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Henry Selick Is Back: Nearing Finish Line On His Disney/Pixar Feature & Will Direct Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Graveyard Book’

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by Drew Taylor
April 28, 2012 11:14 AM
5 Comments
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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.

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5 Comments

  • J.M. | April 28, 2012 10:25 PMReply

    Lasseter would strip away all of Sanders’ esoteric weirdness and personality and release it as the squeaky-clean, wholly uninteresting “Bolt.”

    I could KISS you for writing this line.

  • StephenM | April 28, 2012 2:36 PMReply

    I love Coraline, but I don't think it would be a bad thing to focus on the story more for Selick. The visual design is always brilliant, and of course we wouldn't want him to give up his interesting quirks, but at the end of the film, Coraline ends up feeling just a little rushed, a little video-gamey in it's plot objectives, and with a little less heart and emotion than I would wish. The best Pixar films always manage to give emotional climaxes their due. So if Selick can Pixar can get that mix just right, I think this will be awesome.

  • Drew | April 28, 2012 2:34 PMReply

    Hey Mark! Thanks for commenting (twice), but you’re wrong about the Pixar connection to “John Carter.” In fact, if there’s one dirty little secret that Disney has been really great about keeping quiet in regards to the whole “John Carter” debacle (out on DVD and Disney Blu-ray June 5th!), it’s how much of a Pixar movie “John Carter” really was. As far as I know, it was pretty much a Pixar movie through and through and that the decision to brand it a “Disney” movie instead of a “Pixar” movie came fairly late in the game (before the disastrous first teaser came out, but not much more). The Brain Trust advised on it during development, production, and post-production; the movie’s second unit director, Mark Andrews, is a Pixar stalwart and director of this summer’s “Brave” (he got the unenviable task of replacing Brenda Chapman); artists from the studio did design work (and of course Giacchino, who is pretty much their in-house composer at this point, lent his musical talents); and even when they flew out some film reporters (unfortunately, they forgot my invite) to the editing suite of “John Carter,” those reporters weren’t directed to Disney, they were instead navigated to (you guessed it!) Pixar! It was a good call on Lasseter’s part, and the “first live action Pixar movie” is still just around the corner (maybe if Bird ever gets that earthquake movie under control).

  • Mike | April 28, 2012 2:19 PMReply

    Oh, but I'm pretty sure Disney kept the Pixar label off John Carter because other than Stanton & Giaccinno it had little to do with Pixar, and because it was PG-13 which doesn't fit in their image of the brand. That was established a long time before the project went drastically over budget & everyone was paranoid it would flop. They referred to it as loaning him out to Disney.

  • Mike | April 28, 2012 2:18 PMReply

    I'd almost forgotten about Selick working with Pixar & getting them into stop-motion, seriously the most exciting prospect in animation filmmaking. This material is also perfect for him, though I was really interested to see Neil Jordan take such playful material and bring some live action gravitas to it.

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