In 2010 it was announced that Henry Selick, the beloved director of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” had left Laika Studios, the Portland, Oregon-based animation studio run by Nike co-founder and chairman Phil Knight. Knight had hired Selick back in 2002 to help transition the studio from Will Vinton Studios (home of the California Raisins, among others) into a 21st century powerhouse. Selick’s first animated feature, the gorgeous “Coraline,” was released in 2009, but just a year later Disney and Pixar came courting and Selick packed his bags. Things have been quiet for a little while but some details have started to emerge about his Pixar project, while Disney has signed him on to a highly coveted property.
First, the Pixar stuff – when Selick was hired by Pixar, many thought it would simply be the studio’s stop-motion animation division, housed on the same sprawling campus as Pixar proper. But Selick has control over an entirely separate studio (Cinderbiter) in San Francisco (Pixar is in nearby Marin County) with, according to a Los Angeles Times report, a crew of “about 150 craftspersons and animators.” One of Selick’s supervising animators is Lou Romano, the amazing Pixar artist and illustrator (look up his New Yorker covers) who also, in the mad crush to finish “Ratatouille” on time, gave voice to human puppet Linguini. Besides that, details on the project had been scarce, although we’d heard that this new movie was, at least at one point, called “Shademaker.”
The LA Times report illuminates things further, if only slightly. “It’s an original story of mine,” Selick told the Times. “"What I personally gravitate toward tends to be fantasy, medium dark -- not too dark -- fairy tales and sci fi. Stop-motion takes something on the page that’s really dark and adds a little sweetness to it, a living toys realm."
Being part of the Pixar umbrella also meant access to the infamous Brain Trust, a collection of Pixar creative bigwigs (among them Selick’s Cal Arts classmates Brad Bird and John Lasseter) who analyze the movie and give specific notes and suggestions on how to strengthen the film. It was a little bit of a shock to a filmmaker who the late, great story artist Joe Ranft described as having a “rock’n’roll-meets-Da Vinci temperament.” "The first time, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know if I can handle this, Why did John [Lasseter] agree to help me make my films?'” Selick explained to the Times. "But then I found out it’s that way with everybody, even their best filmmakers. When you see what they produce, it’s like, 'OK, [I] don’t take any of it personally.'"
Selick broke down the Brain Trust’s notes as basically: “"Don’t get caught up in eye candy. They said, 'Let’s try to make your story as clear as possible and give it as much heart as it deserves.'" (Pixar is notoriously hung up on story; it’s part of the reason why Lasseter made it a point to fire “Lilo & Stitch” director Chris Sanders for what he found to be unnecessary digressions in his “American Dog” project. Lasseter would strip away all of Sanders’ esoteric weirdness and personality and release it as the squeaky-clean, wholly uninteresting “Bolt.”)
And while the studio originally had a Halloween 2013 date picked out (a year after the studio’s similarly spooky stop motion animated “Frankenweenie” hits), Selick was quick to point that the date is “tentative.”
What will be interesting is if “Shademaker” (or whatever it ends up being called) carries the Pixar logo. For a long time “John Carter” was supposed to be branded as “Pixar’s first live-action movie” but Lasseter, uncomfortable with the possibility of a box office flop carrying the Pixar tag, decided to shuffle it over and have the Walt Disney logo loom large instead.
In even more exciting Selick-related news, Deadline is reporting that Disney has secured rights to Neil Gaiman’s beautiful, bittersweet novel “The Graveyard Book” – and what’s more, they’ve assigned Selick to directorial duties. (A screenwriter is currently being sought.) The book, which won the 2009 Newberry Medal for outstanding contribution to children’s literature, is a ghoulish riff on Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” with a young orphan boy growing up in a graveyard surrounded by ghosts, vampires and other things that go bump in the night. In other words: perfect Selick material.
Selick’s “Coraline” was based on a Gaiman novel and managed to be faithful enough while still showcasing Selick’s trademark visual inventiveness. In case you've forgotten, at one point “The Graveyard Book” was being worked on with Neil Jordan attached to direct (again: not too shabby). It will interesting to see if the project goes forward as a live action feature (Selick directed the live action/animation hybrids “James and the Giant Peach” and, less successfully, “Monkeybone”) or an animated project for the Disney/Pixar studio.
Either way, it’s incredibly exciting to have not one but two Selick projects on the not-too-distant horizon.