In the early '90s, a maverick animator named Henry Selick, then of limited public recognition, inherited the much-coveted task of helming one of visionary Tim Burton's longtime pet projects, The Nightmare Before Christmas -- not by any stretch the first stop-motion animated feature (the technique had been used, to varying degrees, for decades), but one that imparted to the technique a mesmerizing fluidity unseen up through that time in cinemas. Nightmare marked Selick's broadest exposure to date and his first entrance into the public eye, but only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Selick's career in the movie business actually began over 15 years prior, and encompassed a whole host of rare and astonishing accomplishments that led Roger Ebert to term him "a veteran."
As a man of prodigious illustrative ability, Selick graduated from CalArts in the late '70s and wasted no time launching his career. He made a beeline for Disney, that hotbed of animated talent, and enlisted as a key member of the company's character animation design program. Work on Pete's Dragon and The Small One ensued, but the endeavors bored the wildly imaginative Selick, who temporarily resigned in 1979 to develop his own projects, with an AFI grant. This yielded the nine-minute, experimental animated short Seepage (1981), the story of two people conversing beside a pool. The effort netted multiple awards and further developed Selick's reputation; he subsequently returned to Disney with a higher profile, but work on The Fox and the Hound failed to fully engage his creative energies, and he resigned shortly thereafter.
By 1986, Selick founded his own production house, Selick Projects, which used stop-motion animation to market products, and signed with a number of massive corporate clients in the process. Among other efforts, Selick masterminded The Pillsbury Doughboy, a Ritz crackers ad with the crackers skiing down a mountain made entirely of cheese, and a series of now-infamous animations for MTV that included a short where a bee carves the station logo into an individual's hair; the latter won a Clio. Selick's success continued, unabated, with his development and production of an additional animated short, Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions. Although the endeavor gleaned countless honors at festivals including the 1990 Ottawa Animation Festival and the 1990 Chicago Animation Festival, a more important occurrence was afoot: the short reunited Selick with Tim Burton, whom he had known not at Disney (which one might expect given the coinciding of the men's tenures there) but at CalArts, where they developed abiding respect and esteem for one another. Burton saw Slow Bob, fell in love with it, and immediately thought of collaborating with Selick on a new project -- err, so to speak.
Years prior, Burton had sketched out designs for The Nightmare Before Christmas as a Disney animator. Because he completed the initial sketches under Disney's aegis, that studio still held the original illustrations and rights to the project years later. Given the quadruple successes of Burton's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands (1990), the company greenlighted the project, delighting Burton, who immediately invited Selick to direct the piece under his supervision. It told the story of a typical Burton misfit, the spooky Jack Skellington, one of the creators of Halloween who decides to kidnap Santa and assume St. Nick's role as the progenitor of Christmas -- with predictably outrageous results.
The fate of Nightmare is, by now, well known: upon its release in 1993, it triumphed on all fronts. At a mere 74 minutes (and several years in production) this comic fantasy delighted everyone and their uncle and permanently launched Selick as a mainstream feature director. Of the widespread critical raves, Roger Ebert wrote of the picture and Selick's involvement: "Nightmare...is a...Burton film in the sense that the story, its world, and its look first took shape in Burton's mind...but the director of the film, a veteran stop-action master named Henry Selick, is the person who has made it all work. And his achievement is enormous. Working with gifted artists and designers, he has made a world here that is as completely new as the worlds we saw for the first time in such films as Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or Star Wars."
The film's box-office success paved the way for Disney to give the go-ahead to Selick for a follow-up. He chose to adapt Roald Dahl's classic novel James and the Giant Peach as a feature in the Nightmare vein -- a process that took several years. The studio released the picture, stateside, in April 1996, to solid reviews; Ebert commented, "[The animators'] achievement is...amazing. All of the creatures, especially the colorful insects that share James' journey, are brought to vivid life, and the fact that we can see realistic textures -- like the cloth in some of the costumes -- gives the illusion an eerie quality halfway between reality and invention." And in The New York Times , even as Janet Maslin had some serious reservations about the picture (such as its lack of a clear audience), she declared of the filmmakers, "Together, this prodigiously clever group has come up with expert animated effects and some boldly beautiful sights unlike anything else on screen: the sight of the peach being pulled by a flight of seagulls through a starry sky, for example."
Five years would pass before Selick's tertiary effort emerged, and alas, it didn't fare nearly so well. The director's 2001 animation/live action combo Monkeybone stars Brendan Fraser, Bridget Fonda, and Whoopi Goldberg, and upped the edginess of Selick content to a PG-13 level. Its story -- about a cartoonist creator (Fraser) of a raunchy animated primate (the title character) who finds himself sucked into the cartoon-inhabited "Dark Town" and threatened by the prospect of the ape taking over his body -- came closest to Ralph Bakshi's Cool World than anything else. Scattered positive notices did not encourage audiences, who failed to connect with the effort. It died a quick death at the box office.
While contributing the final underwater animated chase sequence to 2003's Wes Anderson movie The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Selick worked diligently on his fourth big-screen animated venture, 2007's Coraline. This movie -- adapted from a popular children's book by Neil Gaiman -- returns Selick to form with a more traditional animated presentation aimed squarely at a young audience. It tells the story of a little girl who discovers that a secret passage in her apartment leads to an alternate world with another mom and dad.