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Frankenweenie - Mark Waring interview (exclusive)

Frankenweenie, Mark Waring

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MARK Waring, animation supervisor on Tim Burton’s critically-acclaimed Frankenweenie, talks about some of the challenges of making the stop-frame film from his point of view and what it was like working with the director.

He also talks about directing the DVD and Blu-ray short, Captain Sparky Vs The Flying Saucers and why he hopes it’ll be another step towards directing his own feature film one day and he discusses the film’s Oscar nomination and what it means.

Q. Congratulations on getting to direct Captain Sparky Vs The Flying Saucers
Mark Waring: Thank you. It was a nice little end to the shoot for me.

Q. I’d imagine it was too good an offer to refuse. Did you see it as a next step towards directing your first feature?
Mark Waring: Exactly. I’ve sort of done quite a bit of directing before getting involved with this feature. I’ve directed kids’ series, some commercials and pop promos, so I was sort of used to directing that sort of thing. But stepping into features has a definite hierarchy about it. So, I worked as an animator on Corpse Bride, which was a great experience, and then took the next step up, so to speak, by working on Fantastic Mr Fox as an animation supervisor, which I also did on Frankenweenie. But obviously, getting the chance to direct a short film as well is another nice little step in that direction because directing a feature some day would be fantastic.

Q. What was the biggest challenge for you in bringing Frankenweenie to the screen?
Mark Waring: The biggest challenge, for me, was more the characterisation and trying to get the personalisation out of the characters. And the whole of Frankenweenie revolves around Sparky, who doesn’t speak and is not a Lassie or anything. He communicates by doing dog things, so you have to try and get a boy and his dog’s relationship as the focus for the film. That meant getting a personality out of Sparky was the biggest challenge and doing it in stop-frame way. It was about trying to make him work as a dog as much as we could. The film almost stands or falls on how well we are able to do that.

Q. How challenging was that to do?
Mark Waring: There was a lot of development involved because he is such a complex character in terms of how he’s made. He’s almost got a Swiss watch inside of him – the amount of bits needed to make him up is incredible. So, just to make him work on a technical level was an achievement, let alone bringing in his physicality, his character and personality.

Q. Is a lot of patience required?
Mark Waring: Not so much patience, more perseverance. Patience suggests you have to wait. But you’re not waiting at all, you’re going as fast as you can in stop frame terms. Each animator is doing about two seconds a day at top whack. So, imagine how long that takes. At the end of the shoot, we were getting a maximum of two minutes [of footage] a week. So, it’s more about perseverance because it does take so long. Some shots would take weeks to do, so you keep nibbling away. And then there are things like motion control, camera moves and other technical requirements, which all take a long time to set up and to shoot. So, it’s quite painstaking. So even though you have to be patient, it’s more about perseverance in working terms.

Frankenweenie

Q. How much is Tim Burton around during this process?
Mark Waring: He’s around physically quite a bit. He came to the studio quite a bit at the beginning and at the end, and a little in between. But he was also directing Dark Shadows at the same time. So, he started and shot Dark Shadows while we were still shooting Frankenweenie. But he set everything up. So, he gave us all his designs, he lays it all out and he gets us all the storyboarding at an early stage. And when we got to shooting he saw everything. The rushes we saw every day, he saw too. He has an animation director who serves as his eyes and ears on the floor every day. So, he sees it all through him and they have an intimate relationship in terms of the way everything was being done.

Q. Did you have much interaction with him?
Mark Waring: I had a reasonable amount, especially during the early testing stages. I was involved on a daily basis more with the animation director and working closely with hm. At the development stage, however, I was involved a lot on the development side, so that involved showing him how the puppets were being made and testing them to see how they worked. So, prepping that and giving him information about that, asking him if he liked how they looked and how it all worked. But once he has team a team in place and he’s seen that it’s set up right, Tim is happy for the team to run it. But it’s great to have him when he’s there because he’s so infectious. He’s like a kid in a sweetshop. He started out as stop-frame animator doing short films, so that’s what he loves. So, actually being on the set of a feature that’s being made in a stop-frame format… he loves it and he enthuses that as well. You can’t help but get off on the energy and enthusiasm that he brings.

Q. What do you love about stop-frame animation?
Mark Waring: I think it’s partly the fact that you can see it and feel it – it’s physical. You can go onto the set and it’s like being on a live action set. You can see the craft and see it’s all hand-made. You can see the puppets, see the sets, see the lights, feel the heat in the studio and interact with all of the crew. And there’s a great crew – you get involved with the set designers, the puppet makers, you work as a team and as a unit and you see each other and interact. In CG, it’s more about sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen. Don’t get me wrong, you can do some amazing things in that format but it doesn’t thrill me or excite me as much. When I go into an animation unit, there’s something physical there. And with stop-frame in particular you can see the craft. It’s a tangible thing, rather than CG where you can admire the skill. But it’s not something that resonates as much with me.

Frankenweenie

Q. This is the third stop-frame animated film you’ve worked on – following Corpse Bride and Fantastic Mr Fox – that has been Oscar nominated. What does that mean to you?
Mark Waring: It’s an award… it’s nice to be acknowledged, and to know you’re working on something that people have seen. But I was thinking about this nomination in particular the other day and I think there was a shortlist of 23 or 25 animated features this year – and that’s just the shortlist. I think we’re down to five films now for the actual awards ceremony. But then you think back to all the other films made last year and all of those films that weren’t even nominated. There has been a huge amount of work done by people who have grafted as much as we did and their films may not have been released or been seen by as many people.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that at the end of day, it’s nice to know your work has been acknowledged in that sense, which means it’s deserving of something. But I almost feel sorry for the others, who put so much time and effort in. At least our film did get seen and did get to entertain people and the Oscar nomination can only help to bring more awareness to it and a wider audience. It’s good that I’ve been able to work on something that people enjoyed.

Q. What was the biggest lesson you took away from the experience of making Frankenweenie?
Mark Waring: What was the biggest lesson… that’s a tough one! I think it’s surprising how much you can get done. It was such a low budget on this feature and there was always the pressure of ‘how are we going to do this’? With this amount of time and these many characters, and with this budget, how are we going to do that? At some of the early meetings we were almost saying: “This can’t be done!” But we had to do it, so when you get to the end you wonder how you did it. And it’s then that you realise that there’s always a way. We were constantly trying to make sure we got certain characteristics into these characters and emotion was key to the film, so being able to get that in the time we had and with the money was something that going into the next production you can take with you. But you have to go through that process to find that out. So, actually knowing you can do it is a good thing to take with you.

Read our review of Frankenweenie

Read our interview with Tim Burton