‘ParaNorman’ hopes to take stop-motion animation to scary new heights

PORTLAND, OR – In just a few weeks, Focus Features and Laika Studios’ “Paranorman” will finally be finished.  Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell will turn in a final print and mix and then anxiously wait for audience and critical reaction on Aug. 17.

The second major full-length feature film from Portland-based Laika after 2009’s modern classic and Oscar nominee “Coraline,” the reaction to “ParaNorman” is going to be very important to the up and coming animation house.  “Coraline” was based on a critically acclaimed Neil Gaiman story and was directed by the now legendary Henry Selick (who is now working on a secret project at Pixar). “ParaNorman” is a completely original endeavor based off an idea of Butler’s, a first time feature director. 

Intended for families even more than the somewhat dark “Coraline” was, this fantasy flick finds Kodi Smit-McPhee (“Let Me In”) voicing the seemingly regular boy, Norman.  Except, our hero is just happens to have the power to talk to ghosts which makes him the object of ridicule from his classmates.  It’s Norman, however, who is the key to ending a centuries old curse plaguing his hometown.  Can he do it and get some respect from his peers in the process? 

Besides McPhee, Butler and Fell (co-director of “Flushed Away” and “The Tale of Despereaux”) have recruited an intriguing voice cast including Anna Kendrick, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Casey Affleck, Leslie Mann and John Goodman. On the face of it, an edgier vocal cast than you might find in a DreamWorks or Pixar film, but seemingly appropriate for the independent minded Laika.

[Check out exclusive new photos from “ParaNorman” in the gallery at the end of this article.]

After 2011 provided one of the most competitive years for animated films at the box office and for Oscars in some time, “ParaNorman” enters a frame where “The Lorax” (big box office, little acclaim), “The Pirates: Band of Misfits” (little box office, big acclaim), “Madagascar 3” (moneymaker), “Brave” (Pixar, cue the nomination), “Frankenweenie” (Burton’s baby), “Wreck-it-Ralph” (buzzworthy Disney), “Rise of the Guardians” (DreamWorks’ best?) and “Hotel Transylvania” (Sony Animation’s Halloween player) are all vying for year-end attention. It was in that context that Focus invited some members of the press up to Portland, Oregon this past February to take a gander at the last days of production for “ParaNorman.”

This wasn’t my first jaunt to Laika.  Located in a nondescript office park just a 20 minute drive to downtown, I’d visited Laika’s wonderland for “Coraline” a little less than four years prior. The setup hadn’t changed much.  The main part of the building was still full of multiple stages for the different shots in the stop motion film.  The makeshift screening room was in the same location as before. But, was there more confidence in the air after the success of “Coraline”?  Possibly.

The most interesting part of the journey was twofold: a discussion with directors Chris Buttler and Sam Fell and an amazing demonstration of a 3D printer used for model making (seriously people).  The latter may seem technical and gadget-y, but in reality it was like stepping into the world of “Star Trek.” But first…


“ParaNorman” has been an idea in the back of co-director and screenwriter Chris Butler’s head for over a decade. Intriguing then, that our hero’s plight just happens to be tied into one of the most talked about social causes of the day; bullying.

“Norman is a picked on social outcast because he can talk to ghosts and his way of dealing with that in life is to just keep away from everyone else. He doesn’t see the merits in friendships or it’s just too dangerous for him,” Butler reveals.

Like any hero, however, Norman is going to have to grow as a character and young man to save the day (or in this case, his hometown).  Butler notes, “Having this curse thrown at his feet and saying ‘It’s up to you to stop this’ kind of sets him on this journey where he fails because he’s on his own. He has to rely on other people and [open up and be] honest about who he is to solve the problem.”

Norman is also not the only kid at school getting picked on.  Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi) has his own issues with his classmates and sees a kindred spirit in Norman.

“Neil wants to be his best friend and he will not take no for an answer,” Butler says.  “He’s persistent and he’s also bullied and they’re like two sides of a coin really because Neil is bullied.  He’s fat.  He’s got allergies.  He’s got irritable bowel syndrome.  He’s got a catalog of things that are wrong with him, but he’s eternally optimistic about pretty much everything, whereas Norman just keeps himself to himself and doesn’t want to-he just wants to keep his head down and I think Neil in particular is who opens Norman up.”

Butler, who worked as a storyboard artist and supervisor on “The Corpse Bride” and “Coraline,” says “ParaNorman” sprung from an idea he had for a zombie movie for kids about 12 years ago. He always intended for it to be a stop-motion animated film, but  was inspired by the live action films he enjoyed as a kid. The horror and thriller flicks directed by John Carpenter and the teenage angst of John Hughes’ ’80s classics.

“It absolutely came from the movies and TV shows that I watched when I was growing [up] and that love for all those movies, but definitely a generational thing,” Butler says. “I kind of dipped in and out of the writing of it for 10 years.”

It turns out pop culture of the last quarter of the 20th Century, provided Butler with even more inspiration.

“A big part of the story was even when I was a kid I used to watch ‘Scooby Doo’ and I loved the idea of this eclectic gang of kids who were riding around town investigating the paranormal, but it never, ever made sense to me. In real life these kids wouldn’t even hang out with each other.  So. it was like taking that sort of natural progression.  If you really did put all these stereotypes of kids in a van together and kind of watched the fun come out of that you know them bickering and playing off each other.”

And that’s where the extended world of people in Norman’s life comes in.  Norman’s sister Courtney (Kendrick), big man on campus Mitch (Affleck), bully Alvin (Mintz-Plasse) and Norman’s new BFF Neil.  Still, these well crafted characters weren’t enough to get the established Fell to sign on as co-director. It was a mysterious ending they entire production kept teasing throughout the day.

“Chris pitched the story kind of as it stands and it’s got a killer ending and that was unusual,” Fell admits.  “To me that was one of those main things, you know, to come across an animated feature that has a great beginning, middle and end.  We figured out a lot of stuff along the way, how to make it play as a movie, but as a story.”

Besides Carpenter and Hughes, other influences for “ParaNorman” include films such as “The Goonies,” “Ghostbusters” and “E.T.,” but Butler insists he always wanted his feature debut to have its own identity.  It’s a “haunted house ride” family film that isn’t as dark as “Coraline,” but when you’ve got zombies attacking tweens it’s clearly not for toddlers.

“It’s definitely presented as scary when they come out of the ground, but it is a family movie,” Fell says. “You expect that a six [or] seven-year-old could watch it.  So, we didn’t want to get too into like the gore of it all.  They’re kind of mostly dry zombies you know.”

That’s no doubt significant comfort to all the moms and dads looking to avoid nightmares for the little ones at the multiplex  .


Remember when you used to watch “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and the a crew member would ask the Enterprise computer to generate food or something tangible?  And how it would magically energize and appear?  Well, the future is now and its happening with 3D printers.  And, surprisingly, this writer got his first demonstration of their capabilities on the set of “ParaNorman.”

“3D Printing is a type of machine that falls into Rapid Prototyping terminology,” Brian McLean, Director of 3D Rapid Prototyping says.  “And for “Coraline” Laika became the first company to take this technology and try to harness it and use it for stop-motion.”

How might you ask? Well, as a stop motion model, Norman is a pretty delicate creation. His head alone is comprised of over 78 individual pieces. McLean notes, “People often ask why is he so complex? It”s a two-fold answer.  First, we needed to give the stop-motion animator as much performance as they can get out on set.  And the [second reason] is, Norman is a unique character because he has faceted irises and faceted pupils.  That comes from one of the early Heidi Smith drawings of sort of a sketchy hand quality of what Norman looks like.  Because he has these faceted irises it ended up working its way into the story.”

McLean continues, “But, what it also means is that the typical way that we would do an eye rig is a socket and a ball, and that all moves around inside the socket.  The problem with that is when you have these faceted irises the ball can twist and spin [and it looks] really sort of freaky.  It looks like he”s possessed.  So, we had to build this extremely elaborate rig to take these faceted pupils and make sure that the eyeball never spun.  It can look left, right, up, down, every which way except spinning.  So a simple little design thing very early on sort of trickles down to a very complex problem that we have to figure out how to solve.”

That turned out to be the 3D printer. Granted, Rapid Prototyping was used to create the multitude of faces and facial expressions for the heroine of “Coraline,” but all of them had to be hand painted. It was a very laborious process that had it’s drawbacks including a lack of detail on Coraline’s face. If you remember, she had five freckles on one side of her face and five on the other. That was it. For “ParaNorman” Laika was able to bring actual printing to the 3D printer. Where before it would just generate a “piece” or “form” (still pretty amazing), now it can have a computer generated color on it.

McLean reveals that you can do a lot with printing in a 3D printer. “You can print in metal, you can print in plastic, you can print in rubber, you can print in color.  What we”re doing for ‘ParaNorman’ is we”re pretty much just printing in plastic and we”re printing in color.”

That is a huge difference creatively for the production. Coraline had about 200,000 possible facial expressions. Norman has 290,000. McLean says,  “It”s pushing the art form.  Stop-motion was always a beautiful art form you had to like.  You had the atmosphere, you had the physical pieces, you had the physical set, but it was very difficult to sort of get engrossed in the story because the facial animation or the facial performance was always very limited.  You either had clay replacements, or you had mechanical that didn”t allow for a huge range.  When Pixar first started coming out with their CG films, it”s amazing because these characters had such life and such performance, and they could emote a whole range of stuff, and that was always a big deal for stop-motion.  So, combining an age-old art form of stop-motion with new technology we can sort of start to compete with CG.”

The results are pretty astounding.  Of course, what’s more intriguing is that in the very near future we may have 3D printers in our own homes.  Want a new dish? Order the design, download it and print it out. In the meantime, look for the technology to spread to other parts of film production.  In fact, a major holiday release is using it…ah, but that would be telling.  For another day…

“ParaNorman” opens nationwide in 3D on August 17