Sixteen years and six months ago, I got a call from Joe Ranft. Joe was head of story on Nightmare, at Skellington Productions in San Francisco. I was making a sandwich in Burbank.
"Bla bla bla."
"Blab la bla."
"We're looking for a board guy to explore this character Oogie Boogie."
A cab with lost suspension and moldy seats brought me from the San Francisco Airport to an old warehouse in a boarded up zone south of Market St. On old faded sign read, "San Francisco Studios". There was no sign of activity, not a soul on the street. But the address matched, 375 7th Street. Even the cabbie thought it was wrong as he dumped me with two fully loaded suitcases on the curb.
A harsh little door with multiple deadbolts and an intercom buzzer was my only option. I buzzed and held my breath.
"Skellington Productions." a female voice answered. Exhale.
As I explained who I was first to her, then to a second female voice, and then to a male voice, I noticed a set of handprints in the cement. Kicking a dirt clod away, I read the name scrawled beneath, "Herve Villachaise".
The little door opened into a scene from "Laugh In"- lots of young people hanging around, having a party in a large, open loft. Swingin' '60's music, go-go dancers, Alan Sues, Lily Tomlin, and an enormous ping-pong table. I squeezed through the tiny doorway, wrestling with my bags. I was making a scene, but not in a cool way. Someone had let Jerry Lewis in. The party went to freeze frame.
"Anybody want to buy some luggage?" I said.
Had Kelly Asbury not appeared at that moment, they would have thrown my luggage and me into the bay. Kelly knew me from Cal Arts. He worked in the art department, designing stuff. He would save my life twice that summer.
Despite what everyone thinks, Tim Burton did not design everything in the movie. During my three-month stint, he never passed the Herve Villachaise threshold. Deane Taylor, Rick Heinrichs, Bill Boes, Kendal Cronkhite, and Kelly Asbury spent every day designing things to LOOK like they spewed from Tim Burton's head. That's how talented they are.
Remember Rodney King? "Can't we all just get along?" He designed NOTHING on the film. But on the day of the Rodney King verdict, the studio - a big open loft - was abuzz with stories of rioting in Los Angeles, where it all went down. As the afternoon wore on, San Franciso, in a fit of race-riot envy, staged its own riot . Mostly white guys and Hispanics taking their rage out on electronics stores.
At the time, we didn't know what was really going on. We could see outside, just a few blocks away, trails of smoke from fires that had been set on Market Street. People were truly worried, making plans to go home early. Kelly knew I was staying at the Fillmore Center, by the black projects. He advised me not to go, that my car would be turned over and set on fire. I waved it off, but he got real insistent. Other crew members gave me serious concerned looks - sure as Krazy Kat a brick would find my fat noggin if I went back to Fillmore Street. Kelly insisted I stay at his place, a safehaven for white people. He'd call his wife, they'd get some beer....
Beer! I am alive today because of the generosity of Kelly and Loretta Asbury and Michelob. Thank you!
In the morning, I went back to my Fillmore Street apartment. There were no signs of violence whatsoever. No broken store windows. No burned out cars. No brain stained bricks. I rode the elevator with a black man who gave me a faint smile as if to say "Don't worry white boy, I won't hit you in the head with a brick." Thanks, black man!
Going to work, the walk from car to desk was a daily whimsical tour, like going through Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. First through the set department, where plywood and styrofoam structures would develop into a magical, finished work of three dimensional art. Their work was jaw droppingly cool. The set builders were a rowdy lot, like longshoremen in a Wallace Beery movie. Getting my ass kicked was not out of the question if I didn't keep moving.
In stark contrast, the animation area was a quiet, dark maze of black curtains. Behind each curtain, animators worked on different sets with stop-motion cameras in deep silence. They never seemed to mind if I peeked in. Having been a 2d animator, I found their process fascinating. I could rough out a scene and test it out, working in layers. They would have to figure it out in their heads and go for it. The animators were quite open to talking their process, but I still don't know how they could create something so believably alive, so subtle and smooth.
Walking upstairs, people were sculpting, making armatures, foam bodies, costumes, painting figures like an assembly line of orange Oompa-Loompas. The finished puppets didn't look like dolls. The clothes didn't fit like a doll's. These ten-inch tall figures had to play on the big screen. I found myself just staring at them, because they were so well done. Many times I walked past this area where puppets lay on a table, completely unattended, tempting me to take a souvenir. Didn't.
A rack of Jack "sad" heads on the desk of scluptor Shelley Daniels.
Oogie Boogie gag not used in film. Artist Tim Burton
At that time, there were just three board guys, Joe Ranft, Mike Cachuela, and me. I was filling in for Jorgen Klubien, who had gone back to his native Denmark where he had once been a teen pop star, the Danish David Cassidy. He went back to do some concerts, and because of this, I got to be part of this legendary film.
Our work area was next to production, where the sound of Kathleen Gavin's laugh would bounce around the loft's rafters like a mad phantom. This was our producer. She had a daily ping-pong tournament, (which I interrupted when I first arrived). She kept production under control while not making everyone miserable. A rare one!
Director Henry Selick wanted me to take Oogie Boogie, a character that was literally a sack filled with bugs and grubs and nasty stuff, and explore different ways he could use his innards as weapons in a climactic fight against Jack Skellington, the protagonist. I fancied myself as having an off-the-wall sense of humor, so this was a dream assignment.
A week in, Henry came by. He was a fellow New Jerseyite, and we shared an appreciation for straight talk. I pitched. He hated it. "Too tame."
Ouch! I tried again.
Damn his eyes! Henry had completely ripped me out of my comfort zone. I went at the third try with my head on fire. It was sent to Tim Burton for feedback. In the morning, Henry said. "I talked to Tim. Said he looked at your stuff over breakfast. He thought it was real disturbing."
"Good job!" He said, grinning like the Grinch.
I sat next to Mike Cachuela, who was laid back like he grew up in back of Cheech and Chong's van. Mondays, he would hang up the latest doll ad from the back of the Parade supplement of the Sunday paper. They were part of a series of "collectors' dolls", nauseatingly cute dolls of different themes. Mike hung them up, no explanation - that was his humor.
In response to the dolls, I hung up a Midnight Sun tabloid cover, "Bat Boy Found in Cave" with an overtly bad retouched photo of a child with huge eyes, pointed ears and fangs (This story later became a play.). These elements, combined with one of Mike's stories of being freaked out by a ham shank, would be combined to create "Shank Baby".
Mike said, "We should fax this to Peter Schneider." Peter was then the Head of Animation at Disney. His number was on the studio fax's speed dial. We sent the fax, with a cover sheet with big bold letters saying, "BABY MUST EAT SHANK!"
I learned to juggle from Joe Ranft, who kept a set of juggling balls on his desk. He was a master juggler, putting on amazing impromptu shows. He'd pull out bowling pins and do a routine combining balls and pins, seven, eight, nine in the air at once. Easy, right? Then he'd give us a lesson. Three balls. Thud, thud thud. Try again. Thud, thud, thud. Joe always left the balls on the corner of his desk, so passers-by could give it a try. I'd spend a few minutes a day at it until it clicked.
Besides learning to fax and juggle, I actually learned to storyboard. Up until then, I had worked primarily as an animator. I had done some storyboards, but working next to Joe, I was a minor leaguer. It was from Joe that I came to appreciate the craft of storyboarding. It wasn't just about ripping out rough sketches. Storyboards not only told the story, they SOLD the story.
There was one major difference in storyboarding for stop motion: everything boarded must be physically possible. We could not have a character do something that the stop motion puppets could not do. We could not stage a shot that would require a special set. Bo Henry, head of the set department, would stroll by, grumbling under a terrific moustache, "What are you assholes going to make us build now?". He'd inspect our boards, grumble, grumble, grumble, then explode, "We're not building that! That set would be twenty foot tall!" Bo Henry scared the hell out of me.
Likewise, the puppets were only as articulate as their armatures permitted. Major characters, like Jack and Sally, had more complex armatures (more joints) than the secondary characters. (Oddly, the armature of the werewolf was a favorite of the animators.) Special movement would require building a special puppet, which could cost $20,000. Modifying a board pose to accommodate a puppet or camera angle to work with an existing set was not uncommon.
Three months is not a long time to work on a feature film. I don't consider myself as one of the REAL crew. I was brought in to board late in the game, after all the big creative decisions were set in stone. My lone contribution was to be the Oogie Boogie sequence. In December of '92, I returned for a three weeks stint. I was stunned to find that Henry had gone a completely different direction with Oogie, turning his lair into a black light casino. It's a cool looking sequence, but, but, but.......all my work, buried alive in the cartoon graveyard. They were nice enough to give me credit, but really, there's not much of my work in the picture.
Last year I boarded on Henry's new feature Coraline. Got my fingers crossed.
See more of my Oogie boards at my website.