From England to New England to Oregon
“To do stop-motion animation – or, as we call it in Britain, stop-frame animation – you have to love it…for years on end,” says director Sam Fell, who has extensive experience, and was self-taught, in the art. “On ParaNorman, we wanted to try a new, fresh approach to the animation – with less of a theatrical feel and more of a movie one. ParaNorman has so much going on that you ‘shouldn’t’ do in stop-motion; big crowd scenes with extras, chases, overlapping dialogue, close-ups and reaction shots – with two-thirds of this taking place in outdoor settings.”
ParaNorman director Chris Butler reflects, “There were all these bars that we set for ourselves. You do feel the ambition of the project every day, but you get to lose yourself in the fantastical. When you’re working on a stop-motion movie, you’re working on something special that you hope will be seen for decades to come.
“I have always worked in animation. Norman is the kind of kid who likes to write stories, and I was too – when I was 8 years old, I knew I wanted to tell stories in animation, with the characters and the visuals. I pursued that, and it happened for me.”
Long before Butler began work at LAIKA and was storyboard supervisor on the company’s Coraline, he had an idea for an original animated movie that he began to script. He notes, “There is a tradition of storyboard artists and supervisors becoming directors of animated movies; you make a movie first with the drawings, and then you make it again for real. I wanted to see my own story visualized, and in stop-motion.
“Writing ParaNorman was a labor of love. I wanted to do a zombie movie for kids – taking a Scooby-Doo mystery to its logical conclusion, rather than having it be debunked – and there was also a ‘what if’ idea that had to do with my relationship with my grandma. So I combined them into a script that would be irreverent and full of adventure, and also be about identity. One of the themes of our movie is, ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover.’”
He elaborates, “It took 10 years for me to complete the script. I would dip in and out of it; I’d work all day on someone else’s movie and then come home and relax by writing the script. So ParaNorman – which at first had no real title, just Zombie Movie Something – was a long time coming.”
Producer Arianne Sutner came aboard early on, before the script was even finished. She reflects, “Stories about an outsider kid and stories about monsters have had a universal and timeless appeal, but this one was going to be like no other we had seen. What impressed me about Chris’ writing was how he conceived the movie as being for and about kids, without talking down to them, and how it also spoke to parents like myself; Chris shows how Norman faces his fears and makes peace with the special gift that he has.
“Chris had worked hard to combine great characters, heart, spectacular action/adventure sequences – and comedy, meaning not just gags for their own sake but genuine humor.”
The latter was always a key component because Butler had realized years earlier that “it’s not the scares that will carry you through this story; it’s the character-based humor.”
Sutner, whose stop-motion experience had included collaborating with Coraline director Henry Selick for over a decade, worked with Butler to further develop the script. She notes, “Stop-motion is such a beautiful way to make movies, and one that evolves as a truly collaborative effort beginning even in the script development phase. Because of the medium, and Chris’ own story department experience, we focused a lot on visual exploration in addition to the pacing and the structure.”
At LAIKA, producer Travis Knight read the unfinished script. He acknowledges “seeing a lot of myself and my kids in Norman,” and therefore being curious to see how the story would turn out. So, midway through production of Coraline ParaNorman would be added to LAIKA’s development roster – and soon move to the forefront.
Sutner muses, “In the world of animation, nothing can happen very quickly – but getting this movie on track happened kind of quickly!”
Butler remembers, “The final pages, including the climax, had been all mapped out – coming from [the] story [department at LAIKA] myself, I knew how important that was – but were written during working on Coraline. Once that movie was finished, we went immediately into planning ParaNorman; in fact, I haven’t had a proper vacation since Coraline…!”
Sutner notes, “Chris knew how he wanted what he had put on the page to live on-screen. I could tell that he had the strengths needed to realize his potential as a director, and I would tell him to trust his instincts.
“LAIKA is not the first animation studio to have a director come from its story department. But what sets them apart is that when they commit to a director, they are committing to the director’s vision. They had a lot of faith in Chris because he’s already a visual storyteller.”
Butler offers, “Other studios would have wanted to change it and do away with the challenging elements. But Travis saw those challenges as a plus, and that right there is what makes LAIKA special; here we want to do material that is out of the ordinary– like Norman himself – and every step of the way here at LAIKA, Travis has encouraged me and my vision.”
For his part, Fell was encouraged enough to board the project in 2009. He notes, “I had recently seen Coraline and thought LAIKA’s production was amazing and brave; it could not have happened anywhere else. I wanted to come and work with these people who were out to break new ground.
“The British wit of Chris’ script appealed to me. But what truly grabbed me was the central character of Norman, and the way he grows and changes. I believe it’s good for kids to know that it’s okay to be different, and to stand out a bit.”
Sutner notes, “Sam was able to push Chris’ ideas even further while also pointing out how to be practical with the material.”
Fell sparked to Butler’s concept of “John Carpenter meets John Hughes,” and he was tantalized by the idea of Hughes’ Breakfast Club outcasts dealing with a Fog-like undead curse.
Fell says, “It became us working together to capture that spirit. Chris was very open to my ideas about working out the structure a bit. We wanted to make something that a family would enjoy seeing, as well as play around with beloved genres. Chris and I both knew we were channeling a 1980s vibe, not doing a pastiche, and that we would take it visually down that road as well – into a small American town. Even though we’re British!”
Butler comments, “It had to be New England; that was part and parcel of the story. I spent time there, and it’s kind of like being home what with warped door frames and rotting fences…”
Knight notes, “I think any artist draws from three primary sources; personal experiences or memories, things observed or researched, and the imagination. If you can’t come up with something from the first two, then the imagination is more heavily trafficked – and it knits together all of the above and much more.
“ParaNorman is visually stunning, and a thrilling homage to entertainments that we grew up with. But it also holds deep emotional resonance and poignancy. Even during the broad and absurdist moments, we treat the subject matter seriously.”
Butler reflects, “Amblin [-produced] movies from the ‘80s, like The Goonies, had spark, warmth, and affection – and they didn’t condescend to kids. In this fun rollercoaster ride, there would also be what kids contend with on a daily basis in the real world – fitting in, facing bullying – as well as something they don’t usually face; a zombie invasion.”
Fell remembers, “I was watching those movies, too, when I was a teenager. They had an edge, and dealt with issues. While being a haunted-house ride, ParaNorman addresses bullying, but not in a preachy way, and Chris’ script takes Norman’s story – and the audience – to a really strong ending.
“This movie has heart; it is dramatic and emotional, as well as full of comedy, action, and adventure. We were so excited to push it bigger and bigger in these different directions – and at both ends of the stop-motion scale in terms of both scope and nuance.”
Accomplished stop-motion cinematographer Tristan Oliver was impressed with the script and the directors’ ambitious take on the material. The three quickly began brainstorming what Sutner praises as “dynamic camera angles and moves that would push the boundaries of stop-motion.”
Oliver explains, “For me to shoot a feature, I have to have a top-down vision so that it’s coherent, as well as a collaboration with directors. This movie is bigger than any I’ve ever done, but I’m at the point in my career where I’m looking for something different with every feature. The concept artwork that I was shown for ParaNorman impressed me. I’ve known Sam for over 20 years, and I liked Chris’ enthusiasm instantly; his script was the most sound of any movie that I’d worked on – the third act in particular.
“When I sat down with Chris and Sam early on, we definitely discussed what the essential ParaNorman look would be, as well as movie inspirations and references; I put together ‘mood reels’ of film clips and stills for us to look at, and they were on board. We’re all from England – so we speak much the same language!”
He reflects, “It’s not unusual to have two directors in animation; I’ve worked on projects where that’s been done, and it worked very well on ParaNorman. Chris and Sam would fill in the gaps in each other’s process.”
Fell remarks, “This kind of animation serves the idea of two directors. Chris and I just seemed to click, and to complement each other; this movie was a big beast to run, but we shared a common vision and worked side by side.”
“We got joined at the hip,” adds Butler. “Not splitting things up was vital. We made a conscious effort at the beginning to be on the same page – and for most of the production we were looking at everything together, talking about it all, and being of one mind before proceeding. We knew exactly what ParaNorman was and what every moment should be, but sometimes we would have to discuss different ways of achieving those. During a day of shooting, we would go off on separate unit visits or meetings with animators. But every single shot was examined and discussed by both of us.
“While we had never met before, we had both worked on the same movie years prior, but at different times; I had briefly storyboarded on The Tale of Despereaux before Sam came on as director. So now we’ve made up for lost time!”
The directors’ past experiences in stop-motion animation meant that they knew what it would take to conceive and implement a boy’s world and its fantastical invading elements – often in miniature.
Butler notes that the aesthetic, and the stop-motion process itself, also called for their “capturing naturalism – not realism – in the performances, in the animation, in the design.
“The entrée into Norman’s world for the audience is that it’s the dead people who have more time – all the time in the world – for him, and generally he can communicate better with them. He has a special gift that separates him from those around him, but it’s his gift that can save the town from a 300-year-old curse. The heart of the story is how he reaches a better understanding with both the living and the dead, including his own family acknowledging and accepting that he is different.”
In pre-production, art direction and storyboarding came first, as all the moviemakers well knew from experience the importance of storyboard illustrators in visualizing every scene and character. “It gives a director that much more control over the many details to come,” states Sutner.
As crucial as this might be for live-action movies, it is even more so for animated features. Butler explains, “It’s not like live-action, where you can use multiple cameras or do retakes. The animators are moving one frame at a time, so you need to know exactly what shot you’re getting before you actually do it. The benefit of the storyboards is that to be able to work from the script to map out the entire movie in advance in picture form – often with some newly visualized ideas incorporated -- and that material goes directly to the camera department.
“It’s almost like a giant comic book and, certainly, a story artist needs to be able to draw – and tell stories, preferably with comedic skills!”
Fell reflects, “Both Chris and I have ourselves storyboarded in the past, and we would get hands-on and start sketching some scenes ourselves. We’d try each other’s ideas out and see what worked and what didn’t. Without feeling pressured, we would get things done fast. It was us talking about everything from narrative to camerawork to acting. Doing storyboards is something I’ve found to be invaluable, and one of my favorite parts of a making an animated movie.”
Butler further found that “something random that an artist would bring to the table inspired me to change a character or change a location; I’d go back to the script and do a rewrite.
“I had worked with a lot of the ParaNorman team previously on Coraline so there was a shorthand. It’s a strong crew, and a group greatly experienced in stop-motion; some of us had worked together even before Coraline, growing up in the industry.”
Through this part of the process, everyone at LAIKA works with Wacom’s Cintiq LCD flat-screen monitors, which entail using an interactive pen directly on the screen. There are over 1,000 levels of pressure sensitivity on the pen-tips and erasers for precise image control, while the screens have adjustable stands for optimal working angles.
Butler notes, “With Cintiq, we can build the entire movie out of storyboard panels – complete with sound, music, and dialogue. We can watch it to make sure it’s [going to be] fine.”
Fell marvels, “In coming over to work at LAIKA on ParaNorman, I am impressed by how the place is structured and run. It’s a frontier out in Oregon, away from the mainstream, and rich in old and new technology. It’s an exciting time for animation, especially at this forward-thinking place.”