Features and Columns · Movies

35 Things We Learned from the ‘Coraline’ Commentary

By  · Published on September 25th, 2014


Focus Features

Stop-motion animation is a dying art of cinema. Fortunately, the good folks at Laika have been keeping the artistry alive for years. The Boxtrolls is their latest selection to come to theaters, but the process started with Coraline in 2009 and then ParaNorman in 2012. While these movies have not been a mega-money-makers that we see with the Pixar and DreamWorks films, Laika’s films have made enough money to justify making more of the movies, and that’s a great thing for cinema.

Coraline, based on Neil Gaiman’s visionary book, started the Laika ball rolling, and at the helm was The Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick. For the 2009 Blu-ray and DVD release of the film, Selick sat down to talk over the film and give some personal insight.

Composer Bruno Coulais is also listed as one of the commentators, and he does show up over the final credits to talk about the music, but almost the entirety of the film features Selick’s commentary. This is where pretty much all the relevant information comes from.

Coraline (2009)

Commentator: Henry Selick (director)

1. Selick originally conceived the film to be a live-action movie because when he approached Bill Mechanic to produce it, he was bound by an output deal with Disney to not do animated films.

2. Two big reasons Selick pushed for stop-motion animation over live-action was that he felt a talking cat was too much of a gimmick in that context and the film itself might end up being too scary.

3. Once it was decided to animate the film, Selick fought for stop-motion. While computer animated films were becoming very popular and profitable at the time, the perennial success of The Nightmare Before Christmas helped him show its potential. Stop-motion would also help differentiate the film from other animated movies out there.

4. One of the movers at the beginning of the film was a caricature cameo of the late animator Joe Ranft, and the face on the dollar bill he is given as a tip is Selick, who said, “Clearly a bad president there on that dollar bill.”

5. The Coraline puppet was only about seven inches tall. Her head was animated in two parts, and there was a separation line between the top and bottom halves that had to be painted out in post.

6. Originally, Selick was criticized for the character of Wybie’s grandmother, suggesting that he drop the character because she was nothing more than a device. Selick wanted to keep her in the film, so he added elements of her calling to Wybie and then letting her show up at the end to make her more real.

7. Selick wanted to keep Coraline’s downstairs neighbors British, so he chose Ashland, Oregon, as the setting for the film. The town has a well-known Shakespeare festival, so he figured old British actresses would hang around trying to get parts in the productions.

8. One of the challenges of the film was to work around the fact that Dakota Fanning, who voiced Coraline, was growing up during production. She was nine when she first met with Selick, started recording the film was she was about 12, and was 14 years old at the time Selick recorded this commentary.

9. Up to thirty animators worked on the film at any one time. Almost everyone had a chance to animated Coraline because she was in almost every scene.

10. Many things were changed from the original book, including the rag doll that the Other Mother uses to spy on Coraline as well as the general look of the characters. One of these changes was the door that leads to the Other World. In the book, it was a large wooden door, but Selick made it smaller and covered in wallpaper to seem less threatening and more inviting to a curious child.

11. The string mice floating out of the wall was originally a dream sequence that Coraline has, but it was edited down for the sake of pacing. Selick included the animation at the very end of the end credits so the sequence could be seen in its entirety.

12. To enhance the 3D look of the film, the sets for the real world were designed to be flat, and those in the Other World were designed with more depth to them.

13. The boy in Coraline’s picture was designed after Selick’s son Harry, who also provided the voice.

14. It is never specified in the film whether the real Bobinsky actually has a mouse circus. Selick believes he does not actually have one.

15. The Bobinsky puppet was so top-heavy that an extra apparatus was used to hold him in place and keep him from falling over during animation.

16. Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, respectively) were originally cast in the opposite roles. After the first day of recording, Selick asked them to switch roles, which they did.

17. The name of the Pink Palace Apartments was created by Selick so the characters could refer to the apartment complex itself. He liked the idea of a faded pink house against the gray, foggy background.

18. In the book, the mice were always rats, but Selick wanted something more benign for their look. The jumping kangaroo mice were inspired by a visit Selick and his wife made to the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena. They sneaked a lunch in even though food was not allowed. When they opened the lunch, a kangaroo mouse appeared and tried to jump up his wife’s skirt.

19. Selick wanted the mice to have the look of cell animation, so multiple models were made in slightly different shapes so their bodies would bounce and squish, unlike traditional stop-motion models.

20. The short Shakespeare character who stands on the parking meter outside of the book shop was a caricature cameo of lead sculptor Kevin Milton.

21. Producers tried to get Selick to cut the shopping sequence because it didn’t further the story of the Other World, but Selick fought for it because it not only got the characters out of the house, but it helped show the antagonistic relationship between Coraline and her mother.

22. The hat Coraline wears in several parts of the film is a Japanese school boy’s hat that she finds. While promoting a film in Japan, Selick had picked up one of these for his son as a souvenir, but the boy never wore it. He figured he could at least make Coraline wear it.

23. The Cat puppet was only about four inches long, not including the tail. For close ups, there was a larger scale puppet, which was often done for smaller items like hands and props.

24. The production made 500 dogs to populate the theater in Spink and Forcible’s Other Flat.

25. The song that Spink and Forcible sing was a temp song that Selick wrote. He originally intended They Might Be Giants to rewrite and rerecord it, but it never got done.

26. The scene which required the most rewrites was when the Other Mother puts Coraline through the mirror and she meets the ghost children. This scene was much longer in the book, and Selick wanted to maintain the spirit and feel for the scene without having it drag on too long in the film.

27. The Sweet Ghost Girl is Wybie’s grandmother’s sister who went missing years ago.

28. When he scripted the moment where Coraline throws her shoes at Wybie, Selick did not realize that it was a major insult in the Middle East to throw your boots or shoes at someone.

29. Selick intentionally did not explain exactly how the Other Mother’s game worked for Coraline because he felt that something that made perfect sense was boring.

30. There was a lunar eclipse during the production of the film, which gave Selick the inspiration to have the lunar eclipse be the ticking clock while Coraline tries to find the ghost eyes.

31. Five versions of the living room floor were built to allow it to collapse into a spider web during the film’s climax.

32. There is a ketchup stain on the father’s shirt when he puts Coraline to bed at the end. That was an element from a deleted scene.

33. One of the few moments where the production used CGI to animated most of the elements on screen was the Starry Night dream that Coraline has with the ghost children.

34. Wybie showing up to try to save Coraline from the Other Mother’s hand at the well was fabricated for the movie. Selick insisted that Wybie fail and Coraline actually defeat the Other Mother to keep her the hero.

35. Selick wanted people to sit through the credits, so he animated the bat-dogs throughout them as well as the ending bit with the kangaroo mice in raw animation.

Best in Commentary

Final Thoughts

Both Coraline and ParaNorman topped my list of favorite films of their respective years, and after seeing The Boxtrolls, I realize it is going to be hard for any movie to knock it out of the top spots this year. However, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Coraline, not just for getting the ball rolling but also for giving Selick a chance to shine again as director.

He crams quite a bit of commentary and facts into this short 100-minute movie, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it an entertaining commentary. Selick is rather dry, and for someone like me who is really into animation and particularly the stop-motion field, it’s pretty interesting. However, a good chunk of his commentary involves giving credit by name to specific members of the production as well as explaining what was different from the book to the movie. Additionally, near the end of the film, Selick falls into the trap of narrating what’s going on and explaining obvious subtext, though not to a pretentious or annoying degree.

I do give Selick credit for bringing along composer Bruno Coulais for the ride at the end, but it seems like more of a token effort rather than a means of dispensing any real practical information.

If you’re looking for the raucous Kevin Smith style commentary with jokes and giggles, you won’t find it here. Still, there’s a lot of value in this one, especially as a form of consumer film school to learn about the process.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives

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