Henry Selick is a unique filmmaker. He has built a passionate fan base that spans generations around his stop-motion classic The nightmare before Christmasand a more iconic fandom surrounding its live-action/animation hybrids James and the Giant Peach and monkey bone. But Selick hasn’t released a film since Neil Gaiman’s adaptation coral in 2009. Where has he been all the years in between?
“Through hell and back,” Selick sighs. He specifically talks about the production process of his new film, Wendel & Wildscheduled for release on Netflix on 28 Oct The film, starring Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, has been in planning and development for more than five years. Production was delayed by more than a year and a half because of COVID, an unprecedented “heat dome” that pushed temperatures up to 112 degrees around Selick’s Portland studio, and a series of wildfires in Oregon. At one point, he says, his creative team had to set up a “puppet rescue” to collect Wendel & Wild‘s expensive, highly detailed stop-motion characters from the studio.
“All the dolls were put in cars and taken away as the smoke approached,” says Selick. “The idea was Well, if the studio is on fire we can rebuild the sets, but we can’t replace these puppets – they’re very labor intensive.”
But “Hell and Back” doesn’t just describe that Wendel & Wild Production delays, or even the slow, detail-obsessed process of making a stop-motion animated film in the first place. It might as well describe Selick’s career in the years since coral. After making this film with Portland-based stop-motion studio Laika, Selick joined Pixar in 2010 and founded a new studio where he would continue to produce stop-motion work. But Disney canceled its first planned project, The Shadow King, feeling after two years that it wasn’t far enough to meet the planned 2013 release date. Since then, Selick has reportedly devoted himself to developing a live-action film based on the Adam Gidwitz novel A Tale Dark and Grimm and a television adaptation of the video game Little nightmares before turning to Netflix for his latest film.
Incidentally, “Hell and Back” describes the plot of Wendel & Wild, a film about two demon brothers with big dreams and a 13-year-old orphan girl with smaller but equally passionate dreams. For demons Wendell (Key) and Wild (Peele), the story begins in a particularly small and specific hell — a theme park called Scream Fair, where damned souls (portrayed as vague, hollow-eyed, flailing ghosts) are tortured on macabre rides. For rebellious orphan Kat (Lyric Ross), fresh out of juvenile detention center, the story begins when she lost her loving parents in an accident that she believes was her fault. The frustration of living in these separate hells brings the three protagonists into a collision as they all hope to use each other to escape and rebuild their lives.
A walk through Selick’s studio to get a first look at what all happened Wendel & Wild, the strangest thing is seeing the radically different standards on which his world works. In the film itself, Kat, the demon brothers, and the film’s many other human and inhuman characters – including key characters voiced by James Hong, Angela Bassett, and Natalie Martinez – dominate the screen as do all characters, to the point where they become feel human -size. But their actual dolls only average about 9 to 16 inches tall. The sets they operate on, on the other hand, take up entire rooms to give a 9-inch character the feeling of being on screen in the vastness of a city or graveyard.
And sometimes a single detail dominates one of the studio’s storage rooms. For a single close-up of a sugar apple in a nightmare scene, the film crew had to build a giant apple that was significantly larger than a human head. Cameraman Peter Sorg laughs about it in particular. “We had to bite the bullet and build this incredibly huge apple for probably 20 frames,” he says. “I have no idea how much that thing costs.” He also shows a single giant demon hand, also for a close-up, that’s over 6 feet tall.
At the same time, the set with the entire Scream Fair only takes up about as much space as an average kitchen table. Wendell and Wild’s Hell of Origin is a meticulously detailed sadistic theme park built on the rounded belly of a 300-foot tall demon named Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames). During a studio tour, the animators rave about everything that went into building the Scream Fair — the working lights on the Ferris wheel (which dumps screaming souls into a tank full of electric eels), the tiny roller coaster cars that actually cruise around a miniature track before hitting the dead ends reach where they crash violently into each other. Sorg says Selick’s goal in designing the Scream Fair was “sort of Hieronymus Bosch meets Disney World.”
He points to a second, identical replica of the Ferris wheel nearby, scaled to the size of the 16-inch dolls, where the full mess is built for tiny 2-inch souls. All over Wendel & Wild Set repeats this pattern – fantastically detailed full-size puppets duplicated in miniature size for long-distance shooting, or a small portion of a larger set enlarged into an exact physical duplicate to match the full-size puppets. “Yeah, it was fun figuring out how we could do all these different scales that are really specific to stop motion,” says Sorg.
Selick’s designers built these sets in a huge warehouse, where 20-foot-tall black curtains divide the high-ceilinged space into separate rooms. In each room, individual animators spend months guiding the ornate puppets through tiny movements that are captured frame-by-frame on film, aiming to produce about two seconds of animation per day. The result is so smooth and fluid that it looks like a CGI animation.
Don’t tell Selick that though – he balks at the implication. “I’ve been like this for a while, but [I think]why do stop motion when it ends up looking like CG?” he asks.
Certainly Wendel & Wild looks much more caricatured and stylized than most post-Pixar animated children’s films. CG animation is just beginning to trend away from realism and toward more artistic stylization, but Selick’s work feels edgier and overdone. Selick specifically sought out Argentine artist Pablo Lobato, known for his highly geometric, sharp-edged portraiture, to design the characters and give them a particularly off-model, extreme look.
And Selick made a decision with this film that he wasn’t allowed to make coral. In that film, he says, he pioneered the use of clip-on 3D-printed faces for stop-motion puppets, a technique that allows animators to more quickly and easily change a character’s facial expression and precisely change the shape of their mouth so that they lip can make -Sync recorded dialogue. There is a visible seam line where the separate tiny face meets the rest of the doll’s head, and as Selick did coral for Laika he wanted to leave these seams visible.
“Even then I wanted to do as much work as possible in front of the camera. So there are hardly any special effects added [Coraline]’ says Selick. “But Phil Knight, the guy who funded the studio, the founder of Nike, just freaked out [the seam lines]. It just bothered him too much.” Eventually, Selick compromised and had Laika use CG to cover up the seams.
Wendel & Wild features a far more sophisticated facial replacement system with separate upper and lower facial segments, which Selick favors because of the immense number of possible combinations that form different expressions. In this film, he left those suture lines visible. “I think people will be watching and in five minutes [those lines] disappear because you invest in the characters.”
For Selick, such small artefacts are among the important elements of working in stop motion. “There are mistakes in there,” he says with visible enthusiasm. “The audience has to try a little bit harder to believe in what they see, but not so much that it is feels like work. But I think they invest more if they put in the effort. And I want them to do it. Then the film becomes more about them because we’re a part of it. It’s not just smeared images, perfectly done, it’s like any other Hollywood CG film.
“So to be more obviously handmade, with bumps and lumps – I think it’s a real plus. We’ll get noticed. It’s something completely different.”
Wendel & Wild arrives on Netflix 28th of October. Closer to the film’s release date, we’ll have more behind-the-scenes details from our set tour.
https://www.polygon.com/23327876/wendell-wild-netflix-animation-henry-selick-first-look Wendell & Wild: Why it took Henry Selick 13 years after Coraline to make a movie