Broad Cinema: Animating The Dead With THE CORPSE BRIDE

We are gathered here today to explore the union between character design and casting.

From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.

For June we are celebrating casting director Michelle Guish.

If anyone can successfully coalesce the sense of creepy with comfort, beautiful with grotesque, and frightfulness with endearment, it is Tim Burton. The man has a knack for creating whimsically wicked tales that feature otherwise unappealing subject matter such as death, lost love, and isolation; but he possesses the vision to transform an eerie story into intrigue, even allure. His characters are notoriously outcasts who struggle with internal conflict, and typically go on a quest to seek answers whether intentionally or not. His 2005 stop-motion animation film, The Corpse Bride, is no exception. Burton continuously puts the gore in gorgeous with his unique character design, but it’s the behind-the-scenes casting and animation that literally bring this film to life.

The Corpse Bride is a story of torn lovers battling their place in society, in the world, and within themselves. It is a romantic period piece set in a Victorian-era village, and to fully bring these characters to life, one must understand their romantic complexities along with the social hierarchy of late 1800’s England. This is where Casting Director Michelle Guish is in her element. No stranger to romantic period pieces, Guish has cast such films as The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, and even the British comedy Bridget Jones’s Diary - also reminiscent of having to choose between two lovers and being perpetually navigated by romantic doubt with a daunting deadline. Her ability to understand British society, humor, and evoke organic chemistry among characters has enabled her to become one of Hollywood’s premiere casting directors.

It is one thing to understand English romance and the ability to initiate a connection amongst actors in live-action films, but it’s a whole other ballgame to do so with inanimate objects or puppets. The production team on Corpse fabricated fourteen puppets for Emily, twelve for Victor, and twelve for Victoria each containing intricate gears or armatures within their face that are adjusted with Allen wrenches in order to change their expression frame by frame. This method differs from Burton’s other works such as The Nightmare Before Christmas where each puppet had several different interchangeable heads with various expressions that would transition between takes. The puppets averaged seventeen inches tall and were shot on constructed sets elevated three to four feet off the ground containing trap doors that allowed animators to maneuver the puppets. The stop-motion animation process is so tedious that Burton would be lucky if he got six seconds of film in one week. However, utilizing digital cameras with stop-animation for the first time was beneficial because shots were able to be seen after every take.

Since stop-animation is extremely tedious and time-consuming, with each shot scrutinized and meticulously manipulated, matching the right voice to the right character is crucial. Without this union, a character can fall completely flat and subsequently alter the whole tone of the film. Guish was presented the task of finding the right voices for characters, while also keeping in account that these actors would be running their lines independently as opposed to a live-action film where they run them together in one scene. Aside from Albert Finney who voiced Finis Everglot, Victoria’s slimy, toad-like father and Joanna Lumley who voiced Victoria’s pretentious mother, no other actors ran scenes together. Understanding this distinction, Guish was able to successfully orchestrate various levels of acting that can both stand alone but also sync up well together keeping in mind editing and post-production processes, which is usually not a typical demand when casting live-action films.

Casting techniques vary from project to project and different studios have their own preferred methods. For example, Pixar has been known to take audio from an actor’s previous work and run animation to it in order to gauge compatibility. This was the case for Toy Story in which sound bytes from Tom Hanks in his 1989 canine classic Turner & Hooch served as inspiration for solidifying him in the role of Woody. However, certain characters can be written specifically for actors such as the case for Ellen Degeneres and her role as Dory in Finding Nemo. Production team members or arbitrary studio employees might also provide a “scratch” voice that later ends up being cast professionally but occasionally filmmakers may keep this original reading.

Guish helped provide the casting for supplementary characters to create a dichotomy between puppet and actor similar to how Burton creates a dichotomy between dark and light, the dead and the living. Characters exhibited in the Land of the Living needed to be morose and in some ways more dead than their deceased counterparts who are colorful, wacky, and lively with outlandish song and dance. This balance of duality allowed Guish to fit right into Burton’s world and resurrect rotting romance with radiant precision.

Conceptualizing a character specific for each world while reflecting the visual attributes and societal undertones was a hurdle that both Burton and Guish conquered. Guish’s ability to understand romanticism within multiple worlds, while juggling juxtaposition, is palpable. The macabre matrimony of both Burton and Guish successfully produced an imaginative world where necrophilia is empathized and love lost is exemplified through intimate, close-up puppetry shots, atmospheric low-key lighting, and morbidly memorable characters. In a time of fast-paced action films and blockbuster franchises, it is refreshing to know that the art of casting and crafting animated films is still far from dead.