Graham G. Maiden, whose credits include Mars Attacks and Chicken Run, was the Puppet Fabrication Supervisor at Three Mills, the east end London facility set up exclusively for Tim Burton's Corpse Bride. Graham's job was to take the Corpse Bride puppets, the bulk of which were manufactured by world renowned puppet builders Mackinnon & Saunders, and supervise their use during on-site production. This included altering the puppets, making repairs and the manufacture of secondary background puppets.


In late July 2005, shortly before the film shut down its production, Graham spoke about the craft of Corpse Bride's stop motion animation puppets.

What was the process like taking Tim’s concept character drawings and turning them into three dimensional articulated puppets?



Graham G. Maiden:

I first knew about Corpse Bride back in ‘96. Tim had this concept sculpture of the Corpse Bride which, although the end design is very different from Tim’s first sculpture, had the essence of what Tim created. It’s beautiful and scary at the same time. That is a bizarre thing because you’d imagine a rotting woman to be repulsive, but it’s not.


A company called MacKinnon & Saunders did a majority of the early development work. They had a team of sculptors. For each character there is a maquette made, samples of fabrics and samples of color were provided. It is in this stage where they work out the size of the head and the amount of expression they want within each character. Tim Burton and Mike Johnson would visit as frequently as they could to check on the development of each sculpt.

Where there any aspects inherent in Tim’s concept art that presented challenges to translating them into 3D puppets?



Graham G. Maiden:

One of the main challenges with many of Tim’s designs, particularly with creating puppets, is maintaining the angles he uses when he designs because he likes them really tall and lean with tiny, tiny feet. We resolved a lot of those problems by consulting Merrick Cheney. He’s an armature maker based in San Francisco who worked on Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. He worked with Tom St. Amand who is also a superb armature maker.


All the puppets have an extremely graphic look -- particularly in the Land of the Living where they’re very stylized and very monochrome in color, whereas in the Land of the Dead we have more vibrant colors, quite wild and wacky styles. They’re all simply Tim’s designs brought to life.

Sculpts made to create the forms for Victoria's skirt and Victor's suit.

We couldn’t do individual sculpts for the clothes of some of characters, like the zombies in particular, because we had so many of them. What we ended up doing was either lining fabric with a foam sheet or actually backing the foam with a woven copper wire mesh the thickness of a human hair, which we heated up to make the metal softer and then adhered it to fabric. This way the animator could actually animate it. The fabric we used mainly was imported Chinese silk because it has no pile; no texture that could crawl or move or look awkward while being animated.


Everything was hand dyed so you couldn’t just go to the shop and buy this particular color of fabric. We had a very particular color palette that our art director Nelson Lowry was very keen on using.




Was there any puppet whose costume was particularly challenging?



Graham G. Maiden:

The skirt for Corpse Bride herself was quite a challenge because again, we needed to have a continuity of shape. There were 14 individual puppets of Corpse Bride that had to match up exactly the same. So a sculpture was done of the skirt that was later molded. Silicone was sprayed onto the shape and fabric applied on top.


Each skirt was individually wired or weighted depending on what the shot was like and which animator was using her. Some animators might just have the front two slits in the dress wired and weights in the back, while some animators wanted to have her completely wired or completely weighted. We found that as the script developed and as the animators got more and more involved, we had to adapt the designs to allow for greater animation.

Concept art created by Tim Burton, Bonejangles (left) and the Cooks and Boots the Dog (right).

Tim Burton reviewing the maquettes at Mackinnon & Saunders.

Concept art by Carlos Grangel of Johnny Depp's character Victor (two figures to the left) was an early part of the process used at Mackinnon & Saunders to faithfully transform Tim Burton's character designs into 3D maquettes (seen on the far right) and later into 3D articulated puppets.

The graphic quality within Tim's designs factored into the costumes as well. You couldn’t have anything too realistic looking. So a majority of the puppets and their clothes have foam forms.


A jacket would be sculpted like somebody was wearing it, made to look like the clothes the figure was wearing fell in a static shape. A core was created representing that shape, then a mold, and finally the shape of the jacket gets covered with fabric. This also applies to the skirts for the women.


Although it looks really graphic and beautiful, it does cause limitations on movement. So we had to remake or redesign a lot of the costumes just purely so they could animate with greater ease.

Carlos Grangel's Concept Art of Bone Structure Studies and Proportions created for Bonejangles (above), a Bonejangles Maquette (bottom left) and articulated puppet animation featuring Bonejangles and a chorus of Skeleton dancers as seen in the finished film (bottom right).




© 2005 Ron Barbagallo

Graham G. Maiden at work creating the 3D head of puppet Barkis Bittern, a dubious distant relative of Victoria and one of the nasty guys featured in Tim Burton's Corpse Bride.

Photograph taken by Mark Miller.