by Luke Hickman
In my seven years as an entertainment writer, I have interviewed professionals in all sorts of filmmaking roles – from animators and special effects coordinators, to actors, writers and directors – but I have never interviewed a producer. Through my interview with 'Frankenweenie' producer Allison Abbate, I learned that this role is (or, should be) filled by someone with a true passion for a project.
Allison Abbate is the BAFTA award-winning producer of 'The Iron Giant.' 'Frankenweenie' wasn't her first bout with stop-motion cinema nor her first collaboration with Tim Burton, as she produced both 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' and 'Corpse Bride' and worked as an artistic coordinator on 'The Nightmare Before Christmas.'
This interview was conducted just days before Christmas. Allison and I were both preparing for distant travels. At the end of the interview, she apologizes for the background noise of her packing her bags. Truthfully, I didn't hear any clatter and the inflection of her voice and strings of thoughts were so smooth and fluid that I never would have known. I would have assumed that she was sitting down with all attention directed to the call had she not confessed otherwise. That's the type of naturally charismatic, energetic, and enthusiastic person she is.
It is my hope that Abbate's personal love for 'Frankenweenie' is just as evident in the text that follows as it was during our chat. If you would like a sense of the voice behind the words that follow, I recommend checking out the special features found on the 'Frankenweenie' Blu-ray prior to reading this interview. Abbate serves as the host of the special features "Miniatures in Motion: Bringing 'Frankenweenie' to Life" and "'Frankenweenie' Touring Exhibit." You will see visual testaments of how much she personally cares for this project.
HDD – Luke Hickman: Hi, Allison!
Allison Abbate: Hi, Luke! How are you?
HDD: Not bad at all. I understand that you're in the middle of travels.
Allison Abbate: I'm about to travel, so it's perfect timing.
HDD: Are you going to be mixing business with your holiday travels?
Allison Abbate: No, this is purely a family visit – so I'm not sure which category that falls into, but it's going to be busy and fun.
HDD: That's great. I know that we're limited on time, so let's dive into 'Frankenweenie.'
Allison Abbate: Did you like it?
HDD: I liked it when I saw it in theaters and liked it even more when I re-watched it at home. It's such a great little film. I think it's one of Tim Burton's best family flicks. Both my 5-year-old daughter and I love it.
Allison Abbate: Oh, I'm so glad! I love to hear that kids saw it and loved it. Tim was a kid when he had the idea, so it's great to hear their reactions.
HDD: Now, were you involved with 'Frankenweenie' from the beginning?
Allison Abbate: Certainly not with the [original] short film from many years ago (which is included in the Blu-ray's special features), but when Don (presumably executive producer Don Hahn) came and talked about the movie with Tim, it was right after 'Corpse Bride.' We were thinking about what to do next, so it was perfect timing for this. And that was back in 2005.
HDD: Was it difficult to get Disney to re-do the original short?
Allison Abbate: You know, I really feel like it wasn't difficult. [Disney] loves Tim and you can tell by the significance of the short how classic it is and how it really showcased Tim's amazing talents right from the start. They were excited about it.
HDD: Nothing against Disney, but I assumed that any studio would be against making a contemporary black & white kids film.
Allison Abbate: Black & white was always on the table. It was never a question of not doing it in black & white. Tim's vision is very clear and the studio was always very supportive of it. I think Tim, from the very beginning, said, "The only way that I will do this is if I can do it the way that I have always wanted to," and he laid out all the parameters and they were totally on-board with it. I think they knew that the way that Tim would do black & white would feel fresh and amazing, so they were very supportive.
HDD: 'Frankenweenie' is your first 3D film, right?
Allison Abbate: Yes. Absolutely.
HDD: I know that shooting standard films in 3D opens a can of worms. Were there any changes that you had to make to the stop-motion process in order to adapt to 3D?
Allison Abbate: We actually didn't shoot in 3D.
HDD: You had me fooled! It's such a great conversion that I never would have known otherwise.
Allison Abbate: Tim likes to do it as a post process because it gives you more control. It doesn't damper the filmmaking part of telling the story. We were always cognoscente of it, aware of it, planning for it – but it didn't hold us up or trip us up in any way. It was more like, "What would be a fun way to pull people into this scene, or pull people into this moment?" We really approached it that way and it became more of an organic way to plan some of these sequences.
HDD: Because of your background, I must tell you that two of my daughter's very favorite films are 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' and 'The Nightmare Before Christmas.' You have a great track record with her.
Allison Abbate: (laughs) Ah, that's so great! They're both fun movies.
HDD: Were there any challenges that were presented with 'Frankenweenie' that you didn't have in either of those two past stop-motion experiences?
Allison Abbate: The thing about 'Frankenweenie' is having the main character be a certain tiny dog. It sort of has huge scale issues because we had to basically design the dog puppet so that we could get it to do everything that we needed it to do, then scale everything up to that. We had some physical challenges based on that. The black & white was more challenging than we had anticipated just because we don't think in black & white. We had to change the way we composed shots, the way we painted things and how we designed things just so it would work. The value became paramount. It was a little learning curve for everyone to get into the black & white headspace. Otherwise, the process hasn't really changed since the old days of Ray Harryhausen. It just seems like we have embraced technology to take us into the future and make the process a little easier, but fundamentally it's still such a classic mood that we kept some of that classic stuff.
HDD: I enjoyed watching the part of the "Miniatures in Motion" Blu-ray special feature that explains how all of the sets and characters were initially designed in color, but had to be adjusted to get the desired black & white look.
Allison Abbate: We thought, "You know that Ginger Rogers' hair wasn't really white. That's just how it came out in the black & white." So, we were painting things in regular color, then we'd see them in black & white and find that things were pulling tricks on us. Red would go one way in a certain shot, then a completely different way in another shot. It was becoming hard to wrangle, so we starting painting things in shades of gray. Once we really embraced that, it became a lot – not easier, but – clearer. We were working within the value palette. It was nice for the animators because they were living in the world that they were creating. The whole set became a sort of black & white set. It was kind of neat to look at it.
HDD: All in all, how long did the shooting process last?
Allison Abbate: I think it was basically three years from the beginning to end – about a year of pre-production, a year and a half of shooting and about half a year of post. The shoot can overlap a lot of things, but it was about three years in total to make the film.
HDD: On the Blu-ray, there's the new stop-motion short film 'Captain Sparky vs. the Flying Saucers.' Was this shot congruently with the main feature?
Allison Abbate: Absolutely. We worked it in towards the end of shooting so that as we were peeling crew off the feature film, we started putting them onto the short. The animation supervisor (Mark Waring) ended up directing it. Tim's co-producer (Derek Frey) wrote it. It became a family affair and we ended up wanting to do many of them. We figured, "Victor and Sparky make home movies. Let's see another one." It was a great idea and I'm really glad that we made the sci-fi one, the little space one. It was so cute – and having Mr. Whiskers make a cameo appearance was pretty genius.
HDD: Watching the special features on the Blu-ray, you are basically the host. How is it going from being producer to being in front of the camera?
Allison Abbate: Oh! (laughs) That was not good! The thing is, I love talking about this process and I love talking about the people, the amazing artists who create everything. For me, it was not as hard as when I look at myself on the camera. I see myself and say, "Yikes! What is my hair doing?!" (laughs) That's all I can think about when I play it back. But it's really my pleasure when I get to walk people back through the process. I pretty much give tours constantly as if we are still making the movie. I'm trying to bring people in and explain to them the process and show them the magic behind making one of these movies. It was such a privilege to be able to showcase that magic to the people who watch the Blu-ray.
HDD: Do you have the desire to ever direct a film?
Allison Abbate: You know, producing for me is a very creative and satisfying job. If there was a story that I really loved and I felt like I could tell it, I would not rule anything out. I feel like producing, and especially animation, is so satisfying because you are really there at the making of every decision for every frame. I get great satisfaction at stepping back and seeing the group that I have helped pull together and the amazing artists that we have put into positions to shine and creating an environment for them to shine in. I really think that producing one of these movie is pretty addictive stuff. It would be hard to give that up.
HDD: So, what are you doing next?
Allison Abbate: Right now I'm executive producing a Lego movie for Warner Bros., but Tim and I are talking about doing other stop-motion movies. He has a number of ideas. I'm also working with Guillermo Del Toro and Henson on a 'Pinocchio' movie. There are lots of things on the horizon, I just have to figure out which one is the best one to move forward on first.
HDD: Well I really look forward to seeing what you decide to do next – especially if it's another stop-motion film.
Allison Abbate: They're fun. They're fantastic. It's a medium that's really so conducive to telling great stories and telling them artfully. For me, it's my first love, so you will see more. Definitely. … This style is magical. It's Santa's workshop. There's magic to the process. I'm glad that you appreciate it.
HDD: Well, thanks for taking time right before the holiday to talk with me. I know how hectic this time can be.
Allison Abbate: You're hearing me put things in suitcases and throwing things in boxes, so thank you for your patience.
HDD: I never would have known that's what you were doing if you hadn't told me!