In more than three decades as an animator, Henry Selick has lived not only at the edge of the film industry, but as a stop-motion animator, even the fringes of animation world. From The Nightmare Before Christmas to Coraline, though, audiences have gladly followed him out to the edge.
Tuesday night, AFI Dallas recognized Selick's accomplishments in stop-motion animation by giving him this year's Texas Avery Animation Award.
In the basement of the Nasher Sculpture Center, Selick held court Tuesday night, sharing a few stories from the trenches of stop-motion animation, and his time as a Disney animator in the years between the company's golden age of animation and its early-'90s resurgence. (Selick was a major animator on The Fox and the Hound.)
In a discussion moderated by WFAA's Gary Cogill, Selick recounted the thrilling freedom of working on 1993's The Nightmare Before Christmas, the first stop-motion feature film, and how quickly it all turned to panic when the first computer-animated feature, Toy Story, came out shortly after.
Selick's latest project, Coraline, is another big first, shot in stereoscopic 3-D, a new technology the animator said could really help define stop-motion's place among more popular techniques. "Really, what does stop-motion have going for it?" he asked. "It can't do smooth, it can't do these huge vistas. It's very imperfect, but it's real. Shooting in 3-D sort of underlines that."
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A few highlight reels played bits of Selick's work, including such animated features as Nightmare, James and the Giant Peach and Coraline, which, like most things, looked amazing following a few slack-jawed clips of Brendan Fraser in Monkeybone. Along with some trippy student work -- says one orange-haired guy on a black background, "Here, try these pills. They're called slumberettes, and they work miracles" -- the audience got to see his Pillsbury spots with the Doughboy. The ads fall into an amazing rhythm when you watch them in rapid succession, and Selick recalled his first glimpse of the original Doughboy puppet when it arrived for the shoot. It had just nine different facial expressions, Selick said, and gave off toxic fumes.
From his features to the station IDs that helped define MTV's image in the late '80s, plenty of Selick's work has enjoyed real staying power -- but he also pointed out just how risky it can be to do work with such a different style. The misunderstood genius that is Monkeybone is one example, as is his stop-motion work on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which he says Wes Anderson gave a more limited role in the film than originally planned.
And then there's the first 3-D music video Selick directed, years ago and well before he conceived of Coraline, on a job for ViewMaster. "They thought they were going to get into new media," Selick recalled.
The Tex Avery award is named, of course, after the North Dallas High School graduate who created characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, and was first given in 2005. Past winners include Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles, and Chris Wedge, who made Ice Age.