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'Frankenweenie' producer Abbate gets charge out of working with Burton

Published On: Jan 30 2013 02:32:37 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 10 2013 06:18:20 PM CST
Allison Abbate Frankenweenie

Walt Disney Studios

"Frankenweenie" producer Allison Abbate (inset: Tim Burton and Abbate).

Director Tim Burton's stop-motion opus "Frankenweenie" has gotten some big jolts of acclaim lately, not only with Best Animated Feature nominations by the Annie Awards, Critics Choice Movie Awards and Golden Globes -- but wins from film critic organizations in New York, Los Angeles and Boston.

And with an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Thursday, it's no doubt an exciting time for producer Allison Abbate. Still, the filmmaker told me in a recent interview, she already feels like a winner because of the opportunities she's had to work with Burton and the artists involved with the filmmaker's pet project -- and in a field as rare as stop-motion.

"It's a medium that's so special that it's a privilege to help acquaint the world with it and bring the artistry to the forefront," Abbate said. "Tim is so great about giving credit where credit is due to the artists who work on the film with him and is so generous to them about their contributions. He's the best guy to work with."

Mirroring Abbate's sentiments, Burton issued a statement about the Oscar nomination, recognizing virtually everyone involved in the production.

"Frankenweenie is a very personal film for me.  The idea of telling a feature length version was in the back of my mind for many years.  Stop--motion was the perfect medium for this project, and one I've always loved for it expressiveness and dimensionality," Burton said. "I've worked with so many incredible artists: animators, cast members, set builders, and puppet makers, all who have helped bring this film to life one frame at a time.  I'm so honored that the Academy has recognized this film as one of its nominees."

New on DVD and Blu-ray (Walt Disney Home Entertainment), "Frankenweenie" is based on Burton's own 1984 live-action short film of the same name. Filmed in black-and-white in an homage to the classic monster movies of yesteryear, "Frankenweenie" tells the story of a young boy named Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan) who reanimates his beloved dog, Sparky, with some creative stitchery and lightning bolts after a tragic accident.

The problem is, Victor's parents and their suburban community of New Holland misunderstand Sparky and are frightened of him, and the boy's scientific experiment spirals completely out of control when his schoolmates find out his secrets and reanimate their own beloved pets -- creating complete chaos during the town's annual festival.

The key for Abbate on "Frankenweenie" was to help capture the emotion of the characters through the subtle movements of inanimate objects on film. After all, emotion is hard enough to capture from a live-action actor, much less a puppet being filmed one frame at a time.

"There is a magical quality to stop-motion that I think is an intangible, yet a very real element of it," observed Abbate, who also produced Burton's "Corpse Bride" and was artistic coordinator on "The Nightmare Before Christmas." "I think that's why kids are really drawn to it, and why ultimately artists and people are drawn to it. I think that's why Tim was so adamant about remaking the live-action short in stop-motion. I think he likes what he gets out of the live-action process, but he craves the magic that you get out of stop-motion."

"Frankenweenie" animation supervisor Mark Waring also believes in the magic of stop-motion, which is why he's confident that the art form will hold its own in the feature film world despite the rapidly evolving world of computer-generated animation.

"Stop-motion features will stand the test of time and that process of entertaining people won't go away," Warning told me in a separate interview. "I think it's a valid art form and I think people love the idea of bringing lots of metal, silicone, plaster and wood to life. It becomes real."

The filmmaker believes the future of stop-motion animation was solidified with the release of "Corpse Bride" in 2005, marking the first time Waring collaborated with Burton and Abbate.

"There was a feeling that CG was going to take over and that stop-frame was going to die, but when 'Corpse Bride' came out, it made people realize that it's just a different strand of animation, and it doesn't have to mean that one has to die for the other one to live," Warning said. "They can both co-exist. It's like photography was supposed to kill off painting. CG and stop-motion are completely separate things, but both can entertain you in a cinema for an hour and a half."

Sparks of creativity

Abbate is thrilled with the release of the film on home video because it gives her an opportunity to present a featurette on the "Frankenweenie" touring exhibit -- which highlights puppets and sets used in the film -- as well as an extensive look at the people who helped make the magic happen.

"Not only does it capture the art of the film, but the artists who worked on it, which always makes me really, really proud when credit can go where credit is due," Abbate said.

More than anything, Abbate said she's excited about the inclusion of "Captain Sparky vs. the Flying Saucers," a new short film in the bonus features directed by Waring.

"It's as if Victor and Sparky made other shorts like 'Monsters from Beyond' from the beginning of the movie, and that's really special because you feel like you're getting a little more insight into their sweet relationship," Abbate said. "And, you can have another fun romp with Captain Sparky, but in outer space. This is more like a space adventure with a Mr. Whiskers cameo in it."

If it were up to Waring, those "other" Victor and Sparky shorts will somehow have a life of their own someday.

"We talked about it when we were shooting, how there could be a whole sequence of them," Waring recalled. "Victor could go into his film can and we can see a whole library of films that he made. It could go on forever."