Allison Abbate interview: producing Frankenweenie and stop-motion animation

With the UK release of Frankenweenie imminent, we caught up with producer Allison Abbate to talk about Tim Burton, animation and more…

Having begun her movie career as an assistant production manager on 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under, Allison Abbate’s continued to work in animation ever since. With such beloved movies as The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Iron Giant, Corpse Bride and Fantastic Mr Fox to her name, Abbate’s most recent film is Frankenweenie, the stop-motion animated adaptation of Tim Burton’s 80s short of the same name. 

With Frankenweenie making its debut in UK cinemas this week, it was our pleasure to speak with the producer about working with Tim Burton on this and his previous animated projects, how technology has helped the artistic process of making a stop-motion movie, and what we can expect from Guillermo del Toro’s own forthcoming animated feature, Pinocchio

Can you tell us, first of all, about your role as producer on Frankenweenie?

Because stop motion is such a painstakingly detailed process, and such a slow process – each of the steps is quite slow – I feel like I’m there to create and organise and pull together a team who can help Tim [Burton] and really realise his vision.

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I worked really closely with him, getting the storyboard artists, getting the editorial together, honing that story reel, and then – again – working with the puppet people right until the end, making sure that Tim’s vision is kept pure.

You must have quite a good working relationship with Tim Burton by now.

I’ve worked with Tim on Corpse Bride and this one, and before that I worked on Nightmare Before Christmas. I was awestruck at the time. 

Has his approach to this kind of filmmaking changed much in that time?

I’m not sure his approach has changed. Certainly, the way that he’s been involved has changed. On [Nightmare Before Christmas] he was producer, on Corpse Bride he was co-producer, and on this film he’s directing, because I think he’s realised that he really needs to make the creative decisions on all things. In that sense, I think his role has deepened, and his day-to-day contribution has deepened, although if you look at Nightmare, it’s still totally his personal world.

Frankenweenie started out as a short film, obviously. Did you have lots of conversations in pre-production about how it could be expanded into a feature?

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Pretty much, in pre-production, we had the script that John August wrote, which did expand on the short. But there were things in there that were different from the short that we wanted to go back to how they were, and there were things in there that weren’t in the short that we wanted to pursue even further than the script took it.

So it was really about going through the script and doing a compare and contrast, and sticking to stuff from the short when it worked for this new story, but not being slavishly devoted to it when it wasn’t serving our purpose.

Was the black-and-white production something you had to fight for, or was it on the table from the beginning?

It was on the table from the beginning. And I really feel that the studio never tried to convince us or cajole us into making the change. I think Tim’s concept for it was always in black and white, so it would have been a waste of time to really have those conversations.

Once the deal is done, our budget is a fraction, really, of what most animated movie budgets are. And the reason we don’t go after more money, I think, is because Tim wants to do what he wants to without a lot of intervention. That’s the price you pay, but it’s a small one to pay to have the creative freedom. 

How does Tim Burton’s approach to animation differ from Wes Anderson’s, since you worked with him on Fantastic Mr Fox?

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They’re both very similar, in that they’re both specific visual artists, and really have an influence on everything you see in the frame – so in that sense, they are very similar. But different artists focus on different things, and Tim, I think, is a much more ethereal director. He surrounds himself with people he respects and likes, and so he fosters that back and forth. He won’t let you go too far in one direction, but he likes to get you to do what you do best. When people veer off on the wrong direction, he’ll pull them back, but he wants to see what you’ll bring to the table as well. In that sense, he’s unique.

This film’s in 3D as well, which works with the 50s monster-movie vibe.

It does. It also works well with the black and white, which I think has been surprising to a lot of people. You might think that with the lack of colour, things might not pop as much, but really the opposite is true. Things really pop more.

The textures are picked out more, I thought.

Absolutely. The textures and the details – you feel like you’re really being pulled into the scene. Which is what we wanted to do, because nowadays, so much 3D is pushing out at the audience, but we wanted to invite it in. So we had people come into the sets wherever possible, and look at the handmade quality of the film, because it really is like a jewel, this thing. 

Do you think there’s something about stop-motion animation that makes it perfect for macabre themes? I’m not just talking about recent features, but shorts from Czechoslovakia, the Quay Brothers…

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I would say that stop-motion is appealing to individuals and auteurs, basically. I think that because those independent spirits are drawn to stop-motion, you tend to get different types of movies. But they’re not all spooky. Fantastic Mr Fox wasn’t spooky, and Aardman’s features aren’t spooky at all. But because so many animators have been in the wheelhouse of Burton and Henry Selick, who have that quirkier sensibility, that’s just what we’ve seen, and might inspire others.

Like Laika, who set the tone with Selick’s Coraline, and even ParaNorman, which started development under Henry. So we’re still looking at movies that are in the Henry Selick vein, so we’ll have to see in 10 years’ time whether people are still making horror movies with stop-motion, or if they go for lighter fare. 

Stop-motion involves traditional techniques, of course, but how has new technology helped the animation process?

The technology really has improved for us over the years. There’s the ability for our animators to see what they’re working on as they go. They have frame grabbers and playback that’s instantaneous with these digital cameras. That’s improved a lot since Corpse Bride, even. We’ll shoot on digital cameras, and as time passes, we’re just getting more and more beautifully detailed information.

Then having small cameras allows us to have more motion control. Those are the kinds of technical advancements that affect life on the floor. One of the things that excites me, from the point of view of art direction and set extension, is that you can do a far away hillside with a windmill on it, and a foreground with all the characters. You couldn’t do that on Nightmare Before Christmas, obviously. There were no effects at all until the snow at the end.

So the fact that you can give people a bigger vista – I don’t think people have seen stop-motion movies with landscapes like that. Stop-motion movies tend to be smaller and feel like more confined spaces. That’s where the digital cameras have so much potential – people are used to seeing cameras flying around in, like vast, vast worlds created in CGI.

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I think stop-motion would be foolish not to embrace the new technologies for visual effects, and to use them for the good. The stupid thing would be to let the effects drive the stop motion, because the stop motion really has to set the tone.

What would you say was the most technically difficult part of the film? Was there one scene that was a big challenge, or maybe one particular character?

Dutch Day was very difficult for all parties. It was hard to storyboard it, because the script [for that scene] was not very detailed or point specific. We had to get the turtle puppets to work on a fifth-scale set, and then work with sea monkeys that are full scale and put them together.

There were so many technical things there – the physicality of animating that big turtle was hard – some of the animators were too small to actually move it. Also, from the point of view of getting the tone right, getting the humour in, keeping Sparky looking alive, and then getting each of those monsters to have a different and distinct character. I’d say that sequence, on all levels, was tough.

So the use of digital cameras, does that make the process of animating individual scenes easier, or do you still have to start again if something goes wrong?

You still pretty much have to start again. It helps that they can see the mistakes, so if you go three or four frames past, you can look at it and say, “You know what? I don’t like that. It looks funky.” So you can roll back and get that frame you’re looking for and fix it. But unfortunately, it’s hard to get the puppet back into position, so it doesn’t pop from frame to frame. So if you really moved it on, it’s going to get it back to the place you wanted it to be. If you see a shot finished, you can’t really say, “Can you go back to the beginning and change this…” It’s like, “I can, but I’ll have to go back to the beginning and redo the entire shot.”

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It’s not like CG, where you can be tweaking the moves at every stage as you’re applying the levels of finish. This is very much like, that guy goes back into the room and starts again. 

One of the other films you worked on was The Iron Giant. Have you heard anything about that film’s Blu-ray release?

I think it is coming out on Blu-ray. I don’t really know what the situation is, but I have heard about that. I mean, I don’t even know when Frankenweenie’s coming out on DVD! People keep asking me, what’s going to be included on the DVD, and Don [Hahn] and I are like, “We’re not sure!” Because they talk about ideas and then they go away, and then they talk about other ideas and then they go away, so we just haven’t pinned it down. 

Iron Giant, I can’t keep track of it, because they promise, and then who knows what happens?

It was such an amazing movie, The Iron Giant.

It was appreciated, but it was under-seen, really, in movie theatres. And that was what helped me to realise that box office means nothing – if you make a beautiful movie, people will find it, and you’ll get that satisfaction. 

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Do you think it’s a little strange that a CG-animated movie, like Ice Age, can make extraordinary money, yet other forms of animation don’t to the same degree?

I think it depends on what you’re selling. The appeal of those movies is that they’re bright, they’re colourful, they’re funny. They’re an easy sell, and they spend a lot more money on their movies than we do, and a lot more money on marketing them than we do. So much of marketing is really, it’s here, it’s fun, it’s worth seeing. So they command a bigger piece of the market because they spend more money on it, quite frankly.

And our movie doesn’t need to make a billion, trillion dollars to be a success, because we’re working towards a different goal.

You’re working another stop-motion movie next, Pinocchio?

Yes, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. It’s still very early days, but he has an amazing vision, and amazingly charismatic visual style. He’s also drawn to stop-motion, not necessarily for a Halloween-type movie, because this is a story for the ages, but definitely looking at it with more of an attention to the source material than we’re used to, and again, doing a character study about who Pinocchio is and what that tells us as an audience.

I think it’ll be interesting. It’ll also go more deeply into the part of Gepetto.

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I’d read somewhere that Gepetto might be voiced by Tom Waits…

I don’t know if that’s true. I know Tom Waits is going to be a part of it, but it’s not clear what part.

But given that it’s a del Toro movie, is it a given that it’ll be a darker take on the story?

I’m sure it will be. He’s a filmmaker who loves those kinds of movies and themes, and that kind of imagery. Like I said, it’s early days, so it’s not yet clear how that’s developing, but I believe he’s partnering with Mark Gustafson, who directed the animation on Fantastic Mr Fox, who couldn’t be more sweet and funny and adorable. So the two of them together will make for an interesting combination.

Do you think it’s important that you have a visual stylist at the helm of an animated film? Should a stop-motion director be able to draw?

Absolutely. It would be a heartbreaking waste to tie their hands and not let them do what they do so beautifully. So I feel that as long as I can keep the price down to a certain level, so the films are fiscally viable, without having to be a blockbuster, I think the studios will continue to allow those artists to hone their craft.

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Time for one final question, then. Given how well received Frankenweenie’s been, do you think Tim Burton will be encouraged to make more stop-motion movies?

I think so. He loves the artform, and he has tonnes of stories he wants to tell, so for me, it’s yeah, just a case of finding the right timing and the right story.

Allison Abbate, thank you very much.

Frankenweenie is out in UK cinemas on the 17th October. You can read our review here.

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