Henry Selick is a one-of-a-kind filmmaker. He’s built a fervent multi-generational fandom around his stop-motion classic The Nightmare Before Christmas, and a more cultish fandom around his live-action/animation hybrids James and the Giant Peach and Monkeybone. But Selick hasn’t released a movie since the Neil Gaiman adaptation Coraline in 2009. Where has he been all those intervening years?
“Through hell and back,” Selick sighs. He’s talking specifically about the production process on his new movie, Wendell & Wild, scheduled for release on Netflix on Oct. 28. The film, starring Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as the two title characters, has been in planning and process for more than five years now. It was delayed in production for more than a year and a half because of COVID, an unprecedented “heat dome” that took temperatures around Selick’s Portland studio up to 112 degrees, and a series of Oregon wildfires. At one point, he says, his creative team had to mount a “puppet rescue” to collect Wendell & Wild’s expensive, detail-driven stop-motion characters from the studio.
“All the puppets were put in cars and taken away when the smoke was getting close,” Selick says. “The idea was, Well, if the studio burns, we can rebuild the sets, but we can’t replace those puppets — they’re very labor-intensive.”
But “hell and back” doesn’t just describe the Wendell & Wild production delays, or even the slow, detail-obsessed process of making a stop-motion animated film in the first place. It could just as well describe Selick’s career in the years since Coraline. After making that film with Portland-based stop-motion studio Laika, Selick headed to Pixar in 2010, forming a new studio where he intended to produce more stop-motion work. But Disney canceled his first planned project, The Shadow King, after two years, feeling that it wasn’t far enough along to make its planned 2013 release date. Since then, Selick reportedly devoted time to developing a live-action movie based on Adam Gidwitz’s novel A Tale Dark and Grimm and a TV adaptation of the video game Little Nightmares before turning to Netflix for his latest movie.
For that matter, “hell and back” describes the plot of Wendell & Wild, a movie about a pair of demon brothers with big dreams, and a 13-year-old orphan girl with smaller but equally passionate ones. For the demons Wendell (Key) and Wild (Peele), the story starts in a particularly small and specific hell — a theme park called the Scream Fair, where damned souls (represented as vague, hollow-eyed, flailing ghosts) are tortured on macabre carnival rides. For the rebellious orphan Kat (Lyric Ross), fresh out of juvie hall, the story begins with the hell of losing her loving parents in an accident she believes was her fault. The frustration of living in these separate hells pushes the three protagonists into a collision, as they all hope to use each other to escape and remake their lives.
Walking through Selick’s studio for an early look at what went into Wendell & Wild, the strangest element is seeing the radically different scales his world operates on. In the film itself, Kat, the demon brothers, and the movie’s many other human and inhuman characters — including key players voiced by James Hong, Angela Bassett, and Natalie Martinez — dominate the screen like any characters, to the point where they feel human-sized. But their actual puppets only average about 9 to 16 inches tall. The sets where they operate take up entire rooms, on the other hand, in order to make a 9-inch character feel like they’re standing in the wide-open space of a city or a graveyard on screen.
And sometimes a single detail dominates one of the studio’s storage spaces. For a single close-up shot of a candy apple in a nightmare scene, the movie’s team had to build a giant apple, considerably larger than a human head. Director of photography Peter Sorg laughs over that in particular. “We had to bite the bullet and build this incredibly giant apple for probably 20 frames of film,” he says. “No idea how much that thing costs.” He also shows off a single giant demon hand, also for a close-up, that’s more than 6 feet tall.
At the same time, the set with the entirety of the Scream Fair only takes up about as much space as the average kitchen table. Wendell and Wild’s hell of origin is a meticulously detailed sadistic theme park, built on top of the rotund stomach of a 300-foot demon named Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames). During a studio walkthrough, the animators enthuse about everything that went into building the Scream Fair — the working lights on the Ferris wheel (which dumps shrieking souls into a tank full of electric eels), the tiny roller-coaster cars that actually travel around a miniature track before reaching the dead ends where they violently crash into each other. Sorg says Selick’s goal in designing the Scream Fair was “kind of Hieronymus Bosch meets Disney World.”
He points out a second, identical copy of the Ferris wheel nearby, scaled up to the size of the 16-inch puppets, where the full Fair is built for tiny 2-inch souls. All over the Wendell & Wild set, that pattern is repeated — fantastically detailed full-size puppets duplicated in thumbnail-sized miniature for distance shots, or one small part of a bigger set blown up into an exact physical duplicate to match the full-scale puppets. “Yeah, it was fun, trying to work out how we could do all these different scales that are really specific to stop-motion,” Sorg says.
Selick’s designers built these sets in an immense warehouse, where 20-foot-tall black curtains divide the high-ceilinged space into separate rooms. In each space, individual animators spend months on end guiding the elaborate puppets through infinitesimally tiny movements captured frame by film on film, with the goal of producing about two seconds of animation a day. The result is so smooth and fluid that it looks like CGI animation.
Don’t tell Selick that, though — he bristles at the implication. “I’ve been this way for a while, but [I think], why do stop-motion if it’s going to end up looking like CG?” he asks.
Certainly Wendell & Wild looks far more caricatured and stylized than most post-Pixar animated kids’ films. CG animation is just starting to trend away from realism and toward more artistic stylization, but Selick’s work looks more angular and exaggerated. Selick specifically sought out Argentinian artist Pablo Lobato, known for his highly geometrical, sharp-edged portraits, to design the characters and give them a particularly off-model, extreme look.
And Selick made one decision on this movie that he wasn’t allowed to make on Coraline. On that movie, he says, he pioneered the use of snap-on 3D-printed faces for stop-motion puppets, a technique meant to let animators more rapidly and easily change a character’s expressions, and accurately change their mouth shape so they could lip-sync recorded dialogue. There’s a visible seam line where the separate tiny face meets the rest of the puppet’s head, and when Selick was making Coraline for Laika, he wanted to leave those seams visible.
“Even then, I wanted to do as much of the work in camera as possible. So there’s hardly any special effects added to [Coraline],” Selick says. “But Phil Knight, the guy who was funding the studio, the founder of Nike, he just freaked out over [the seam lines]. It just troubled him too much.” Eventually, Selick compromised and let Laika use CG to cover up the seams.
Wendell & Wild has a far more elaborate facial-replacement system with separate upper and lower facial segments, which Selick preferred because of the immense number of possible combinations, forming different expressions. On this movie, he left those seam lines visible. “I think people will watch, and in five minutes, [those lines] disappear, because you get invested in the characters.”
For Selick, little artifacts like that are one of the important elements of working in stop-motion. “There are mistakes there,” he says, with visible enthusiasm. “The audience has to work a little more to believe in what they’re seeing, but not so much that it feels like work. But I think they become more invested if they make the effort. And I want them to. Then the film becomes more to them, because we’re part of it. It’s not all lubricated imagery, perfectly done, that’s just like every other Hollywood CG film.
“So being more obviously handmade, with bumps and lumps — I think it’s a real plus. We will stand out. It’s something very different.”
Wendell & Wild arrives on Netflix on Oct. 28. We’ll have more behind-the-scenes details from our set tour closer to the film’s release date.