Knox Grad Edits Animated Film 'Coraline'

February 26, 2009

Chris MurrieChristopher Murrie remembers the day in the winter of 1993, when he was a student majoring in art at Knox College, that he ventured to a movie theater in Galesburg to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas, produced by Tim Burton and directed by Henry Selick. A decade-and-a-half later, the 1995 Knox graduate, now a seasoned film and video editor with LAIKA Entertainment, served as lead editor for Selick's latest film, the critically acclaimed animated feature Coraline.

Murrie said that art professors Lynette Lombard and Tony Gant "were a big influence on me when I was at Knox and encouraged me to follow whatever crazy ideas I had that didn't seem to fit into the curriculum. They taught me a lot of important lessons about the visual medium that I use every day in my job. Visual composition is a key part of film and a big part of editing."

"I remember being terrified to admit to myself that I wanted to get an art degree -- thinking that it would never amount to a job," Murrie says. "Now I use the things I learned every day, and I couldn't do what I do without those experiences."

Coraline, the story of a girl's adventures in an alternate universe, debuted in February 2009. It is the first feature-length film from the entertainment division of LAIKA, an award-winning animation company in Portland, Oregon, that also produces commercials, music videos, broadcast series, interactive content, broadcast graphics and short films.

Murrie discussed via e-mail his experiences at Knox and his work on Coraline:

--What did you do in the production of Coraline?

As lead editor on Coraline, I worked daily with the director to mold and shape the story, for both sound and picture. In animation, unlike live action films, all of the film gets edited before shooting begins. We start with a recording of the script, which we make using crew members and local actors, and we begin editing storyboards together with this rough sound to form a framework of a movie. Then, as we record the actual actors, our rough sound voices are gradually replaced with the actual voices. Simultaneously, we refine the storyboards towards the ultimate goal of having a complete version of the film -- built entirely out of voice, sound effects and drawings representing all the shots and the actions and acting that will occur in them.

Stop-motion is a very slow process, so we have to have a very strong blueprint of exactly what we want the animators to do before they shoot. This means that we are continuing to edit and re-edit the film every day until every shot is done. From the first script reading to the finished edit and sound mix, Coraline was a 3-year process.

The editor in animation really gets to do a lot. We get to mold the performance of all the characters; revise, re-frame and create new shots during the storyboard phase; and build the framework for the sound effects and music. It is a wonderful rich and creative job with lots of challenges and rewards.

--Many modern animated films use computer graphics. Why does Coraline use puppets and stop-motion animation?

I love stop-motion, and have since I was a child. I watched the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials and Gumby as a child; they were always favorites. Its appeal, in my mind, is that there is a real tangible quality to seeing real puppets on real sets lit with real lights seemingly coming to life. I have been working with stop-motion, computer animation, and traditional 2D cel animation for about 10 years, and stop-motion has always been my favorite form.

Coraline was not always a stop-motion film. We did some tests early on with CG and even considered making the 'real' world CG and the 'other' world Coraline goes to stop-motion. Ultimately, the CG always left us feeling cold. The life and texture of puppets have a charm that is undeniable.

--Some theaters are showing Coraline in 3D. For a long time, 3D movies have been seen as a gimmick. Is Coraline going to change that?

I was skeptical at first when it was announced we were doing 3D. I remembered seeing some bad 3D films in the 80s when it made a brief revival. But once I saw the Real D technology in action, I was converted. The advent of digital projection has changed the 3D landscape fundamentally. It is no longer hard on the eyes and it's capable of both great subtlety and awesome effects.

We also tried to avoid the gimmick angle by weaving the 3D effect into the story in a way that made sense. We have duplicate versions of the sets between the 'real' and 'other' world. In the 'real' world, sets were built with old fashioned forced perspective and a shallow 3D depth so they would feel claustrophobic and tight. Conversely, the 'other' world has duplicate rooms which were in correct proportion and featured a much stronger 3D effect. The result is not about big 3D gimmicky shots, but creating a sensual experience for viewers. We wanted people to feel the difference rather than hit them over the head with it. We still do have a few big 3D shots, but we save them for moments where they make sense within the story.

--How long have you worked at LAIKA?

I have been with LAIKA for 10 years. I started as an assistant editor in 1999 when they were still called Will Vinton Studios. I worked on a wide variety of commercial projects including M&Ms, 3 Musketeers, Honda, Trident... lots of breakfast cereals. The advertising side of the animation world is largely about mascot character animation. I was made an editor in 2001 and made the leap over to the entertainment division in 2004.

Before LAIKA, I spent some time learning the Avid editing software doing, of all things, wedding videos! It was a great way to learn the software and I was turning projects around at a furious pace. It was a great crucible to force me to become a quick and efficient Avid operator.

Before editing, I spent some time as a light designer at the Double Door night club in Chicago and did my requisite post-college record store duty.

Very early in my tenure at LAIKA, I cut a 40 minute live-action crime comedy called 'Dead Enders' for a director at LAIKA. He was the first person to really give me a shot at creative work while I was still an assistant. We worked 20 hour weekends and many late nights over a year on top of the usual 50 hour work week to complete that one. It was a huge thing for me -- an opportunity to build confidence in my creative cutting abilities.

My wife and I have a 2-year-old son who takes up most of my time not spent at work. Fatherhood is a full time job. I am an avid music fan and try to keep up with current bands, though it gets harder and harder the older I get. I also am a big collector of comic books. It is a terrific form, and very close to film in terms of sequential image storytelling.

--What were your favorite experiences at Knox?

I owe a lot to [studio art faculty members] Lynette Lombard and Tony Gant. They were a big influence on me when I was at Knox and encouraged me to follow whatever crazy ideas I had that didn't seem to fit into the curriculum. They taught me a lot of important lessons about the visual medium that I use every day in my job. Visual composition is a key part of film and a big part of editing. You always have to be conscious of where the viewer's eye is in a shot, and where it will go across a cut. I remember being terrified to admit to myself that I wanted to get an art degree -- thinking that it would never amount to a job. Now I use the things I learned every day, and I couldn't do what I do without those experiences.

I loved every second I spent at [the campus radio station,] WVKC. I was the production manager for a couple years and had terrific fun cutting station IDs, sound effect carts, mixing live music shows -- it was an awesome experience. I think there were a lot of foundations laid there as well for the craft that I practice today.

It has been a tremendous privilege to work as the lead editor for Coraline. I am tremendously proud of the film and my contribution. I hold a special place for my Knox experience in my heart and owe much of my success to the growth I achieved there.

Photo: Chris Murrie at work in LAIKA Entertainment. Photo courtesy LAIKA.

Coraline Poster