When an opportunity came along to visit the set of Tim Burton's latest movie Frankenweenie and be treated to a guided tour by the wild-haired moviemaking maestro himself, Digital Spy was there faster than you can scream "Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice!"
The visit took place at the 3 Mills Studio in East London back in March 2011, when production was in full flow on this charming stop-motion tale of a dead dog reanimated by a distraught child. Indeed, the theme of resurrection is crucial to Frankenweenie's existence, as Burton has based it on his own 1984 live action short film of the same name. Although actors have been replaced by saucer-eyed puppets for the feature-length Disney production, the strong homage to James Whale's 1931 classic Frankenstein remains.
Witnessing the craft of the animators at work is a magical experience, with the vast confines of the studio separated into workshops featuring countless models of individual characters in varying poses, and mini sets where the movie is intricately shot frame by frame. One can only hope that this skilled art is never extinguished by the prevalence of computer animation. Besides, a set visit revolving around a hard drive wouldn't be much fun.
"We have about 30 set-ups going at the moment and about 20 animators working," announced the extremely enthusiastic Tim Burton as he appeared amidst the hive of activity on the studio floor. "For me, part of the great thing about this is the process. I enjoy looking at all the stuff and seeing what all the artists are up to... I can just stare at some of the props forever."
He's not alone in feeling this mesmerising effect, as the sheer detail involved in the puppets and scenery is staggering and easily taken for granted by viewers of the end product. Even the grass on the garden lawns on the suburbia-based sets has clearly been honed to precision and is noticeably giving off a distinctly green hue. This may appear logical, but for a black and white movie?
"In certain cases, like with the grass and flowers, rather than painting it we did a lot of testing with these colours," explained Burton, "because in black and white colours end up reacting strangely and so there was a lot of testing to get it crisp, clear and exciting in black and white."
"It seemed like a ripe opportunity to do stop-motion black and white," he continued. "You wouldn't do that with everything, but it felt like a powerful combination. I wanted to see the depth and the crispness of the black and white in this medium. We're doing that expressionist horror movie lighting, where characters are in and out of shadows."
"Ed Wood was in black and white and that was a real fight and struggle," Burton revealed about ditching colour for his 1994 masterpiece and the commercial repercussions. "Since it didn't do very well, although [being in black and white] wasn't the reason, unfortunately it backed up their claim. But Disney's been really amazing. They get the fact that it fits the story and the dynamic. I probably wouldn't have done it without it, because it's part of the emotion of it."
Burton subsequently touched upon how he revisited the original drawings he made for the 1984 short in a bid to "capture that spirit" for the new incarnation. As we stroll around the set and turn a corner, a rather morbid sight dawns upon us - a pet cemetery! "Everybody's putting their pets in this one," he laughs, as it becomes apparent the tombstones have been engraved with the names of real pets that touched the lives of the animators - much like Frankenweenie's ill-fated pooch Sparky made a profound mark on young scientist Victor. "It's great because it makes it personal for everybody," adds the affable director.
The next set to be visited is the exterior of the New Holland school, with a collection of puppets amassed outside. "Pardon me if I don't spend too much time in this room because it reminds me of the school I went to," Burton quips, before joking that the animator has quit because of the perils of shooting a stop-motion crowd scene.
After Burton bids farewell and a screening of some rough but stunning footage from the cute canine's 'reanimation', it was time for chats with producer Allison Abbate followed by production designer Rick Heinrichs.
They say never work with children or animals, but how does that translate in the animation world? Allison Abbate, who also produced Fantastic Mr Fox and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, admitted: "I have to say that the dog has definitely been a challenge to animate, just because he is such a complicated armature and learning how to move him has been challenging. But once they get him he's such a great character that they have a ball."
As for the main difficulties faced during production, Abbate echoed what Tim Burton said earlier about certain colours not always translating well to black and white. "Colours act differently... so just finding that way of painting certain things in shades of grey, but also when you did had to use colour figuring out how those tones would work so you could feather them in. But I think we've cracked it."
"I think animated movies, because of the graphic quality to them, work really well in 3D," she added, feeling confident that Frankenweenie will work well in that medium despite the lack of colour.
If you think Johnny Depp is lacking rivals in the bid to become Burton's undisputed chief collaborator, then you should give Rick Heinrichs a quick Google. "We've worked together enough so there is a bit of shorthand to the way we work together," divulged the production designer, who also worked on the 1984 live action version of Frankenweenie.
"At the heart is a story of a boy and his dog - the love that they have for each other - and you really want to get Sparky right," said Heinrichs. "There's always a certain thing with a live action Sparky that doesn't quite allow you in there. One of the things I'm seeing from a lot of the animators as they're working away is that you can see what Sparky's thinking and feeling... literally bringing Sparky to life is what's so cool about this version of it."
The desired and distinct visual feel the team wanted to capture is explained by Heinrichs as "a sense of a Midwestern, very flat mid-century suburbia - with a layering of gothic horror, classic horror and science fiction film genres on top of that. It becomes a big mash-up to the degree that can only happen in the mind of a child. It helps put you in Victor's mind as a kind of mad scientist character, but also helps you relate to him as a kid in a neighbourhood we might have known."
As Frankenweenie finally hits cinemas across the globe, over two years since the puppets entered East London, the final word should go to Tim Burton. Surveying a frame being shot on the graveyard set, he mused: "It's an unusual art form. It's slow, but then it's exciting - it's like Frankenstein's story. You're taking a dead thing and making it alive. That's cool."
Frankenweenie opens in UK cinemas on October 17
Photo gallery - Frankenweenie characters in pictures:
Victor (Voiced by Charlie Tahan) Victor Frankenstein is a clever and industrious 10-year-old boy who is inspired by science. He lives with his parents and dog, Sparky, in the town of New Holland. Victor immerses himself in making films and inventing in his attic workshop. When Sparky dies in a car accident, Victor uses scientific ingenuity to bring him back to life.