In addition to its best animated feature Oscar nomination, the stop-motion "ParaNorman" has also distinguished itself with a few VFX noms from the Visual Effects Society (whose 11th annual VES Awards takes place February 5 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel). It's a testament to both "ParaNorman's" individual accomplishment in pushing verisimilitude and Laika's commitment to transcending the limitations of stop-motion while still retaining the hand-crafted nature of the animation.
"It's not exaggerating to say that 'ParaNorman' couldn't have been made without VFX," says director Chris Butler. "And that's what was always exciting to me about the project in the first place. We were pushing stop-motion into new territory, which included the scope and the scale. And those are two things couldn't have been realized if the movie had been done entirely practically. We wouldn't have been able to have the town be such an expansive place; we wouldn't have had so many locations; we wouldn't have had so many characters. A big part of the movie in the third act is the mob. And one thing that always bothered me about stop-motion movies was that a crowd of people usually meant three puppets. And that was always underwhelming to me as an audience member. Being able to have a proper mob is entirely due to VFX."
VFX supervisor Brian Van't Hul was tasked with overseeing the CG augmentation for the graveyard and Main Street (both of which have been nominated by the VES), along with the CG crowds. He says the goal on "ParaNorman" was to go beyond the traditional table-top-like environment associated with stop-motion.
"With CG and digital set extensions we've been able to open that up to the horizons to try and make it feel like a bigger world," Van't Hul explains. "And part of that is populating it, so Chris put us in charge of setting it up for digital background crowds. It takes a lot of time to make one digital puppet and then to animate it so to try and have a crowd of 100 or 200 background people meant doing it digitally. Plus we have all the invisible stuff that you never see on screen. For instance, a lot of the physical puppets can't stand on their own weight as they jump or run and all the rods and rigging have to be painted out."
The biggest VFX were the witch face up in the sky, which was a full CG volumetric simulation, as well as the bravura Angry Aggie pyrotechnics at the end (also nominated by the VES), which was a combination of a real puppet and enhancement of hair, dress, energy, and the yoke of spectral stuff around her that was all done in post.
"Aggie's a perfect example of a practical puppet, but we also used a lot of 2D animation and CG animation in order to bring her to life," Butler adds. "Having our own in-house VFX department being part of that process every day meant that at no point was VFX just post: it's not an afterthought to make something look prettier. It's an integral part of every scene. I always wanted Aggie to be this young girl at the center of all this fury.
"The best thing about getting our look was that Nelson Lowry, our production designer, went off on such amazing tangents: we had people blowing ink to create the Tesla Coil effect on her head; we had a visual development artist building Aggie out of glue and blown glass, paper, and wire. We were having textures animate through the printed faces, which were then blasting with light, so we got all these crazy effects."
For the tornado, smoke, electrical storm and ectoplasm-like wisps on the ghosts, they used Tulle, a thin bridal veil material. But they made an emaciated puppet and all the things that would be too difficult or too time consuming on stage were done as VFX. "Once the puppet animation was done, we tracked her body and then attached a CG dress to it so it was flowing and constantly moving (using Nuke, Maya, RenderMan, and Houdini)," Van't Hul suggests. "But a real physical dress was made first and then scanned in to make our CG dress."
Inevitably, Butler says there's always the danger of ending up with too much on screen and having an overdose of eye candy when you have so many driven artists. So they had to pull back some. After all, despite all the naturalistic advances, this is still stop-motion. And nothing should get in the way of the tactile fun and unique stylization.
"Behind the Scenes of ParaNorman: Angry Aggie"