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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The last time you saw stop-motion animation may have been a few months ago in the Christmas TV staple, "Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer")

Unidentified People (Actors): (As Misfit Toys) (Singing) We're on the Island of Misfit Toys.

BLOCK: Well, the herky-jerky movements and cheesy visuals have evolved since 1964, thanks to animators like Henry Selick. Selick's new movie, "Coraline," is opening today. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports that Henry Selick's stop-motion is all fluidity and dazzle.

NEDA ULABY: For some reason, stop-motion animation seems especially suited to Christmas movies and spooky movies. Henry Selick's first big feature managed to be both, "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

(Soundbite of film, "The Nightmare Before Christmas")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GLENN SHADIX (Actor): (As Mayor) (Singing) Making Christmas, making Christmas is so fine.

Unidentified People (Actors): (As Characters) (Singing) It's ours this time and won't the children be surprised. It's ours this time.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As Character) (Singing) Making Christmas.

Unidentified Man #2(Actor): (As Character) (Singing) Making Christmas.

Unidentified People (Actors): (As Characters) (Singing) Making Christmas.

ULABY: There's no Christmas in "Coraline." It's just straight-up spooky. Selick spent years adapting the young-adult novel by Neil Gaiman.

Mr. HENRY SELICK ("Coraline" Director): It's about a girl who discovers another version of her life that, in most respects, seems improved.

(Soundbite of film, "Coraline")

Ms. DAKOTA FANNING (Actress): (As Coraline) Mmm, something smells good.

ULABY: Eleven-year-old Coraline lives in a gloomy old house with parents too busy to play with her. She discovers a passage leading to a house just like hers, with people she seems to know.

(Soundbite of film, "Coraline")

Ms. FANNING: (As Coraline) Mom? What are you doing here in the middle of the night?

Ms. TERI HATCHER (Actress): (As Other Mother) You're just in time for supper, dear.

ULABY: It's like one of those bad dreams where it's your mother, but it's not your mother. The smiling woman in the kitchen looks just like Coraline's real mom - well, almost.

(Soundbite of film, "Coraline")

Ms. FANNING: (As Coraline) You're not my mother. My mother doesn't have buttons.

Ms. HATCHER: (As Other Mother) Do you like them? I'm your other mother, silly. Now go tell your other father that supper's ready.

ULABY: All the people in this world have flat, glossy buttons for eyes.

Mr. SELICK: It dehumanizes, it makes someone almost look insect-like, and then there's sort of this chilly feeling of, they've been turned into a living doll.

(Soundbite of film, "Coraline")

Ms. FANNING: (As Coraline) I want to be with my real mom and dad. I want you to let me go.

Mr. SELICK: When I was first reading the book, I got some buttons out and got my younger son, who at the time was just, like, 3 years old. I got him to lie still and put some buttons on his eyes and took pictures, and it was terrifying.

ULABY: Henry Selick says stop-motion animation is taking a picture of a model, minutely rearranging it, and taking more pictures to create the illusion of motion. He says the process combines all of his favorite things: sculpture, drawing, photography, music and physics. Selick used what's called replacement animation for the hero of "Nightmare Before Christmas," Jack Skellington.

Mr. SELICK: His entire head is replaced, where you have hundreds of different expressions, and you pop them on to get him to sing and emote. With "Coraline," we needed thousands of expressions. We sort of split the lower and upper face so that the brows and eyes could act separately from mouth.

ULABY: The credits for "Coraline" include a face librarian and an assistant face librarian. Selick says stop-motion got burned into his brain at the age of 4 or 5, when he saw "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad."

(Soundbite of film, "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SELICK: And in that film, there's this amazing cyclops. I was utterly transfigured by this creature. I knew that somehow, this was real. It haunted my dreams for years.

ULABY: That stop-motion cyclops, with its glaring, yellow eye and lurching, goat-like legs, sprang from the brain of legendary animator Ray Harryhausen. I called him at home in England to see what he thinks about Henry Selick.

Mr. RAY HARRYHAUSEN (Animator): Oh yes, he does delightful work. The animation is excellent.

ULABY: Harryhausen was in the middle of tea with his friend Tony Dalton when I called. Dalton helped Harryhausen write a history of stop-motion animation that ends with Selick.

Mr. TONY DALTON (Writer): He's setting new rules. It's setting new boundaries, new horizons. I think he is one of the great innovators of the day, I would say.

ULABY: In "Coraline," Selick decided to use a sophisticated new kind of 3-D in tandem with the animation. Selick says we're used to 3-D punching us in the face. With Coraline, he wanted the 3-D to be elegant and immersive.

Mr. SELICK: I'd also, story-wise, been looking for an equivalent of - in "Wizard of Oz," the moment of going from black and white to color. When Coraline goes to the other world, I wanted there to be something unique and magical, and 3-D sort of fit the bill.

(Soundbite of film, "Coraline")

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: So, when Coraline visits the garden on the other side of the passageway, she discovers a lush, 3-D spectacle of glowing flowers rustling in the breeze. It's hard to believe they weren't rendered by computers, which raises the question: Stop-motion might as well be CGI, it's gotten so smooth and perfect, but Selick says he leaves in imperfections.

Mr. SELICK: Stop-motion is sort of twitchy. You feel the life in it. If we were to remove that completely, there'd be no point in doing it.

ULABY: The beauty and mystery of stop-motion, says Henry Selick, are those traces that remain of an animator's hand.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(Soundbite of film, "Coraline")

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You can see clips from "Coraline," and behind-the-scenes photos of the animators at work, at npr.org.

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