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Mary Robinette Kowal Talks Shop With Coraline Puppeteer Lance Woolen

Coraline Puppeteer Lance Woolen” width=”560″/>

This week, readers, allow me to introduce Lance Woolen, a career puppeteer and one of Coraline‘s puppet builders. He’s giving us a look at the immense amount of work involved in translating Neil Gaiman’s book to the silver screen.

Q: How did you get such a neat gig?

A: I’m too lazy for a real job. Had one, hated it.

Q: You’ve spent most of your career creating puppets for stage. What’s the difference between that and working on a movie like Coraline, in terms of detail?

A: It’s a huge leap. In the world of live stage, if you can see it from 50 feet on a galloping horse, it’s good to go. In animation on this scale, if you can see any nick or flaw of any kind, fix it before getting approval for a finished item. I lived in my magnified head goggles up to nine hours a day. More than once, I came home in a fit of depression thoroughly convinced that I was ruining the movie because I was such a ham-fingered clod. In the end, we would poke each other when we caught a flaw, then laugh at the poor sap who missed one little thing that you will never see because it’s so small.

Q: So, what does a movie of this scale look like backstage?

A: It’s always dead quiet because animation is like playing multiple games of chess in your head. Then comes the moment when you open a closed, sacred space. Inside is a set, puppets, lights and a slightly frightening priest glowering at you while you try not to make eye contact — never make eye contact with an animator! Bowing, you back through the curtains and scurry back to your desk. Oh yeah, it was great.

Q: What was it like working with The Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick?

A: He has such a desire to bring out the film that runs in his head — it’s a real challenge to catch up with him. I was in a few meetings with him and was really impressed with his eye. There were a lot of changes over the course of production, a few of which changed work I spent a lot of time on — I cried, but they were right. So I’m ready to do it again.

Q: What parts of Coraline did you work on?

A: There is a scene in a large theater with a dog in every seat. I designed the system that allowed the animator to control almost the entire theater full of dogs with a couple of knobs. It was a long project to design, but it was a thrill to see all those dogs act in their shots. Also look for a scene with a lot of rats, and one with a few snapdragons. I became known as the hoardmaster. As in, “We need a ton of stuff. I know, give it to Lance.”

Q: Why does it take so long to do a movie like this?

A: Everything must be hand built, and I mean everything. If it’s on the screen, somebody — and likely more than one or two people or three people — spent time on it. And that’s after the design process, which can take over a year. Then the animation takes forever. Goals for animation during shooting might run as high as 90 seconds for the week (though that is a little high). One and a half minutes for a week’s worth of work. You do the math.

Q: There’s a long-standing debate among puppeteers about whether stop-motion is a form of puppetry or animation. What are your thoughts on the subject?

A: After a few years in animation and more than a few in puppetry, I’m not sure it makes a lot of difference. Everybody speaks in terms of the performance: We take inanimate lumps of matter and shake it about pretending that it thinks, feels, wants, and in some cases speaks. It’s the Performance that counts in the end. Is anyone moved? That is what matters. Debate is for people with too much time. Speaking of which, I’ve gotta get back to work.

Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She is also the art director at Shimmer Magazine and a professional puppeteer. Her column appears every Friday.

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