Animators Owen Klatte & Angie Glocka talk “The Nightmare Before Christmas”

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2016.17 Season, Film with orchestra, Guest Artist, Special Presentation

Stop-motion animator Owen Klatte was setting up a bedtime scene for the TV series Gumby Adventures with the puppet Gumby, eyes closed, tucked under his prop sheets in his miniature bedroom with blue “moonlight” streaming in the window.

“And I caught myself being quiet. So I wouldn’t wake up Gumby,” he says, shaking his head at the memory 30 years later. “I was like, ‘Whoa!’ I had to step away for a minute. But in that situation, you’re the actor. You have to time everything, and you have to think about the character’s motivation and emotional state.”

Klatte and his wife, Angie Glocka, semi-retired from the animation business and moved back to the Milwaukee area four years ago. But they’ll be in the audience this weekend at the Riverside Theater, watching their work onscreen when the Milwaukee Symphony performs Danny Elfman’s soundtrack live for the cult Halloween classic The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The couple estimate that between the two of them, they animated about 15 percent of the unlikely hit about the collision between Halloween Town and Christmas Town. They actually met in the late ’70s, while they were students in the film department at UW-Milwaukee and working at what was then Wisconsin’s only animation studio.

As an aspiring animator but, in his own estimation, not a very good artist, Klatte found a niche in stop-motion, the painstaking process in which a puppet’s limbs and face are moved a fraction of an inch by hand for each frame of film. “A good animator can do five seconds a week — in a good week,” Klatte said.

When they moved west to seek their fortunes in 1985, their destination was the Bay Area rather than Hollywood — it was where they could seek out George Lucas, Pixar, a predecessor of DreamWorks, and lots of work with the Pillsbury Doughboy, the California Raisins, and “the whole period of dancing food commercials,” Klatte said.

Klatte and Glocka were busy turning out Gumby episodes when Nightmare producer Tim Burton and director Henry Selick began hiring talent for the multi-year project in the late 1980s. “To this day, it’s the hardest job I’ve ever had,” Klatte said. “But we didn’t know it would be a classic. Disney didn’t know what to do with it.”

After characters are built and painted in one shop and costumed in another, and after a miniature set is built and lighted, it’s the animator’s turn. Although each character has many different heads and mouths to capture every possible expression, “the puppets often break in the middle of a scene,” Glocka said. “That was a trick, swapping them out so it didn’t look like a mistake.”

One challenge for Nightmare was that Burton designed the characters with very small feet — too small to balance the weight of a puppet. The solution was to bolt the feet to the floor, which in turn meant drilling a hole in the bottom of the set for every footstep.

Klatte has kept a chart for one shot from Nightmare, which was 15 seconds of dialogue between Jack Skellington and Sally. Half a dozen 11×17 pages detail frame-by-frame movements for face, body, right hand, left hand. “The puppets have to hit their marks like a regular stage mark,” Glocka said. The director would stop by every day to talk about progress, but otherwise, once the scene is set up, stop-motion is a pretty lonely process.

“I had a scene with 15 characters moving at the same time,” Glocka said. “That’s when I started going gray.”

Like everything else, stop-motion has changed with technology — video assist is a faster and easier way to measure movement than the old metal gauges. But Klatte thinks computer-generated animation will never replace it entirely.

“Everyone remembers the crushing day when we found out that Jurassic Park was going to be done with computers,” he said — the original plans for the 1993 dinosaur epic had actually called for stop-motion. “But it hasn’t killed stop-motion yet. It’s still cheaper, and it has that hands-on aesthetic. People like that funky look.”

After Nightmare, Klatte worked on “James and the Giant Peach” and Glocka worked on Toy Story, among other credits. They moved to Southern California in 1998 and spent a decade doing mostly computer animation, including Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, for which Klatte supervised all shots involving the dementors.

But movie work involved more and more travel — the Harry Potter work meant six months in Australia — and the couple decided to make a change in 2013. They moved to Shorewood to be close to family and to “watch a Packer game without driving cross-country,” Glocka joked. Their daughter, Julia, graduated from Shorewood High School in 2016. Klatte teaches animation part-time at UWM and Glocka is busy with gardening and beekeeping at her late father’s house in West Allis.

And they still look back on Nightmare as a career highlight. “So many amazing artists coming together,” Glocka said, and her husband agreed, “It was catching lightning in a bottle.”