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.