How long are you working on the story before you move into active production on a film like ParaNorman?
Sam Fell: “Chris developed this forever.”
Chris Butler: “It’s been with me my whole life…I meant to say that happily. And here’s the baby newly born!”
SF: The great thing about animation is that you get to bake it properly over time and we’ve worked on it a lot. We worked together just the two of us before we had any crew, and then we did the whole story-boarding thing where you draw the whole movie first and it’s just a small group of people so we got our sh*t together before it was the whole big crew.”
I think I understand what you’re doing throughout the stages of pre-production and as things are being built, but once the animators are on set working, where are you guys?
CB: (Laughing) “We stand in the corner with a megaphone going ‘move it, no not that way, the other way!’”
SF: “At the start of the day we meet at about 7 AM to talk about what’s ahead. And most of the time when we’re in the thick of production, like we are now, we start out the day by reviewing people’s blocks, rehearsals and shots. So that’s every shot in the movie at various points in its life. We see it discuss it and then send it off to be worked on. And at any time there’s dozens of these shots being worked on during the day. So we edit the shots that are ready into the movie and slowly the film starts coming together, but really slowly. We build the movie first in storyboards, so we draw it all. Then we cut it together with temp sound, temp music and temp voices and then replace it bit by bit as it goes along over the two years.”
CB: “And on this we’ve been able to give an individual animator a chunk of the film as a refernce and then have them animate it fully. And that’s worked out well for us because that animator has a scene in their head and they can start to own it and have a sense of the continuity in the acting from one scene to the next.”
SF: “They (the animators) really are actors, so giving them the opportunity to work through a whole scene is pretty amazing because then they get to tell the whole story rather than a fragment of it.”
Let’s say I’m an animator and I’ve sent you my rehearsal…
CB: “Not good enough! Do it again!”
Do you go onto set with them and give specific directions?
SF: “Yes and we watch it in edit, in the context and talk about it.”
CB: “And we talk through it, frame by frame.”
SF: “Sometimes they video themselves or somebody else acting it out.”
CB: “Actually, those are some of my favorite moments when you’ve got some of these guys like miming Courtney (the 15-year-old cheerleader voiced by Anna Kendrick) and performing her role on video thinking that no one will ever see it, but we are secretly lobbying to have it on the DVD.”
SF: “That version of the film is really funny.”
How early do you get the voice actors in?
CB: “Really early because they animate to the voices. Because there is so much inflection and unique performance that is in the voice alone. We can storyboard and plan for it, but when the actor gets into the studio they bring so much more to it and you want to be able to give all of that raw material to the animator. And sometimes they use the footage of the actor in the studio for a reference, to give it a more naturalistic feel.”
SF: “The hardest thing in animation is to get spontaneity. Because it’s so not spontaneous, you’ve got to create it. That’s the thing about this film: we’ve tried to give it a real sense of naturalism. I mean it’s a comedy and there are some very broad things in there, but it actually has a very dramatic heart to it. It’s not a cartoon in that sense.”
CB: “The main characters in the film are kids and we wanted it to feel like they are real kids and that it’s told very much from their point of view. So we’ve had the majority of the main characters voiced by the appropriate age group and that in itself is tricky, but when you find them it’s magic. Like we’ve had this 11-year-old boy, Tucker Albrizzi, voice the little fat kid, Neil, and he’s just amazing because he’s just weird and he just says things in a way that you would never think to do, but when you capture that and put it together you get something really unusual that feels natural.”