Sunday, June 09, 2013

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #33--Corpse Bride (2005)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details.]

Happy Birthday, Johnny!

For this year's birthday fundraiser, Johnny's Angels created a scrapbook of birthday cards, which was sent to Johnny as a gift. (Above, you can see was I drew inside mine.) Last I heard, we raised more than $5,500 for Children's Hospice and Palliative Care Coalition in Los Angeles.

You can join the celebration today by donating to Johnny's Angels' campaign. Then, eat some cake and maybe watch Corpse Bride! Here's more about that lovely movie, this month's Johnny Kitties feature.

It has its own very, very special, very unique look, movement. And it's beautiful. And, also, it's like a lot of great things: it's a dying art. Johnny Depp on the stop-motion animation used for Corpse Bride

It's a perfect match!
Have you ever been in the situation where, nervous on the eve of your wedding, you go for a walk in the woods to practice saying your vows, and you slip the ring onto a branch, pretending it's your bride-to-be's finger; but the branch turns out to be an actual hand of a dead lady who grabs you, accepts your proposal, and drags you down to the Land of the Dead to live happily ever after? That's what happens to Johnny's character in this movie.

Corpse Bride is a stop-motion animation film directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson. The story takes place in Victorian England where two families have arranged the marriage of Victor (Johnny Depp) and Victoria (Emily Watson) for the sole purpose of marrying into wealth. After a disastrous wedding rehearsal, shy Victor practices and perfects his marriage vows during a walk in the woods and slips Victoria's ring onto a branch that comes to life.  He finds himself married to the corpse bride (Helena Bonham Carter) who drags him "downstairs" to the Land of the Dead. Torn between two worlds, Victor must decide whether to fight his way home to his true love or stay in his new, more welcoming community.

I want a wedding invitation!
"That sounds like a movie Tim Burton would want to make," I thought when I heard its story was based on Jewish folklore about a guy who accidentally marries a corpse. It seemed to be a perfect fit, and the more I heard about it, the more excited I became about seeing it! When I first saw the "coming attractions" preview for Corpse Bride, I knew it was going to be special! Look at it!

Beautiful, right? Who knew dead people could be so cute?

Some weddings are difficult to plan.
Positioning the puppets...
For stop-motion animation, puppets are painstakingly positioned and shot frame-by-frame. Tim Burton's featured it in his movies before (see Pee Wee's Big Adventure, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Frankenweenie.) He's a fan and so am I! Corpse Bride was a project in the making for 10 years, as Tim Burton waited to get all the right people involved. "A lot of people get sucked into doing computer stuff, but there's still this great group, a rare group of people, that are still into this type of animation," he explains. "There's just an energy that gets infused into these puppets from these amazing animators, and there is something quite special about moving an inanimate object frame-by-frame."   It's tedious, hard, physical, fascinating work with spectacular results.

And setting up a scene...
At least 85 characters and 200 puppets were built for Corpse Bride. "Stylistically, stop-motion offers something very unique, which is every single thing you see on screen was created by a crafts person or an artist," Art Director Nelson Lowry says. At the forefront of stop-motion animation is codirector Mike Johnson, who oversaw the day-to-day process on this project. For this film, the crew used computers for the first time to assist in the process, perfecting the quality and flow of the animation. "A lot of people thought that computers and digital technology would be the death of stop-motion animation, but really, it's bringing it forward," he says. Shooting the film digitally allowed the crew to see the results instantly and make changes as needed. They used the computers to trigger the camera to shoot the frame and move on to the next shot. "So much of this is a traditional, old-fashioned method of shooting a film," says Producer Alison Abbate. "With the advent of CGI, audiences have become very used to a very slick look, and I think stop-motion's charm is in that it's not slick and not feeling like it's made in a computer. It's nice to sort of walk that fine line between keeping it in the realm of beautiful and a slickness just because it's so flawlessly executed."

The finished product is very much Tim Burton's vision. Most of Corpse Bride's characters are based on his drawings. "Tim had a very clear idea of how he wanted the puppets to look and he'd been working on designs, sketches, and paintings before we met up with him," Puppet Maker Peter Sauders says. While he designed most of the characters on his own, Character Designer Carlos Grangel brought them to life, though they brought on new challenges. His characters are typically tall and skinny with tiny feet, so the team had to explore different ways to engineer the puppets' joint systems to support the weight of each character and its heavy, complicated head. These models were built in a new way with gear- and pulley-filled heads that allow for freer facial expressions. "People get very attached to the characters they're working on and I think, especially with this project, the character designs are so fantastic that people want to make every element of that puppet shine," Puppet Maker Ian Mackinnon says. "They have spent hours on every little detail of that character."

It shows!  In 2010, I saw some of the drawings, paintings, and puppets created for Corpse Bride in an exhibit on Tim Burton's career at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Because of the detail involved, they are perhaps more amazing in person than on screen. "They do such beautiful work," Tim Burton says of the animation crew. "These puppets are very sensitive and textural and really like Swiss watches, they're made so nicely!"

The stars aligned!
This cast of voices for Corpse Bride is dreamy! With Johnny is a bunch of my favorite Brits: Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Albert Finney, Christopher Lee, Tracey Ullmann, Johanna Lumley, Michael Gough, Paul Whitehouse, Jane Horrocks.... Can you imagine having all these people in the same room together? Well, keep imagining. "I have scenes with Johnny Depp, Johanna Lumley, and Albert Finney, and I've never met them," Emily Watson admits. "I was shown work in progress of the way things look and the style of it, but you're sort of trying to make it happen in your head, really." So much for that fantasy. In any case, these actors are perfectly cast. "It's a fairly low-budget movie," Tim Burton says of Corpse Bride. "I was very lucky and grateful to get people to do voices for just the love of doing a project."

One of my favorite special features on the DVD is seeing the actors speaking as their characters in their solitary recording booth next to the actually scene they are playing out. They all get animated in that booth while reading their lines, and their reactions translate into the final scene. "When you're recording your voice, you do find yourself moving as the character within the parameters of the microphone and everything," Johnny says. "There's a kind of great spontaneity in that." Helena Bonham Carter, whose work in Corpse Bride stands out to me, agrees: "It's nice to act something when it's so not dependent on what you look like. You can completely create a character, and you're not limited by your own physical envelope. That's fun and, in that way, it's very liberating. In a way, it's sort of pure acting because you don't really have anything. You can be completely selfish. You don't have any marks to hit."

For Corpse Bride, Tim Burton worked with his long-time collaborator Danny Elfman, who wrote the score and voiced the skeleton character of BoneJangles. Like Tim Burton's work, Danny Elfman's music is just as instantly recognizable. For this movie, some of it's haunting, some of it's sweet, and some of it's funny. It's another perfect fit.

And we all got a happy ending!
When Tim Burton described it to sounded really scary, Gothic, and horrible," writer/lyricist John August says of the story's premise. "And, yet, we ended up making a really charming movie. You don't really think about the characters being dead or alive. You sort of see it as this really sweet little love story."

The artistry and passion that went into the making of Corpse Bride is undeniable. This charming, bittersweet, scary, funny, fantastic, beautiful work of art earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination. But who needs awards? "To be able to see these characters in the studio environment, against the sets and speaking dialogue and what have you--It's been a great revelation." Puppet Maker Peter Saunders says. "You think, 'Wow, that's what it's all about!'"  

Marriage is hard. 
It's hard to match the artistry on display in Corpse Bride and decide what scene to highlight. I chose the moment when The corpse bride (Mini) realizes that Victor is trying escape his current situation and return to his fiancee in the Land of the Living. She'll have none of that and drags him back "downstairs." I see her point: She's his wife, after all.


What's next?
Johnny heads back to sea in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.

All Corpse Bride Images © Warner Brothers Pictures; illustrations © Melissa Connolly 

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