Cutting-edge toons to S.F.

The most original and startling vision to appear on the screen this holiday season emerged frame-by-painstaking-frame from a converted warehouse in this city’s South of Mission District. The success of Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” has spurred the growth of the unique pool of stop-motion animators and state-of-art high technology now concentrated in the Bay Area.

According to “Nightmare” director Henry Selick, “There’s a very strong tradition of animation in Hollywood, and an incredible talent pool down there, most now working for Disney. But for non-traditional animation, San Francisco is now kind of the center — all different techniques — high- and low-end computer work, stop-motion, weird hybrids.”

Selick set up SkellingtonProds. — named after “Nightmare’s” lead character, Jack Skellington — to take advantage of this group of talent, with the firm operating in a converted warehouse.

Selick said the basic principle of stop-motion animation “was discovered a long time ago in ‘King Kong.’ We’ve just taken it to a new level. We use computers to assist us in post-production and to fly the cameras around, and use these devices called digital frame grabbers, which take a video snapshot of the puppets while we’re working. But the truth of the matter is that it’s superior skills and a budget that have made our film stand out.”

Like many of the Bay Area filmmakers at the cutting edge of the new technology, Selick honed his talents on a combination of commercials and high-tech TV, for which the city has increasingly become a production center in recent years.

Digitized Doughboy

“In 1989 I directed a whole series of (Pillsbury) Doughboy commercials at Colossal (the S.F. animation house pioneering computer work). They updated Doughboy in how he moved. We used traditional animation techniques combined with the latest, at the time, Quantel Harry post-production techniques.

“Since then, they have digitalized Doughboy, and he’s now totally in the computer.”

But the bread-and-butter at Selick Projects was MTV, for which he did about 20 short pieces from 1987-90, culminating in the short “Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions,” a combo of live-action, stop-motion and cut-out animation.

At the start of his career, “I focused on the drawn animation, because that’s where all the work was,” Selick explains. “I had the job at Disney. But on my own I was fooling around with stop-motion and cut-outs (animation) for a long time. I’ve been pretty heavily engaged in it in one form or another for 14 years now.”

‘Slow’ attention

“Slow Bob” caught the attention of Tim Burton, who had worked with Selick when the two were animators at Disney’s Burbank studios 12 years ago.

Burton and producer Denise Di Novi, flush with the success of “Edward Scissorhands” and “Batman Returns,” had reactivated “Nightmare,” which Burton had dreamed up in his Disney days.

Selick’s core group became the supervisors on the feature. “We geared up with primarily local talent, although we had to import a few people from L.A., London , and an art director (Deane Taylor) from Australia.”

Some 40,000 square feet of warehouses that had once been converted to studios , then vacated, were renovated. “We built a really big shop — machine shop, wood shop, a big paint booth. It’s almost like a whole 20th Century Fox studios in miniature,” noted Selick, who had 20 separate stages — a few as small as a square foot — operating at the peak of production.

Out of sight, out of mind

The advantages of working in S.F., he said, were that “99% of our energies went into making the film. We benefited from being out of sight, out of mind. The Disney folks aren’t able to look over our shoulders every day and get nervous.”

According to Selick, the production budget was a little more than $ 20 million, which he points out is “significantly less” than Disney’s cartoon budgets. “The ‘Aladdin’ budget was between $ 35 million and $ 40 million. We were able to do the whole thing with about 15 animators — 10 key animators and five who weren’t on the whole time. Compare that to, maybe, 30 key animators and 40 assistants and in-betweeners, and the whole ink-and-paint crew on ‘Aladdin.’ ”

‘Giant’ pre-production

In January, Selick will go into pre-production for Disney on an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story “James and the Giant Peach,” with Burton as executive producer.

This is the final installment in a three-part series on filming and production in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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