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!
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
Sutner adds, "What you find is that, say, some animators are good at action, and
some are good at subtle
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
Butler says, "The animators have to 'own' the scene, from foreground action to
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
faĆ§ade 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
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
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
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
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
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
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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