Tim Burton talks Frankenweenie, first pets and scaring children

"There's something about animators taking an inanimate object and making it come to life. It's like Frankenstein..."

Tucked inside 3 Mills Studios in a corner of east London, the crew of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie is labouring hard. Thirty miniature stages host groups of puppeteers and animators toiling to tease and finesse the infinitesimal detail required by the director of Alice in Wonderland and Edward Scissorhands for his new cinematic dreamscape.

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Welcome to New Holland, a black-and-white, 3D, stop-motion suburban American town, where a science project is having frankly horrifying effects on the kids’ dead pets…

So why stop-motion? Burton reflects, cutting a sinister figure in his trademark sunglasses.

“It just has a certain handmade quality. There’s something slightly crude about it but also potentially slightly more emotional. And there’s a thing about animators taking an inanimate object and making it come to life. It’s like Frankenstein,” he says with a shrug.

Using this infamously laborious and frankly old-timey process meant that each second of film comprised 24 frames – that is, tiny incremental puppet movements – and six seconds of footage took three days to shoot. Frankenweenie has been three years in the making (finally arriving in cinemas on today). Still, it’s been an even longer wait for Burton: he first made it as a short film for Disney back in 1984, when he was still in his 20s.

Back in the cavernous production space, unit 14 has been transformed into the all-American home of Frankenweenie’s hero, a lonely, movie-loving boy called Vincent. When his faithful dog Sparky is killed by a car, a distraught Vincent harnesses the peculiar electrical storms that plague his home town of New Holland and jolts his pooch back to life.

New Holland is based on Burbank, California – Burton’s childhood home. (He now resides in London with his partner and frequent collaborator Helena Bonham Carter and their two children.) The 54-year-old director, who started in films as an animator, was that wide-eyed, movie-loving Vincent. Burton even had a dog like Sparky. Well, kind of like Sparky.

“That ‘first relationship’ with your childhood pet,” Burton recalls, “is a very strong, psychic connection, because it’s pure, unconditional love. My dog had distemper and I remember that feeling of, ‘Well, he’s not gonna last very long.’ That’s where the original idea came from – that connection. But also the sense that there might be loss. That’s where you get the Frankenstein concept – of keeping something alive or bringing something back.”

To Burton, opting to render his film using an old-fashioned craft – and in old-fashioned black and white – “just seemed like a natural fit”, a beautifully atmospheric homage to the monster flicks that Burton grew up loving. But the autobiographical element doesn’t stop there.

Other characters in the film are modelled on his Burbank classmates. Well, loosely modelled – even in a neighbourhood situated close to Hollywood, it’s unlikely the director went to school with a kid like Edgar E Gore, a snaggletoothed hunchback, or lived next door to a girl like Elsa Van Helsing, whom Burton describes as “a weird, gothic Pippi Longstocking”.

Was Burton worried at all about the way kids would react to Frankenweenie’s weird and wonderful characters? After all, when he made his original 30-minute version of the film in the 80s, some speculated that Disney fired him because the end product was too expensive and too scary for kids.

“Wow!” he chuckles, his wild hair wobbling, his eyes widening – that is, I imagine they are underneath his sunglasses. “That’s a harsh reality… Well, I guess yes and no because, (a) it didn’t cost that much, and (b) it wasn’t that scary, and (c) did I really get fired? Let’s put it this way,” he adds with a wink, “I no longer kept working there.”

“In any case,” he smiles, “grown-ups underestimate kids at their peril. I have nine-year-old girls saying they love Sweeney Todd. And people forget that in every Disney film they explore themes of death. Bambi, The Lion King… there are a million Disney movies that deal with it. I think [the original] Frankenweenie was unfairly picked on when it came out.”

But yes, he nods, there was a sense of unfinished business – especially with a film that is more personal than any he’s ever made. “It’s hard to think of any other project where I not only would have revisited it, but also expanded it. It really was a memory piece this, for sure.”

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Frankenweenie is in UK cinemas from 17 October