Portland is a perfect place to bring stop motion characters to life, according to animator and director Henry Selick. “You know, those long, gray, wet winters are perfect for staying inside," he told the Mercury.
Though he directed several outstanding stop motion films at Walt Disney Studios—like the 1993 Nightmare Before Christmas and 1996 James and the Giant Peach—Selick speaks of Portland and the films he's worked on here with a special love.
His latest is no different. A collaboration with horror auteur Jordan Peele, who co-wrote the film with Selick, Wendell & Wild tells the story of a young girl named Kat Elliot growing up in a harsh—yet beautifully animated—world, following an accident that took the lives of her parents and upended her own. When the titular demons Wendell and Wild, voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Peele, come crashing into her life, Kat tries to protect her small town from dark, supernatural forces and others that are all too real.
“I just reached out and said ‘I’d love to merge your type of humor with what I do,’" Selick said, of collaborating with Key and Peele. "They were both interested in doing voice work, but Jordan wanted to do more. Turns out he was a super big fan of stop motion animation. In fact, the animated logo for his company Monkeypaw is a stop motion piece. He said ‘I’d love to be involved creatively and help with the story.’ So the whole idea of Kat being caught up in the juvenile justice system or the villains being builders of private prisons—the movie is not about those things, but they’re good anchors.”
Wendell & Wild premiered in September, at the Toronto International Film Festival. But now will finally open locally at the Hollywood Theatre on October 21 for a week-long run, before it streams on Netflix. The Mercury sat down with Selick to discuss his first film in over a decade. Although his career began with a film familiar to cult fans of darker fantasy.
“I did storyboards on a feature film…called Return to Oz," Selick said over Zoom, in front of a wall of his past creations."It was a sequel to the Wizard of Oz, and I designed and drew all the creatures that lived in rocks [of the Nome King's mountain]."
Selick worked on the scenes at Vinton Studios—a Portland animation house founded by Will Vinton—which later became Laika. Selick's script adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Coraline became the house's first feature film and breakout hit.
Wendell & Wild wasn't made at Laika, but Selick drew from Portland's vast pool of animation talent, assembling a team to work under the international brand of Netflix Studios.
“Somebody did not want us to finish this film,” Selick joked. “The pandemic started just as we were about to go into production. We thought it would be a couple of weeks, but ended up shutting the studio down for eight months before we realized how we could work. We lost almost a year because of that. We’re not using [computer graphics], where you can make the magic happen while sitting at a computer. We have to shoot real puppets and real sets. That was the biggest delay, but we had our share of local calamities.”
Those calamities included the June 2021 heat dome, which caused temperatures in Portland to soar to upwards of 108 degrees.
“Insulation on electrical wires outside was melting." Selick recalled. "We even had a couple snakes get in the building." The production ended up taking the highly detailed puppets out of the studio, worried they could be destroyed.
Selick said getting through the obstacles only further united the crew, who shared his passion for the distinct, imperfect qualities of claymation.
“If your stop motion ends up so perfect that people think it’s computer animation, then it’s like why bother?" he said. "We left in bumps and imperfections. We left the seam line in between the upper and lower faces. Sometimes the effects are a little crude, some are slicker, but the bottom line for me is that I wanted to really embrace that it was stop motion and wear that proudly, rather than new technology.”
However, Selick acknowledged he isn’t sure what will come next—stop motion just isn’t ever quite as mainstream as other animated works. Some of his favorite stop motion films—like Mad God (2021) or Annomalisa (2015)—were made fairly recently, showing there's still fresh, interesting work being made.
“It’s hard to know what the future of stop motion is. For me, if we do well with Wendell & Wild, I have a couple of ideas I want to do. I almost went back to Laika with a project a couple years ago, and I would consider doing it again. I just kind of need a fair amount of creative autonomy because I’m a real collaborator, but I have to be the filter. [I have to] be the one to say ‘that’s a great idea, we’ll use that,’ and ‘that’s a great idea for another movie.’”
The one thing that he can guarantee? If he continues in stop motion, he’ll be back in Portland.
“It’ll be in Portland. That’s just where we got to go. That’s where the talent is.”
Wendell & Wild opens at the Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy, starting Fri Oct 21 and will stream on Netflix starting Fri Oct 28.