Back in 2003, I stumbled across a promotion for the book The Da Vinci Code, little known at the time, in the form of a series of web-based clues, originating on author Dan Brown’s web site and leading through a series of automated emails and other web sites to an eventual puzzle solution that garnered the first group of participants free copies of the book. That initial Di Vinci Code “Webquest” was, I think, in no small part responsible for the web buzz that helped push the book into bestseller status.
I couldn’t help but think of that again when I received a rather cryptic email from the folks at LAIKA, an animation studio in Oregon (983 miles from Hollywood, as a later missive points out), informing me that “Coraline is a fan of your work” and promising a mysterious gift, to be delivered by package carrier.
This was a promotion for the new stop-motion animated film, Coraline, due in early February, adapted from the book by Neil Gaiman, and directed by Henry Selick, director of The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach.
(Stop-motion is a painstaking animation process in which small models are carefully positioned and re-positioned for each shot, one frame at a time, 24 frames per second of running film time. The models utilize hundreds of variations in faces to create mouth and eye movements and expressions. It is a filmmaking process that requires a Zen-like level of patience and an obsessive watchmaker’s devotion to detail.)
I was expecting a small package with a simple promotional object, perhaps a booklet of postcards or something similar, but received instead a sizable box, well packed for shipping, in which was an astonishingly elaborate series of objects.
The outermost was a wooden box, marked to hold seed packets, labeled “Ferry’s” and declaring that “Every Packet Dated”, “Flower Packets 10¢ (Except as Marked)” and “Vegetable Packets 5¢”.
The box was complete with an inner label informing the vendor how to set up and arrange a seed packet display, below which was loosely glued an envelope, sealed with wax into which was set a black button. The envelope contained a note from the team at LAIKA. The note let me know that this was a one-of-a-kind collection assembled for me personally, a fact reinforced by details that let me know they were indeed familiar with Lines and Colors, the small metal plate on the lid of the box stating “Handmade in Oregon, 15/50″, as well as some references I’ve since found to other unique packages in the series, that were sent to other bloggers.
Inside the box, under fancy patterned wrapping paper used as packing, was an array of objects: a large and antique-looking scrapbook, closed with cloth ribbons and a button (buttons being a key feature in the story), a heavy skeleton key attached to an old and worn looking luggage tag with a label of “Coraline dot com, Password: BUTTONEYES”, and a small ribboned gift box containing two large buttons, a needle and a spool of thread. The latter, one learns on investigating the story, is for replacing one’s eyes in order to remain in Coraline’s alternate world. Mmmmm….
The scrapbook, though, was the main attraction, and offered surprises on par with my initial shock at the extravagance of the entire package.
It opens, past patterned inside cover papers that match the wrapping paper used as packing, with a bookplate signed by director Henry Selick, declaring the volume to be Coraline – Magical Garden – Book No. 1 of 1.
Under a sheet of sewing-pattern tissue that frames the pages front and back, the introductory frontspiece tells that: “Coraline Jones moves into a house situated on large, rambling grounds. In her real world and her other world, the pleasure of exploring such uninhabited nature is hers, and now yours. In this book, you can follow the exacting replicas of flora we hand-made to make Coraline’s fantastic garden come to life.”
What follows is a beautiful series of images, with reproductions of production drawings and paintings as well as photographs of hand-made models, depicting various plants, flowers and odd flora, elaborate garden plans and related images from the film.
As I leafed through the book (sorry, couldn’t resist), I was struck not only by the painstaking work that went into the design and creation of the flora for the film, but the unbelievable level of detail and attention that had gone into this package; which was indeed, as the initial email had promised, a gift, not merely a promotional gimmick. This is like a nice book of production art that I might purchase if it were available in a commercial printing, but far more than that, a hand-made one-of-a-kind art object, an assemblage with an attention to detail bringing to mind the obsessively designed book/object creations of Chris Ware.
The images are printed on antique toned card stock, and hand-placed into traditional photo-album corners, some eighteen pages of them. They range from individual plant studies to production art for whole scenes. Many of them are exceptionally beautiful, all of them are delightful and indicative of the effort and imagination that has gone into the making of the film; visual ideas that have been carried out by a team of designers, illustrators, model makers, puppet makers and animators, evidently devoted to (obsessed with) crafting Coraline’s world with uncanny detail, visual texture and other-worldly delight.
Missing, unfortunately, are credits for the images, particularly the illustrations. I know that the superb illustrator Tadhiro Uesugi has done a number of illustrations for the production of the film, and I believe the illustration I’ve chosen above, bottom, is reliably one of his, and I recognized some as the work of Chris Turnham, the others I’m less sure of. His own web site doesn’t seem to make mention of the project. Hopefully more of the actual production art will be made available, and eventually released as a book that everyone can buy.
In the meanwhile, I’ve done something I essentially never do and posted a large number of images here from the “unboxing” of the Coraline Mystery Box, starting with the box itself and running through the pages of images. My apologies for the limited quality and lighting in my photographs, but I don’t have the facilities or time at the moment to do better, I’ll try to replace them in the future if I can.
The one thing that was a bit anti-climactic after the amazing package, was the coraline.com web site, to which I (and you) now have a key (“BUTTONEYES”), that provides access to a short promo film showing the assembly of some of the models, and clips from the film, to the tune of early 1960’s “here is your modern kitchen” music.
The password key is one of several, as I’ve found on looking up references to some of the other unique Coraline Mystery Boxes that have been received by other bloggers. Each different key opens the door to a different promotional video. The films are good, and well worth watching, but leave me looking for more (which, perhaps, is the idea).
Hopefully, there is more to come as the movie release date approaches, and there is an option at the end of the clips to sign up for a mailing list.
There is a currently more filled-out site devoted to the Coraline movie on FilmInFocus, with a Flash-based puzzle interface, that rewards the finding of clues with access to additional video clips, scenes from the film and info about the characters and story.
You can see a number of the other fascinating and wonderfully varied Coraline Mystery Boxes that various bloggers have received on the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive site, with links to the individual postings by the recipients detailing the contents. As a promotional campaign, this is certainly one of the most clever, imaginative, and work intensive I’ve ever encountered or heard of.
If the Coraline film reflects the imagination, detail, artistry and obsessive effort exemplified by my encounters with the LAIKA team so far, it should be quite a treat.
AddendumThe Coraline web site has been updated with a more extensive interactive site, and no longer requires of uses the passwords. The small trailers can still be accessed by exploring various sections of the site.