wed some innovative, 21st-century animation to a centuries-old story about life, death, and devotion. More than 10 years in the making, the breathtaking film began filming during one of the busiest chapters in co-director Tim Burton’s life. Despite this, the movie’s all-star cast and state-of-the-art puppetry secured it a chorus of critical praise and an Oscar nomination. We’ve dug up some fascinating facts about the liveliest cadaver film in recent memory.
1. IT’S BASED ON AN OLD JEWISH FOLKTALE.
As production on The Nightmare Before Christmas came to a close, storyboard supervisor Joe Ranft approached Tim Burton with a macabre little yarn that he knew the auteur would eat right up. Titled “The Finger,” this twisted tale came from Shivhei ha-Ari, a 17th-century text that includes a number of Jewish folk stories. Set in Russia, “The Finger” is about a young bridegroom who slips his wedding ring onto the finger of a corpse while reciting his vows. Suddenly, the cadaver leaps up and exclaims “My husband!” Duly horrified, the man brings his would-be spouse before a local rabbi, who annuls their marriage by declaring that the dead can lay no claim to the living. With a piercing shriek, the corpse then falls apart into a pile of disjointed bones, never to rise again.
Suffice it to say Ranft knew his audience: Burton was immediately drawn to the tale and began developing a big-screen adaptation of it. In its transition from a centuries-old folk story to a mainstream film, the original narrative underwent some major changes. Case in point: Burton’s screenwriters devised a more family-friendly climax and shifted the setting from Russia to a fictional locale modeled after Victorian England. Also, allusions to Judaism were omitted because, according to co-writer John August, “Tim gravitates towards a universal, fairy-tale quality in his films.”
2. BURTON, JOHNNY DEPP, AND MANY OTHERS WORKED ON
CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for MOMA
Both Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride essentially entered their production phases at the same time. The overlap presented a big challenge for Burton, who lent his directorial talents to both films. Corpse Bride saw him share the helm with co-director (and stop motion animator) Mike Johnson. “Tim knew where he wanted the film to go as far as the emotional tone and story points to hit,” Johnson said. “My job was to work with the crew on a daily basis and get the footage as close as possible to how I thought he wanted it.”
Complicating things further was the fact that a number of key actors who appeared in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—including Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Christopher Lee—also did voicework for Corpse Bride. In many cases, these players would portray their characters in the live action Roald Dahl flick by day before recording their Corpse Bride lines at night.
Composer Danny Elfman was likewise asked to work on both projects concurrently. In fact, according to the musician, Burton hired him to score Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on the same day. Elfman said he spent a full year “essentially shuttling up and back between writing and producing for both films simultaneously, kind of like a ping-pong ball.”
3. DEPP DEVELOPED HIS CHARACTER’S PERSONA IN ABOUT 15 MINUTES FLAT.
As Depp recalls in the video above, Burton approached him one day on the set of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and said, “Hey, I’ve got this other thing, Corpse Bride. Maybe you could look at it.” Depp read the script and loved it immediately—however, he assumed that he wouldn’t start working on the animated feature for another couple of months. “So you can imagine my surprise,” Depp said, “when … Tim arrives on the set [one day] and says ‘Hey, maybe tonight we’ll record some of Corpse Bride.’” At that point, Depp hadn’t given any thought whatsoever to how he’d portray Victor or what made the bridegroom tick. On their way to the recording booth, the actor sat Burton down and “grilled him for 15 minutes.” In that crucial quarter of an hour, Depp devised an entire set of mannerisms and motivations for Victor.
4. THE CHARACTER DESIGNS WERE ADAPTED FROM TIM BURTON’S ROUGH SKETCHES.
In 2003, Burton approached Spanish artist Carlos Grangel with a copy of the Corpse Bride script and some illustrations of the main characters that the director himself had drawn. “Here are my sketches,” Burton told Grangel. “I want you to push them and explore every character.” The final designs Grangel came up with did not depart significantly from Burton’s original drawings.
By the way, you might have noticed that Victor—Corpse Bride’s protagonist—looks an awful lot like the actor who voiced him: Johnny Depp. Burton swears this was coincidental. Speaking at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2005, the director said that the characters were all designed “long before” any of the voice actors were cast. In Burton’s words, when Depp signed on, “We felt like it was such good karma because [Victor] did resemble Johnny.”
5. HELENA BONHAM CARTER HAD TO WAIT TWO WEEKS FOR BURTON TO TELL HER SHE HAD BEEN CAST.
Among Corpse Bride’s primary cast members, Helena Bonham Carter—Burton's then-romantic partner and the voice of the title character—was the only one who had to audition for her role. She has stated that it took Burton two weeks to inform her that she’d gotten the gig, though the co-director has waved off this allegation. “Oh, I think she's an actress so she is making it much more dramatic," the director said. "There was probably a slight little bit of torture there, but it's a two way street. I don't think it was as dramatic as that."
6. THE 30 PRINCIPAL CHARACTERS WERE BROUGHT TO LIFE WITH 300 PUPPETS.
These were crafted by MacKinnon and Saunders, a puppet-making company based in Manchester, England. (Over the years, their team has worked on such other projects as Fantastic Mr. Fox and TV’s Bob the Builder.) For the 30 main players in Corpse Bride’s story, a grand total of 300 puppets were built—the most expensive of which commanded a $30,000 price tag. The group included 14 individual Emily models and a dozen Victors. As producer Allison Abbate revealed in the clip above,the puppets “were constantly being refurbished and changed out” during the production.
7. THE PUPPETS’ HEADS WERE CONTROLLED WITH MINUTE GEARS AND KEYS.
Before this movie came along, the facial movements of characters in stop motion films were generally manipulated with replaceable heads or mouths. However, Corpse Bride relied on a newer technique which had previously been reserved for a handful of TV commercials. The method relied on sophisticated puppet heads filled with tiny gears, a system Burton likened to the inside of a Swiss watch. Miniscule keys are then built to fit into the ears of a character, or the back of its head. By inserting and twisting these, an animator can incrementally change the character’s expression.
“[This technique] enables us to get much more expressive performances than you could with replacement animation," Johnson told VFXWorld Magazine. "Little paddles and gears allow us to get the tiny increments. Put an Allen key inside an ear and Victor smiles; put it inside the other ear and he frowns.”
8. THE BRIDE’S VEIL WAS ESPECIALLY HARD TO ANIMATE.
Emily, the Corpse Bride, makes a grand entrance. “When she gently takes off her veil and we see her for the first time, it becomes a glamour-girl shot,” cinematographer Pete Kozachik observed. That particular garment proved to be one of the most complicated props in the entire film. Although Emily’s veil was computer-animated in some scenes, others called for it to be rendered with good, old-fashioned stop motion. This was no easy task. In the words of puppet fabrication supervisor Graham Maiden, “The most difficult thing was having Corpse Bride walk with a veil because it has to be transparent, it has to animate and it has to be very fluid … like it was under water.” After four months of research, the crew put together a transparent veil with nearly-invisible wires stitched into the fabric.
9. THERE'S A NOD TO RAY HARRYHAUSEN.
Arguably the patron saint of stop motion animation, Ray Harryhausen used the art form to breathe life into all manner of movie monsters. From 1959 to 1981, his rampaging dinosaurs, hissing hydras, and sword-fighting skeletons invaded cinemas all over the world. He also inspired an entire generation of artists and filmmakers—including Burton, who credits Harryhausen with kindling his lifelong passion for stop motion. At one point, the world-famous animator paid a visit to the set of Corpse Bride, where he received a hero’s welcome. “The day he came by, production sort of ground to a halt,” Johnson recalled. “Everyone had a chance to talk to him. It was amazing for all the animators.” The crew gave their idol an on-screen shout-out in the film; when Victor plays some light piano music right before he first meets Victoria, you can see Harryhausen’s last name engraved upon the instrument.
10. DANNY ELFMAN WAS ASKED TO PLAY BONEJANGLES AFTER NOBODY POPPED OUT AT THE AUDITIONS.
Without question, the jazziest song in Corpse Bride is an exposition number called “Remains of the Day.” Singing the ballad is Bonejangles, a one-eyed, big-jawed skeleton with a flair for the theatrical. As Elfman was writing the tune, he did so under the assumption that the character would have a rich, raspy voice. “We auditioned 25, 26, [or] 27 people at least,” Elfman said in the promotional video above, “and I recorded three different singers.” In the end, none of them sounded satisfactory to the creative team. Burton therefore gave the role of Bonejangles to Elfman himself. Because the character needed a gravelly voice, this job took a toll on the musician’s vocal cords. “Every time I did Bonejangles, I was hoarse for the rest of the day ... it was really brutal,” Elfman recalled.
11. CORPSE BRIDE WAS THE FIRST STOP MOTION MOVIE TO BE SHOT DIGITALLY.
Like every stop motion picture that had come before it, Corpse Bride was originally going to be shot on film. But then, a mere two weeks before production kicked off, a historic choice was made. At the suggestion of two VFX supervisors, the animation team explored the possibility of using digital cameras. As they soon discovered these newer devices would allow them to view the dailies immediately, the animators decided to shoot Corpse Bride digitally.
12. ELFMAN WROTE A SOLO SONG FOR VICTOR, WHICH WAS DELETED.
The number finds Victor yearning for his living bride-to-be from the land of the deceased. Titled “Erased,” this number was, well, erased from the score. Elfman says that it was omitted in order to reduce the film’s runtime. Apparently, “Erased” landed on the cutting room floor right before Depp began recording his lines—“probably much to his relief,” Elfman quipped. In 2010, a demo version of the song was included in a limited edition Elfman and Burton CD box set.