SAN DIEGO - In the half-hour before the Disney panel began in Hall H of the San Diego Comic-Con, Tim Burton stood upstairs in the green room, laughing, smiling, completely at ease and comfortable. Anyone who sat through the presentation he made for his new stop-motion animated film "Frankenweenie" knows, though, that Burton wasn't always that relaxed in his own skin, and many of his real childhood anxieties, especially about school, served as fodder for the film.
"What did they do to you in that school?" the panel moderator Chris Hardwick asked at one point.
Burton just shook his head, shuddering, and answered, "The lawsuits are still pending."
At the start of the presentation, the first of three films promoted as part of today's Disney event, Hardwick talked about how seeing "Beetlejuice" on the bigscreen was a major event for him as a kid, and how it taught him early on that films did not all have to look the same.
Then, before he brought on any guests, he encouraged the audience to put on their 3D glasses, and he screened the new trailer for "Frankenweenie," which makes a very funny nod to the style of the trailers for the classic Universal monster movies that so clearly inspired this film. It was posted here on the site a little while ago, and you can also just watch the embed:
When the lights came up, Tim Burton walked out onstage to thunderous applause. These are most definitely his people, and they always seem thrilled to see him here. One guy screamed from the front section of the audience, and Hardwick pointed him out. "That guy right there, Tim… he loves you."
Burton took his seat and shrugged apologetically at the fan. "I'm taken."
Burton went on to describe his first take on the material, the short film he made in the early '80s. He talked about how Disney considered him a terrible animator, so they told him to do the film in live-action instead. That forced Burton to learn how to talk to other people and how to direct actors. The story itself was something that had been bouncing around in his head ever since his own childhood pet passed away, and even after making the short film, he never felt like he was done with it.
Hardwick talked about how Burton's known for his creepy visual style, but he's also a very funny filmmaker, and he asked Burton what his major comedy influences were.
"Growing up in Burbank?" Burton answered. He went on to explain that he loves finding material where he can mix humor and horror and heart, and how stop-motion animation is something very special to him. He considers it the perfect middle ground between animation and live-action, and he loves being able to shoot something tangible, but something that he can control so precisely.
He set up the first clip from the film by saying it is set in a classroom at the New Holland Elementary school, and how he wanted to take people from his real life, both students and teachers, and populate the classroom with them.
In the clip, Mr. Rzykruski introduces himself to his class. He looks like Vincent Price, but he's voiced by Martin Landau, and he's a strikingly designed character. The previous teacher was hit by lightning, but as Mr. Rzykruski points out, lightning doesn't exactly "hit" something. He goes on to talk about the entire electrical process that occurs during a lightning strike, and then quizzes some of the kids. It's clear that Victor (Charlie Tahan) is not the only weirdo in the town.
If anything, he seems downright normal when he's compared to some of the other kids. He's smart, he's got a knack for science, but really he's just a little boy who wants his dog back.
In the second clip, the creepy little hunchback kid who you glimpse in the trailer manages to blackmail Victor into helping him bring a pet back from the dead, and not because of any emotional attachment, but just out of curiosity. The kid goes to a pet store and intentionally buys a dead goldfish. He takes it to Victor's house, and during an electrical storm, they raise the goldfish bowl into the sky.
When they bring it back down, the goldfish is indeed alive, but it's also been rendered invisible, and Victor isn't sure why it happened. He makes the creepy kid promise that he won't tell anyone what happened, and although the kid promises, we also see him cross his fingers behind his back.
Burton's worked in stop-motion repeatedly now, so it shouldn't be a surprise that he's gotten incredibly good at it. There are some remarkably tricky technical beats in the footage we saw, and it all looks seamless and fluid. Very impressive, overall, and once the two clips were done, Hardwick immediately opened things up to questions from the audience.
The first guy up had a thick Brazilian accents, and he managed to ask with only marginally strangled syntax, "Aren't you tired to work with Johnny Depp?"
Burton laughed it off, but he pointed out that there are many people he works with more than once, including some of the voice actors in "Frankenweenie" like Landau, Catherine O'Hara, and Winona Ryder.
A group of kids dressed as Burton characters stepped up to the mic to ask the next couple of questions, and Burton did his best to keep a straight face while talking to three Mad Hatters at once. The first asked, "Do you prefer making original stories or recreating famous characters?"
Burton thought about it, then replied, "You have to love them all. There's something special in each one. Looking at you guys, it makes me feel like my family has come to see me."
Hardwick couldn't help but laugh and ask, "Is it still weird to you that that's a thing that came out of your brain and now it's standing right in front of you?"
Burton shook his head. "No, my brain's been leaking for a long time now."
A second Mad Hatter asked the next question, "What's it like to work with Coleen Atwood?"
With a straight face, Burton answered, "She's a bitch." The look of shock on the kid's face made it impossible for Burton to hold back a laugh, though. "No, she's great. I've worked with her for so long, and you want people who can surprise you. It's like working with a great artist."
The next person up asked a good question about why Burton returned to this particular story. "Were there scenes in the original film you couldn't do that you were able to realize in this animated version, or is this completely new?"
Burton explained that he wasn't really restricted by anything but time in the first version of the story, and that a feature automatically gives you more room to explore. "There were other characters and monsters that I could explore further in this new film, and while live-action was fun, for me, this is the more pure version of the story."
The next question seemed to entertain Hardwick enormously, as did the person asking it, a longhaired dude in a Jedi robe with a lightsaber. The guy asked in a very serious way, "'Beetlejuice' was a PG, but there's an f-word in it. How did you pull that off?"
Burton explained that you could say it one time in a PG film back then, but today he's not sure about that.
Hardwick, still looking at the guy who asked the question, shook his head. "Jesus H. Jedi," he muttered as the next person stepped up to ask a question.
A woman asked, "Are you ever going to go back to darker films like 'Sleepy Hollow' or 'Sweeney Todd'?"
Burton seemed sincere as he explained, "I have my moments of light and dark. And I'm the worst person to ask, because it never seems that dark to me. Other people see things and seem shocked, but I can't really tell."
As the next girl tried to ask her question, "How does it feel to finish something you started so many years ago?" she was overwhelmed by emotion, and she barely managed to finish before she started to cry.
"I feel the same way you do," Burton replied. "When I think of it, I burst into tears. It meant a lot to me. They're all special, but this one is very special to me."
With that, they put up a slide inviting people to visit Booth 3635, where they set up a special exhibit on The Art of "Frankenweenie," bringing that portion of the panel to a close, and Burton left the stage to the same sort of frenzied applause that greeted him.
"Frankenweenie" will return from the grave on October 5, 2012.
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