It's definitely a banner year for stop-motion. First, Aardman pushed the craft forward digitally with "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" (despite a lackluster box office response in the U.S.). Next, we have "ParaNorman" (Aug. 17), Laika's highly-anticipated follow-up to the acclaimed "Coraline," and, finally, Tim Burton's very personal and ambitious "Frankenweenie" (Oct. 5).
Speaking of Focus Features' "ParaNorman," I was invited once again to the Portland-based Laika a few months ago to cover a set visit. My, how they've advanced in four years. It's a different culture — a different world. Yes, you can still sense the Henry Selick influence — the Yoda of this studio. But it's now Travis Knight's place: the gifted artist and protege-turned mogul, who has become Laika's John Lasseter.
In fact, there he stood, peacefully beside a beautiful meadow set, lit in golden light, explaining the Laika ethos and the essence of "ParaNorman," the funny and endearing story of a misunderstood kid who sees the dead and possesses the only power to defeat the zombies, witches, and ghosts haunting his bucolic New England town.
"This particular story really spoke to me and I think it has great resonance with the crew here," Knight says. "I think the story of 'ParaNorman' in large part is about the people who are making it. It's this story of outsiders — people who are marginalized for what they are and what they represent. But, also, at the same time, these people have extraordinary gifts, and that's true of Norman and this crew here. Because of that core, I absolutely had to be involved. Plus, what's better than a stop-motion zombie? We all found each other in the land of misfit toys."
So Knight took it upon himself to shoot a scene whenever he could: He started off with a somber moment between Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a friend and his grandmother, and then segued to a high-energy action sequence with zombies bursting from the ground and dirt and debris flying everywhere.
And Knight revels in the hand-crafted detail. "If you look at some of the materials here, for instance, this big tree and all the shrubs back there are made out of corrugated cardboard. The cover on the trees is made out of shredded paper and chicken wire. If you look at the grass here, it's made of Astroturf material and bits of glass. So when the light hits it on camera, it picks up these little glistening things, which gives it a beautiful quality. And then to give depth, we add a few thick scrims."
While "ParaNorman" shares some of the "Coraline" DNA, it's rooted in a more skewed naturalistic style than its theatrical predecessor. "This film required more verisimilitude so we don't go for broad theatrical poses," Knight adds. "Well-observed personality ticks incorporated in a stylized way into the animation. It's very difficult to pull off.
"At one point we talked about doing elements of [the environment] in CG, and I said, 'No, no, no — we're going to do that practically.' And then when I was out there stabbing my fingers with bug pins and wires and scraping my hands, bloodied with wires, I thought why the hell did I agree to this? But in the end, when you watch that sequence [with the zombies], because it was all done practically in camera, it definitely has a certain feeling that we couldn't have captured in CG. It has a sort of veracity to it. And now the last sequence I'm working on goes back to the start, a really delicate, subtle moment between two characters. And so I've come full circle in terms of the animation and it's a nice way to go out."
"ParaNorman" is actually the brainchild of artist Chris Butler, who conceived the idea 12 years ago as "John Carpenter meets John Hughes." He wrote the script and was initially mentored by Selick and has now been mentored by Knight. He's co-directed the movie with animation vet Sam Fell ("The Tale of Despereaux," "Flushed Away").
"Saying 'John Carpenter meets John Hughes' is always funny and it's cool," Butler admits. "Actually, I think John Hughes is the best reference here because he always used comedy but there was a strong emotional current underneath. And that's the biggest part of this: you care about Norman."
Fell adds that "they're a great combination of flavors because, if you're making this as a family film, the comedy really tempers that horror stuff."
Yet "ParaNorman" couldn't have been made as effectively without the latest technology, especially Rapid Prototyping with a new 3D color printer. Although Laika introduced the game-changing technique for face replacement on "Coraline," the printer was black and white so the skin was simplified and had to be hand-painted. Under the supervision of Brian McLean, however, here you get more of that verisimilitude: teenage acne, witches' warts, and zombies with squash-and-stretch. The faces are animated in the computer and then fed into a printer that uses liquid resin and U.V. lights. Out pops an assembly line of faces with 31,000 different expressions for its 178 individual puppets (supervised by Georgina Hayns). Thanks to the latest face replacement technology, Norman has about 8,000 faces with a range of individual pieces of brows and mouths allowing him to have approximately 1.5 million possible facial expressions. Plus there are 275 spikes in Norman's signature hair style (primarily made out of goat hair held together with hot glue, hair gel, fabric, super glue, medical adhesive, Pros-Aide make-up adhesive, thread, and wire).
Meanwhile, the sets comprise a Salem-like town that is both spooky and invitingly retro. "ParaNorman" was lit by Tristan Oliver as though it were a live-action movie, referencing "American Beauty," "Pulp Fiction," and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," among others. How does light shine through a window or a door? This is not a typical kid's movie aesthetically.
Production Designer Nelson Lowry began with a photographic essay of Salem and Concord, Massachusetts, during a scouting trip and even visited his home town of Weymouth for inspiration. He didn't have to stray too far from home to find the perfect house and school for Norman. This adds another personal dimension and lived in quality that plays to the wonderfully tactile quality of stop-motion. Like Knight, Lowry's come full circle as well.
And Laika is nurturing its own wacky Band of Misfits.