In the age of the omnipresent CG animated film and vapid big budget spectacle, it’s incredibly refreshing to see a stop-motion animated movie like ParaNorman come along. Created by Laika, the Portland-based animation studio responsible for the sublime film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, ParaNorman is a lovingly handcrafted horror comedy in the vein of popular 1980s Amblin adventures like E.T. and The Goonies.
I had a chance to visit the ParaNorman set outside of Portland earlier this year and spoke with the directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell at a press roundtable. In part one of our discussion, we talked about the “John Carpenter meets John Hughes” origins of the film, how technology has helped make stop-frame animation more practical, the film’s young target audience, how sharing directing duties worked out, and much more.
Could you talk about the origins of ParaNorman?
Chris Butler: I came on for Coraline. I was head of story on Coraline and towards the end of that project I had been working on my own script for a while – and when I say a while I mean 12 years on and off – which was ParaNorman. I always knew I wanted to do this zombie movie for kids, it was very much influenced by the kinds of movies and TV shows that I grew up watching, so it was The Goonies, Ghostbusters, Scooby Doo. The original idea in my mind was John Carpenter meets John Hughes, and I thought “Who wouldn’t want to see that?” or even better, “I want to see that,” so that’s the reason to make it.
I’d written the first 30 pages properly, and gave it to Travis (Knight) and he really liked it, which surprised me. It didn’t surprise me, I mean, I knew it was good, but then he said “Where’s the rest?” and I was like “Oh, it’s at home.” [laughs] But yeah, they liked it and they supported it, so we started developing. Then Sam came across, and we got our heads together and really got into the thick of it.
Sam Fell: I came in 2009 in the summer, and I was like “Yeah, John Carpenter meets John Hughes, who wouldn’t want to make that film?” We spent about six months in development on and off. You never really get a green light with these things do you? You just sort of lurch into it. We spent a lot of time just talking about how we’d want the movie to play, how we’d want it to feel, and what we’d want it to look like. We kept it small though, we definitely wanted to make sure we had our heads in the same place.
CB: And even before Sam came across, it was a real small group of us and with that we had this really strong core. Then me and Sam together we just got on the same page about the look that we wanted and about the influences. That was really important to the project right at the start – not only knowing what the story was and being completely concrete about that – but also knowing what we wanted from the look of it, from the aesthetic.
SF: Yeah, the pacing, the music, and all that, but also everything pertaining to the story really.
Now that you’re using computers to help envision the things that you’re filming in real life, do you believe that a solid object has more of a soul to it than CG?
SF: There’s definitely some warmth you get from stop-frame…
CB: But even a solid object envisioned in a computer and then printed out and cleaned or painted by someone or manipulated in some way, even the process of printing has an imperfection to it. Once real light hits that it becomes something else entirely. Even using technology the way we do, the end result is to have an object on a stage with a camera shooting it and someone physically moving it. That does have a difference to it.
Do you ever face off with CGI people?
SF: I’ve been in that world myself, and there are some great people that do that stuff. It makes me laugh though because they spend so much money and time – people from NASA work on that stuff to make it look like there’s some light falling on a coke can. Well, here’s a coke can, let’s put some light on it and maybe we could just shoot it. And they still haven’t quite got it yet. With all the ray tracing and rendering in the world, you still can’t beat natural photography.
CB: None of this is about doing realism, it’s about doing naturalism. There’s a big difference, I think. We have designed this world – every part of it, every facet, every blade of grass – it has a look that isn’t real, but it does have a naturalism to it. There’s naturalism to the animation, there’s naturalism to the performances, even to the light falling on objects. But it’s definitely a designed world.
Is there a budget advantage to doing it practically like this?
SF: No, if anything this medium has become more expensive because we are using more visual effects. Stuff that was developed for big live-action effects movies, we use that stuff now. We do have a big CGI department where we develop a lot of the facial animation. So if anything we’re getting bigger and more expensive.
Is it comparable to a big budget CG animated film?
SF: I think we’re less… but it could get bigger! [laughs]
What’s the advantage of using stereoscopic 3D for a movie like this?
SF: For this, stop-frame is especially apt for it. Coraline revolutionized stop-frame in a way, because we were kind of used to it as this old fashioned medium…
CB: It’s very theatrical.
SF: But it really immersed you in this very tactile world – a world that’s already tactile and very tangible. To go into stereoscopic… I always wanted to reach out and grab those puppets in stop-frame movies anyways…
CB: That’s definitely the appeal for most people. Just being able to see that detailed work in-depth lends itself so well to it. Also from a narrative point of view we definitely wanted to go further along the route that Coraline started, being more immersive and trying to increase the depth in the screen rather than out in your face. Having said that, this is a zombie movie; so we were like “If we don’t have at least one zombie hand coming out of the screen, we would not be doing our job.”
Has anyone been critical of the film for being too dark?
SF: No, they really haven’t. Maybe we asked ourselves that at times…
CB: We’re always walking that line. I think right from the start, even when I was writing it, I was aware of the subject matter, but I think that’s part of the fun of it. The story itself is about not judging a book by its cover, and so setting up these horror clichés and then not actually following through with them in the way you might think is part of the fun of the movie. It was always supposed to be as much a comedy as a horror pastiche. In fact, if anything it’s the story of a boy who is bullied, and it just so happens to have zombies and ghosts in it.
Whenever we used any scares or anything like that, we kind of burst the bubble with a bit of comedy. That’s an important part of it – that it’s more of a rollercoaster ride.
The film is rated PG, but how old is your target audience for this?
SF: Ideally, seven and up. Five or six year olds could see it…
CB: It’s funny, kids are so different. We had a screening recently of certain pieces of the movie with two age groups: four to sevens and then seven and upwards. After we showed the “safer stuff” for the four to sevens, we said “If anyone wants to leave, please leave,” but no one did. They loved it, they weren’t scared at all.
Did you experiment with the visuals to determine whether or not something would be too scary?
CB: We didn’t want it to be grotesque in a gory way. That’s not fun. We wanted to have fun.
SF: It’s not gory. We had to make that choice, were they going to be dry or wet zombies right from the start. It wasn’t about being disgusting, we don’t get off on that.
CB: No, if anything you’ve got these 300-year-old guys shambling around with bits dropping off, and we wanted to find the humour in that. It’s nice to have the occasional funny gross out moment. While everyone is saying “eww” they’re also laughing, and the kids absolutely love that!
How conscious did you have to be about writing a screenplay that would appeal to adults as well as kids?
CB: I find it quite odd sometimes the way people talk about having a layer for adults and a layer for kids. I think that should come naturally. Luckily, I’m part of a generation that grew up with some really cool stuff, and that’s clearly starting to work its way into movies being made now – Super 8 is a good example. One thing I didn’t want to do was have the movie talk down to kids or talk over their heads. Even though there’s a few references to things that kids won’t get – like the John Carpenter ringtone – we all get that, but it doesn’t matter if a kid does or not. It doesn’t alter the scene as a kid would see it.
How do you guys divide up directing duties?
SF: We spent a lot of time together at the beginning, and made all the big directorial decisions together and carried on doing that. We didn’t split the film front and back or in half – that doesn’t make sense because we really just wanted to have one clear message for the whole crew. We meet every morning in an editorial room and look at everything that’s going through – a set coming together for the first time, lighting for the set, a block for the puppets, a rehearsal, etc. – discuss it and flesh it out, and then we split up to take the message out to the floor, whether it be artists or people working on a sequence or whatever.
CB: The start of the movie was a lot more about finding the look with the director of photography and production designer, and all of us being happy about that look and getting really confident with it as well.Obviously everyone knows what a door looks like, but what does a ParaNorman door look like? Just building up that library and that signature involved us working really closely together with all of the creative leads.
SF: People learn that vibe and get the code, and then you start getting stuff for free in the second year. But in the first year you don’t really get much for free. You get nothing. You’re there for every button, every stitch…
How would you describe that look compared to Coraline?
CB: It was influenced by a few different things. Right at the beginning we were looking through portfolios from CalArts and Sheridan – all the big animation schools – for a character designer. There’s a standard kind of look that’s always prevalent: it’s a 50s, retro, very graphic, smooth lines, very clean, Mary Blair. You see that look again and again and again, and it’s beautifully done and there are some incredibly talented people, but occasionally you get someone who doesn’t do that. When you’re looking through hundreds of portfolios and you suddenly see someone’s work that just smacks you in the face, that’s worth taking note – especially because we were intent on doing something different. This one girl, Heidi Smith, her designs were just beautifully grotesque. They had a nervous quality and were very two dimensional, which was a challenge trying to translate that into three dimensions. That was something we shouldn’t have done, but we did it anyway.
That started the ball rolling, We found this nervous line, this wobbly, scratchy, sketchy look that went through into a lot of the conceptual designs. Nelson Larry, the production designer, started herding these very talented people together to work on making it so the characters could all live in that world. We were lucky enough to get a sculptor, Kent Melton, who has been around for so long – he’s done maquettes for almost any animated movie you could imagine – and he worked directly with Heidi. We did it slightly unusually just to give him something that was so challenging and have him interpret it, which worked out incredibly well because we ended up with a beautiful cast of puppets. It was very observational but very brave, I think.
SF: It was a sort of wonky naturalism we wanted. The film is set in contemporary times, and in the script Chris had described this place, Blithe Hollow, as kind of messed up and a little rough around the edges. So it seemed right that we designed everything a bit off and not perfect.
CB: It’s not like pastel-painted whimsy, it’s not your typical town that you would get in an animated movie.
SF: And we didn’t want to do an animated film that was like “Oh, some animators went away and designed this fabulous fantasy place!” We actually wanted to hold a mirror up to the world and make it feel like a real town, so we went out and took a lot of photographs of the real world. Heidi gets a lot of her ideas from just sitting in coffee shops sketching people, and we looked at some naturalistic photographers like William Eggleston. We love the way he celebrated bits of junk in a gutter or a chain link fence or whatever. We thought a really new kind of thing to do would be to craft, with great love and detail, old crap.
CB: That’s it. There is a tendency to make these miniature beautiful things, but make them the absolute perfect thing. We wanted to make them beautifully imperfect.
Many of us were struck by the solitary nature of the work of the animators here. They’re like their own little independent filmmakers, but if you believe the auteur theory then you’ve got your hands in everything. Here you’ve got 24 separate units going, is there an element that’s more theatrical?
SF: It’s their performance. Those animators are definitely actors who are creating a one time performance and you’re capturing it – really slowly – but it is lightning in a bottle.
So it’s almost out of your hands?
SF: Yeah, I mean we put the main beats in a storyboard of what we’re trying to sell in a scene, and they’ll rehearse it.
CB: And to be honest, we storyboarded the hell out of this. We knew absolutely that the movie would get there. I think sometimes with animation, storyboarding is as much about finding gags and coming up with funny business, and we wanted to be very clear from a cinematic point of view what every shot was. We put a lot of work upfront to make sure that we had the time for the animators to really explore their performances.
Check back tomorrow for part two of our roundtable discussion with the directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell. ParaNorman is in theatres this Friday.