Weddings are often opulent affairs, but it’s virtually unheard of for one to feature $50,000 animatronic puppets, millions of dollars worth of camera and computer equipment and Tim Burton.
The culmination of a 10-year engagement, “Corpse Bride,” directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson, is a revolutionary marriage of stop-motion animation techniques, digital photography and digital movie editing. Shot with Canon digital cameras and edited with Final Cut Pro on Power Mac G5s at Three Mills Studios in London, the film marks the first time stop-motion animation has been shot in digital.
“Movies of this sophistication only come around about every 10 years, if that,” says the movie’s editor Jonathan Lucas. “The animation is beautifully smooth and the story is fantastic. I’ve been in the business maybe 25 years now and I haven’t seen anything like it.”
Anyone can tell you that weddings aren’t easy to plan. The Corpse Bride is no exception. The project has been brewing for more than 10 years. “I’ve been told that Burton heard the tale about 12 years ago,” says Lucas. “It’s taken all that time to come to fruition.”
“The animation is beautifully smooth and the story is fantastic. I’ve been in the business maybe 25 years now and I haven’t seen anything like it.”
The film is based on a short Russian folk story about a young man who accidentally becomes engaged to a corpse. The macabre tale is simple enough, but translating it into an animated film was no easy task. Even after Burton was able to gather a crew for the movie, things moved no quicker than a zombie. The team spent months in planning and nearly 56 weeks in production.
Lucas knows his way around live action. He worked as an assistant director on “Troy,” “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” “102 Dalmatians” and “Sommersby.” But making a stop-motion film is nothing like live action.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. ©2005 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
“The process is kind of reversed,” says Lucas. “Instead of honing down 15,000 feet of daily rushes to get your scenes, stop animation is the other way around. They spend months planning. The scenes are already honed down when you begin production. Stop-motion animation is so expensive and you can only shoot the shots with basically eight frames of extra footage on either side. There’s no room for error. You really have to know what you want when it’s time to commit to the set.”
Choosing equipment wasn’t easy either. The production crew knew they wanted to shoot digital, but they had no idea which camera to use. Digital cameras had never been used for stop motion, a highly specialized application. In the end, the crew chose the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II. The 16.7-megapixel cameras could deliver high-definition, high-quality stills for almost instantaneous output to Final Cut Pro, the team’s editing tool of choice.
The production crew at Three Mills Studios used two-dozen Canon cameras and five Power Mac G5 desktops. They also had about $100,000-worth of Nikon lenses at their disposal. To mate the lenses to the Canon bodies, they used NEOS adapters. In any stop-motion production, the crew likes to see what the camera sees before they take a snapshot. No digital SLR is equipped with a video-out port, so the team mounted tiny video cameras just above the lenses to get a live preview as they animated.
To store all their information, the crew turned to Xserve RAID and Xsan. “The information that we had was so vast,” says Lucas. “We had 35,000 hand-drawn storyboard images. On top of that, we had a huge sound effects library and a huge amount of scratch dialogue. Then we had the rehearsal. Basically the scene animated out and shot every two or three frames. You always want to refer back to the story board or the rehearsal, so you’ve got up to six video layers and sometimes up to 12 soundtracks.”
Lucas worked on a dual 2.0GHz Power Mac G5 with 2GB of memory. Still, there was so much data that Lucas’ assistant Ralph Foster had to convert each image to QuickTime to make file sizes manageable.
Lucas used Final Cut Pro to stitch all the stills and audio together. The program was a breeze to learn, he says. He had virtually no experience using Final Cut Pro before he stepped into Three Mills to begin cutting “Corpse Bride.” He mastered the application in two weeks and was able to edit faster and more efficiently than he ever did with Avid, he says.
“Fortunately, because we had that almost instant flow of digital footage coming through, we could very quickly turn things around or adjust something. We always had that safety net.”
The Main Event
“Corpse Bride” would have been possible without the team of animators, photographers and editors behind the scenes, but it’s the puppets that get to bask in the limelight. Voiced by Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Tracey Ullman, Albert Finney and others, the puppets were nearly as complex as their actor counterparts. “They were amazing feats of engineering,” says Lucas. “Inside each puppet, underneath that Latex skin, is a complete animatronic armature. They even had facial armatures that could be adjusted with an Allen key through the ear.
“Every movement is masterfully managed by the animators,” he adds. “There were about 28 animators, all working on separate shots on different sets during the day. Some sets involved three or four animators for all the puppets.”
Animator Tim Allen sets the table. Photo: Gary Welch. ©2005 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Each still was processed and sent to the editing room to be incorporated into scenes. Lucas was grateful for the quick acquisition and ease of editing. “The whole digital process was new to me,” he says. “It’s almost instant gratification. When they shot on the set, you had it in your machine three hours later. If it were film, it would have to go to the lab to be processed, then shipped back here to be digitized. You’d be a day and a half behind getting the stuff into your machine. If they had made a mistake or the shot hadn’t worked, we wouldn’t have found it until much later on. It really would’ve jeopardized the whole schedule. Fortunately, because we had that almost instant flow of digital footage coming through, we could very quickly turn things around or adjust something. We always had that safety net.”
The first “Corpse Bride” trailers hit the Internet nearly a month before the movie’s release. The digital picture was so clean and the animation so precise that many believed it to be a work of computer programming. “A lot of people thought it was CGI,” says Lucas. “All the animation was so beautifully smooth and the picture was so sharp. Shooting in digital gives you a beautifully graded first-generation negative. You don’t lose any quality at all.”
Still, the film was never meant to be screened digitally. Burton and co-director Mike Johnson decided early on that the digital frames would be burned onto film for the theatrical release. The resulting quality exceeds a pure analog process but still gives the movie the look and feel that Burton was after.
Co-director Tim Burton on the set of “Corpse Bride.” Photo: Derek Fray. ©2005 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
“When it’s been scanned to film, you get a slight movement,” says Lucas. “That’s not a bad thing, it actually helps. I think film gives it a reality. Digital can be so pristine and so static. When that’s scanned on film, it gives it that feeling of depth and movement and a real tactile feel. When it’s projected it feels more real.”
The real look and feel of the film were the result of the crew’s creativity, says Lucas. “I found a great freedom in being able to come up with ideas that could be taken on board and experimented with. The storyboard artist would go away and come back with my idea and we’d cut it together to see if it worked. It was great to see those ideas get executed and become part of the film.”