by Luke Hickman
As much I try staying neutral while conducting interviews, those that I recently conducted with the filmmakers of 'Frankenweenie' made it hard to not get too excited and get off topic. How so? Well, while the role of Animation Supervisor on a family film is a relatively unsung hero, it's the legacy and the credentials of that artist that can make it hard to stay on track.
Mark Waring was not only the Animation Supervisor on 'Frankenweenie' – which I love – but he also carried the same title on what just might be my favorite stop motion film of all time, Wes Anderson's 'Fantastic Mr. Fox.' When the person that you're speaking with has worked with one of your favorite directors, it's hard to keep the questions to the film at hand. Luckily, I also adore 'Frankenweenie,' so I was able to keep it together. Barely.
I especially enjoy being able to interview the folks who do the work that isn't always recognized, the worker who doesn't get at all the praise he deserves. I couldn't name a single Animation Supervisor before interviewing Mark Waring, but now that I know the name of the person who brought Sparky the Dog to glorious black & white undead life, I'll never forget it. I hope that reading his words will convey the amount of professionalism, drive, and energy that one of Hollywood's unsung heroes puts into his unique line of work. Being on the other end of the phone from him, that's how he came across to me – which is why it is no surprise that he was chosen to direct the new 'Frankenweenie' short film that is included on the Blu-ray special features, 'Captain Sparky vs. the Flying Saucers.' The feature film begins with Victor showing off a homemade monster movie to his family, something that I did as a kid and that I believe more and more kids do every day. 'Captain Sparky vs. the Flying Saucers' is another one of Victor's homemade films that isn't shown during the feature film. There is an interesting filmmaking aspect to take into consideration with Waring's short film, so I hope you will enjoy the discussion about it and 'Frankenweenie' that he and I had over the phone this week.
HDD – Luke Hickman: Hi, Mark! How are you?
Mark Waring: I'm well, thanks. Are you well?
HDD: I'm great, thanks. I'm glad that we were able to make this interview happen because I'm a fan of 'Frankenweenie.' The mixture of black & white with 3D stop-motion animation was quite unique. Did that combination provide any unique challenges for this production?
Mark Waring: I think it did, but it depends on which department, really. From an animation point of view, it's just an image. From a technical point of view, we had playback monitors so that we could watch what we do as we animate and go along. Although it's quite strange because the design of it is obviously black & white, some of the set designs and things like that were left in color – not all of it, but a lot of it. Things like the grass, say for instance, is made of that stuff that – I don't know if you can get it in The States like we have here in the Green Grocers (I imagine it is a chain of stores in the UK) and stores like that – rather than painting all that to be gray and black and white, we left it green. We might buy material to fix some curtains, like a red drape, and they were all left like that. There was a bit of a weird mix because when we were watching it, playing it back, it was like a sepia tone. It's actually kinda nice to look at (laughs). It gave us an interesting viewpoint as to how [black & white] is. I think the black & white definitely had more to do with the design side of it, the Art Department, because they had to adapt things. If something's in color, it won't register as color. The reds completely crushed the black, so they had to adapt their palettes because they know that it was going to be turned into a black & white film. It was the same thing with some of our puppets. They had to be painted in a certain sort of way that mimicked skintones. I think that some of the cameramen were actually using old books about how to light like the classic '20s and '30s black & white films. They were referencing how to do it. That side of it had to really be taken onboard when we were shooting it just to make it work because we knew that it would be going into the black & white format.
HDD: Had you shot anything in 3D prior to 'Frankenweenie?'
Mark Waring: Personally, no.
HDD: I know that the film was shot in 2D for a 3D post-conversion. Did that change the way you had to shoot?
Mark Waring: The 3D was always planned as a post-production thing. That was a decision that was made in the early stages. Obviously, we could have shot it in 3D since we basically shot just stills, but it was the time factor involved with shooting in 3D that was against us. With the release date and how that was going to work, we had to factor in the actual physicality of moving the camera to other positions. All of those sorts of technical things would have had to have been taken into consideration. It takes time to do all of that on the floor, which is great if you have the time – but we didn't have it. I think with Tim Burton having done 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' as a post 3D conversion before this – and I think he was quite happy with how that went – the decision to make it a 3D thing in post effects was a decision that was made because of those sort of practical things. When we were shooting it, there were setups that we had to do to take the 3D into consideration – that placing of the characters within the depths, how much focus are we going to get on this – so a lot of things were actually shot separately. If something was really really in the foreground deliberately, then we had separate elements shot so that during the conversion process, they could actually piece the shots together and give that depth that was required. The post guys were always around to see if they could get what they wanted from the set – "Oh, that needs to be shot separate."
HDD: Were there any challenges that 'Frankenweenie' posed that weren't present in any of your past films, like 'Fantastic Mr. Fox,' for example
Mark Waring: I think that all of the films that I – obviously, all are stop-frame films – all of them have their own style that throw out their own challenges. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, but they all present different problems that you have to overcome. I'm trying to think if there was anything specific. The scale of the world that was created for 'Frankenweenie' was quite interesting. Because of the nature of stop-filming, a whole world can be created, but it tends to be fairly small. It's very unusual to break up and break out of that into a huge world that's round. That was one of things that was hard, it was trying to figure out how to do that and the best way to do that – especially with all of the characters, their design and how to make them work. All of these elements had to be worked out. Technically, I suppose the main one was basing a whole film around a dog, which was one of the things that was discussed from the start. "Sparky is the main character and we have to get that right. Now, who is that dog?" You can understand how a boy would act or how an adult would behave, but a dog has to have a character, a personality. So, we had to create that. We studied dogs. We went to dog shows. We had dogs coming into the studio. We filmed them. We tried to work out how they move, how Sparky moves. Is he young? Is he old? Does he jump around? All of those things we had to work out. Most animators would have to learn that; it's part of their job. There has to be a group of 30 people who knows how he moves. That was quite a challenge.
HDD: Stop motion is quite a unique craft. Is there any aspect of 'Frankenweenie' that you're particularly proud of that the layman might not notice?
Mark Waring: That's actually an interesting question. Something that I'm proud of? I think the telling of the story. It's such a nice thing. You feel the story through this boy and his dog. It's a simple path that it follows, but it's got a shape to it and characters that it's based around. It's a nice form of storytelling. There's something strong and – what's the word that I'm trying to think of? It's a piece of storytelling and it works very very well. I think they're all very individual and strong characters, so to be able to get the characters to come through is great. You can follow them through the whole film, so that's nice. It's all about characterization and how you can bring things to life. It's basically a pile of metal and silicon and foam, but it can make you laugh, it can make you cry. For people like animators to be able to bring characters to life by doing that, I think that's an interesting process to go through. I think that 'Frankenweenie' shows that in quite a few characters.
HDD: Being someone who grew up playing with VHS cameras and making home movies, I especially enjoyed the opening of 'Frankenweenie' amd was even more excited to see another one of Victor's films on the Blu-ray – 'Captain Sparky vs. the Flying Saucers.'
Mark Waring: (laughs) It's the same with me. I actually had a camera when I was younger and I went out and made little films. So, when the idea for 'Captain Sparky' came up, I thought, 'This is great. This is the perfect chance to get to do another similar sort of thing.' Getting the chance to direct that myself was a really nice end to the film – which took two years from start to finish. It was a nice thing to round everything off. It rung quite a lot of bells. It was something exciting having childhood memories tied up with that.
HDD: Was it challenging shooting 'Captain Sparky?' As the director, you basically had to revert to a kid making a movie.
Mark Waring: That's it! That was the great thing. When you actually think about it, you think, 'OK. I've got to make a childlike film here.' But the problem is that you don't want to make it childlike – as in really bad. (laughs) You can make something that makes everyone go, "That was a terrible piece of filmmaking," and that's not what you're trying to do. I kept trying to come up with tricks that would suggest that Victor was making the film. He wasn't that great, but he tried his best. He was reasonably proficient, but was still making mistakes. So, we ended up with the hand coming in [frame] holding a stick, leading wires in and other deliberate mistakes that he would have made as a child. The problem was trying to do that without making ourselves, as professional filmmakers, look like we're making a bad piece of work. (laughs)
HDD: I've got to tell you that you've won both me and my five-year-old daughter over with 'Frankenweenie' and 'Captain Sparky.' We're fans.
Mark Waring: That's great! That's the thing – I think it works for all ages. My niece is just over four and she went over Christmas to watch it with my sister and she was laughing, crying – not in a bad way – and she was cheering them on in the end. "Come on, Sparky! Save the day!"
HDD: That's awesome. Do you have any any other collaborations with Tim Burton lined up in the future?
Mark Waring: I'd love to work with him again. If there were more films lined up – you know, the process takes such a long time. In an ideal world, the goal is to run from one film to another, but he's a busy man that's got a lot of things going on. If there was to be another Tim Burton feature, then even if it was starting now, by the time the process got through – the development, the writing and all that sort of stuff up to filming it – since that's such a long process, that would be a ways out. Keep your fingers crossed, I'd love to be involved in more of his productions. I love what he does. I'm a big fan, so to work on his film is a thrill in itself. And it's good that the film itself works well. It's a win-win situation.