There's life in Tim Burton's old dog yet (+video)

By Des Sampson

It got him fired first time round, now Tim Burton's back with a 3D version of his film, Frankenweenie.

It's a story that has long become part of the director Tim Burton's legend: as a young animator in the early 80s for Disney, after writing and directing the live-action short Frankenweenie, he was fired by the studio for making a very un-Disney film.

His employers hated it, insisting that his tale of Victor Frankenstein, a boy who resurrects his dead dog, Sparky, with a lightning bolt after he is run over was far too grim.

They sacked Burton, claiming his film was a waste of company time and money.

Fast-forward nearly 30 years and here's Burton releasing Frankenweenie, but this time it's a feature shot in 3D, using stop-motion animation in a style akin to his earlier Corpse Bride and Nightmare Before Christmas.

Essentially, Frankenweenie 2.0 is a faithful recreation of Burton's original fantasy: it's again filmed in black and white and tells the tale of young Victor Frankenstein resurrecting his dead dog, Sparky - just as his mad scientist namesake had done in the horror movies that had so influenced the director.

And the company name on the poster? Disney Studios.

The reason for the turnaround is simple: once the outsider, Burton is a mainstream box office sure bet.

Even if his Dark Shadows from earlier this year struggled, his 2010 retelling of Alice in Wonderland was, with its US$334 million ($405.8 million) box officetakings, the biggest hit of Burton's career and the 12th highest in Hollywood history. That earned him the chance to bring back the dead pooch one more time.

"It's so great to be doing this again," says Burton, as he ambles around East London's Three Mills Studios, a former working mill, where Frankenweenie was resurrected. "But it's also been a very intense, painstaking process, because everything's been on a much bigger scale than before."

Peering around the shabby-chic sets at Three Mills, that's patently obvious. There are three vast soundstages, sub-divided into a further 30 separate sets. Within this labyrinth are multiple, meticulously detailed duplicates of a high school interior, a creepy cemetery exterior and Victor's cluttered family attic, countless props, puppets and 18 animatronic copies of Victor's dog, Sparky.

"The rationale for having multiple sets is it allows for different scenes, all using the same set, to be filmed simultaneously," explains Burton. "That helps speed up the filming process which can be notoriously slow and painful because it's stop-motion.

"The sets [on Frankenweenie] are a lot bigger than on most other stop-motion animated films because Sparky needs to be dog-size compared to the other human characters, and also large enough to hide all the mechanical workings within him," he adds, grinning.

Burton's clearly relishing the chance to finally finish unfinished business, by unleashing Frankenweenie on a wider scale after his first foray was thwarted when Disney pulled the plug on his creation after a limited release.

Partly, that's because it is part of his own past, largely based on his own childhood with the crux of the story - the life, death and resurrection of Sparky - echoing his own pet's untimely demise.

"If you're lucky and you have a pet, it's a very strong connection because it's so pure and unconditional. It's an almost psychic connection," says Burton. "Sadly, with the dog I had, it had a disease called distemper so he wasn't meant to live for very long - although he ended up living quite a long time.

"But I remember the feeling of 'it's not going to last for very long' and I think that's where the original idea for Frankenweenie came from - that feeling of connection but there might be loss," he explains. "Then the Frankenstein idea - the idea of keeping something alive, or bringing something back - just seemed like a very natural fit for those two feelings.

"You know, it's hard to think of any other project where I would have gone back and revisited it and expanded it so much, like this," adds Burton, thoughtfully. "Being able to do it in stop-motion also meant I could take it back to more like the original drawings were for it, which was great. But also doing it in stop-motion, in black and white and 3D made it feel like a whole different project for me, not just redoing something I'd already done before. That was very important to me."

Equally important was who he cast, with Burton opting for actors he had worked with before for the voices, including Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short as Victor's parents, Martin Landau as his inspirational science teacher and, most notably, Winona Ryder, who previously starred in Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands.

"It was important for me, on this film, to connect with people who I love and haven't worked with for a while and Winona fits both criteria - I love her and I haven't worked with her in a long time. It was great to see her and work with her again. I've missed her," says Burton, smiling fondly.

"She's still got that same gravity she had on Beetlejuice too, although this time she has a weird goth Pippa Longstocking look going on.

"As you get older, things like that - working with people you love and respect - really do matter," Burton concludes.

"Just like it matters that you somehow retain the childlike spirit and innocence you had as a kid, because those early feelings were all new, exciting and allowed you to look at things in a different way from how you look at things as an adult.

"Personally, the more times you can go back to that childlike, dream state, the better, in my opinion."

Who: Tim Burton
What: Frankenweenie
When: Opens at cinemas October 18.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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