We caught up with Don to chat about this stop motion animation project, the challenges faced by this genre of film and getting to work with Tim once again.
- Frankenweenie has just been released on DVD & Blu-Ray here in the UK so for anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet can you tell me a little bit about it?
Well it is a love story between a boy and his dog. And it is a personal story because it is a little bit about Tim (Burton) growing up in southern California and being an introvert and being a lover of film and his dog was his first best friend.
So it is great and warm Tim Burton movie as well as being an homage to the great monster movies of the fifties and sixties.
- You serve as producer on the movie and it is based on the short of the same name by Tim Burton so where did this project start for you?
Well I have known Tim for thirty years and I was actually at the studio when he made the original short.
In 2005 I went back and sat on his sofa and we were talking about ideas and stories and one that I brought up was Frankenweenie and I said ‘there has to be more here as it is only a half hour.
‘You were nobody when you made it but now you are somebody and certainly there must be more flesh on the bones of this story’. And he just got it right away and had had always wanted to do more with it but had never known when.
Disney got behind it, at the time we were doing Alice In Wonderland, and the chance to be in business again with Tim was a great opportunity. But it really came from that conversation in London with Tim… seven years later the movie came out.
- Tim is in the director’s chair again and it sees the pair of you reunite so how do you find working with him? I was reading that he wanted to make all of the models for Frankenweenie himself?
He did, he did. Normally on any movie you would hire a character designer to do that but he wanted all of the models based on his drawings, which we did.
But it was a challenge because when you are taking flat pen and ink drawings and converting into puppets it is a leap. We had some brilliant sculptors that did that.
I think part of that is because it is such a personal film and one of Tim’s first films so he wanted to keep it close to himself.
It is unusual for a director of his stature to spend time on a stop motion movie but he did and he was incredibly involved with every detail. And that is why I think the movie plays as well as it does and it is as warm and personal as it is.
- This is quite a gutsy project as it is in black and white and it is quite dark at times so up for the film were Disney when you first pitched it to them?
I don’t think that there is any studio executive who wakes up in the morning and says ‘lets make a black and white stop motion animation movie about a boy and a dead dog’ - it’s not on your to do list.
It is all about Tim you know what you are going to get and you know that you are going to get something that is interesting and eccentric but has a heart to it.
And a lot of it is just about trusting that creative talent. In the end it is a love story it’s about how love conquers all - even death in this case.
They looked hard at the black and white and the budget but that is ok as you want that dialogue with the studio and what the studio to define what is right for them in a business sense.
But to their credit they got behind the movie and they have always been really supportive - a lot of that is because of Tim because he is an interesting, eccentric, tremendous talent and he is so fun to work with.
He is not a screamer he is a guy who comes in and collaborates and he wants to hear what his crew have to say. He is very clear about what he want and he has a great work ethic. So behind closed doors he is a pretty amazing director.
- The movie is shot in black and white as we have mentioned already so was this always the plan? And was there any talk about making it in colour?
It was always the plan in Tim’s mind. We had a lot of people ask ‘is is going to hurt the box office?’ or ‘Can you do 3D in black and white? Will that work?’ So we had a range of questions.
But after testing it and looking at it it seemed so right for this homage to monster movies to be shot in black and white - it just felt right for this particular movie.
I am not sure that you will be seeing a lot of black and white animation in the future but for this story it seemed right. It was always Tim’s intention to shoot this in black and white from the very very beginning.
- Stop motion animation looks so fantastic on the big screen but I imagine it takes an eternity to make so what challenges did you face when you were making this film?
It is one of the oldest kinds of animation in the business and so you are not dealing with high technology you are dealing with very rudimentary technology - it is like moving a Barbie doll around one frame at a time.
The puppets are tremendously sophisticated by they break and they rip and tear and so we ran a puppet hospital throughout the whole shoot.
We would rush puppets upstairs and put them in places where they could be stitched up and glued back together (laughs). So there are just a lot of basic issues when you are making a movie like this.
But it is just an amazing process and walking through a stop motion animation studio is like walking through a toy store or Santa’s workshop.
You have all of these sets and they are all on table tops and it is incredibly quiet and incredibly dark and everyone is slaving away on these little scenes and these little moments.
It really is one of the most magical processes that I have ever seen and I think that is what translates onto the screen - it’s a very playful suspension of disbelief for a filmmaker to use puppets.
It is also really personal as you can feel Tim’s handwriting in the movie and you can feel his hand in the movie by the virtue of the way that it is designed.
- I was reading that John Lasseter was one of the first people to back this project so how important was it getting him on board?
I think it was really important because he is a good friend and he has incredibly good taste. On his first day at Disney, after Disney had bought Pixar, I was running Disney Animation at the time and he came in and we went through several different projects.
One of those projects was Wreck-It -Ralph, this was six years ago, and one of those projects was Frankenweenie. The conversation about Frankenweenie lasted about fifteen seconds it was like ‘What’s this? Frankenweenie? Is Tim doing it? Great.’ It was really that.
John went over to London and had dinner with Tim, they hadn’t seen each other in a long time, and I think there was just camaraderie and a trust between those two artists. John said ‘how can we not support this guy? He is going to make something special for us’.
- This film has had great reviews and has been nominated for an Oscar so what have you made of the response to the movie?
It’s breathtaking as the critical response has been fantastic. We realised going in that it is a film that is not necessarily a giant general audience film but a very personal film to Tim.
So at times our box office has been soft but we did expect that and went in with a budget that was conservative. It performed exactly like a Nightmare Before Christmas performed fifteen years ago; audiences were slow to discover it but people literally discovered it.
It wasn’t like a giant ad campaign they would just discover it and pass it on. A lot of that was journalists and critics talking about the movie and how special they felt it was.
So it was really humbling for Tim and all of us to have the press react to the film the way that it did and to have the Academy Award nomination was unbelievable, it was fantastic.
- Throughout your producing career you have worked on some huge animation projects such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King so how does making a traditional hand-drawn animation compare to stop motion animation?
They are both insane (laughs) and you wouldn’t normally set out to do either of them. I love the process and the people and I love the magic that it creates.
You can do anything now with a computer but what is nice about hand drawn and stop motion is you can see the hand of the artist and you can feel the hand and the coffee stains and the fabric - you just sense a humanity to it.
There is no question that computer animated movies are marvels and fun to watch and I love them but there is a wonderful humanity to those techniques. It is like a hand written letter that is written with pen and ink it is breathtaking because nobody does that anymore.
And it is almost what these films have become; they are cherished little handmade films and I really love them for that.
- Maleficent is one of your big future projects, it is in post production at the moment, so how is that going?
It is great. All you have to say is Maleficent and Angelina Jolie and you really capture the idea of that movie.
She is everything that you would expect; beautiful, smart and pretty thrilling in this movie. There is a long way to go but really thrilling what we have seen so far.
- As well as producing we have seen you direct a series of documentary films in recent years so have you any plans to return to the director’s chair?
I do, I do. I am really drawn to a lot of social issues and a lot of documentaries because they are fun to make and it is a chance to use my filmmaking skills and have a voice in our culture.
So I will always do animation and larger commercial films but the opportunity and almost the responsibility to make documentaries about issues kind of weighs heavier on me as I get older (laughs).
I just feel that these are great opportunities to tell stories that normally wouldn’t get told and give a platform or a mouthpiece to issues that normally wouldn’t get talked about.
- Finally what is next for you?
Lots of development. Maleficent is shot and well on its way and so I really am in development mode. I am looking at a lot of ideas and stories and talking about a lot of possibilities but I am just in development mode right now.
Frankenweenie is out now on DVD & Blu-Ray