The Making of Tim Burton’s MoMA Animation

To help promote MoMA’s Tim Burton retrospective, we asked Burton himself to animate the MoMA logo for a thirty-second video that would be used to promote the exhibition on television, at the Museum, and online. Tim quickly came up with a concept utilizing stop-motion animation, and he asked Allison Abbate, his producer on Corpse Bride (2005) and the upcoming full-length version of Frankenweenie, if she could help pull things together.

Tim Burton's original robot design

Tim Burton's original robot design

Abbate turned to Mackinnon & Saunders, a U.K. firm that designs and builds animation puppets, models, and maquettes and produces TV commercials and entertainment programs for children’s TV, because they had worked on past Burton projects, including Corpse Bride. Company heads Ian Mackinnon and Peter Saunders pick up the story: “For the promo, Tim had designed a cute and quirky little robot character whose job was to inflate four typically Burton-esque balloons spelling out the MoMA logo. The whole premise sounded very simple, until we found out the timescale. We had just three weeks to create the character, the balloons, animate them, and get the footage out to Los Angeles for post production.”

Robot & Storyboard

The robot model and storyboards

Mackinnon continues, “Tim was very keen for the whole piece to be rendered in stop motion. For the robot character this wasn’t so much of a problem, Joe Holman, one of our lead sculptor/designers, broke all records to get the character fully sculpted and broken down into his constituent elements, head, body, arms, legs ready for moulding.”

Sculptor/designer Jo Holman renders the robot in modeling clay

Sculptor/designer Jo Holman renders the Robot in modeling clay

At the same time the problems of creating the illusion of four balloons being inflated in stop motion was being addressed. “The first thing we did was buy some large foil balloons and blow them up just to see what dynamics we were dealing with. We considered creating actual rubber balloons and inflating them with helium and shooting them time lapse but in such a short time if we hadn’t got it right the first time we would miss the deadline,” says Mackinnon. The team also considered replacement animation, a technique whereby each stage of a balloon’s inflation would be rendered as a separate model. “Again time was against us and there was no way we could produce the literally dozens of stages we’d need in time.” adds Saunders, “For all these reasons we decided to go with CG for the balloons and called our friends at Flix Facilities to create a test shot of the 3-D balloons for us.”

Tim Burton original balloon designs

Tim Burton

Lead CG artist Simon Partington took up the challenge. Within a day he had a beautiful bobbing balloon for us to see. “It was gorgeous,” says Mackinnon. “A bit too gorgeous. It didn’t have that quirky stop-motion feel that Tim was looking for so we asked Simon to try again.” Sculptor/designer Noel Baker quickly produced plastercine sculpts of the balloons and painted them to match Burton’s designs. These were then photographed and shipped over to the Flix team. “We reproduced the shape of Noel’s fantastic sculpts as closely as possible in CG.” explains Partington, “We then took Tim’s actual drawings and textured them onto the balloons before adding some of the same imperfections such as fingerprint detail that Noel had deliberately left on his sculpt. This all helped to recreate the sense of realism that stop motion provides.”

John Whittington maps the Burton design onto the 'M' balloon

John Whittington maps the Burton design onto the 'M' balloon

The Flix CGI team Simon Partington - Neil Sanderson - John Whittington and Mike Whipp

The Flix CGI team: Simon Partington, Neil Sanderson, John Whittington, and Mike Whipp

Over the course of two days Partington and his team nailed down a technique that not only gave the light, fluffy feel of big rubber balloons but also had the slightly staccato feel of stop motion. The tests were rushed over to Burton, who was deep into post-production on Alice in Wonderland. “There was a huge sigh of relief when Tim gave the thumbs up. In all honesty I don’t know how we’d have got this done in time without the Flix team’s work,” MacKinnon smiles.

Meanwhile, head puppetmakers Caroline Wallace and Richard Pickersgill completed mold-making and cast out body parts for the robot character in fiberglass, rubber, and silicone, while at the same time constructing the intricate metal skeleton, which fits inside the puppet and enables it to hold any pose during the animation process.

Richard Pickersgill adding the finishing touches to the Robot

Richard Pickersgill adding the finishing touches to the robot

An arm is released from the mould

An arm is released from the mold

“Typically a puppet character can take anywhere between twelve to eighteen weeks to produce,” says Pickersgill, “But Tim’s design lent itself to a very economical build and we put the puppet together in just ten days, probably something of a record!”

Pickersgill completed the final paint job a mere twenty-four hours before photography was due to begin. “As he was a bit of a beat-up looking little fellow, I decided to add streaks of rust around joints and arms. We sent pictures off to Tim and the only change he made was to remove the rust—so there was an eleventh hour (literally!) repaint.” Pickersgill chuckles, “I think the paint was possibly still tacky when we put him on the set!”

DOP Martin Kelly slates a shot

DOP Martin Kelly slates a shot

With the delivery deadline only four days away, lighting cameraman Martin Kelly and animator Chris Tichborne took over. “Our set was very simple,” says Kelly, “Tim wanted the robot and the balloon against a flat grey background. It was great because it further emulated the look of his original pen-and-ink drawings on a plain sheet of paper. We had three days to shoot the whole piece and my first take had to be right. I’d spent a day the previous week videoing myself performing the robot part. You feel a bit silly but Neil Sutcliffe, who edited the footage into his animatic, was very kind. He didn’t laugh too much!” Even for such a short piece, Tichborne tried to cram in as much in as he could. “Richard and Caroline had included a hinge top to the robot’s head which bobs open and closed as he walks. I also had in my mind Charlie Chaplin when the robot walked—not directly copying him but more just how he would create an idiosyncratic walk.”

Chris Tichborne helps the Robot pump it up

Chris Tichborne helps the robot pump it up

CG lead Simon Partington was on set the whole time doing test composites of the balloons and the animation, just to make sure everything was lining up in terms of lighting and the timing of the dynamics. “The CG and stop-motion animation had to be delivered simultaneously; there would be no time to fix things later so we were literally doing the CG renders and the animation at the same time. Seeing it come together shot by shot was fantastic!”

Although the shoot took three long days over a weekend, the team’s experience and preparation paid off and the shoot went off without a hitch. The precious footage was beamed off via a high-speed data link for Tim Burton to oversee the final post-production in Los Angeles.

“Tim and the folks at MoMA seemed very pleased with the results,” says Ian Mackinnon, “It was a great little project to have been involved with and we hope the audiences at MoMA like it too!”

Final robot on set

Final robot on set