Frankenweenie

Providing an update to the infinitely flexible Frankenstein tale, Tim Burton’s stop-motion black and white animation Frankenweenie 3D (2012) tells the ultimately heart-warming tale of its teenage protagonist, Victor Frankenstein’s, successful attempt to bring his recently run-over dog back to life.

The opening of the film takes us into the Frankenstein suburban household where Victor is demonstrating his latest amateur monster movie to his parents. Of interest to stereoscopic enthusiasts, Victor’s film has been made in 3D, meaning that the images of it that we see are equivalent to those seen by his family. While technological nit-pickers may wonder how Victor’s 3D could function – a Super 8 dual filming process that use two projectors to direct images onto a non-silver screen to be viewed through an undefined type of glasses – Burton himself has glossed over this aspect and, like much of this gothic animation, the details are best left suspended in disbelief. Instead, the nod to stereoscopic filmmaking in this scene points in a couple of other directions.

On the one hand it suggests, in the same way that Hugo (2011) did, that cinema is grounded in the magic and illusion of bringing inanimate matter to life. This takes place in both Victor’s amateur movie and the Frankenstein-style electrification of his dead dog. There is a particularly intense fusion of the cinematic illusion of life and the animating potential of science when Victor and his classmate, Edgar, bring another animal, a dead fish, back to life. What was previously an inert object in Edgar’s hands appears to move again while at the same time, stereoscopic effects mean it darts around the screen space as if it were in the auditorium with the audience.

On the other hand, Victor’s nascent attempt to get his stereoscopic technology working reference earlier problems that Burton faced with 3D cinema. Although Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) had been re-released in the digital 3D format since 2006, his other major 3D endeavour, Alice in Wonderland (2010) was derided by various critics for using an ineffective 3D post-production conversion process. When Victor’s movie abruptly stops mid-projection because of a problem with one of the film reels, Victor’s distraught apologies and his parents’ benevolent understanding can be interpreted as Burton’s own plea for patience and acceptance as he forges ahead with a technology that has drawn fervent condemnation from critics ranging from Roger Ebert to Mark Kermode.

Another possible avenue is, as Mark Kermode suggests, that the use of 3D in Frankenweenie references the 1950s heyday of stereoscopic film when monster movies such as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) provided inspiration for Burton’s filmmaking (although Kermode does erroneously suggest the difference is that the 1950s films were in the anaglyph format).

Although the opening scene invites a reflection on the technological apparatus at work in 3D cinema, it also raises the question of what happens when you watch the film in 2D (the version also available in many cinemas). The obvious point is that you don’t see Victor’s movie as he and his family see it but it also draws attention to the other aesthetic elements that are missed in the 2D version. Chiefly, the round, curved forms that are predominant in much of this type of stop-motion animation and enhanced by the stereoscopy, stand out less when seen in the ‘flat’ format. The gothic nature of Frankenweenie’s world gives many characters dark, hollowed eye sockets sunk behind rounded, bulging faces and these depth extremes are particularly noticeable when viewed stereoscopically. Consequently, the individual traits of the characters such as science teacher Mr Rzykruski’s pointy nose and other spikey features or Mayor Burgermeister rotund belly are highlighted when they seem to come into the auditorium in negative parallax or recede away in positive parallax.

What is distinct in this film from other digital 3D films is the use of black and white. The black and white schema clearly fits with the muted colours used in other works by Burton such as Corpse Bride (2005) and fits with the gothic nature of the Frankenstein theme. Although earlier twentieth century 3D cinema was commonly filmed in black and white, the recent wave of digital 3D has accustomed us to watching stereoscopy in colour, meaning that the use of black and white now stands out. It was a factor that niggled at me when watching Frankenweenie. Throughout much of the film negative parallax was used effectively to bridge the space between the film’s content and the audience. Hedges and other shrubbery seemed to pop in front of the screen’s frame and characters’ faces loomed out towards us. However, I didn’t feel the same visceral connection to the film’s material substance that I had felt in other recent films. Clyde DeSouza notes a number of flaws in Frankenweenie’s 3D processes and these may have had something to do with it but I think it is more likely that the black and white format halted the visceral connection. Feeding into this was a couple of aspects. Firstly, the images were incredibly crisp. While this factor helped the stereoscopic definition and gave a clear sense of depth, it didn’t seem to fit with the quirky and murky nature of its fictional world where boundaries between the monstrous and the normal and the nightmarish and the ordinary where transgressed and melted together. Secondly, there seemed to be an aesthetic inconsistency in Frankenweenie’s suburban set-up. The house, streets and school were clean and fresh and, to a greater extent, so was the Frankenstein household (although Victor and his parents did have the shadowy eye sockets the rest of the characters had). It was the other characters that had the tics, quirks and monstrous qualities. If this contrast has been worked into the story (as it has been in Edward Scissorhands (1990) it might have made sense but my feeling was that the gothic was only apparent in the secondary characters and it was unclear how they fitted into what was an otherwise perfectly clean and crisp world. These aspects seemed to be enhanced by the black and white and while, overall, it made for an interesting aesthetic experience it was never completely compelling.

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  1. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters 3D | miriamruthross

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