Two Years in the Making
ParaNorman is the biggest production ever to be made in stop-motion animation, being only the third stop-motion movie to be made in stereoscopic 3D following LAIKA’s Coraline (2009) and Aardman’s The Pirates! (2012).
Lead animator and producer Travis Knight comments, “Animation is a medium, not a genre. Genre is a limiting term, hamstringing creative possibilities, but animation is a powerful visual medium restrained only by the imaginations of its practitioners. We take it further, by incorporating all forms of animation into our methodology, and while we have a wide range of projects, LAIKA has roots in stop-motion. So it is this art form that we are trying to redefine.
“Our pictures engage and involve everybody at LAIKA, each bringing something of themselves to these captivating stories that have resonance – while expanding people’s notions of what animation can be, with bold and innovative design as well as thematically compelling material.”
From the oversized to the miniature, at LAIKA Studios, artisans and animators work together on everyone and everything that audiences worldwide will see and marvel at on-screen. Producer Arianne Sutner notes, “It’s a growing company, attracting people who look at the world differently. Everyone at it has a love for the shared art form.”
Director Chris Butler adds, “I know a lot of them as not just a good crew but also as friends.”
Director Sam Fell notes, “I arrived at LAIKA and saw right away how everyone puts love and care and generosity into their craft. There is a richness that comes through in every frame.”
The animation community prizes artistic ferment, and as such LAIKA has brainstormed with – and recruited – talent from all around the world; after Coraline, there was even more interest in exchanging ideas.
Butler reflects, “While this movie was made in 3D to draw people in and while I had always conceived this movie as stop-motion, I do love 2D animation. We all do. In the early stages of developing ParaNorman, I was talking to Arianne about the guys who made the [Oscar-nominated and 2D-animated] The Secret of Kells. We invited [that movie’s director and art director] Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart to visit LAIKA, and they contributed a few things that informed the style of our movie. It was a cross-pollination, if you like – and one that helped get my head out of Coraline, which had its own style, and into what ParaNorman’s could be.
“Also in the early stages, one of my favorite comics artists, Guy Davis, gave us some initial character drawings as his take on the script. We didn’t end up going in his direction, but getting his input was motivating and inspirational for me. It helped move me forward.”
Character designer Heidi Smith, then a recent CalArts graduate, made monochrome pencil-on-paper sketches that were two-dimensional, and everyone sparked to her work as a suitably rough-edged template. “We wanted things to be wonky in Blithe Hollow – just a bit off,” says Fell.
Butler remembers, “We had gotten a number of new talents’ portfolios after Coraline. Heidi’s stood out because her work wasn’t like anything else.”
“They’re studies from life,” marvels Fell. “She’s like a magpie who went out into the world, took stuff and brought it back for our movie.
“ParaNorman isn’t about ‘another world’ or ‘another place.’ It’s a slightly stylized perspective on a contemporary setting. When things get chaotic in this story, it’s important that you have felt a grounding prior.”
Sutner notes, “Heidi’s work helped establish a consistency of character and production design for the movie. In Blithe Hollow, everything may be a little off-center and off-kilter, yet we allowed for breathing room so that you feel comfortable visiting; it remains recognizably 21st-century.”
Creative supervisor of character fabrication Georgina Hayns states, “Heidi’s designs upped our game. LAIKA’s choosing her made for a great start for an established and cohesive unit to move on together from the world of Coraline and into the story of Norman.” Smith would continue to work on ParaNorman’s character and conceptual designs all through the two years of production.
The ParaNorman animators, meanwhile, were getting into the requisite mindset by looking at not only zombie flicks but also Frankenstein and Nosferatu, among other classic scary movies.
The two years of production on ParaNorman took place at the LAIKA Studios located in Hillsboro, Oregon, in a 151,140-square foot building space. By August 2010, with a crew of over 320 talented designers, artists, animators and technicians, there were 52 separate shooting units working at almost any given time during the shoot. The 52 different stages are the most ever deployed for a stop-motion animated feature – a number matched only by LAIKA’s own earlier Coraline.
“Scheduling was often tricky, because of our ambitions with this project,” remembers Sutner. “ParaNorman has more stop-motion puppets than you have seen on-screen before, yet we also had months and months of Norman close-ups on tap – so we had to do even more pre-planning than we expected.”
Butler marvels, “I’d be walking around and sometimes I’d have to stop and remind myself, ‘This used to be in your head and nowhere else, and now it’s everywhere.’ You know, there would be dozens of people scurrying around…”
With elements in each frame of ParaNorman being created and posed by human hands, it took an entire week of production to complete between 1-2 minutes of movie footage. Knight reminds, “One single frame can easily take half an hour for an animator to make.” Even the fastest animators whose work yielded the highest output rate on the production were still only completing a couple of seconds of footage per day; accordingly, they have to remain “in the moment” for hours at a time as they strive to realize the collective ambitions for one moment in a movie.
“It takes you to somewhere else in your head for sure,” laughs animator Jason Stalman. “Maybe it comes naturally to people who daydreamed when they were kids?”
Butler offers, “The 2-3 years of production is like a train which doesn’t stop, but it starts because we are all passionate about this art form.”
The tangible relationship in stop-motion animation between the artisans and the puppets and/or props at hand is one that other forms of animation cannot fully replicate.
Sutner remarks, “Working in stop-motion is having real art come to life; artists are working with the materials that artists always have, such as glue and paint and light.
“Stop-motion movies are considerably less expensive than the average CG picture. People think it costs more to make a stop-motion feature. It doesn’t; what it does take more of is time.”
Hayns comments, “It’s a long, Everest-like climb, but every week we see the end result of what we did. That makes a huge difference. LAIKA encourages artists and makes people aware of how much they, and the work they are doing, are appreciated.
“We are led by someone, Travis Knight, who is on the floor with us and is as much involved in the animation as we are. He understands what everyone does, from a producer to a costume maker to a puppet maker, and how they love doing it.”
Knight is often on the studio floor working as lead animator. He notes, “Animators are ‘cast’ by directors based on their strengths with a scene or a character, after a table read or ‘bake-off’ equivalent.”
Sutner adds, “What you find is that, say, some animators are good at action, and some are good at subtle scenes.”
Knight feels that “it’s about finding the right person with the right balance, because an animator is an actor who is giving a performance through a puppet. Sometimes, you’re trying to coax a performance out of this inanimate assemblage of steel and silicone, and it physically won’t come. Those are the times where you have to try something else, and it can be something that no one working on the movie could have anticipated. For all the meticulous planning that goes into each shot, there’s a wonderful spontaneity to the process. What’s exciting is how much you are in the moment, meeting the challenges while also keeping the bigger picture in mind.”
Animation supervisor Brad Schiff reminds that “you have to make sure there is clarity between what the directors want and what the animators are performing. This sustains the style of the movie.”
Butler says, “The animators have to ‘own’ the scene, from foreground action to background characters.”
Fell concurs, noting that “we will talk over the scene with them, and discuss how the characters feel, but the animators have to go in there and it has to come from within them.”
Knight adds, “Production is structured so that the animators would be individually responsible for big chunks of the movie, so that they know it backwards and forwards. It gives each piece of the film a unified sensibility, as every shot within any given sequence was brought to life by a single pair of hands.”
On ParaNorman, Knight’s own sequences included “the zombie-rising-from-the-grave shots, and these were massive – movements all the way up the torsos, raging to the heavens, flapping bits of skin and cloth, and of course all these little bits of dirt and mud that I had to animate…We kept track of our hand-painted ‘soil bits’ by putting them on metal rigs, wires, or tiny bug pins, razor-sharp needles that entomologists pin insects with. These are ideal supports for lightweight materials, holding up painted bits of foam or clay or sponge, which stood in for a lot of the soil. But your fingers do end up like pincushions.
“Physically, you’re standing on concrete floors and contorting your body into all sorts of weird positions. Mentally, it requires concentration for long periods of time. If a character that you’re animating is angry, you have to be able to get yourself into that state too to get the emotion you need for the performance. People think that animating in stop-motion requires patience, but it’s more about being able to have intense focus for long periods of time. For the zombies bursting forth, I found myself listening to 1970s heavy metal music…”
In addition to the bug pins and the heavy metal music, the sequence was bolstered by the rigging department. Late in the research-and-development period, the crew found that hot glue, when not being used for construction on-set, worked well as zombie slobber and spittle. Further, Knight was able to crumble by hand the riggers’ mixture of plasticine, sand, corn syrup, and mineral oil and enhance the dirt presence exponentially.
Digging in the faux dirt notwithstanding, Knight assesses the quieter sequences that he worked on as “equally challenging. The first one that I worked on for ParaNorman comes earlier; it’s subtle character interactions including between Norman and his grandmother. That last one took me a year to complete. But whatever the sequence, you have to find a focal point and remember that each shot, each scene is part of a bigger whole. In stop-motion, there is no such thing as a ‘throwaway’ shot.
“Do we make mistakes? All the time, and, more often than not, the mistakes are integrated into the work. In bringing something to life with your hands, there are always going to be imperfections. That’s part of what gives stop-motion its spark of life – the very human quality of ‘not everything is perfect.’”
As with a live-action movie, the shooting of ParaNorman was divided into individual sequences that were usually grouped by the locations of the scenes. “The town of Blithe Hollow is like Concord or Salem – especially if Salem were on a tighter budget, with peeling paint and wire fences,” offers Butler. Echoing Knight’s comment, he agrees that “everything’s not pastel-perfect in Blithe Hollow – there is asymmetry and there are broken edges – yet it’s beautiful. The whimsical bit of detail was important to us; a bit of plastic bag stuck on a fence, for instance. To that end, photographer William Eggleston’s work was one of our influences.”
“His photographs are lovely,” notes Fell. “Eggleston found beauty in mundane and forgotten places, and we wanted to find beauty in the weirdness. Part of our story is that, if something is odd it’s not necessarily bad. Take another look, and you might see something you don’t at first glance.”
The production counted on research field trips for further inspiration. Butler reports, “During the writing process, I went to New England to explore and to get a feel for the region. Then, after the movie got the green light, Sam and I went out to Massachusetts on a more extensive trip with [ParaNorman production designer] Nelson Lowry. We came back to LAIKA knowing how to make Blithe Hollow feel lived-in; later, we’d say to each other, ‘Remember that bit?’ and it would end up in the movie.”
They didn’t rely just on memory; more than 4,000 photos were taken of everything from back yards to building structures to rustic woods. The digital photos were then printed out and pinned up for reference. Butler marvels, “Nelson brought together all the visual elements that we liked, and made them a cohesive whole.”
Lowry, who hails from the area, notes, “These elements give the movie a sense of place. We saw a number of houses that were sinking and sagging, so we pushed that a little further for Blithe Hollow. We would walk down a town’s Main Street, taking photographs from what would be a child’s point of view; to get Norman’s perspective, I’d be down on my hands and knees on town streets or in forests. Blithe Hollow ended up being ‘Frankensteined;’ a street from Weymouth, an abandoned power station from Concord, some witch statuary from Salem – all together on our sets. Being from the same region, they had a comparable look and feel.
“I walked into woods where I’d never been before, because I sensed I could find a clearing that we needed for reference for a big moment in the movie. Well, it was there, and I took the picture. Now, when you see the movie, you will see what I experienced in that magical moment.”
Another part of the south shore region of Massachusetts that ended up in the movie on its own set was the school; Lowry’s own local middle school essentially became Norman’s. The Blithe Middle School set, with a façade 8 feet high and built as a sandbag-anchored elevated structure to reinforce Norman’s apprehension about going in each day, took nearly 4 months to create on a stage at LAIKA Studios. The “fluorescent” classroom lights visible through the windows were made of pieces of foam.
Lowry reflects, “We had to figure out how materials will move, or register, on-screen. We had workshops where we would try stuff out, and then do photographic tests. Brad Schiff would say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ and help us figure out how to make things move.
“You’re always borrowing from the people you’ve met and the things you’ve seen. There are bits and pieces that you catalogue in your head, just waiting to use in a movie. On ParaNorman, I got to throw a lot in!”
Thrown in to make the topography of a forest set were bits and pieces of paper towels; banks of shredders masticated whole rolls, and the resulting fragments were painted and glued.
Also among the 52 stages, the town square occupied 4 of them. This was a reflection of not only its status at different junctures in the story, depending on the havoc wreaked in Blithe Hollow, but also the time of day or night at points in the story – as well as the production schedule, since, as with most movies, ParaNorman was not shot in sequence. Since such a detailed set could not be redressed, it had to be created in multiple incarnations, which also proved necessary for several of the nearly three dozen other unique locations.
Hayns says, “I would go over to the town square sets just to look at them. You felt you were in New England standing outside a historical courthouse.”
Sutner observes, “Nelson already knew so much about the stop-motion world, and he understood how this movie had to have a fresh look to it.”
Lowry remarks, “The look of the movie had to be in service to Chris’ script. Every set, every prop has to be carefully considered. We had elaborate bibles of information and reference; making a stop-motion movie you have to pace yourself so that you still have ideas to offer after months and months of production. So, while staying within the specs of the project, the design team was always encouraged to be creative and each artist has his own hand in.
“ParaNorman did lend itself to spontaneity. Sometimes, design would come out of necessity. I’d go on a hunt through the studio to find something that, if I couldn’t use outright, maybe I could manipulate or be inspired by. It’s a spirit of play – which is something I have found a lot of being at LAIKA – like being a kid again; you don’t ever want to get used to everything, and never allow yourself to be surprised.”
Director of photography Tristan Oliver adds, “I had just worked with Nelson on my last movie, so that was a ready-made fit. It’s such an important working relationship, yet quite often you get the cinematographer and the production designer at loggerheads. But we get on very well. Nelson and I were in close contact – talking about spectrum, surface finish, and so forth – once Sam and Chris had discussed Heidi Smith’s work with him.”
Hayns notes, “Nelson worked degrees of Heidi’s drawings of big open spaces into so much of the movie. Her drawings also lent themselves to our process; the shapes and silhouettes that she came up with gave our department real challenges in terms of making working puppets that could live in the world that was designed for them. It all started with the story, and then the vision was really set once the directors had talked with Tristan and Nelson. Through all of my group’s mechanical and fabrication tasks, there were specific rules to follow on this highly singular movie.
“Brad Schiff would say to us, ‘Let’s push it!’ LAIKA affords the opportunity to experiment in a familial environment. One of the fun things about the company is how we bring in people who have worked in miniatures in different industries and then teach them how animation works. It’s shifting raw talent a few degrees in one direction. My job is to pull a group of craftspeople together to make inanimate objects animate. We are always striving to make the puppets better and better, all through production.”
On ParaNorman, the puppet department numbered 60 people at the height of production. To physically construct just one of the puppets, multiple department members will work for 3-4 months. Hayns elaborates, “All of our puppets are made up of silicone and foam latex and resin, and then inside they have their metal. Unlike marionette puppets – with whom everything is shot in real time – stop-motion puppets have to withstand a lot and last a long time. We work closely with the directors on anything and everything that is going to be seen on-screen, and I am involved with every painting color or piece of hair going onto a puppet.”
She continues, “What comes first is, concept artists design the look of a puppet. Once it is approved, a sculptor turns that two-dimensional, or 2D, illustrated image into a three-dimensional, 3D, object. The director has to discuss what performance he wants from that puppet – walking, talking, emoting – with a core group. We go over every aspect; we have separate meetings for the lead characters, and we meet on several of the secondary characters at once.”
Butler notes, “On this movie, we’ve got puppets that posed a challenge in terms of their design, with features that are a big no-no; thick arms, large necks, and so forth. But we liked the designs, and pushed and pushed to find ways to make these new shapes and sizes work. The results, like much else in and about ParaNorman, are unique.”
He elaborates, “I recently found the first drawing that I ever did of [Norman’s friend] Neil – and it’s almost exactly the character we ended up with. But Mr. Prenderghast was someone I originally saw as a dapper, frail old gent in a white suit with a cane; Heidi Smith read the script and instead drew up this –”
“— giant old tramp,” laughs Fell.
“A huge filthy-looking man, who I thought was cool,” agrees Butler. “That became our glorious Mr. P. puppet.
“Heidi’s initial drawings had a wonderful nervous and organic quality. They were then adapted by [character sculptor] Kent Melton, who is a prolific sculptor of [clay figure] maquettes. Her black-and-white pencil line drawings were difficult to realize in three dimensions as puppets, but he did it and we liked what we saw. Our characters are both beautiful and ugly – just like real people!”
Oliver opines, “I think Norman is beautiful; he works classically well in silhouette, which is the mark of a good animation character.”
All departments at LAIKA have a movie’s character lineup posted within easy view in an oblong format – the “group shot” makes for a guiding reference for everyone working on the movie, as well as a reminder of the unifying principles and visuals of the story being told.
Once the puppets are made, they are still not ready for their close-ups. As Hayns notes, “There are different forms of facial animation, and you have to decide if a particular puppet is going to have a replacement head and face – which is hard but with a soft mold – or a mechanical head and face, which is soft but with a hard mold. You must ascertain which technique achieves the most detail and subtlety for your character.
“Since Coraline, we’ve taken the replacement technology a long way farther and the puppets have smooth and expressive faces – face shapes and mouth shapes. It’s more sophisticated, what with the upper and lower parts of the face now being able to move so much more while also being secured with magnets.”
The magnets are particularly complex with regard to a character’s eyelids and pupils. Audiences will never see “under the face,” but the design and engineering have to be in place and fully functioning so that the animators can craft their puppet’s performance and express emotions.
The improved replacement animation technology is evident early on in the movie, when Norman makes a “zombie face” while brushing his teeth; such a scene would not have been possible just a couple of years ago. 150 replaceable faces were switched in and out for the sequence. Hayns observes, “Movies are 24 frames per second, and we can have 24 mouth shapes per second.”
She elaborates, “It’s a bit like Swiss watch-making for the puppet head; the animator hand-manipulates the character’s facial expressions. Eyebrows, jaw, lips – they are all adjusted. There are tiny joints within that move the heads and faces, with replacement and especially with mechanical.
“At LAIKA, we favor replacement over mechanical. But there are a few characters in ParaNorman whose faces are mechanical, made of rubber and silicone, and containing clock gears for movement; namely, our zombies. The moldy, stretchy ‘skin’ with grinding mechanics underneath their heads suits them, and one key thing that we did on all of their head mechanics with paddles was to make their top lip raise up off of their teeth, for when they go ‘Uhhhgghhhh,” in that classic zombie way. We were also able to exaggerate – have their bony arms virtually touching the floor, for example.”
The LAIKA painters, she notes, “are like make-up artists; they work on thousands of replacement faces. One person will do all the lips on a character; another will be responsible for the eyebrows, and so forth.”
Having chosen a style of facial animation, Hayns says that the next steps are to “itemize the body of the puppet and work out what materials you will need to make everything from. The sculptor has to get the likeness right, sculpting the parts in clay and then separating them off. Then a mold-maker makes molds of all of those individual parts.
“A puppet for stop-motion animation has to have some kind of framework which will hold it up so that a human animator can manipulate that puppet and make it move – frame by frame on-screen. The puppet’s framework usually has to be a metal one; wire, or perhaps armature – which is a ball-and-socket and hinge-jointed version of a human skeleton. It’s been 80 years since King Kong, but that hasn’t changed.”
As tangible and impressively featured as the puppets become, they cannot stand on their own; each has threaded inserts in their feet so that they can be screwed down to a surface. Hayns offers, “The joints have to withstand the costumes being applied onto the puppets – and you have to take into account that characters’ poses will be held twice as long, given that they are photographed twice for each 3D frame. We’re always discussing new engineering techniques.”
For the character of Norman, 28 different puppets, each 9” tall, were created. His armature had 122 individual parts, including 80 different metal components. “An armature prototype takes a few weeks to make, and he was the first puppet we made on this movie,” reveals Hayns. “After all, he is the lead character and he was needed by his directors.”
One of his producers can’t say enough about the Norman puppet; Sutner reveals, “I shouldn’t play favorites, but…our hero is so lovable in close-up. This little puppet could be so heartbreaking.”
For more imposing characters, notes Hayns, “we had to do a lot of development with silicone padding out and around the armature. They’re big square puppets, but we’ve got them stretching their arms – [Norman’s schoolteacher] Mrs. Henscher’s are able to move on their own, because of built-in flab – and bending. But you don’t really know what they can do until you get them out of the mold and start moving them all over. There was a lot of moving flesh among these characters – to Chris and Sam, it was the more the better.”
For Neil’s belly, a guitar-gear mechanism was customized into the armature and engineered from behind the puppet to move up and down, including when Neil is scarfing potato chips. Hayns enthuses, “When we saw the shots in rushes [i.e., dailies], we were in hysterics – because it was so subtle, and not overplayed, in the animator’s performance. So our achievement there was that it was believably his shifting while he was chewing.”
More fragile body parts like hands had to be made many times over and kept at the ready. Hayns reports, “Despite the little wires we layer into the hands, these are the first things to break on any puppet.
“The first completed and approved puppet of each character is called the ‘hero’ puppet. That’s the birth, and then they’re reproduced many times – in duplicates.”
The multiplicity continued in the costume department; as is the case for any major movie, duplicates of characters’ outfits had to be kept handy. With animators handling the puppets thousands of times, there were at least half a dozen duplicates of each costume. “Costuming is the final layer for the puppets,” says Hayns. “But we have to think about that at the beginning of the process, taking into account designs; scale and texture; how something will ‘read’ on screen; and how costuming will mesh with the mechanics of the puppet. That’s where our skilled costume makers come in.”
Creative supervisor of costume design Deborah Cook elaborates, “We start with images of regular clothing to see how we might want it to look. Then we research fabrics and do color and fabric tests. What works in the studio might not on-camera. For example, some fabrics will have a little grain or weave on them, which would be fine – but for the fact that a close-up on-screen would be distracting.”
One testing method is to have someone of comparable real-life height and stature to a character walk around in an outfit so Cook’s department could see how key planned costumes hang and flow. “We try to get the same movements out of the costumes as in life-sized, because it helps make our characters believable,” comments Cook. “We have to take into account whether it’s an active character or a sedate character, so we also do tests with the puppets themselves.
“Usually, the puppets are still being built as we’re making the costumes so we’ll get a dressing dummy to work on. When we get the actual puppet, we can final tweaks and adjustments.”
The production’s painters worked on Cook’s group’s costumes as and where needed, whether to “age” them accordingly or provide detail on clothing. Even buttons on a costume are sculpted by hand and then painted. Everything done on-site is coordinated with the production’s confirmed color palettes and visual directives. While the actors voicing the characters are not direct references for the department, their photos might be kept nearby as talismans.
Some of the core fabrics proved highly adaptable; the ghosts’ appearances were enhanced by tulle – not as a material for their costumes, but as the substance that doubled on-screen for the particles and vapor they float around in and with. The versatile fabric also was deployed – and sometimes painted – as smoke, clouds, and what Lowry refers to as “a huge ectoplasmic yolk.”
Perhaps most notably, as Cook and her team had found on Coraline, antique Victorian gloves offered the best and thinnest possible leather out of which to fabricate some of the puppets’ shoes – including Norman’s well-worn sneakers. “Leather always looks best,” she offers. “We already know those gloves are durable, and they transfer nicely in scale on our puppets.” The sneakers went to a bigger scale for close-ups, for which larger-proportioned versions were built and also fitted with leather.
As a footwear contrast, Norman’s at-home “zombie” slippers were hand-made with dyed fabrics and also were made in different sizes.
As befits the lead character in an adventurous story, Norman has what Cook calls “an iconic costume, which was a pleasure to try and get on-screen. He’s always wearing his favorite jeans and hoodie, and is never without his goodies-filled backpack which has badges on it. Then there’s his key fobs and his zipper tags. All of this was made by us. His backpack is a regular piece of green fabric for which we did our own stitching so it was in scale with his clothing; the zipper tags were sculpted here, cast in silver, hand-painted, and then sewed on.”
She further notes that Norman’s favorite jeans “have little panels in them, which brings in the design concept of the movie; everything is slightly asymmetrical, as flat planes are mixed in with the curves. On-screen they will look like chunky denim; in our world, they are lightweight summery chambray cotton shirt fabric.
“His T-shirt is made of an extremely fine nylon stocking that we’ve dyed to look like denim. There is latex sheeting underneath that and his hood so that they always fall back into shape. Underneath his jacket is some wiring that anchors into his armature and his hood – so the animators could move it incrementally with his body movements so that it looks like a real boy walking along.” Further down the Norman puppet for the latter shots, several layers of aluminium foil were applied to get the creasing just so where his sneakers and the jeans bumped up against each other.
That jeans creasing had to be precisely positioned many times over; while there was only one lead character, there were 28 puppets of him. Cook reports, “To keep continuity, we had to ensure that we could duplicate things – and make more than 28, since they sometimes had to be changed out because of getting worn out during the shooting. Whatever we make has to be easily accessible and maintainable – and we work with other departments to make sure that they can access the armature or mechanisms underneath. On ParaNorman, we made a concerted effort to move forward in pushing the boundaries of the engineering that must go within the costume structures.”
With LAIKA based in Oregon, Cook says that her department “tries to source materials locally – we pillage the local stores, really – but I’m looking out wherever I am; it’s always in the back of my mind. We’ve gotten things from London, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. We try to keep abreast of developments in textile-making. But on ParaNorman, there is not a single fabric that is a straight-away store-bought fabric; we treat and hand-dye every costume.”
Cook’s department is dotted with high-tech sewing machines and surrounded by sketches. As with other LAIKA departments, she and her staff looked to real people to inspire the stop-motion characters they work on.
This was necessary for even the zombies since, as Hayns reveals, “the story delves into how the zombies were once human beings. There’s a point in the movie where we see them in their previous, human form. So, costuming and hair styling from the early 18th-century was researched.” Seamstresses studied Smith’s drawings’ textures under Cook’s supervision and embroidered the fabrics with the extra detail that one would have found – and worn – in the early 18th century, and then distressed them to reflect 300 years of zombiefied decay.
“I loved working on the zombies’ Puritan-era costumes because they’re so textural,” says Cook. “It was a challenge getting into the historical aspect. Doing the research, I looked at archaeological finds and clothing that had been x-rayed, seeing how they were and then how they rotted.”
Cook and her department also watched the 1996 movie version of The Crucible and the 2002 miniseries Salem Witch Trials, while Hayns took her own field trip to New England. She laughs, “Chris Butler said, ‘Well, if you’re going, take some pictures of gravestones!’ So that was my busman’s holiday – visiting graveyards.”
The Judge’s cloak, of which six were made, “was hand-stitched and also machine-stitched,” comments Cook. “We brought together different tensions of lighter cotton threads to create a sense of a lush brocade. He’d have been quite a smartly dressed man in his time. There was some copper wire mesh on the bottom to support the costume, especially during the sequences on and around the van. For this garment, we had a map detailing the distressing points, where we hand-dyed, the different threads, and the wiring – which was also in his cuffs and cravat.”
While The Judge’s garb may look elegant – centuries of mold notwithstanding – but is surprisingly basic, other costuming appears ordinary but is in fact rather elegant; Neil’s shorts were made of foam latex with a silk overlay, and did not even require wire support.
Early in the design process, the lead, or “control,” of Norman and every other character has also been crafted to scale as a maquette –a puppet-sized detailed clay figure (though not a workable puppet) that can be found on mounts at the LAIKA workspaces. The maquettes serve as artists’ models, reference points of both character and look. “They are style and size guides,” says Hayns. “They solve problems for us in advance and can give us a real feel for the puppet before it is actually made.”
For the puppets’ hair, the production experimented with various types of human hair, animal hair, and even tinsel. Hayns reports, “You find that human hair is too porous and does not stick. On Coraline, we had hit upon using synthetic hair – mohair, actually – which we laid thin wires into.
“When it came to our lead character this time, we felt that we had gotten quite a performance from Coraline’s hair so we wanted to make Norman’s hair even more illustrative. We also had to adhere to what was the highly cohesive ParaNorman design. [The work of the late painter] Lucian Freud inspired us for skin tones and hair. Norman’s hair had a goat hair base, fused with glues, hair gels, fabric, adhesives, thread, and – like with Coraline – wire. Last came paint and some human hair dye. We kept track of the elements through a color key, and many of the hairs were made individually.”
For many of the puppets, their hair was also doubled with wigs; as Hayns notes, “We had to make different stunt wigs for the action that they go through. We made five different Norman wigs, trying strange things to spark our enthusiasm – like trash bags – but eventually, we went with real hair interspersed with the fibers raffia and sisal. Neil’s hair may look quite simple but his stunt wigs each had 20 different fibers in them.”
Hayns reveals, “Our process for cleaning those wigs is a little drop of alcohol and a gentle hand. Here’s another trade secret; an eyebrow trimmer works well for treating the puppets’ hair. We needed each of those wigs; after a lot of handling, Norman looked like he had dandruff!
“Meanwhile, our silicone casters had to make sure there were no seam lines on the puppets’ surfaces. We always have people on standby during shooting to repair a puppet whose silicone tears. They use magnifying glasses and get to work like a make-up artist.”
Tools of the trade in the costume department range from Carmex lip balm to dental scrapers to paint thinner. Cook adds, “We also make good use of needles, pins, and surgical tools like tweezers and syringes. The cotton buds we use are miniature. We have brushes that we dip into latex so that we can get tiny specks off of the characters’ costumes without pulling the fabric – you often can’t put your hands on there…”
The various departments’ crafts were utilized across the 52 different stages at LAIKA Studios; though proportionally smaller than soundstages at a movie studio, over 40 were up and running simultaneously at the height of production.
Fell remembers, “Chris and I would meet in the morning and go through everything from lighting cues to sets. We would split up to deliver messages to the crew, and then meet up again later.
“All of the department heads are people who are tremendously passionate about what they do.”
Sets were built and dressed with props. The cinematographer then would light them and shoot some footage for the directors and the crew to look at, so that any adjustments and improvements could be made. Once everyone felt that everything is right and in place, the animator would step in to ready the scene and the puppets’ performances. While a stage may have a host of characters assembled for a scene, there is often just one animator – the one responsible for the overall sequence – who is on the set. The animator tends to each character, one at a time; when all is ready – which may be days later – only then can the shot(s) be taken.
If a test set was on a smaller proportional scale, once it was approved by a director the measurements were locked and recorded so that the shooting set could be built to exact specifications. Though some test sets will never make it on camera, they are nonetheless retained and are often checked for reference during production.
“On a busy morning – and there are many! – you might have 15-20 stages to shoot on, and you learn to prioritize,” notes cinematographer Tristan Oliver. “There are four cameramen that I am supervising, and I have first and last looks at whatever frame they are shooting. I prepare them for each shot. But lighting is a big part of what cinematography is, and I love to do it, so I am a presence all over the studio floor.”
Oliver, having shot many previous stop-motion movies, was no stranger to the process, but allows that “for me, the big challenge on this was to go stereoscopic – to shoot in 3D for the first time – while using a wider screen aspect ratio [e.g., 2:35/1]. The exciting part – for myself, Sam and Chris – was to try to make the puppets naturalistic, as if we are capturing them on-screen in their environment, in a live-action way. We decided we weren’t always going to see their faces.
“Zombie movies have their conventions – crash scenes, chiaroscuro lighting – and we observe them. But the zombie elements of our narrative are more subtle than the norm. To shoot our movie’s ghosts, I referenced early Russian photographs taken on glass panes. I also looked to the work of [feature film cinematographers] Conrad Hall and Roger Deakins, and at movies that use light and dark in a particular way to give a sculpted look. I was very fond of Seamus McGarvey’s work on Atonement, and it influenced my work on a sequence in ParaNorman which dramatizes one character’s remembrance. The forest scenes were influenced by martial arts movies, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.”
Overall, Oliver assesses that he “had a real dialogue going with Sam and Chris. They know when they don’t like something, which was good. Working with a shallower depth of field and shooting widescreen and using long lenses, I got to try lots of things I’d always wanted to on previous movies but hadn’t been able to until ParaNorman. LAIKA made the first stop-motion feature in 3D with Coraline, so they invented a method for that and we have reinvented it for ParaNorman. On Coraline, sets were built to accommodate a certain style of 3D but we have a different aspect ratio, a different look, and a different story to tell.
“You need to have an on-screen environment that justifies going stereoscopic. Wider lenses were used for characters farther away from the camera, not in close-up. We establish Norman’s world in Blithe Hollow with a nice wide frame that encourages people to go ‘Oooh,’ rather than feel sick; we’re careful to take into account length and distance and atmosphere, rather than having stuff come out of the screen. If you’re shooting in 3D, it’s incumbent upon you to be making a good movie from a good script – which we had. We didn’t ever want to take the audience out of the ParaNorman narrative.”
In addition to working in 3D for the first time, the cinematographer had not previously shot a stop-motion animated movie before in the U.S., and embraced and abetted LAIKA’s distinctive brand of classic stage craft and technology. He notes, “I believe that motion control has transformed stop-motion, with the camera being able to move so fluidly through the environment that is being created. About 80% of ParaNorman is motion control in some way – there are some handheld shots, referencing Sam Raimi’s [Evil Dead] movies.”
Fell elaborates, “There was such great energy in the way Sam Raimi had the camera stuck on a wheelbarrow and just driven through the forest. That kind of thing can’t be copied by computer. So our making a zombie movie in stop-motion felt absolutely right as an homage to the way filmmakers like Sam got what they needed back then in the 1980s, before the digital age.”
Oliver remarks, “Since a stop-motion movie requires a lot of labor, pre-visualization – especially for set pieces – is important; I have to figure out the right lens sizes so that the art department doesn’t build more than they absolutely have to. Because of the collapsed scale, you’re constantly trying to make lights look farther away than they are – so we’re often using the biggest lights possible! One thing to learn is how to apply old-school theatrical tricks – a layer of white netting which throws the background into a further distance, or a scrim behind a row of ‘trees.’ When lensing a stop-motion movie, you should be able to achieve in-camera most of what you need to do.”
Knight concurs, noting, “We take a lot of our cues from the stage world, especially in the way that we build our sets and how we shape and frame things.” As in the stage world, sets are painted by hand and unexpected shadings are used to deepen the overall palette.
The result, says Sutner, is “that sets were built which don’t look like anything previously ever seen, or successfully visualized, in-camera.”
In their full-service shop right near the stages, the art department keeps track of such details. What look like messes of clutter on-screen had to be carefully choreographed, catalogued, and curated by Lowry and his team. After the sets are built, they have to be dressed; accoutrements like Norman’s collectible zombie ephemera are worked on by set dressers. Such elements can provide the opportunity for flourishes and in-jokes, but they must also be carefully sized and often crafted in consistent multiples.
Lowry notes, “It’s always fun to watch stop-motion movies a second or third time, because you can see things you might have missed before. In ParaNorman, if you look deeper and deeper into the background – like, say, in Mr. Prenderghast’s house – you’ll see how we made and detailed everything. That was in part because someone on the crew would create something and say, ‘I had this,’ or ‘I love this;’ and in part because I knew we were going to be seeing environments from many angles and in 3D.”
Without spoiling them, Butler points with pride to a number of affectionate movie and moviemaker references in the horror and thriller genres, noting that “one isn’t an object or a visual at all; it’s a ringtone of a classic theme, which I didn’t even think we could obtain [the rights to,] but we did. There’s little things that a lot of people aren’t going to get, but I would often be telling our team, ‘That sign has to stay, for this particular director’s fans out there!’”
Something else that few might notice the art department having provided particularly impressed Oliver; namely, how Blithe Hollow’s nocturnal streets were dotted by shops that he was able to customize. He comments, “There were street lights set up, and then every shop had a different colored light; sodium, tungsten, ultraviolet…it’s just like they are on real streets, based on our having looked at photorealistic paintings of nighttime New York.
“To have a huge visual effects department on ParaNorman was an extraordinary luxury; you get instant feedback on whether something that didn’t quite work could be fixed, or whether it needed reshooting. Whatever you needed was at your fingertips.”
Fell notes, “Although more effects end up being ‘in camera’ than you would think, the visual effects staff was involved from the storyboarding stage. It made things happen that much easier.”
Visual effects supervisor Brian Van’t Hul muses, “Every single shot in this movie is ‘an effects shot.’ We work side by side with all departments during the production process; as soon as a frame of footage comes off of a set, we are working on it.
“There’s no waiting for a download; we are on the same internal network. We’re doing ‘the post [-production] work’ even before the shoot is finished. That’s a rare opportunity.”
Oliver’s opinion is that “post-production digital effects also hold an important place, but what they should not be doing is fixing what was failed to have been done earlier. They are there to enhance the movie.”
With inspiration encouraged from everyone and every artistic avenue, stop-motion is an art form that continues to thrive, and a craft that endures. While hewing to the long-established tenets and aesthetics of stop-motion animation – i.e., crafting and moving just about everything by hand –LAIKA Studios is also comfortably situated in the digital age.
“We harness the computer to serve the process,” Knight points out. “It’s a paradox; you now cannot really do a stop-motion feature without computers. At LAIKA, we have pioneered a lot of advancements in the technology. But it’s still effectively unchanged from 100 years ago; an animator is still on a set with a puppet, coaxing a performance out of it a frame at a time.
“Character development is always something we work at, from how the puppet takes a step to how it breathes. Each has its own idiosyncrasies.”
He notes, “You’re always using everything that’s been accrued up until that point; the storyboards, the vocal performances, the tests – it all helps the animator give greater vitality to their characters and their scenes.
“To move the stop-motion medium forward, we are taking all the tools at our disposal – from the most cutting-edge technology to traditional hand-drawn techniques to the basic craft of stop-motion itself – and bringing them together in a unique fusion. Coraline was one of the first movies to utilize 3D as an effective storytelling tool. We do not do 3D as post-production [conversion] process after the fact. It’s not a parenthetical glaze, it’s baked in the filmmaking. We rigorously design every single shot with 3D composition in mind, shooting exhaustive tests and wedges to elicit the desired aesthetic and precise emotional response the narrative requires. That approach naturally lends itself to shooting in 3D.”
In making ParaNorman in 3D with a digital camera, each completed and digitally photographed frame was stored on a computer – and the animators could refer to a monitor and review their previous shots. After checking the model, animators would move the puppet and/or other elements infinitesimally for the next frame.
Another key area where LAIKA has taken stop-motion into the 21st century is facial animation. Building on the replacement animation method originally developed by George Pal of “Puppetoons” fame –whereby each face is exchanged for another with a different sculpted expression in order to create the illusion of talking –ParaNorman marries traditional hand-made sculptures and drawings with CG modeling and 3D printing to create a level of facial expressiveness never seen before.
Knight notes, “For the replacement animation, we model in the computer based on drawings created by a 2D animator, and then print them out in Rapid Prototyping on 3D Printers – so you get the actual tangible upper or lower portion of the face. The result is beautiful and expressive facial animation.”
Creative supervisor of replacement animation & engineering Brian McLean oversees LAIKA’s Rapid Prototyping department, the part of the company that is most effectively utilizing modern technology to bolster what is created by hand. The process begins with not only the original sculptures and finalized maquettes but also 2D drawings – all director-approved for the Rapid Prototyping (RP) department to use as starting points.
McLean explains, “The term ‘Rapid Prototyping’ comes from the original concept, going from an early computer design and high-resolution scan to a three-dimensional object. This started being used at Fortune 500 companies. It’s like ink-jet printing, but with something growing and growing in the space – and, instead of ink, a UV-sensitive resin is being used. There are super-glue and powder elements as part of the process. But the resin is liquid and it’s sprayed by multiple heads in a given Printer onto a water-soluble powder-based support material, which is the foundation for the entire process. Though they look like sugar cookies from the oven when they emerge, there’s no residue when the support material washes away. Yet it’s served as such a solid support and encasement for the hard[er] piece which we then break off and out. We’ve got detailed workable parts that will fit and function together. An in-computer model becomes a physical piece, one that is cleaned, sanded, and hand-painted for the animators to manipulate by hand.
“With Coraline, LAIKA became the first company to do a feature-length movie using RP, specifically for replacement faces printed on a 3D Printer. It was beautifully articulated. But LAIKA wanted to continue to push the level of performance that a stop-motion puppet could give, and to modernize the process. Now, with ParaNorman, we have made the first stop-motion movie that uses a 3D Color Printer. The technique is similar, but what the 3D Color Printer affords you to do is to build color into the model. So it’s a big move forward.”
He clarifies, “Certain colors may not be in the range of the Printer. To get the exact color that is called for by the production, we will ‘cross-hatch.’ You may think something is impossible to get, but it’s not; and, each year, we can do more and more. For example, the ‘gin blossoms’ on Norman’s grandmother’s face look so authentic; and the ‘bacon’ from our Printer really does have the texture of a strip.”
With full-color capability and larger machines now in the RP realm at LAIKA, the silicone printing process has become even more advanced in the 3.5 years since Coraline. “It looks very much like skin, and you can paint on it easily,” notes McLean. While Coraline Jones had well over 200,000 potential facial expressions, Norman Babcock has 1.5 million –allowing for a seemingly limitless variety of smiles, frowns, winces, and screams. On a proportionally smaller level, Norman’s friend Neil has thousands of freckles on his face – well beyond Coraline’s 10 or so.
“The replacement faces are in RP, and the material absorbs light and is translucent,” notes Hayns. “The Color Printer enabled us to experiment more with silicone. So it’s given the characters’ skin a natural glow – even Alvin’s fleshy-face-sliding-into-neck. [Director of photography] Tristan Oliver has done an amazing job of lighting them, and the similarly translucent sets.”
“Given the medium, people think we’re using very small lights,” laughs Oliver. “We do – but we used very big ones too!”
Fell says, “There are bright colors in just about every scene. We wanted the lighting to fall on the characters in a very subtle and beautiful way, as if the scenes were just happening effortlessly. So it meant getting the right combination of color and light – and a skin texture that hadn’t been achieved before.”
McLean observes, “The beautiful skin tone comes from the color being ‘baked in’ by way of the Printers. People’s ears always have a little reflective glow, and in live action that has to be blocked out. But here it was something that we saw as a way to make our characters feel that much more alive. When Courtney is chewing and then blowing bubble gum and it pops on her face, the light comes through our carefully thinned ‘bubble gum shell’ beautifully.
“The characters never are lacking a human touch; there are a tremendous amount of nuances that go into the characters’ faces. Having thousands of replacement faces coming from the Printers and in our library helps our animators be able to give extra attention to the body movements. What all this is in the service of is that audiences connect with the characters and feel their emotions. LAIKA’s movies are highly character-driven, and this range of expressions helps our characters come even more alive.”
The advanced RP techniques were now also able to better support the mechanical faces work. McLean is particularly pleased at the highly “articulated non-circular eye, and eyelid, animation that was able to be achieved – as well characters’ teeth being detachable, so they could be hand-painted and adjusted. All portions, whether mechanical or replacement, have an embossing system on the back which allows us to track them.
“We do internal mechanics as well; inside the heads of Norman puppets, there are 78 little pieces that won’t be seen on-screen but that we needed to make for the shoot.”
He notes that “while RP was originally conceived at LAIKA to produce replacement faces, it has grown in scope. Our department can now help out with props – such as Mitch’s van, which ends up hosting several characters at once – rigging elements, and puppet sculpts.”
As ever, there remains no shortage of prop work to be done by hand – on many an animated movie, the blades of grass in Blithe Hollow would be computer-generated, but on ParaNorman they are handmade and refashioned from garbage-bag twist-ties.
Assistant art director and head of set dressing Robert DeSue notes, “These everyday objects are subtly fatigued, off-kilter, and sometimes dimensionally askew. The way they are made is unique to LAIKA.”
Whether hand-crafted or computer-created, images and/or sculpted models are given to the RP with an eye towards getting the tangible result. “While pre-visualizing from the data that’s been scanned in 3D and then input, the RP computer physically breaks it down and then builds it up layer by layer. When it’s printed out, we can see how it feels and test it,” says McLean. This department’s work, too, must be approved before it is earmarked for inclusion in the movie; and, as ever, hand-painting must be done before any RP printout is ready for its close-up.
If the development in the RP computer is deemed successful, it is logged into a registration system that ensures exact consistency with the printout each and every time, no matter how many times the file is re-accessed. “That is the most important part of the replacement cycle,” states McLean.
Working from high-resolution scans and detailed resin castings of the hand-crafted original sculpts, the RP department’s CG artists log thousands of replacement faces into the computer using key expression drawings as a guide – and being careful to retain every hand-sculpted detail and imperfection that the original sculpt possesses.
“Our CG artists can create a snarl mouth, a yell mouth, and all the movements in-between – they’re digital sculptors creating a library of facial expressions,” remarks McLean. “We do tests to make sure that there’s cohesion, that the faces work well individually and together. Our specialists match the movement to syllables; “ooh, “aah,” “see,” “aych,” and so on. For ParaNorman, maintaining Courtney’s range was a particular challenge to achieve – because she’s often chewing gum!”
The puppets’ animators can then pick and choose from the computer; a face or a portion of one – for example, “Mitch Basic of Mouth #10” – can be printed on-site in an hour. In the final stages, the computer-sculpted faces are delivered as three-dimensional, printed objects. These objects are then cleaned, sanded, and painted by the hands of highly trained, detail-oriented artists. By respecting the integrity of the original sculpture, none of the characters lose the human touch that went into their creation; fittingly for Courtney, the lip gloss that she wouldn’t be caught dead (or, with the dead) without was painted on after the RP process.
“Once faces are printed, we test them again,” reveals McLean. “We have to make sure that – for example –the printing process hasn’t created a thin lip, or teeth that are breaking off. Real-world physics can come into play.” Alternately, if an object comes out too perfectly, some “weathering” might be subtly done, likely with stencilling.