Tim Burton replays his past for ‘Frankenweenie’

When Tim Burton next steps behind the camera, it appears he’ll likely be directing a live-action adaptation of the classic fairy tale “Pinocchio” for Walt Disney Co. Although the film is still taking shape, it’s a perfect fit for Burton: He not only delivered a $1-billion hit for the studio with his lavish fantasy “Alice in Wonderland” in 2010, but he’s also been animating puppets with sentience and spirit since his college days at CalArts with films including “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride.”

He reached back to his creative past with “Frankenweenie,” a black-and-white stop-motion feature adaptation of a live-action short he made in 1984 about a scientifically inclined boy who brings his beloved dog back from the grave. In the film, released this fall, the unlikely hero, young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), isn’t trying to stir up trouble, really, he just wants to use his knowledge to be reunited with his best friend, though his actions create havoc in the sweetly anachronistic suburbia of New Holland. About 200 puppets were manufactured for the production.


Breathing new life into the story required Burton to ruminate on his childhood in Burbank, just one of the reasons the project — a love letter to the Universal horror canon and 1950s Atomic Age thrillers — is such a deeply personal one for the filmmaker.

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What was the most challenging aspect of expanding the original “Frankenweenie” short into a feature-length film?

A lot of people could look at this and say it’s easy — you did it before, just kind of redo it. But that’s more of a reason why you wouldn’t want to do something. It really had to break a barrier for me of feeling like it was an actual project. and not just padding the short. The time [that had elapsed] gave it a new perspective. The [idea of an] inanimate object coming to life, the stop-motion seemed like a more pure version of it. It’s like a weird therapy session; you kind of uncover your past.

Did you, in fact, gain any new perspective on your past while making it?

I’ve never been very good at verbalizing it. I don’t really go back — I don’t look at drawings, I don’t really watch films that I’ve done over again too much — sometimes when you do think about things from the past it exercises that memory button. You just revisit the memories that you forgot about [as an adult], how weird kids are with each other, how weird and imposing certain teachers were. You go back and remember those feelings.

It was about exercising that muscle of memory.

How closely do you identify with your protagonists? Does Victor Frankenstein have a lot in common with young Tim Burton?

Yeah, I had a dog and I wanted to be a mad scientist. I was put, like a lot of kids are, into this “weird” category. I didn’t really feel weird at all. I always felt the other kids were strange, so I tried to reflect that in the film, the weirdness of other children, the slightly bullying way children are with each other.

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Why is stop-motion so special to you?

I think for anybody who’s ever been on a stop-motion set or picked up a puppet, and touched it, it’s exciting. There’s something exciting about it. When I was a child seeing Ray Harryhausen’s work, you didn’t know anything about it, but you sensed an artist. He had such an influence.

I knew his name before I knew any actor or director’s name.

Some of these puppets — probably in terms of the films I’ve worked on, from “Nightmare” to “Corpse Bride” — these puppets are probably the crudest in a sense they had the most limited range. It was by design and budget a little bit, just going back to a slightly more old-fashioned [approach]. There’s still the beauty of taking that kind of stuff and making it come to life one frame at a time. You run it together, and it is like a magical thing.

It kind of goes back to the beginning of cinema, you see those frames start to move, no matter how technology changes, that still stays really powerful.

Do you have a favorite moment or sequence from “Frankenweenie”?

Knowing the lack of sophistication, There’s lot of little acting moments that I find really special, little looks that happen that are very subtle. That to me again is part of the beauty of it, things where people are actually moving something and creating a real emotion. Sometimes, It’s little shots of Victor just after [Sparky] has died; little things that for me capture real emotion simply.


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