From the time the trailer first dropped, it was abundantly clear that Coraline was going to be something special. There'd been other stop-motion animated movies over the decades, some of which were box office hits. Even so, there was no doubt that this one fully intended to push the boundaries of what the format could do. It looked more complex and more sophisticated than anything else that had previously come down the pipeline. Coraline opened to $16 million in February 2009 and eventually accumulated an impressive $75 million gross in North America, plus an additional $49 million overseas.
Based on Neil Gaiman's novel, it is the story of a little girl who moves with her parents to a new home in Orgeon. Their apartment building, the Pink Palace, is filled with eccentric neighbors, plus a dark secret. Coraline finds a secret passageway to the Other World -- a reverse-image version of the real world. It is here she meets her Other Mother, a more sinister version of her actual mom. Other Mother has a plot to sew buttons onto Coraline's eyes and devour her soul.
Director Henry Selick had already made a name for himself with the stop-motion animated movies The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. Coraline was his biggest, most ambitious project to date. It was, in short, a massive undertaking -- one that took four years to complete. We've got all the fascinating details about how this modern animated classic came into existence.
Here are 20 Wild Details Behind The Making Of Coraline.
20 No one in Hollywood wanted to make it
On the surface, you'd think any Hollywood studio would have jumped at the chance to make Coraline. After all, it's based on a book by best-selling author Neil Gaiman – a writer with a large, devoted fan base to match his immense talent. Surprisingly, no studio in town would go anywhere near the project when he and Selick pitched it.
Gaiman told Entertainment Weekly that some of them were scared off by stop-motion animation, which they deemed non-commercial in an era where computer-animated features were dominant. Others thought boys wouldn't go see it because the story had a female lead character, rather than a male. There was similar concern that girls wouldn't go see it because it was slightly scary. After a lot of rejections, they finally convinced Focus Features to say yes.
19 The producer wanted it to be live-action or CGI
Because it partially takes place in a fantasy world, stop-motion animation was a perfect fit for Coraline. The process made it look different from other animated movies. Hard as it may be to believe in retrospect, not everyone was on board with the approach.
Producer Bill Mechanic told The Mercury News that he initially assumed the film would be made in live-action. When Henry Selick expressed a desire to do it in stop-motion animation instead, Mechanic balked, saying he thought the technique was “kind of passe.” He then tried to compromise by suggesting only half the movie be done that way, with the other half accomplished through computer animation. Only upon being convinced of stop-motion's possibilities did he agree this was the right way.
18 A character was created just for the movie
It's almost impossible to adapt a book for the big screen without making some changes. Sometimes things need to be deleted or condensed for time considerations. Other times, new elements have to be added because translating the book literally just wouldn't work onscreen. Coraline was an example of the latter.
While writing his adaptation, Henry Selick kept hitting a wall. He knew that Coraline has a lot of interesting things happen to her, but there was very little way for her to process them so that the audience would fully understand what she was thinking and feeling. He therefore added a character who wasn't in the book. Wybie, the grandson of the landlady, was created so that Caroline would have someone else to talk to, rather than talking to herself.
17 Most of the original soundtrack was scrapped
They Might Be Giants is a rock band known for catchy melodies and extremely quirky lyrics. Their best-known songs are “Don't Let's Start” and “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” Because Coraline was itself a quirky movie, the filmmakers knew they needed music that would accentuate the mood. To that end, TMBG was hired to write ten songs for the soundtrack.
The plan didn't work out. Band member John Flansburg said that They Might Be Giants “were basically cut out of the film” after the producers felt their tunes weren't creepy enough. Only one composition, “Other Father Song” remains in the finished product. “It was unfortunate. There were a lot of false starts, and we never really found a rhythm to work with [the filmmakers],” Flansburg said.
16 The Other World was designed specifically to pop in 3D theaters
Coraline was different from many stop-motion animated films, in that it was the first of its kind to be shot in 3D. The Nightmare Before Christmas had been post-converted, but Selick wanted to make his movie native to the format. This created a lot of additional challenges.
Specifically, he wanted to use 3D to create an effect similar to the one audiences felt in The Wizard of Oz, when the film dramatically shifts from black-and-white to color. With this goal in mind, he and his team “crushed” the sets in the real world, keeping objects close together. For scenes set in the Other World, things were further apart to create more depth and subsequently emphasize the 3D effect.
15 Making the costumes was incredibly difficult
Making the costumes for stop-motion animated characters is far more complicated than it looks. It's not just about sewing tiny articles of clothing to put on the figures. How they will look and move on camera must also be considered.
Coraline's costume designer, Deborah Cook, said Coraline's famous raincoat required wires and weights underneath it, so that it would look realistic onscreen. Other articles needed similar construction. She explained to Racked that "if you think of something that’s the height of a pencil, which is the height of one of our characters, even the thinnest fabric won’t look like it has the right weight and gravity. So you need to make it super heavy on the bottom of the hems so it looks right for the scale."
14 Neil Gaiman didn't like the movie's ending
It's got to be nerve-wracking being an author and watching as someone translates one of your books into a movie. You have to hope that they remain true to your intentions. If they have to change things, you hope that those alterations don't destroy what you crafted. Neil Gaiman was largely very happy with Henry Selick's film version of Coraline, except for the ending, which he hated.
The writer told Entetainment Weekly that he didn't care for a moment in the finale in which Coraline is dragged around by a metal hand, and then Wybie rides in on his bike and smashes the hand with a rock. "I was uncomfortable with feeling like Wybie had rescued her at the end," Gaiman said. "She has to rescue herself.”
13 The pixar easter egg
If you're a hardcore Disney/Pixar fan, you doubtlessly know the name Joe Ranft. He was a story whiz at the animation studios, working on everything from The Lion King to Toy Story to Cars. Ranft was a friend of Henry Selick's, having been storyboard supervisor on James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Ranft passed away in a tragic auto accident in 2005. Selick paid tribute to his pal with a scene in Coraline. The family moves into the Pink Palace with the help of the Ranft Brothers moving company. The characters were designed to look like Joe and his brother Jerome, who also had ties to Pixar. It was a way of honoring a man who contributed so much to animated movies.
12 Dakota Fanning's voice problem
A common misconception is that recording voices for animated features is fast, easy work. In reality, it takes years to make one, and actors are often called back in to re-record if scenes are changed or added in the process. When a young performer like Dakota Fanning is involved, that can create a real problem.
Fanning began giving voice to Coraline when she was only ten years old. The tedious nature of stop-motion animation ensured that production stretched on several years, and she was required to periodically come back in to say new lines. As she moved into adolescence, though, her voice naturally began to change, growing a bit deeper. Fanning had to make herself speak in a higher-pitched voice in an effort to emulate her younger self.
11 Teri Hatcher gave a physical performance you didn't get to see
Teri Hatcher shot to fame on the hit TV shows Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Desperate Housewives. Although she's a very recognizable actress, only her voice is featured in Coraline. Not appearing on camera doesn't mean that she didn't give a physical performance, though.
The challenge was making the real Mother different from the Other Mother. To differentiate between them, Hatcher gave herself different postures when recording her dialogue. When voicing Mother, she slouched so that her voice would sound more tired. For Other Mother, the actress stood bolt upright, so the character would sound stiff and mannered. This technique aided her performance, establishing more of a difference between the two iterations of Coraline's mom.
10 The producer's bizarre costume demand
Bill Mechanic was once an executive at both Disney and Paramount, and he later became the chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox. The latter studio had a massive run of success during his tenure, cranking out blockbusters like Titanic and Independence Day. In other words, he is a very influential person in the motion picture business.
As a producer of Coraline, Mechanic exercised his clout in a particular manner. When he discovered that the character of Charlie Jones was going to wear a University of Michigan sweatshirt in the film, he put his foot down. Because he's a proud graduate of Michigan State University – U of M's long-time rival – Mechanic insisted that the shirt be changed to one from his alma mater. Unsurprisingly, he got his way.
9 Two actresses abruptly switched roles
Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French are not exactly household names in America, although both are major stars in England. This being the case, it isn't entirely surprising that Henry Selick didn't know who they were when Neil Gaiman insisted they be cast as, respectively, Miss Forcible and Miss Spink.
After the first day of recording voices, Selick agreed that they were perfect, except for one thing – he wanted them to switch parts, with Saunders playing Spink and French taking on Forcible. The director told Digital Spy that doing so “threw them because they hadn't been able to rehearse or anything.” Despite the sudden switch, the actresses gelled to their new roles. “Within five minutes, they were on fire,” he said.
8 One crucial scene was almost deleted
One of the most important scenes in Coraline wouldn't have made it into the final product if the producers had gotten their way. It's the scene in which the title character and her mother go shopping for school clothes. According to the DVD commentary, the producers thought it wasn't needed, and that taking Coraline away from the Pink Palace would be detrimental to the film.
Henry Selick fought to keep it. Although it was already established that Coraline and her mom could have a thorny relationship at times, this sequence really drove the idea home. It also ensured the girl ventured into the Other World feeling especially frustrated with Mother. Selick got his way, as the producers eventually realized he was right.
7 A controversy avoided
There's a scene in Coraline that pushes the boundaries of what can be included in a PG-rated movie. It's the one where Miss Forcible recreates the "Birth of Venus." It is edgy because it features her in a very revealing costume. Although it gets a laugh, having this in a movie aimed at kids could have created a serious controversy.
It actually did create one behind the scenes, as some at Laika thought they were setting themselves up for criticism. Selick told io9 that it was Neil Gaiman who came up with a way around the problem by suggesting that Coraline's dialogue expressing shock at the sight be given to Miss Spink instead. This switch erased any idea that the girl was troubled by what she was seeing and "immediately calmed down that nervousness" at the studio.
6 It took a week to make each 1 minute 30 seconds of the movie
Stop-motion animation provides a dazzling look, but it comes at a price. Because of the time-consuming process, it took four years to make Coraline. The Laika team set up shop in a 140,000 square-foot lot outside Portland, Oregon. There, hundreds of craftspeople set about making the characters, costumes, and sets that would be seen on-screen.
Once all those things were made, the truly laborious work began. The process of stop-motion animation requires figures and objects to be photographed one frame at a time, moved by a minuscule, almost-imperceptible amount in between. This process repeats until a scene is completely finished. Even with twenty-nine full-time animators, only 90-100 seconds of footage were produced per week. For perspective, the final product runs 100 minutes.
5 3D printing gave the characters more expression
Traditionally, one of the biggest limitations of stop-motion animation was an inability to create a range of expressions for the characters. Different heads could be sculpted to register different emotions, but even then, a lot of nuance was lost. Characters tended to have "big" feelings, and that was it. Coraline found a way around that problem by taking advantage of new technology.
Groundbreaking 3D printing techniques allowed the filmmakers to create more than 6,000 faces for the movie's characters, ranging from broad ones to those that were more subtle. When combined, Coraline's inhabitants were capable of a staggering 207,000 potential facial expressions. For this new method, the Laika folks were honored at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Scientific and Technical Awards.
4 The designer was told to ignore the book
Tadahiro Uesugi is a well-known illustrator in Japan. He got into movies after expressing an interest to some Pixar employees, who recommended him to Henry Selick. The director liked his style and the soulful touches he routinely includes, and hired him to design the look of his film.
Interestingly, Ueseugi was instructed to ignore the illustrations already provided in Neil Gaiman's book. He told AWN that he was given a great deal of leeway in terms of using his imagination. "I was told which images in the book I was going to translate into the movie," he said. "Except for that, everything was basically up to me. Henry's only instruction was, 'Design with your own ideas, but we would like to see something we've never seen before!'" On that count, he certainly delivered.
3 The director drew on his relationship with his daughter
The relationship between Coraline and her father is one of the most touching elements of the movie. It provides some much-needed heart around all the creepy, otherworldly events that occur within the story. There's a perfectly good reason why their bond feels so authentic. Henry Selick "channeled" himself and his own daughter for the scene where Coraline tries to get her dad's attention while he works.
He told Wired that other little details were also taken from real life. "The pained expression on dad's face, Coraline's overly dramatic reactions, imitating her mom, yelling at her doll, playfully swinging on a door -- those are things I've witnessed, things I've experienced," he said. "And I brought those experiences to the performance of the puppets."
2 Unusual instruments were used to create the score
Bruno Coulais is a French composer who wrote the music for the documentary Microcosmos, as well as the acclaimed drama The Chorus, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. He was asked to write the score for Coraline after Henry Selick used some of his other music as a temp track and liked the feel of it.
To create a musical soundscape that captured the movie's offbeat feel, Coulais used some unusual instruments. Among them was a rare instrument called a “waterphone,” which involves water being put in a stainless steel basin that has different-sized rods around it, plus a cylindrical neck. When a violin bow is rubbed against the rods, it makes a very eerie sound. Coulais also used toys in making the sounds of the mouse marching band.
1 It is a father/son effort with ties to Nike
It might surprise you to learn that Nike, the most popular athletic shoe brand in the world, has a whole lot to do with Coraline's existence. In fact, there's also a whole father/son dynamic behind the film.
Laika, the company that made Coraline, is run by CEO Travis Knight. His father Phil is a co-owner. For those who don't know, Phil Knight is the co-founder of Nike, and currently serves as its Chairman Emeritus. He helped purchase the animation studio when it was known by its previous name, Will Vinton Studios, putting $5 million into it and gaining a 15% ownership stake in the process. Rver the shrewd businessman, Phil initially wanted to put Nike tie-ins in Coraline, since it was Laika's first feature, but ultimately decided that was a bad idea.
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