The Case of Frankenweenie

On a rainy afternoon in 1816, a 20-year-old woman named Mary Shelley wrote a story that would change the world forever. It was possibly the first science fiction novel, a book about a scientist that created a living creature from corpses. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus challenged the romantic idea of beauty and explored philosophical themes about the nature of man and the power of creation. 

Today, Frankenstein is a Halloween staple. It’s a story so ingrained in western celebrations of the holiday, it’s hard to imagine a world without it. The story inspired many different adaptations, but one of the strangest and most original was created by Tim Burton in 1984. 

Frankenweenie followed the story of a young boy that uses electricity to bring his beloved dog back to life. Twenty-eight years later, Disney gave Burton the chance to remake this short film in his favorite medium: stop-motion. Today, we’re bringing you through the history of this fun re-telling of a classic tale. So grab your popcorn and settle in for the SHOCKing story of Sparky and his human Victor!

THE ORIGINAL FRANKENWEENIE

  • Based on his films, it’s no surprise that Tim Burton is a fan of horror stories. He grew up watching the Universal Monster movies and Japanese monster films. One of his favorite aspects of these movies was that the monsters were almost never what they seemed to be. 
  • Burton had the original idea for Frankenweenie while working at Disney in the 1980s. 
    • The story came from experience. When Burton was a child, he had a dog named Pepe that he loved dearly. It was his first major relationship and the first big death that he experienced. This, combined with the Frankenstein storyline, created a new kind of adaptation that flipped the original story on its head. The original monster in Frankenstein was cast out by its creator because it wasn’t a product of love. In this story, Victor only attempts to create life because he misses his best friend. 
  • The project was green-lit, and Burton was able to direct a live-action version of the story starring Barret Oliver, Daniel Stern, and Shelly Duvall. Its runtime was only 30 minutes, and it was set to premiere on television. But, the test screenings appeared to scare children, and the short film was pulled. 
    • Years later, Disney released the short film on home video. It quickly became a hit, and today it has a cult following. Now, it can be streamed on Disney+ and can be found on many The Nightmare Before Christmas DVDs. 
  • When Tim Burton was gathering pieces for a Museum of Modern Art exhibit, he came across the concept drawings for the film and decided he’d like to revisit the story again. By now, Burton was an accomplished filmmaker with hits like Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas under his belt. So, he brought the idea to Disney which would eventually fund the project.  
    • To Burton, this didn’t really feel like a remake. This time he had the budget and the resources to incorporate all of the personal experiences and monster movie influences that birthed the original concept. 
      • Burton decided the film wouldn’t be live-action, but stop-motion instead! Burton said of using stop motion, “It’s a form that I do love because there’s something that’s very tactile about it, you know, it’s a set and the lights and characters are going in and out of shadows, you see that. There’s something, yes, why I love Ray Harryhausen’s work where you can feel hands on it, you can feel there’s an energy to it.” 
    • When asked why redo an already successful movie, Tim Burton replied to puppet designer Peter Sanders that he wanted more of a performance from the dog Sparky. This would be more possible with a stop motion dog than a live-action dog. 

SYNOPSIS

Victor Frankenstein loves his dog, Sparky. They do everything together, including making their very own monster movies. One day, while Victor is playing baseball, Sparky runs into the street and gets hit by a car. Victor is devastated. After learning about the possibilities of combining electricity with a dead frog in science class, Victor decides to use lightning to bring Sparky back to life! As other students catch wind of the experiment, they want to try it as well. But, things go awry and the town is soon under attack by a group of pets-turned-monsters!  

MAKING OF THE MOVIE

  • Based on an original idea by Tim Burton, the 1984 screenplay was written by Leonard Ripps. John August wrote the screenplay for the 2012 film. 
    • Tim Burton was adamant that the film be in black and white. Thankfully, there was no push back from the studio to produce a color film. It was a nice coincidence that the black and white film The Artist won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2012 validating the choice for black and white. 
    • In order to give the filmmakers more aesthetic options, it was shot in color and changed in post to be black and white.
  • 3D
    • To keep up with the monster movie tradition, the team knew immediately that the film should be 3D. A test was conducted to make sure that the effects worked well with the black and white aesthetic. After the test was done they saw right away it worked. The contrast of the film even helps to intensify the effect. 
    • Instead of shooting the film originally in 3D the team shot normally and gave the different elements, such as the set and characters, to a visual effects house team. This team then put it all together into a 3D film. 
  • Stop Motion
    • Stop motion is a time-consuming art form that we have discussed before. In order to keep filming going smoothly, Exposure Sheets are used. 
      • Exposure Sheets help to clarify what a character is doing in each frame so that everything can be mapped out. The sheets include frame numbers, the waveform for the score, and the phonetics of the words formed by the characters for mouth movement. Frankenweenie was shot at the standard 24 frames per second. For animators, that meant that for one second of film the puppets must be moved 24 times. Most often one animator is able to animate about 5 seconds of the film a week. 
    • In order to speed up the process animators would be working on different scenes at the same time with the multiples of puppets that were created.
  • Puppets
    • Inspiration for the puppets began from the drawings by Burton. Not only did they have his original concept drawing from the 1984 film, but he drew some new ones as well. The team of artists worked closely off of these and consulted Burton often on the personalities and looks of the characters. 
    • The puppets were cast from sculptures and then cast into foam rubber. All of the clothes had to be hand sewn as the puppets were only about a foot in height, and Sparky was about 4 inches.
    • In total, there ended up being over 200 puppets that needed to be cared for. A special Puppet Hospital was created where there was a team that made repairs for the clothing, limbs, and more.
  • Production
    • The production designer Rick Heinrichs had worked with Tim Burton before on both the short film Vincent and Nightmare Before Christmas. The longtime collaborators had also done well with the 1984 Frankenweenie. When Rick heard that Burton intended to remake the movie in stop motion, he was in from the start. Rick saw opportunities to improve what they built with the original. 
    • Rick Heinrichs was blown away by the animators working on the film. He was thrilled to see the story in black and white again and loved the controlled nature of stop-motion. He said, “When you’re doing a live-action film, you’re dealing with a lot more people and, as much as you want to control the sets and control the lighting, it’s like wearing boxing gloves to try to do something delicate. With stop-motion animation, the cinematographer is lighting the set, and the set decorators and the model makers and the animators are all people you’re talking directly to. You can fix things. It’s on a scale where it’s all fixable, and you can continue to manipulate things until it shoots. It’s a longer process of prep and production as well, so you can really bring more continuity to bear, on the whole process.”
    • The sets were built on tabletops complete with trap doors, similar to the ones we learned about when Nightmare Before Christmas was made! The attention to detail on the sets was incredible. 
      • Art director Sandra Walker, when talking about the sets, said that they strived to create Burton’s version of American Suburbia. What’s strange isn’t the neighborhood, it’s what happens in the neighborhood. Burton grew up in a 50’s/60’s middle-class Burbank-type area.
      • This story takes place in the fictional town of New Holland with a classic-looking windmill near the town. In the climax of the original film, Victor and Sparky become trapped in the windmill at the local golf course. So, the animated film needed to have a windmill for the ending as well. Heinrichs said about using the cultural aspects of New Holland, It was all about having Dutch day, and also about how American communities really take these Old World elements and they turn it into this flat, suburban thing. They knock down all the maple trees and they call it Maple Street. It’s this absconding of things out in the world and making it your own thing. There was something characteristically American and charming about that…To be honest with you, I really think that it establishes a purpose for the windmill.
  • Artists
    • Working on a stop motion film is incredibly physical work. Instead of working in front of a screen, you are constantly moving. One frame of movement would include several changes that would all have to be physically and meticulously moved. It is a very hands-on process that is evident in the final product. 
  • Film references and research
    • Burton believes that references should not be used just to have them there. He enjoys referencing older movies but you should not have to know what is being referenced to enjoy the movie. It should pass by as you are paying attention to the story. 
    • Producer Allison Abbate said that in order to be able to reference these movies, and with a purpose, the animators all watched the classic monster movies, paying special attention to the old Frankenstein movies. 
    • Here are just some of the references that we noticed throughout the film!
      • Frankenstein- Including a character similar to Igor
      • Sleepy Hollow and Frankenstein both have a windmill that burns down as well
      • Rodan- In the short film that Victor created at the beginning
      • Bride of Frankenstein- Sparky’s love interest Persephone ends up with white hair
      • Pet Sematary 
      • Invisible Man- Invisible fish
      • Gremlins-The sea monkeys resemble Gremlins
      • The Mummy- Nassor’s Colossus the hamster, and also when Nassor gets wrapped up and shoved into a large nesting doll
      • The Birds- Phone Booth scene with all the sea monkeys trying to get in
      • Gamera: The Giant Monster
      • Jurassic Park- The mayor tries to hide in a Porta Potty 

SCORE

  • Danny Elfman of course!
  • In an article in Films in Review from 1992, Ken Hanke comments that “Elfman’s scores are far more creative, far more in line with Burton’s combined sense of charm, irony, and absurdity, and generally just better music.”

STARRING

While the actors recorded their lines for the performances, video references were taken. These videos would be watched for behaviors, movements, and idiosyncrasies that could be used in the performance of the puppets.

Burton in an interview with Collider commented on the casting saying “Always, the voices have to be right.  With Martin [Short] and Catherine [O’Hara], they’re so good.  That’s why I had them do three voices each.  To me, there’s a great energy with that.  And Winona [Ryder], I hadn’t seen for many years.  Same with Martin [Landau].  Anything like that just makes it that much more personal.”

  • Winona Ryder as Elsa Van Helsing
    • Can it even be a Tim Burton film without Winona?
    • She is a favorite of Burton’s and was also in Beetlejuice.
    • Van Helsing references Bram Stoker’s character from his novel, Dracula. 
  • Catherine O’Hara as Mrs. Frankenstein, the gym teacher, and the weird girl
    • She was in Beetlejuice but is also well known as the mom in Home Alone.
    • In this universe, there is no Frankenstein story. These people ARE the Frankensteins. 
  • Martin Short as Mr. Frankenstein, Nassor, and Mr. Burgermeister
    • Martin Short is most recently seen in Only Murders in the Building!
    • In the Rankin and Bass episode, we talked about how much Burton enjoyed their work, and so in this film, he pays tribute with the character Mr. Burgermeister. The character is similar in a lot of ways to Burgermeister Meisterburger in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. 
  • Charlie Tahan as Victor Frankenstein
    • Charlie most recently has been in Ozark.
    • You can see in his character’s room a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea poster.
  • Frank Welker as Sparky 
    • Frank is a voice actor that did voices for the live-action Transformers.
    • Sparky is given the classic bolts on the sides of his head in reference to Frankenstein’s monster.
  • Martin Landau as the teacher Mr. Rzykruski
    • This character may look very familiar to you because he is modeled after Vincent Price!
    • Martin was in many films before he passed away, most recently Abe and Phil’s Last Poker Game in 2017.
  • Also features the voices of Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, James Liao, Conchata Ferrell, Jon Donahue, Tom Kenny, and Dee Bradley Baker.

RECEPTION

  • There are lots of opinions out there as to whether or not Tim Burton’s films are for children. Burton himself grew up where death was a taboo topic. But, monster movies made him feel more optimistic about it all and reminded him of how life and death go hand in hand. He never felt he had a morbid fascination with death. Frankenweenie in particular was made with kids in mind and distances you from the scary with its emotional storyline, humor, and animation. Animation inherently shows you it is not real and therefore children are more receptive to the scariness. 
  • The film did not do well commercially, but it did make back its budget. 

FUN FACTS

  • There was an “Art of Frankenweenie Exhibition” that toured the world after the premiere. It had a wonderful reception and even came to Comic-Con in San Diego! You were able to tour some of the sets, props, and characters.
  • Burton invited his high school art teacher to the movie premiere.
  • Names of animators’ animals were on the gravestones at the pet cemetery.

AWARDS

Frankenweenie was nominated for a lot of awards, including for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature which it, unfortunately, did not win. It lost to Brave. It did, however, win a lot of awards in different states and Saturn Awards for Best Animated Film and Best Music.

Frankenweenie is a wonderful retelling of a classic story, with an optimistic twist. The original Frankenstein ends with the monster becoming increasingly destructive as he faces more cruelty, and the townsfolk end up hunting down a being that was initially harmless, his only crime being his existence. In Frankenweenie, the townsfolk make this same mistake but have the capacity to learn and grow, deciding to bring Sparky back to life. This concept can be summed up with the line, “Sometimes adults don’t know what they’re talking about,” spoken by Victor’s father at the end of the movie. 

In the tradition of the original, this movie explores human nature, the strength of an act of love, and how dangerous an act of fear can be. 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, Linda, Bob, Carlos, and Jaren!

You can now buy us Popcorn! @  buymeacoffee.com/blackcasediary   

Thank you to all that support us whether it be through listening, telling a friend, or donating!


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