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'Coraline' draws upon Ashland

Ashland is the setting for "Coraline," a major motion picture opening in theaters today — but don't look for your favorite street or shop on screen.

The animated film is based on a book written by Englishman Neil Gaiman, who placed it in his home country. For the movie, said chief animator Travis Knight, "we decided to relocate it to the States and wanted it consistent with the feeling of Neil's book, so we traded one cold, gray, dreary, waterlogged environment for another."

Using 10-inch-tall puppets, the film was produced over the last three years in Tualatin, south of Portland, at Laika studio. The studio is owned by Knight's father, Phil Knight, co-founder and chairman of Nike.

The film was directed by Henry Selick, who also directed "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach." It's animated in a method called stop-action, much like "The Nightmare." It premiered Thursday evening in Portland.

"Henry came to an event with the governor in December and said jokingly it was put in Ashland because the book was in a dark and dreary place, with lots of Victorian houses and it rains a lot," said Vince Porter, executive director of the Governor's Office of Film and Television.

The "rains a lot" comment is more appropriate for Tualatin (more than 42 inches annually) than Ashland (less than 20 inches annually), but the house reference fits.

"It was a tip of the hat to Oregon and to Ashland, since it has the Shakespeare Festival and old houses — and we're an Oregon-based company," said Laiki spokeswoman Maggie Begley.

Selick also is quoted as saying he wanted to keep some British characters in his script and he knew "there is a Shakespeare festival in Ashland."

The film opens today in 3-D at most theaters, including Tinseltown in Medford, with 3-D glasses supplied. Ashland theaters will show it as a conventional two-dimensional movie, said Tom Winmill of Coming Attractions Theaters.

"Coraline" is the story of a girl bored with her life. She explores the downstairs of her house, finding another dimension peopled by her Other Mother and Other Father, who have buttons for eyes and offer her a more stimulating life — except it's not a real life.

The film's trailer shows shots of low mountains and a downtown that are strangely familiar — and, appropriate to Ashland, the family drives a Volkswagen Beetle.

Knight said the downstairs characters claimed to be Shakespearean actors "but were really bawdy and burlesque.," he said. "We found all the elements in Ashland, but you won't see one street or building and say, 'Aha, that's Ashland.' "

The film represents an investment of up to $60 million and, if successful, would be "huge" and could open the doors to more projects, both in stop-motion and CG or computer-generated animation, Porter said.

"The press is flying in from all over — Entertainment Tonight, People Magazine — to cover the premier," Porter said, adding that "in the 10 minutes of it I saw, it was pretty incredible how advanced the animation had become since the California Raisins."

The film may boost Oregon as a filming location, but film makers have to be realistic and realize that, "in Oregon, if you want sun, it's not going to be sunny and if you want rain, the sun will come out," noted Knight.

"For an animator, that's not a factor and might work in our favor, because if it's rainy, you're going to be inside working," said Knight, adding that Portland is rich in artistic and musical talent and could well become an "animation mecca."

Knight said the technological advances in "Coraline" give much more lifelike animation and facial expressions than past movies and represent a "seismic shift ... a pushing of the envelope of the technology forward, so it's as realistic as possible."

Of "Coraline," which was created at the rate of about one to two minutes per week, Knight said, "We're incredibly proud of it. It's a beautiful work of art and we put our soul into it."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.