Behind the Scenes

Tim Burton's Frankenweenie

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Director Tim Burton gives Esquire a guided tour of new film Frankenweenie. 

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Tim Burton is leading a bunch of nervous visitors down a darkened corridor. Thick black curtains hang on either side. Now and then, he darts into a chink of light. We shuffle in after him, ducking as we go.

Behind one curtain is a man called Brian, blinking like a bush baby. Behind Brian is a complicated-looking camera rig. Behind the rig is a little model of an attic in which a little model of a boy is soon to be conducting a most unusual experiment on a little model of a dead dog.
How long have you been here?” asks Burton.
Three days?” says Brian, not seeming entirely sure.
What have you got to show?” asks Burton.
Brian plays back what he has shot on the monitor. Two seconds, if that. We shuffle off.

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Brian is one of 20 animators at 3 Mills Studio in London’s East End working behind other black curtains with 200 puppets on 30 sets. Slowly, slowly, they’re piecing together scenes for Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s second foray into the world of feature-length animations as director after Corpse Bride (although he has previously produced the likes of The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach).

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Behind the next curtain, another animator stands next to what would be an imposing example of postwar architecture, were it not only a metre tall. Across the entrance is sign that reads “New Holland Elementary”.

Burton turns back towards the gap in the curtain. “Pardon me if I don’t spend too much time in this room,” he says. “It reminds me of the school that I went to.”

Even for a director whose thumbprint is so unmistakable, Frankenweenie is a particularly personal film.

The buildings of New Holland are influenced by the suburbs in Burbank, California, where Burton grew up — a backdrop he hopes will be “oppressively boring” so as to highlight the oddity of his characters, which have been modelled (out of silicon and foam over tiny metal skeletons) from the director’s own sketches.

It’s even a self-homage of sorts: in 1984, Burton made a short live-action film of the same name and story — about a boy who decides to bring his beloved dog back to life — which he’s now revisiting nearly three decades on in a longer, more expansive (and certainly more expensive — the puppets cost up to £50,000 to make) form.

Directing an animation is not like directing actors; a reshoot doesn’t take two hours — it takes two weeks. The going sometimes seems slow: “We’re aching for more to do,” Burton admits. But you can’t rush these things. The wonder of animation mirrors the story of Frankenweenie’s canine lead Sparky itself, the director says. “You’re taking something dead and making it alive.”And with that kind of black magic, there are no short cuts.

Frankenweenie opens the 56th London Film Festival on 10 Oct and is in cinemas from 17 Oct

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