Sometimes this job offers me an embarrassment of riches and I have to turn down one amazingly cool event or trip in order to do another amazingly cool thing. I almost had to turn down a trip to the Pacific Northwest to visit the studios where Henry Selick and his crew are animating an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline because I had to be somewhere else that same day.

Thankfully, Noah K. Mullette-Gillman (aka my roommate) was up for the task and headed north to see the magic in action. This is his report. And the image below – that’s an exclusive here – is a peek behind the scenes of that magic. It’s Miniature Lighting Technician (I assume the title refers to the figures and not his height) Matthew Deleu, monitoring Coraline on one of the dozens of sets for the movie, the first stop-motion animated adventure to be conceived and photographed in stereoscopic 3-D.

At the end of May, Henry Selick and Focus Features invited me to be among a very small group to visit the set and explore the creation of the movie adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Their world was being created in Portland, Oregon, a place I’d never been before. Maybe my eyes aren’t used to seeing anything green or what healthy earth looks like anymore… I may have been in Los Angeles too long, but as we drove from the airport to the set, I was amazed at the deep and impenetrable woods all around us; the thick ferns, the primordial growth. Yes, I thought, there could be lost species living in the green; Sasquatch and who knows what else? Anything might be hiding in there…

Henry Selick, of course, was the director of Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, and Monkeybone. To my mind, Nightmare Before Christmas was a masterpiece. I thought James and the Giant Peach was “good,” but only “good.” And, to be honest, I thought Monkeybone was pretty awful. So, I went into this not knowing what to expect. I was hoping for Jack Skellington, afraid of Brandon Fraser.

I didn’t see either; I saw an entirely new world, one which I wanted to play in!

For those of you not familiar; Neil Gaiman is one of the most beloved story-tellers and dreamers of our time. He created The Sandman series and Stardust for DC Comics and then went on to become the best-selling novelist of a series of novels including: Neverwhere, American Gods, and Coraline. He wrote the film Mirrormask, co-wrote the screenplay for Beowulf (with Roger Avery), and is rumored to be working soon on Dr. Who for the BBC.

Coraline is the story of a young girl named Coraline, (No, not Caroline, Coraline thank you very much…) whose family has moved into a new and strange house. She’s bored and no one will play with her, until she stumbles into a dark world of fantasy which had been hiding behind a forgotten and unused door.

It has also recently been adapted into a hardcover graphic novel by illustrator P. Craig Russell, but I can tell you, P. Craig Russell and Henry Selick have envisioned the world of this novel very differently.

The film is a high-definition stop-motion animated feature; the first to be originally filmed on 3-D rather than being transferred over onto 3-D later.

Henry Selick looks and moves like he could have created himself. He could have been born and grown up, and still continue to live in one of his own animated worlds. Perhaps only coming out briefly from time to time to talk to journalists? He communicates with his eyes and through blinking just as much as he does vocally. At times, I could see him reacting, and sometimes feel like I understood what he was saying even before the words found their way through the labyrinth of his mind and out of his mouth.

There are changes between Neil Gaiman’s novel and this film, but Henry has made these changes with great care and he is clearly very concerned about how they will be received by those who know and love the source material. I don’t recall, in the novel, the other-world being so beautiful and colorful. However, it feels like the visuals have gone where Neil meant to, even if that is further than he went himself. As he showed us a stunning set from the Other World; it was clear that he wasn’t just engaged in putting Neil’s novel on the big screen, but also in walking the delicate line of also making it the best movie that it could be.

“Something that’s a little different from the book; there’s this living room which looks pretty normal when Coraline first goes to the other world… the other mother has transformed this room and taken all of the furniture and turned it into these beautiful glowing bugs. There’s a chair here that scoops up Coraline and carries her over here to this sort-of cicada table. There’s the sofa with the other mother sitting on it. There’s a big wooden armoire in the real world that turns into the big, we call it the “guard-bug” because the little door to get back home is behind it and it stands guard so that Coraline can’t escape. There’s a living room in both worlds and both those normal-looking living rooms, there are different versions of them for deepness and for shallowness. Then it transforms to this beautiful “living-bug-room.”

I asked him about this decision, and as interesting as the actual answer was, I found his reaction half-way through my question equally fascinating. When he was worried that I, as a reader of the novel, might take issue with the changes, his eyes blinked and for just a moment a real look of sadness flashed across his face. When I was finished asking my question, relief washed across him. He was glad to be understood:

I asked him; “I think it’s interesting that it is so colorful in the other-world, because in the novel I didn’t necessarily get that impression, but I don’t think that it’s at odds with what he did.”

“Yeah, I always try to find a way, well, if I’m changing something it still needs to feel like it makes the same sort of sense. We’re trying not to make it garish color, over-the-top color. I didn’t want to be like Cat in the Hat. Too much means it’s overwhelming now. The same with the 3D; we don’t have it cranked up because after a while it would mean nothing. So, there are moments, this is one, Fantastic Garden is another, where there is a much brighter-more colorful pallet, but we don’t keep it amped up.”

Towards the end of our time together, he spoke a little more about the changes he’s made to the story while adapting it to the screen;

“I wasn’t really aware of Neil from the start of Sandman. I first met Neil in 2000. It was just; ‘Here’s Neil Gaiman and he has this book.’ It wasn’t published yet. It wasn’t even finished. I think he called Tim Burton and he called me; and I was the one who called back! I got to read it and I took it to Bill Mechanic who had been the head of Fox and had an independent company: Pandemonium. I could see it right away as a movie. I saw it as edgy.

But, Neil said from the start, and he’s always been right about something; Kids, not little kids because it’s not a little kids’ film – I always felt like the youngest should be like nine, but kids saw it as an adventure and adults saw it as… something really frightening!

He (Neil) has got three kids, and as they grew up; he worked on Coraline for a very long time. He started it for his older daughter. She got older. Then he used his younger daughter for inspiration. In the book, you’ll actually see Coraline seems to act different ages at different points.

It was one of those; we got together, I thought it was ready to be made into a movie just like that! I saw Neil do a reading of short stories and he was like a rock star. He was great; very charismatic. Him reading his stories, you got every nuance. There’s a lot of humor in Neil’s work, even in his darkest work and in Coraline, the book, there’s a lot of very dry but exquisite humor and we try to hold onto that as well.

We connected, we went to Bill Mechanic and I convinced him to let me write it. ‘It’s practically written!’ But it was actually a lot of work to turn it into a screen play. Bill wanted it to be live-action. He was adamant that it go that way and it took a long time, going away and doing other things, coming back to it, to get the screenplay to work and to pull it back to where I first saw it; which was animation.

I always felt; this is a scary book for kids, if its animation I think that it takes a little of the edge off the worst moments, but it keeps the Grimm’s Fairy Tale quality.

But, it was a pretty long journey from 2000 to now. We’re almost finished. I feel very grateful in getting to make the movie that I wanted to. Neil is very happy with it as well, I have shown him reels of the entire film. He always focuses on one little thing and he’s almost always right. He never goes; ‘Well this isn’t the book anymore and this didn’t happen.’ He totally understands that movies have to be their own thing and it’s been a really good relationship.

What did he think about the changes? Privately, I’m not sure, but he never got angry… It was always; here’s really what happened. The first screenplay I wrote, I was; ‘Neil’s a hell of a good writer.’ I’ve always written as a director because you have to do re-writes, you can’t get the writer so you do your own dialogue. I’ve written things on my own, but this was the first official screen-play I was getting paid to write. You know, Bill Mechanic was pushing for certain things. The first screenplay I wrote was too faithful to the book. It was exactly the book!

I was interacting with Neil a lot and I think he was flattered, but it didn’t work, it wasn’t a movie. I had to not talk to him for a year. I had to go off, tear everything apart and then try to put it back together in a way that feels like the book, its all of these elements from the book, it’s very true to the nature of the book and characters, but it’s been turned into the form it is. It’s one of those things where, Coraline; we can read her thoughts and what she’s thinking, but I don’t want to have a voice over. What can I do?

There was definitely a push from Bill Mechanic ‘We need a lot of kids! Where are the kids?’

I focused on one that I thought worked. You’ll need to see the movie and see how he plays. I think it works. Neil, Neil seems fine with it and he seemed fine from the start. He would question a few things, but it was this odd thing where I stopped talking to him for a year then I wrote the real screenplay. I’ll be honest I was terrified for him to read it. I had everybody but Neil read it and then finally; ‘Well, I have to have Neil.’ And he said; ‘You know, this is much better than the first one!’  He was great.”

After talking to us for a little while, Henry showed us some of the dolls used for the film. Some looked very funny, like Mr. Bobinski; a puffed-chested blue mustachio who could have stepped out of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine or perhaps some of Terry Gilliam’s’ Monty Python work. The new character, Wylie, sits upon a bicycle, his head sideways as if life looks lop-sided to him. But then again, there’s the Other Mother who looks like a very dark character; as if Cruella Deville were to crawl her way up from her cold grave and develop a hunger for children’s brains… or I suppose eyeballs would be closer to the mark…. And then there are the Scottie dogs with their huge bat wings, and the ghosts, and so many characters whose eyes have been popped out and replaced with buttons and thread…

Yes, this is a dark movie, a very Goth, but also very cute; very ‘Gloom Cookie’ kind of a movie.

The real treat though was yet to come. We were led into the back and introduced to Georgina Hayns; the Puppet Fabrication Supervisor and Deborah Cook; Head of Costuming. Georgina started to show us how the dolls are actually made. From sewing the sweaters that the models wear, a process which can take weeks just to sew a single miniature-stitched piece of clothing, we were taken in to watch the intensive and careful process by which the dolls themselves are actually made. She estimates that perhaps five or six hundred costumes were created to be worn by over a hundred dolls. As well as costumes, the dolls all required make-up and hair the same as any other actors might. Quite a bit of work is being done here in the hopes of creating the right little details so that it will all seem real and solid rather than the less convincing effect animation would provide.

I grew very jealous of all of the wonderful toys that they got to play with and make all day, and at one point I remarked to Selick;

“I’m starting to think that all of the toys I’ve ever owned were crap!”

He laughed. His eyes lit right up and he said with pride; “Exactly!”

Lee “Bo” Henry is the Construction Manager. He took us back to see where they build all of the sets. If I was amazed at the doll construction and what great toys they were, this was even worse! Every rock, every plant on the screen is physically assembled to order by Bo and his team. Nothing is left to animation or for the digital effects to fill in that can possibly be built by hand.

This was something which I hadn’t fully appreciated about movies like this, few as there have been. So many movies now are simply drawn, basically cartoons. I think there is a difference. I think a world created by hand is a lot more believable. And now, understanding what’s involved, I have a much greater respect for the art. I hope that they put a detailed tour of their process on the DVD. Everyone else should get to see what I saw and to understand what these people are doing. They’re doing everything the hard way, because they believe that that way’s better. I think they’re right.

And the factory, the Manhattan Project of magic which they’d built, went on and on. Next we were taken into a series of rooms where the models and dolls were being animated. This is stop-motion animation; Ray Harryhausen-style. Each hand, each leaf, each muscle in the face is moved a fraction at a time together and then a single shot is taken. Bo and his team built the ground that they stood upon, and the blades of grass on that had to be moved nearly molecule by molecule from frame to frame to illustrate wind.

The animators have to be a very patient group, but they seemed to bring great passion and love to their work. Anthony Scott, Sarah de Gaudemar, Theresa Drillig, and Eric Leighton all looked surprised to return to the ‘real world’ from their work when the time came to answer questions; so absorbed they were. We found them working around enormous models of Coraline’s house, the grounds around her home. Outside of a model of an old-fashioned theatre; the seats and stage all filled with Scotty-dogs, we found Eric Leighton, who Selick says has done “The very best animation on the show!”

Eric showed us how, in order to do his work he would leap and jump over the wires and cables back and forth around the theatre model making minute changes in order to get everything just so for a single frame of the movie. One can barely imagine how many times he makes those hurdles a day. It took an awkward moment for us to understand that he wanted us to follow him over the wires and between the set pieces and expensive equipment so he could show us how he did his work.

Sometimes we would find two different animators, in two separate rooms, working on two almost identical sets. The process is so slow and careful that that’s the only way to get everything done.

They Might Be Giants apparently wrote several songs for the movie. One of which will be used. A decision was made to keep the amount of songs limited. Music will play an important role in the movie, but won’t dominate.

So, is Coraline going to be a good movie? For all of that, I can’t know. The process seems good. The philosophy is sound. The passion is there, and the love and respect for the source material is clear. It’s going to be visually stunning, especially in 3-D. This deserves to be a good movie, and I for one will be watching for it with very high expectations. I’d like to see the puppeteers lay the smack down on the computer programmers….

- Noah K. Mullette-Gillman