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PARANORMAN

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 faƧade 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."

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