Earlier this year we had the opportunity to visit the strange and wonderful world of LAIKA Studios in Hillsboro, Oregon, which houses the innovative and creative minds that brought us the Oscar-nominated stop-motion fairytale, Coraline. LAIKA’s latest endeavor, ParaNorman, was in the final stages of production and moving its way through post when we took an Alice in Wonderland-style tour through the various departments and artisans that it takes in order to bring a 3D stop-motion animated film to life.
There is a remarkable mix of high-tech (very high-tech) innovation and masterful hand-craftsmanship at work at LAIKA. It is challenging to convey how deeply painstaking and impressive the process of stop-motion animation is. It’s a world I had never encountered and had only a peripheral understanding of, prior to the visit.
I gathered the basics: puppets are shifted one frame at a time in order to give the illusion of movement. But the scale and ambition involved in the creation of ParaNorman was a wonder to behold. There were 52 separate shooting units working at almost any given time during the production; 178 individual puppets and a crew of over 320 designers, artists, animators and technicians all working in tandem to transform a multitude of moving parts into a seamless and cohesive film.
We were shuffled between the costume department (where a team worked to hand-stitch 120 pieces of wardrobe), all the way to the production designer who walked us through the gorgeously crafted sets. The sets utilized materials as varied as corrugated cardboard to items provided via rapid prototyping (or 3D printing). From there we journeyed to the “puppet hospital” (where techs are busy at work attending to the bumps and bruises that the puppets endure), a visit with the cinematographer and finally, to the groundbreaking 3D printer itself.
ParaNorman marks the first stop-motion movie to utilize a 3D color printer to create replacement faces for its puppets. What that means is that computer graphics artists are able to create a variety of facial expressions on programs and then send the file to a printer which will deliver a 3-dimensional piece that will serve to create the subtle shifts in character expression. The technology has changed the face (yes) of stop-motion animation, providing a level of flexibility and continuity that is rarely seen. Over 31,000 individual facial parts were printed for the production – Norman alone has about 8,000 faces with a range of individual pieces of brows and mouths, allowing him to have approximately 1.5 million possible expressions.
As an illustration of the device’s capabilities, a working miniature wrench was printed for each journalist in attendance as a take-away. Allow me to reiterate and stress how impressive this is — they printed a WRENCH. The ability to craft a tool or object in the virtual realm as a file, only to hit “print” and witness it become manifest, is thrilling. If you had a large enough printer you could theoretically print a car (or so I say).
But I digress.
The individual animators working on the various sets are assigned one scene, or portion of a scene, at a time. They do a rough blocking of how they intend to animate the characters, which they demonstrate for the directors. When that demonstration is blessed they move on to a rehearsal, which means filming the scene two frames at a time as a rough example. Once that is approved, they move on to the final animation. These talented and unique individuals spend hours of the day alone with their thoughts and puppets that come to life one patiently designed move at a time.
If things are chugging along at a rapid clip, perhaps two minutes of screen time will be produced every two weeks. The level of precision needed in the pre-production/planing stages of an endeavor with (literally) this many moving parts means that the script was a tight drum by the time the first puppet was staged and shifted even a centimeter. Though there is more time to work and rework story in animation than there is in live-action, there is less so in stop-motion than in a traditional animated film.
The story of ParaNorman is as creative as the techniques employed to bring it to life onscreen. It follows the tale of Norman, a misunderstood boy who has the ability to see and speak with dead people. When the town he lives in is overcome by an ancient curse (which causes a tide of zombies and ghosts and one beastly witch to rise), Norman and his group of unlikely allies must band together to save the night.
We will be bringing you further details from our singularly fascinating set visit. In the interim, whet your appetite with a look into the minds of Sam Fell (The Tale of Despereaux, Flushed Away) and Chris Butler, the directors who are helping to build a bridge between high-tech filmmaking and old-fashioned craftsmanship.
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.”
You really do have an incredible cast here. In writing the project, did you have certain voices in mind?
CB: “I did. And actually I think we were really lucky because we got pretty close to getting everyone we wanted on our first list. We wanted the main voice cast of the kids to harmonize so we would listen to their auditions mixed together with images of the characters. Some of the characters changed from where I started when I wrote them initially. Mr. Prenderghast was a frail, dapper creature and it was the character designer, Heidi, who drew him and he became this huge, awful, stinking-looking creature, and in rewrites it took on a different direction and we got John Goodman to voice it and it was perfect.”
Is it a delicate balance between the humor and the horror?
SF: “Yes. This film works for a strong-willed five-year-old and certainly eight and up. And if we have a scary moment we’ll often move quickly into a funny one.”
CB: “The intention narratively is to turn things on their head, so even though it has zombies in it there are a few surprises along the way. It’s not always the thing that you think would be scary that is the scariest. We have a movie within the movie where we set up the stereotype of the zombie movie in the beginning – it’s got bad lighting and cutting, the whole bit – and we set up that premise that zombies are evil and going to kill you so that we can have fun with it and play with it. And we always bring it back to a laugh.”
The look of the sets and the costumes and the character design is so gorgeous and so unusual, what were you referencing or looking to accomplish in terms of the aesthetic of the film?
CB: “When people read the script they often felt that it was live-action, and although I always wanted to do this stop-motion because that feels perfect for a zombie movie, I always thought that was a compliment. Because it aspires to be something more than something small-scale or theatrical. I wanted it to feel like real characters. We aimed for that in the look of it as well. We wanted to increase its scope because stop-motion can often feel very contained and small by its nature. You’re physically limited by your sets and puppets but we really wanted to push those boundaries.”
SF: “That was the key to finding its own style for the film to be unique. To get away from the theatrical on one end, and the cartoony on the other, and go out and bring the real world into it.”
CB: “And stylize it and have fun with that. But definitely it’s not some whimsical, perfect, animated place. Part of the story is about a town that’s kind of rotting around the edges and we looked at a lot of photographers like William Egglestonand and focused on finding beauty in trash.”
It’s serendipitous that we’re in the midst of a zombie boom.
SF: “I remember thinking about 12 years ago that somebody has got to make a zombie movie for kids, and luckily that hasn’t happened yet. But it’s actually become something more than a zombie movie.”
CB: “This is influenced by all the movies and TV shows that I loved growing up and there’s absolutely a zeitgeist of the same mentality that grew up watching ‘Scooby-Doo’ and ‘The Goonies’ and ‘E.T.’ I’m just pleased that no one did it first. I used to watch ‘Scooby-Doo’ and would, even as a kid, think ‘why are they friends with each other?’ It doesn’t make any sense. Shaggy and Velma would never be friends. And Fred, the kind of guy who wears white cashmere and little neckerchief is probably not as interested in Daphne as she thinks he is.
And so I thought if you take that to its logical conclusion then what if those characters were in a contemporary story – what would happen? And what would happen is that they would want to kill one another. And so this is a contemporary story of a group of kids who shouldn’t get on and don’t want to get on, but they are kind of forced together and that’s part of the comedy of it. And it seems entirely appropriate to do a monster movie as stop-motion.”
Sam Fell and Chris Butler direct a voice cast that includes Casey Affleck, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, Jodelle Ferland, John Goodman, Bernard Hill, Anna Kendrick, Leslie Mann, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Elaine Stritch, from a script by Chris Butler.
ParaNorman opens in 2D and 3D theaters on August 17th, 2012.
You can visit the official ParaNorman website to learn more at www.Paranorman.com.
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