Had a favorite animated film as a child? It’s likely that Owen Klatte has had a hand in creating it.
Owen Klatte brings a wealth of animation and visual effects experience to the classes that he instructs here at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Klatte, a graduate of UWM himself, is credited with working on “James and the Giant Peach,” “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” Disney’s “Dinosaur,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1” and academy award-nominated “Anomalisa”.
But perhaps the most classic film Klatte’s worked on is Disney’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” which is being shown this Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Union Cinema. Klatte, along with fellow animator for the film and wife Angie Glocka, will be in attendance to host a Q/A session right after the screening. Some props from the film will also be on display.
So in preparation for the film’s screening, I asked Klatte some questions via email about his career, his work on Nightmare, and some advice on becoming an animator.
What attracted you to animation? How did you begin working in the industry?
I’d made a couple little stop motion ﬁlms in high school with a friend, but never thought of it as a career until I was about 25. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and was searching around for a direction to take. I’d been enthralled by the collections of independent animated movies that came to the Oriental Theater every year, and decided that that was the only thing that really excited me, so I decided to become an animator.
Unfortunately, I can’t draw very well, so it was a long, circuitous road to get there. After my wife, Angie Glocka, and I moved to San Francisco and started doing a variety of freelance and volunteer animation gigs, I ﬁnally got my ﬁrst full time animation job at the age of 33, working on the new “Gumby [Adventures]” stop motion TV series. That’s where I got 20 months of intensive training in stop motion animation, and met many people I’d work with for years to come.
What is it about animation that makes it unique from other art forms?
Animation, in all its forms, encompasses an incredibly wide variety of styles and aesthetics, which is what attracted me to it in the ﬁrst place. You can do almost anything with it, especially now that computer graphics has developed to the degree that even reality can be simulated convincingly. And, it is a collaborative medium that involves working with talented people from a variety of disciplines.
What ﬁlms and people are your biggest inﬂuences, animation or otherwise?
Independent short animated ﬁlms from around the world.
How does one become an animator? What advice do you give to aspiring animators?
Animate. Keep producing work, on a job if you’re lucky, in school if that’s available to you, but on your own if you have to. Like anything else, it takes study and practice to get better. Stick to it.
What is the most important thing to know while animating?
While improvisation can be a fun technique occasionally, most of the time with animation it is important to plan things out in detail ahead of time. It is a very time consuming process, so it is important not to waste effort.
Where is the animation industry going? What trends do you see?
New technologies will continue to expand artistic possibilities, both in old media and in new ones like virtual reality. The globalization of the animation industry will also continue due to the internet, and improved communication and transportation, with new economic and artistic trends supplanting the old Hollywood-centered paradigm.
How did you get involved with “The Nightmare Before Christmas”?
Angie and I worked with Nightmare’s director, Henry Selick, on some commercials and an MTV pilot in the years after Gumby ﬁnished, so when Nightmare came along we were 2 of the original 7 animators hired to work on it.
What was it like working with Tim Burton and Henry Selick?
Nightmare was shot in San Francisco, and Tim Burton actually wasn’t around much, since the day-to-day directing was done by Henry. Tim would come up once in a while for meetings and would tour the stages to see what the animators were working on. He seemed like a pretty nice guy.
Henry is a very creative guy with a strong vision for what he wants and the ability to communicate that vision to others, which are great attributes in a director. He could be intense at times, but generally I had a very good relationship with him.
To this day, working on Nightmare was the hardest job I’ve ever had, because we were all aiming very high, for almost two years of 55-65 hour weeks, with relatively primitive technology to work with.
What was your favorite scene from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” to animate? What was the hardest?
A fun one was the shot during Oogie Boogie’s Song, when the one armed bandits come forward and shoot their guns at Santa Claus, because of the very old-school way the muzzle ﬂashes were done. At the point in the scene where each gun was supposed to ﬁre, we posed and shot the puppets as needed, wound the ﬁlm back, and covered everything except the gun barrel in black cloth, so that we could make an in-camera double exposure. We held a rusty nail at the tip of the barrel and shot the frame while we touched it with a sanding disc on a Dremel tool drill, which made a nice bright spark.
I can’t think of one being the hardest, though many were physically and psychologically draining. Stop motion in general, in the days when we shot on ﬁlm, was always stressful because you might work on a shot for days, then have to wait until it comes back from the ﬁlm lab the next morning to see if you were a hero or a zero.
Any fun stories from the production process for the ﬁlm?
Several months before production began, Henry called us into his studio to tell us about this upcoming project. I’ll never forget the moment when he showed us Tim Burton’s character designs Jack, Sally, and the other major characters. I was blown away by how original and ambitious they were.
In general, this was an amazing experience. This was our ﬁrst feature ﬁlm, and we all knew it was cool, though of course we couldn’t know it would end up being the classic it has become.