Monkeybone : Production Notes

Monkeybone (2001) - Movie PosterThe concept for MONKEYBONE came across Henry Selick's desk over four years ago, when he received the first of what was to have been a series of 12 graphic comic books called "Dark Town" written by Kaja Blackley and illustrated by Vanessa Chong. Though the eleven other books were never completed, Selick was drawn to Blackley's vision. "The heart of the concept was brilliant, " Selick points out. "The ideas of a soul being trapped between life and death, and a race against the clock to survive, were very intriguing. Visually, the layout was uniquely stylized and appealed to my artistic sensibilities."

Selick acquired the rights to the comic and immediately partnered with old friend and screenwriter Sam Hamm (Batman (1989)) to collaborate on this project. "The original story was very ominous and portentous, but each time we began to discuss the script, we would start to make fun of ourselves. We began to realize that the film should become a comedy, and that's when it started to gel," Hamm relates.

The character of Monkeybone was completely original, conceived by Selick and Hamm as the comic relief and ultimately as the title role. "Stu is a cartoonist, so we wanted to incorporate a story about a sidekick that he created. After having gone through several animals and animal-like incarnations, we settled upon a quirky monkey," says Hamm.

Acclaimed for his ingenious stop-motion creations in Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996) Selick envisioned MONKEYBONE as a seamless combination of live-action, stop-motion animation and puppets to be used in conjunction with real-life sets, extensive miniatures and computer imagery.

Acclaimed for his ingenious stop-motion creations in Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996) Selick envisioned MONKEYBONE as a seamless combination of live-action, stop-motion animation and puppets to be used in conjunction with real-life sets, extensive miniatures and computer imagery.

But even with all of the elaborate effects and designs, the filmmakers never lost sight of the characters and actors who played them. "The real theme and heart of this film is the love story between Stu and Julie. Stu risks so much to once again be with the woman he loves," states Selick.

Selick cast Brendan Fraser to portray Stu, who experiences a broad range of emotions as well as some bizarre personality changes. "Brendan is an actor who can do anything," Selick observes. "I'd looked at all the films he's done and realized he absolutely had the range for this. He's a leading man who is not afraid to take risks and be goofy."

Playing opposite Fraser is Bridget Fonda, who portrays Julie McElroy, Stu's doctor and loyal girlfriend. "I was truly impressed with the script, which is a combination of black humor and really wonderful poignancy," Fonda notes. "I loved the fact that it's about two people who finally find the potential for a great love and yet must overcome all that is conspiring against them."

Playing off Fraser's comedic performance, Fonda brought a crucial reality to the film. "Bridget must play the straight role against Brendan's sometime wacky character and plays it wonderfully. Her grasp of the character was very impressive," Selick says.

While Fonda's Julie works to keep Stu alive in the "real" world, one of the chief denizens of Downtown - Death, herself - has other plans for the hapless cartoonist. Originally, the script called for the character of Death to be a balding, bespectacled, accountant-type. Then the filmmakers met Whoopi Goldberg.

Selick remembers: "Whoopi came down to our stages and was completely taken with the script as well as with the designs. She also has a vast knowledge of animation, which surprised and delighted me. I knew we had to have her for this movie." Adds Hamm: "We wanted to see how far we could go with the character - how much of a surprise we could get by doing something completely different. Whoopi fit the bill."

MONKEYBONE's challenging pre-production period lasted almost a year as artists designed images first on paper, then in 3-D sculptures. In addition, Selick storyboarded more than two-thirds of the film, and reproduced them as a "bible" for each department head. "It was the only way we could do this movie," states producer Michael Barnathan. "There were so many components to this project, it had to be figured out in great detail."

MONKEYBONE's challenging pre-production period lasted almost a year as artists designed images first on paper, then in 3-D sculptures. In addition, Selick storyboarded more than two-thirds of the film, and reproduced them as a "bible" for each department head. "It was the only way we could do this movie," states producer Michael Barnathan. "There were so many components to this project, it had to be figured out in great detail."

Selick intentionally limited the use of the more polished computer generated effects to bring his characters to life. "While stop-motion is considered by many an obsolete medium, and is not as fluid and perfect looking as CGI, it has a very specific charm," he explains. "Try as we might to make stop motion look perfect, we never will - and that's part of its charm. It has a hand-crafted quality. I see it as being a very personal choice and compare it to the difference between selecting vinyl over digital CD in music. Vinyl has lots of pops and scratches but it has a warmth that's authentic."

Selick used stop motion animation to create the title character, which the director describes as a "plush toy resembling something that small kids drag around the house." The process was slow and methodical, encompassing the film's 25 weeks of post production in San Francisco.

Once Selick gave a green light to Monkeybone's look, artist Damon Bard created a hero sculpture using a mixture of clay and paraffin. Next, the filmmakers developed the armature, which resembles the bones of a skeleton, and is used for providing support for the body as well as for determining hinge points.

Following the design phase, the mold department, which is responsible for casting face plates and different mouths for the character (used for a variety of expressions), produced a mold of the approved Monkeybone body parts. The mouth and face plates were then cured and given finishing touches, such as sanding and painting. For this finishing, or fabrication process, the filmmakers detailed thousands of body parts, as well as the outer body. They then covered the puppet with cloth and accessories.

At this point, the filmmakers were almost ready to animate Monkeybone on film. But first, they built a prototype puppet, which an animator tested to see how the armature was functioning. The animator further developed the character by creating different walking and running styles. A track reader read the dialogue for the particular shot and assigned mouth shapes to the phonetic reading.

Each stop motion animation team received a Monkeybone puppet, face and mouth kit. They began their shots with a "pop-through" - taking the puppet and placing it in poses that reflect the general feel of the shot. Selick then reviewed and made comments. Next, the animator conducted a "run-through," a more detailed test with motion and a few mouth changes. After Selick's approval, the animator launched into a take. The camera department worked closely with the animators during the pop and run-throughs to set the matched lighting and any necessary motion control, a process that took up to a week per shot. With eight animators working simultaneously, each animator completed about five seconds of film per week.

During principal photography, a hand or rod puppet was used to give Brendan Fraser the impression of a live character off of which to react. Puppeteer Bruce Lanoil worked closely with visual effects supervisors Pete Kozachik and Peter Crosman to provide placement coordination as well as the temporary voice. "I used a bunch of fabric covered rods and cloth puppets to create skin pressure, tugging on clothing and objects, etc.," Lanoil explains. "'Playing' Monkeybone, I also squeezed Brendan's nose and mussed up his hair, which later was replaced by the stop-motion figure." Lanoil also used these devices to provide Fraser with an eye line.

Reference takes were incorporated into every effects shot involving Monkeybone, in order to provide screen cues for the animators in San Francisco. The effects team filmed Kozachik holding two cylindrical objects - one gray, the other silver - which determined the light direction and patterns on set.

Monkeybone, Stu and the rest of the film's characters populate one or more of the three different realms depicted in the film: the real world, which is completely live-action; Downtown, a combination of live-action and animation; and the Thanatopolis, land of Death, which is predominantly represented as composites of green screen, models, special effects and animation. The sets were constructed on three soundstages at Ren-Mar Studios in Hollywood.

Selick depicts Downtown as a way station for the souls of coma patients. "Downtown is like Disneyland on Alcatraz," he explains, "where once impressive creatures have been reduced to working carnie jobs."

Creating Downtown posed a major challenge for production designer Bill Boes. "Since Henry wanted the place to look like an amusement park but feel like a prison, we basically took imagery from old amusement parks and incorporated them into our own design," Boes explains. "In our world, everything is kind of slanted. It's not perfect. Things look like they're decrepit and falling down. The amusement park-like rides are rundown, and you're going to be able to see the chains and gears."

The production spent 18 weeks constructing the Downtown hand set, which measured 218x120 feet, and was based on a one-quarter inch scale model. In order to give Downtown an endless vista, Boes incorporated forced perspective into the construction. Downtown's "skies" are actually a layer of muslin backing painted with fluorescent paint and lit with ultraviolet light. Cloud projectors were placed at strategic locations around the set to create a swirling, otherworldly glow.

Director Henry with Brendan on setCinematographer Andrew Dunn's lighting design breathed life into the set with a color scheme that spans the spectrum. "The lighting is an important story element," Dunn states. "It helps express where you are at different points in the film. For example, when Stu first arrives at Downtown, the energy is bright, vibrant and full of life, like New York's Times Square. However, as the story progresses, everything looks more subdued, like Manhattan at 3am. It's all about creating a mood."

Downtown also is home to the popular watering hole, the Coma Bar, which the production constructed with foam, wire mesh, and gels. They then painted it a deep red. "It's supposed to look like it was sculpted in rock but in a phony sort of way," says Boes.

Hyp's Hideaway is the domain of the overlord of Downtown, Hypnos the god of sleep. Boes based its exterior design on the soaring circular Encounter restaurant at Los Angeles International Airport. The interior motif is reminiscent of swinging bachelor pads of the 1960s, painted in a black-and-white op art pattern. "It's supposed to be the coolest place in town, so Henry wanted the look to be a departure from anything else in Downtown," says Boes.

The land of Death represents the end of the line for the film's characters. Dead souls arrive here via train from all over the world to be processed. It is a vaulted-domed, Gilded-Age train station, sporting Jules Verne-type motifs. The office set piece, described in the script as a railroad hobbyist's dream - "tracks everywhere, with little engines carrying messages to and fro, and a big desk in the shape of a train car" - was situated a few feet away from Hypnos' pad.

In addition to MONKEYBONE's five stop-motion characters, Selick employed several actual human actors to portray other Downtown inhabitants. Clad in prosthetics and specially designed costumes, 27 "suit" performers had portions of their "bodies" puppeteered through animatronics. "These people move in ways you've never seen," Selick promises.

Creature design consultant Ron Davis worked closely with Selick. "Henry wanted these classical monsters to look like fallen gods," Davis notes. "They used to be revered, now no one believes in them anymore. They've been forced into semi-retirement in this coma world where they work as attendants at an amusement park. They're at half their glory, a bit disheveled and tattered."

Two of L.A.'s famed creature houses -XFX, and Captive Audience - brought the creatures to their larger-than-life, fully-functioning status. "Our approach to the design of the characters was to them completely unrealistic," says XFX's Steve Johnson. "We purposefully did things crudely, and kind of rough and emotional. However, when you look at the overall palette of the film, you understand that this fits within a specific context. "

Once an actor was cast to play a creature, the filmmakers took a mold of his or her face and body, so the creature designers had a distinct shape over which to sculpt the suit. Each character was then assigned puppeteers to guide the animatronics. One creature might require up to six puppeteers for optimal operation. On set, Pons Maar and Davis choreographed Selick's direction, giving sometimes blinded actors audio cues for eye line and movement.

Selick cast veteran film and television actor Giancarlo Esposito in the physically demanding role of Hypnos. Half man, half goat, Hypnos appears on screen to be human size in the torso, but walks around on tiny goat legs. Esposito performed the character on his knees with the prosthetic legs attached. "First I put on a green jumpsuit, so that the effects people have an exact outline for removing my real legs," Espositio remembers. "Next, I put on a 25-pound rig that creates a stomach and breast. I had to pitch my own body forward to allow the body that I'm carrying to hang straight down. Then I got into knee pads, because I was literally walking on the very tip of my knees to get my upper body to project forward. I've never had to integrate this kind of physicality into a body that's not mine. It was pretty exhausting, so I needed a lot of rest between shots." The make-up process for Hypnos and other creatures took an additional 3-4 hours.

In addition to the live-action sets and practical locations, the filmmakers created many of the story's locales with state-of-the-art effects. The final phase of principal photography was shot entirely against a green screen, which later enabled visual effects supervisor Peter Crosman to digitally remove elements, like paper doll cut-outs, and place them against fantastical backdrops, like miniature sets and matte paintings. "We had to capture various parts of the story that defy conventional staging in order to extend reality into another dimension," Crosman says.

To create these effects-heavy scenes, the production constructed several miniatures in San Francisco. "We transport the audience into Downtown by way of a bizarre miniature rollercoaster ride of fantasy," Crosman explains. "After Stu leaves reality, we pick him up in an undefined space on a 16-foot model of Downtown that occupies the palm of a large stop-motion hand which unfolds. It is an exact replica of a larger set, which we made more authentic by compositing in all of Downtown's denizens, shot against green screen in Los Angeles."

Death's world, Thanatopolis, is primarily comprised of green screen and miniatures. Death's office is the hub for dozens of train tunnels, which converge like spokes of a wheel. "The immense scale of the trainyard set demanded that we shoot the action against a green screen and incorporate it into our 12-foot diameter miniature. We basically had to choreograph everything in an artificial environment which enabled us to bring such a large and spectacular space into play," Crosman says.