Around the Block with Coraline

coraline_rgbThis is a story about an independent filmmaker who wants to make 3-D movies, who meets a guy from an animation studio that, many years later, gets sold and turned into another studio, and it’s a story about a guy who directs a 3-D rock video for the filmmaker, who years later asks for help in making a 3D feature, and now we’ve got Coraline in 3-D.  The story begins in 1974 and end in 2009. This is a story about how I helped Henry Selick, the director of Coraline, and his director of cinematography, Pete Kozachik.  The story starts before I met Henry, in 1974 when I was an independent filmmaker and attended a filmmaker’s conference near Tampa.  There I met the head animator at Will Vinton Studios.  Will Vinton is famous for his claymation ad of those dancing raisins, to the tune “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”   

At the conference I went to, which was sponsored by a university, I projected my super-8 stereoscopic movies.  I’d built a super-8 camera and projection rig, and used it to shoot 3-D movies for a number of years to check out various theories of system design as well as methods of doing stereoscopic cinematography.  At this conference I showed a movie called Uncle Bill and the Dredge Dwellers and some other footage.  Vinton’s animator and I got into a conversation about how easy it would be, so I thought, to do claymation stereoscopically. 

 I stayed in touch with the animator, and then I wrote a letter to Vinton.  It was a letter of an enthusiast who wanted to see a 3-D claymation movie.  I wasn’t thinking about there being anything in it for myself; I just thought, “Well, this is a great idea.  It’ll look great.”  And I doped out a method for how to do it that I thought would be effective. 

 Years later, some 22 years ago, after I had founded StereoGraphics Corporation, I was working with Gary Evans of View-Master to see if we could figure out a way to produce a stereoscopic rock video.  I had designed, built, and filed patent disclosures on (with the help of my colleagues at StereoGraphics) a stereoscopic video camera and playback system.  It used the now common side-by-side multiplexing technique that allowed one to squeeze the left and right signals onto a NTSC single channel, and then unsqueez the signal turning it into field-sequential stereo that could be viewed using shuttering eyewear, like CrystalEyes.  Gary and I cast about for what we might produce, and we hit upon Marty Balin of Jefferson Starship.  Jefferson Starship’s accountant and my accountant were the same guy and this led me to Marty Balin who agreed to do a stereoscopic rock video for View-Master and StereoGraphics. 

 On the set Marty Balin persisted in calling me “Mr. Lipton,” and it made me feel older and important.  The director of the piece was Henry Selick who was a friend of my first lab assistant, Peter Crossman, who suggested Henry.  Peter Crossman has gone on to be a successful special effects director in the Hollywood film industry.  Peter did, among other films, the Scooby Doo movies, and he was the effects director on Across the Universe – which I think is a wonderful film, maybe a masterpiece. Henry directed the rock video for us and it was a lovely and mysterious piece and now I am asking myself if I can locate the tape.  Henry, as you may know, directed The Nightmare Before Christmas and a other stop-motion movies.  Henry is a maestro. 

 I sold my company, StereoGraphics Corporation, to Real D about four years ago.  During the first few months, I’m in the Real D office, and Henry calls.  He says, “Lenny, I’m thinking about shooting my new movie, Coraline, in 3-D.  Is it possible?”   At that point, Real D had maybe 85 theaters that were set up for Chicken Little.  I said, “Henry it is possible, and years ago I figured out an approach for Will Vinton.”  Henry was now working for LAIKA Studios.  LAIKA Studios took over Will Vinton’s studio.  I told Henry, “I will work with you, and we’ll figure out how to do this.” 

 The method that I explained to Vinton (he never responded to my letter) is the one that I explained to Henry (Henry was more receptive):  Use a single camera (in Henry’s case a digital camera) and move it horizontally through a few millimeters.  “How much?” Henry asked, and I said, “How far apart are the puppets’ eyes?  That’s a good starting point.”  Henry knew enough about 3-D to ask me about toe-in, and I said, “No, no, don’t rotate the cameras.  Make sure the sensor is oversize so you can afford some cropping, and the cameras’ lens axes should be parallel.”  We talked about this, we talked about workflow and pipeline issues, I talked Pete Kozachik, and I flew to the LAIKA Studio outside of Portland.  I take some credit for this, but obviously it’s mostly Henry and Pete, given a head start, who put together a fantastic technique.  After months – and it seemed interminable months – of testing, they had a good handle on how to shoot the movie stereoscopically. 

 So it was with great satisfaction that I saw Coraline just a week or so ago at an industry screening.  My kids and my wife were there, and we all said hello to Henry.  My daughter loved the movie – loved it, not liked it.  One of my sons, Jonah, was there (the other one was home with the flu).  He liked it a lot.  I was dazzled by it.  I’ve never seen a stereoscopic movie that looked like as rich.  It was so lavishly detailed and what with my asking myself how Henry and Pete had achieved their results that it was hard for me to concentrate on the story.  I’d seen pieces of it over the years, but I’ll have to see it again.  I was amazed and – that word again – dazzled, by what Henry and Pete and the team at LAIKA had done.  Henry’s been generous; in various interviews he’s given me credit for my contribution.

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4 Responses to “Around the Block with Coraline”

  1. motorstereo Says:

    Thanks for posting such an informative article! We are so fortunate that the first stereo stop motion animation was created by such talented people.

  2. stanleykrute Says:

    As posted elsewhere here, I just saw Coraline the other night.

    Wondrous !!! hardly begins to describe it. The viewer is pulled into a fantastic new universe.

    I love how the right people found one another over time and space so as to collaborate in this breakthrough vision. As Vonnegut might say, you and Henry are clearly members of a karass.

    — stan krute

  3. paneagle Says:

    LENNY LIPTON and friends

    I have a project for animated feature or online presentation
    – looking for production – includes love for music, history, 60’s,
    very creative and special.

    potential: beautiful and amazing. see eaglewriter.wordpress.com
    or email paneagle7 yahoo com for synopsis, and concept.

  4. lennylipton Says:

    I hope Henry makes another stop-motion animated film. The just released Fantastic Mr. Fox by Wes Anderson tells me that there is a lot of life in the medium. There is no such thing as progress in art. The concept can be applied to technology but not to the heart.

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