Frankenweenie is easily the best Tim Burton movie in a decade. I was almost braced to dislike it, so it was a wonderful surprise to find myself concurring with Brad’s glowing review. In the film, a young Victor conducts a science experiment to bring his beloved dog Sparky back to life, only to face unintended, sometimes monstrous, consequences.
I recently sat down with producer Allison Abbate (Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Iron Giant) to talk about how she got into animation and what it’s like to address the creative needs of visionaries like Tim Burton and Wes Anderson. Frankenweenie feels 100% like a Tim Burton film (a good one at that), so I was curious about the challenges of addressing his voice. We also spoke briefly about one of her upcoming projects, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio.
The voice cast includes four actors who worked with Burton on previous films: Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands), Catherine O’Hara (Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas), Martin Short (Mars Attacks!) and Martin Landau (Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow), while Charlie Tahan and Atticus Shaffer were later added. Over 200 puppets and sets were created for the film, and that several of the character names—Victor, Elsa Van Helsing, Edgar “E” Gore and Mr. Burgermeister — were inspired by classic horror films.
First of all I loved the movie. I’m a huge dog person so maybe I’m predisposed. I teared up a little but.
I did too! It’s sad, but it’s a happy sad where there’s some dream fulfillment.
You’ve almost exclusively done animation throughout your career. What got you on that path?
Well, I didn’t set out to do animation. I just kind of came out to Hollywood and got kind of whipped up in that whole animation renaissance in the 80’s and 90’s. But when I did A Nightmare Before Christmas, it was really a life-changing experience. It had all of the thrilling, visceral stuff that live action had. But it also provided the ability to hone your movie one frame at a time, to make sure that all of the information was in the frame.
This 100% feels like a Tim Burton movie. And you also did Fantastic Mr. Fox which 100% felt like a Wes Anderson movie. How do you act as a conduit in terms of translating their vision into a different format?
Because their visions are so specific, and because with this medium you’re actually making real art that can sit on a table or something, it appeals to strong artistic visions. To me it’s a very satisfying place to go, into the minds of these visionaries.
What’s the biggest stumbling block in interpreting all of that?
It’s important to know what’s important to Tim. In the scenes where he said, “no. Do that again. It’s not right.” Some of those were surprising to us. Like the re-animation sequence, we basically did it like it was in the 1984 short. But there were things he wanted to re-do and shots he wanted to add. It was one of the first things we did and he had a specific way that he wanted it done. And, by addressing that, I think we earned his trust for the later sequences.
When you’re asked to do something again, how many weeks of work is that?
It depends on how long the shot is. Sometimes it takes two weeks to do a shot and if he wants one of those done again it’s a big hit to the production. At the same time, if it’s not done right it’s an even bigger hit to the production.
I have to ask about Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio.
That seems to be moving forward. There was one version and now there’s a new version and I just got back to LA so we’re just now hashing that out. But Guillermo is an amazingly charismatic, fascinating and brilliant man. So I’d go on any journey he wanted to take us on. So we’ll see, but he has some very specific ideas.
There’s a new version? Can you clarify that?
Well he wasn’t going to be one of the main directors. He was producing, but now he’s directing it. And that’s an amazingly good turn. His passion and energy and imagery are so inspiring. It’s amazing to be in a room with all of that.