Laika's "ParaNorman" not only outpaced its two stop-motion rivals, "Frankenweenie" and "The Pirates! Band of Misfits," at the box office with a respectable $55.8 million, but it also pushed the boundaries of a family movie with its theme of intolerance. This, along with a naturalistic style unique to stop-motion, just might earn the zombie-comedy an Oscar nomination for best animated feature.
"I always knew in writing 'ParaNorman' that it might cause a little bit of a fuss because of the areas that it delved into, but that was intentional," Chris Butler proclaims. "We wanted to be bold in our storytelling. And I'm glad that people have seen that and have responded to it."
However, Butler's more experienced directing partner, Sam Fell, was keenly aware of the thematic risks. After a disappointing stint at DreamWorks on "Flushed Away," he was delighted to be in an environment that encouraged being different. "Animation people have told me how well made 'ParaNorman' is and how they were surprised by its story; how unexpected it was," Fell relates.
In terms of the new verisimilitude on display in "ParaNorman" (now available on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3-D), it's what Oregon-based Laika is all about. Travis Knight, Laika's lead animator and president/CEO, likens it to "luddites embracing the loom." Stop-motion may be an age-old medium with its tactile aesthetic, but Butler insists they're not bound by it.
"It's not some historical novelty that we're honoring from a distance," Butler adds. "We're trying to take it as far as it will go. We're willing to use whatever new technology provides us to do that. I think we still maintain what is fundamentally attractive about stop-motion while using every trick in the book. And I think the rapid prototype 3D color printer is a perfect example of that. We used the printer on 'Coraline,' but it was black and white. And the innovation here on 'ParaNorman' was a color one so that we had an incredibly complex painting technique on the characters' faces. Also even the way that the material was printed, the color was within the material — the resin– so the way that it refracted light gave it a look that we'd never seen before. It looked more lifelike. We had never seen that before in stop-motion."
This is what the directors believe takes stop-motion to a whole new sophisticated level. It's still puppetry with its warmth and tactility, yet it remains distinct from the virtual puppetry of CG animation. And when you combine the benefits of rapid prototyping for character animation with the use of set extensions and slight digital enhancements, you strip away some of the artifice for a more believable experience.
In fact, Fell admits that stop-motion has benefited from VFX advancements in live action and CG animation. "We have the VFX department at Laika and the facial animation was figured out with Maya, but, coming back to stop-motion, what I love about it is that you're using real photography and you're relying on real surfaces. And the way the light works on those faces, using subdivision surface scattering, we get for free in stop-motion. I think there's a sophistication to the photography that's just naturally available to you in stop-motion; it's so effortless. I have yet to see that in a CG animated movie that feels quite as tangible or warm. It's beautiful and the high-end is certainly fantastic, but it's not long before it goes a little synthetic again."
The directors would go so far as to say that what they've achieved with stop-motion in "ParaNorman" is what they're chasing in CG animation. "I wish people would understand that," Butler asserts. "Real light on real objects."
Indeed, it's like having the best of both worlds.
Our exclusive "ParaNorman" clip below: