"I call this his Fellini movie," says a chuckling Henry Selick, the Bay Area stop-motion animation wizard whose distinctive style elevated the children's tales The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach to cult fandom. Selick is busy designing and constructing some 25 creatures and the succulent sets they'll inhabit for the stop-motion sequences of The Life Aquatic, the ambitious movie that Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums) is currently shooting in Italy at Cinecittà Studios.
Anderson's story centers on a down-on-his-luck Jacques Cousteau type, Selick explains via cell phone while driving to his studio. "We're creating most of the undersea characters, many of whom are very close to real, and some are more fantastic. It's a small part of the film, but it's an important one." Unlike Tim Burton, who conceived and wrote Nightmare, "Wes doesn't really draw," says Selick. "He does very simple thumbnail sketches, very rudimentary. We have a fair amount of freedom to design and, of course, animate, because that's what I do. We're designing 'em, but he's picking the designs he likes." The artist got the gig when Anderson wisely concluded that Selick's style suited the picture far better than computer-generated animation. "There's a fablelike quality to the film that this reinforces," Selick says.
Since August, a crew of 25 including first-rank animators [under] Tim Hittle and Justin Kohn, has been designing, fabricating, and constructing the characters in an S.F. location Selick refuses to divulge; the painstaking filming will run from December through April. A local Anderson sighting is likely in the cards. Selick confirms, "I'm sure he's going to want to come by one time to say hello and meet the people." And, no doubt, to vet their creations. "He's a guy who sticks to his vision. I saw the same thing with Tim Burton: They do not compromise on anything." Selick breaks into laughter. "Wes is very pleasant about it, but I think it pays off." Selick is also developing a stop-motion feature adaptation of Neil Gaiman's scary children's book Coraline.
©2003 S.F. Weekly