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Although the concept of stop-motion animation has been around almost since the very early days of filmmaking, it's still somewhat of a mystery to modern moviegoers, because in some ways, it looks and feels, today, similar to the computer animated movies we're constantly seeing, but there are a lot more levels of artistry involved, from designing the characters, to building the puppets and their environment. Because so much is built for it, and because the animation is done one frame at a time, it gives it a distinctive look as well as feeling more tactile and real.
One of the interesting aspects of this production is the way different animation styles are being combined in ways that may not be as obvious from those who know the general principles behind stop-motion animation. From the storyboard phase, which uses the simplest 2D animation, to the computer animation used to figure out the facial expressions, and finally using stop motion animation to actually perform the scenes, LAIKA's immense staff of artists has been kept busy for the past few years bringing ParaNorman to life.
The nicest thing about this visit is that it was fairly small and intimate - basically just us, Quint from AintItCoolNews and some reporter from a computer graphics magazine - and over the next couple hours, we were thrown into an intensive tour throughout the studio, going through each department of production to see how they create the puppets and the process used to animate them. This will be somewhat different fro normal set visits, because it will be more technical.
As soon as we arrived at LAIKA, we were greeted by producer Arianne Sutner, who worked on Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas and Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic before coming to LAIKA for Coraline.
She brought us to the screening room where they showed us the trailer in 3D and then a good chunk of the opening of the film that was still in 2D, which included some scenes from the various trailers but also was shown in a more linear fashion to introduce us to 11-year-old Norman, a boy from the New England town of Blythe Hollow, who can talk to ghosts. He's called upon by the ghost of his weird Uncle Penderghast, voiced by John Goodman, to save the town from a witch's curse.
The footage showed Norman waking up and going to school where he's encountered by the ghost of his uncle in the bathroom stall, a freaky scene that plays out quite well when seen in full. They also showed the scene of him getting a text to come to the window and outside is a creepy guy in a hockey mask, but it's actually his best friend Neil, voiced by newcomer Tucker Albrizi. The two friends are plagued by a bully named Alvin, voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad), but we saw a funny scene where he and his friends are breakdancing, which was a pretty funny sequence.
We then watched a scene of Norman going to the graveyard where there's a sign saying that seven victims of the Witch's Curse had been buried there. As soon as Norman gets there, the sky starts swirling around and the face of the Witch appears in the sky and suddenly, the bodies are coming to life and bursting out of their graves, giving us our first look at the imposing zombie leader known as The Judge, one of the film's main baddies.
After watching this footage, we sat down in a conference room to talk with the film's two directors Chris Butler, who also wrote the script, and Sam Fell, who came from Aardman Studios, having directed the CG movie Flushed Away, and along with the footage, it was a great introduction to the world of ParaNorman to prepare us for going behind the scenes. (One of the big reveals was that they were having Jon Brion, Paul Thomas Anderson's long-time composer, doing the score for the movie to help play up the comedy.)
Although obviously it's hard to watch a stop-motion animated movie being filmed, since it's such a painstaking process, we would have a chance to stop by some of the sets and talk to the animators, but what's really impressive about LAIKA is that its CEO and President Travis Knight (right) isn't just an executive in a suit but he's a stop-motion animator in his own right and he's right there in his own studio working on scenes for the film.
"Before I was in any aspect of the business side of the company, I was an artist, so the last handful of years have been more of a portrait of an artist finding his inner executive rather than the other way around," he told us when we stopped by the soundstage where he was working.
"One of the things that was important to us on this film was that we make it more expansive, that we make it feel like a big real world," he said. "That comes down to the lighting and the cinematography, the materials that we're using for the set design and the animation performance. Those are all driven by this naturalism that we're going for on this film."
Knight animated the graveyard sequence we watched earlier and he was busy shooting in an amazing outdoors set they had created, a forest filled with trees made out of corrugated cardboard using different layers and depth of field so that the trees were 3-dimensional in the foreground and became flatter as they receded into the background.
"In coming up with forests for the film, we came up with using corrugated cardboard," he said about the set. "It really felt like a natural material—it was a tree but a stylized tree—and one of the things we're doing in the art direction and production design of this film is taking that rough nervous line quality that we had from our character designer and try to put that in our set design. It just gives the world just a slightly off-kilter feel, which is really nice. Some of those bits of glass are made of blown glass, so it really gets a nice specular hit with the light."
Knight went on to explain how they found a "fusion of low-tech and high-tech" in creating this world. "One thing I like about this crew is that there is a lot of high-tech stuff happening, but they'll find whatever tool makes the most sense, so we have a 3D scanner for this shot because there's a big VFX thing in it, and all we're using is this Kinect that we went down to the department store to get, so every frame, it scans the image, so we can wraparound. It's essentially doing a 3D scan of every single frame so when we put this effect on it, it will have that real world data."
Apparently, this shot, which just seemed to involve Norman and a nameless girl (who we believe is voiced by Silent Hill's Jodelle FerLand) is using multiple cameras for a special FX shot that will be akin to the use of "bullet time" in The Matrix, although Knight had to remain secretive about what exactly was happening in the scene.
Before we let him get back to work, he did tell us how they decide which scene goes to which animator, especially since as the CEO he could theoretically take the best scenes for himself.
"As I went through and tried to find the things I wanted to do on the film, there were some bits that were more fun. There was one sequence that I really wanted to do just because it was going to be a lot of fun physical animation, but it didn't mean as much to the story and I felt I needed to concentrate more on those things that were important to the story even though I had to give away some of the more fun shots to do. At the beginning of the movie, there was just two of us, and the other guy wanted this other sequence really badly and I said, ‘Okay, you can take it,' and the one I ended up taking, I was more satisfied with anyway."
Creating the Puppets
ParaNorman is a fairly big production but the most important part of making the story work is creating likeable and believable characters, and that's heavily dependent on the character designs and how they're transformed into 3-dimensional puppets for the animators. Much of that comes down to Georgina Hayns, the film's creative supervisor and puppet fabrication, another vet from Coraline who also worked on the Tim Burton-produced The Corpse Bride. In fact, if you looked through the credits of most of the crew, you were likely to see any number of previous stop-motion animated movies on their resume, becuase Laika has worked hard to bring the best artists and animators together for their films.
At the height of production, they have 50 to 60 artists of all varieties working on site to build the hundreds of puppets needed for the production and Georgina brought us over to a table in the workshop, which was covered with different types of puppets in different stages of completion. Inside each finished puppet is a mechanical armature or inner skeleton that's used to move them infinitesimal amounts, using a complex series of tiny wrenches and screws to move swivels, hinges and ball and socket joints.
Before they get that far, they have to design the characters and, for that, they called upon artist Heidi Smith, who we were told does all of her artwork using pencil on giant sheets of paper and in every department, they had the line-up of characters as designed by Smith in black and white pencils as well as the character line as it's been translated into 3D color characters. Smith's character designs were what they often went back to while designing the costumes and hair, because they wanted all the characters to look just like Smith's illustrations.