Comic-Con 2012: Tim Burton on Frankenweenie

How he's expanding the short film to feature length, the state of superhero movies post Batman (1989) and taking a break after completing this new film.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Tim Burton was already vindicated for Frankenweenie. He made the 30 minute short film during his time as an animator at Disney, back when Disney wasn’t into his unique artistic visions. They actually got mad that he wasted time and resources making the project. Then, after the success of Tim Burton’s first few films, they released Frankenweenie on VHS.

So yes, imagine the vindication when Disney asked Burton to make a feature length movie out of Frankenweenie. Burton directed a new Frankenweenie in the stop-motion style of animation he used in Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. Burton brought some Frankenweenie footage to Comic-Con. After his Hall H panel, he gave a press conference for reporters.


We get the first question and ask if this feature length film is a nice revenge after Burton got in trouble for using Disney resources to make the first Frankenweenie live-action short?

Tim Burton: I don’t know if revenge is a good word. It was a project that always meant something to me. The opportunity to do it stop motion, black and white, expand on it, with other kids, other monsters, other characters, it just seemed like the right medium and project. Even though it is revisiting something from a long time ago, it feels meaningful and special.


Expanding Frankenweenie, what came from original early ideas and what was new to this feature?

There were always characters I sort of had. Sometimes you do characters and you don’t know what it fits into. There were always some little characters that I was playing around with. Also going back, not only the thing with the boy and his dog, but going back to school and remembering some of the kids and teachers. Also growing up on those Universal Horror films, I was also a fan when they do House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Frankenstein meets the Wolfman, when they combined them together. A lot of that had to do with what I love.


Don’t worry, they’re not just adding filler to Frankenweenie.

It wasn’t too much of a stretch because the heart of the story is the same. It’s just having some of these other characters that were rattling around. It didn’t seem like it was a different thing. It didn’t feel like it was a short that we’re padding out. It gets to explore kid politics and the way kids are with each other and weird teachers. For me it didn’t feel like a padding thing or a stretching things, which was quite natural. If it hadn’t felt that way it probably wouldn’t have worked.


The boy and his dog recurs in many of Burton’s children’s films.

I think when you’re young, it’s the first kind of pure relationship you have. You’re lucky enough to have a pet that you love, it connects right to your heart. I was lucky enough to have a special pet that I had that kind of relationship with. The whole Frankenstein element is wish fulfillment in that way. I always found movies like Frankenstein quite emotional so it seemed fairly natural connection to combine the two.


The director of Batman (1989) reflects on the current state of superhero movies.

I recall back to when we were doing that and how worried they were all that it was too, too dark. Now it looks like a lighthearted romp, Batman on Ice. It’s interesting because it was such a struggle to get that at the time.


Actually a really good reason to remake something.

It was a real pleasure to do it black and white. That was part of the reason of wanting to do it.  Black and White texture made you feel a little more emotional. It does a strange thing that affects the way you watch it.


And a really good reason to make Frankenweenie in 3D.

The idea of seeing black and white in 3D was something I really was interested in and we were interested in. There’s obviously a lot of talk about 3D, it’s too dark, it’s too muddy and this was an opportunity with the black and white, you should try to keep it crisp, trying to keep the shadows dark. When I watch it, I love it because you see things in a different way. The idea of stop motion, black and white 3D seemed like a really exciting combination for us.


Stop-motion: The animation you can TOUCH!

I do love stop-motion. These things always take time to get done because it’s a rarified medium. It’s kind of a slightly lost art form though there’s more being done now than there was in the past. There’s something so beautiful about it. Just being able to touch and feel the puppets and move them is something magical. You kind of wish everybody could experience it because it’s hard to talk about it. If you felt these things, the intricacy of the movement and all, it’s a beautiful art form.


Keeping the stop-motion low tech.

Any stop-motion film is intricate. We had a slightly smaller crew on this than we usually do because we wanted to show the stop motion. When we did Corpse Bride, the puppets were so good a lot of times it looked like computer animation. We went back and went a little bit more low tech so you could see the animation. That’s I think what we love about it. There’s technology, but it’s still the same. It goes back to the beginning of cinema. It’s a technique that still basically is an animator moving a puppet 24 frames per second. So that’s I think why we all love it. As much as you can do anything with technology, there is something about going back to the simplicity of that, the excitement of seeing someone move it and you see it come to life. It’s very magical. It’s a form we keep coming back to for that reason.


Teaching kids about the classics.

You try to put references in for people that don’t know Frankenstein movies. It’s not something that is necessary hopefully to seeing the film. Remembering kids I went to school with, teachers, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee in there. Also just some of the basic characters, one is a bit like Boris Karloff. Yes, there are personal things in there, things that always meant something to me, but trying not to make it necessary to watching the film.


Teaching his crew about the classics.

With the DP I talked about a lot of [movies] because it was important to get the lighting that he did a really good job getting. In that case I probably showed him some of the old Universal things. Going back and looking at those old ones, there were some amazing things. I try not to give too many real specific references because you want everybody to be their own thing. I talked to [child voice actor] Atticus [Schaffer] a little bit about Peter Lorre but you don’t go too far with it.


Why the old stuff is more inspiring.

I think a lot of things, you get inspired early in your life and hopefully you keep getting inspired, but those early inspirations, I don’t think they ever really leave you. The first time you experience something is usually the most intense and the thing you remember the most. It’s not like I feel I have arrested development and will be exploring that. It’s just the things that had the most impact and will be staying with you. It’s important to constantly be surprised.


Tim Burton’s Favorite Disney ride.

I’m a Space Mountain man myself. The Haunted Mansion was such an honor because I grew up loving The Haunted Mansion. That they turned it into Nightmare Before Christmas was a dream come true.


Tim Burton on cosplay.

I’ve come disguised as a human being. There’s some guy, it’s hot out there, some guy looked like he’s wearing about three tons of armor.


Even Tim Burton prefers the early Tim Burton movies.

It is hard to pick because you spend so much time on each thing. I think things like Scissorhands or Ed Wood or Nightmare. This one’s up there. You’ve got to connect to everything but these are slightly a bit more personal.


After Frankenweenie, Tim Burton is out. For a while.

“I think I’ve had enough of me for a while. I think after this one, take a little bit of a rest. For me, this one is such a special project and so I’m just going to take the time to enjoy that and try to nurture that and see it through to its release.”