Although Laika's "ParaNorman" (opening Friday) doesn't reach the brilliant heights of "Coraline" (after all, Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick are a pretty unbeatable combination), it achieves something remarkable in its own right: verisimilitude. That's pretty unique for stop-motion, and the Portland, Oregon-based Laika now has something to build on for the future, thanks to the perfection of its rapid prototype 3D color printer and a marvelous movie that looks more authentic. The fact that this story of inclusion happens to be both funny and scary at the same time also makes it worthy of Oscar consideration, even in this crowded year of stop-motion, which has already seen the release of Aardman's "The Pirates: Band of Misfits" and concludes with Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie," the potential front-runner from Disney (Oct. 5).
Of course, it was probably inevitable that naturalism seeped into the fabric of stop-motion after being adopted by CG animation through the influence of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who's consulted at both Pixar ("Wall-E") and DreamWorks ("How to Train Your Dragon"). Yet it's tailor-made for "ParaNorman," especially considering that the 3D printer now spits out facial expressions animated in Maya in color. This means the softer skin looks more human, the expressions are more diverse, and the acting more believable. Why, the sight of the sun shining through Norman's ears at sunset is dazzling.
But it's more than a technical feat. Consider the anxious moment when Norman's snarky sister Courtenay (Anna Kendrick), swoons over the muscle bound Mitch. It's a restraint you don't normally see in stop-motion. "The naturalistic acting style was the hardest part: the sense of spontaneity and just playing out in front of the camera," asserts co-director Sam Fell. "One of the great examples is the boys in the garden talking and throwing around a stick. It's tricky to be understated and just be observational and not show off."
But for co-director Chris Butler, who was head of story on "Coraline" and who nurtured "ParaNorman" for a decade, this was his opportunity to take stop-motion to a new level of sophistication. He always imagined it as the cast of "The Breakfast Club" falling into "The Fog."
"I always think about the heart of John Hughes and the scene with John Candy in the motel in 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles': that speech is hilarious and heart-breaking as well," he says. "It goes along with the scares. If you're invested in these characters and the jeopardy feels real, you want them to succeed. The rapid prototyping gave us the opportunity to do nuanced acting, which I think was such a huge leap for this medium to have shots of characters in extreme close-up where they're reacting to someone else speak. It's so subtle that ordinarily you wouldn't be able to get away with it. And stop-motion is so theatrical and so we steered away from blacks and whites and grays — the kind of gothic stuff that Tim Burton does so well — and we wanted to do something different. And the color gave us the opportunity. We could go to the lurid Technicolor of Italian horror movies but we could do it in a really well-informed way."
For Travis Knight, the lead animator and president/CEO of Laika, "ParaNorman" represents a game-changer. He can still keep his animation chops honed (he handled both the zombies coming out of the ground and the serene finale in the meadow) while at the same time focusing on the Big Picture. "I think you have to go to some of those dark, more intense places," Knight suggests. "But certainly we don't want to traumatize anyone, let alone children, but I do think family entertainment has gotten so sanitized and so safe, and people are so concerned about scaring kids or frightening parents, that they're not making interesting stories and I think that's to the detriment of audiences and to the artists working in animation.
"We tried really hard to get [a naturalistic look]. Stop-motion has inherent limitations and one of those is by virtue of the fact that it is a physical object brought to life by the hands of an artist. It's going to have flaws; it's going to have mistakes baked in. And if you have enough of that it's going to be a constant reminder to the audience that it isn't looking at something that's real. But that's taking you out of the story and diminishing the emotional connection you can have with the characters, so it's something we were very mindful of. People had to feel for Norman and connect with him and have that kind of empathy for him, and you can't do that if you don't think of him as a real person. In my mind, to do that effectively, we really had to come up with an animation style that was very naturalistic, that was very observed and really refined and subtle and nuanced. And that's what we did. It's probably the hardest way to animate in stop-motion, but if you pull it off, then people forget that they're watching an assemblage of steel and silk and they think of this as a real boy in a real world."
So where does Laika go from here? Knight says he'll announce the next movie by the end of the year. It'll either be an adaptation of a literary property or an original they've developed and ideally would be released in the second-half of 2014. Among the adaptations are "Goblins" (sorcery with a bite to be directed by Mark Gustafson, animation director of "Fantastic Mr. Fox"), "Wildwood" (a surreal take on Portland), and "Here Be Monsters!" (Dickensian detective story meets steampunk). Beyond that, the goal is to release a movie a year by 2016. Knight is nothing if not ambitious.