “handmade.” I don’t think he has yet succeeded.
The computer division is where they are recruiting hardest. They are looking for people familiar with Linux, Maya and Renderman especially. In general, they were recruiting “talented animators who want to learn.”
LAIKA Animation has two greenlit projects: Coraline by Neil Gaiman (who has another animated film just released called Mirrormask) and Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox which will be written and directed by Wes Anderson. Selick was very excited about Coraline, especially that Dakota Fanning had just been voice-cast as the lead and that it was a scary story. “Hollywood executives forget that kids love to be scared out of their minds,” he said. The story involves two worlds and they are entertaining the possibility of animating one in CG, hence the creation of the new department.
There are a couple of other projects in development but he was mum on them. Apparently they have had to fight with Phil Knight to have multiple films in development. He doesn’t understand this way of doing business. Fortunately, there is an influential son who does. [Sounds like Phil Knight could use a lesson from Mark Cuban or Philip Anschutz. -Ed.]
All in all it was a nice presentation to visit as an outsider. For graduating CalArtians, there was clearly a note of desperation in the room. I’ve felt that before — the point where you realize you’ve paid all this money for an education and yet are not guaranteed a job. Scary. Most of the audience’s questions were directed toward finding jobs in animation. Selick and Cachuela could offer little more advice than ‘talent will out.’ The crowd was nonetheless grateful that an animation god had come down to share some time and possibly pluck a few of them for employment.
After hearing Henry Selick speak, I had to go see Corpse Bride.
I enjoyed how visually inventive it was. The colorful world of the dead contrasted perfectly with the drab world of the living. There was a loving care and detail in the animation that was enjoyable, even when the story was slow. In general, though, it featured brisk, fairybook storytelling that hearkened back to Edward Scissorhands as much as Nightmare Before Xmas.
The songs were completely forgettable. Danny Elfman should stick to instrumental music, which was melodic and fun — although not as good as I remember the music of Nightmare Before Christmas being.
This is not a case of diminished returns in repeated collaboration, I think. A lot stuff was better, even if Elfman’s music was worse. I’d like to see all these guys (Selick, Tim Burton, Danny Elfman — and maybe John August and Johnny Depp) keep collaborating if they can keep turning out such fun family films.