In The Studios
Director Sam Fell reflects, "Making ParaNorman was an enormous task. To stave
off tunnel vision, every
now and then I would go on a tour of the LAIKA Studios and just walk around.
"That would be what I needed to remind myself of how beautiful our way of making
this movie was. You look
around and see so many different disciplines connecting, individual talents
fitting their work together."
Creative supervisor of character fabrication Georgina Hayns remarks, "At LAIKA,
we all work as a proper team
together." Whether recruiting from local talent, which Hayns notes is "easy to
find in Portland, a city that's
known for its arts and culture," or bringing over artisans from other cities or
countries, LAIKA is adding to the
Portland arts and culture portfolio.
Just outside Portland, at LAIKA's Hillsboro studios, the fantastical is
everywhere - yet also human-scaled, and
within reach. Fell remarks, "Ordinary and extraordinary things alike are being
studied and created in
Producer Arianne Sutner offers, "There are a lot of moving parts in the art of
stop-motion - in all senses of
The dozens of different stages and their nearby offices, workshops, and storage
areas span 2.5 acres within
building space. After creating an in-house visual effects unit, the company
added additional space - just
across the road - for the department while also basing administrative and human
resources staffers there.
At the original building, development and story work can be found percolating
upstairs. On the ground floor,
the more tangible efforts are taking shape - and, taking shapes.
To a child, the workshops would seem to be the largest arts-and-crafts class
imaginable, making use of
everything from butter knives to wing nuts. Yet, what looks like a tool kit
instead holds an array of RP Color
Printer-generated replacement faces that have been painted and finished by hand,
with each upper or lower
portion - generally speaking, "mouth" or "brow" -nestled in its own compartment
and separated by
character. "Frown kits" or "smile kits," containing variations on those
respective facial expressions, can be
brought over to the stages for a close-up that an animator is working on. There
are several hundred options
Everyone is working at once mere steps away from each other, albeit sometimes
traversing the length of a
football field indoors. What someone is preparing at a given moment could be
needed on a stage a few feet
away, a few minutes later. Replacement parts and/or costumes are everywhere.
Swatches for costumes are
kept handy as well.
Elevated work stations find workers perched atop rolling chairs as they perfect,
repair, or distress -
sometimes more than one at a time - elements of a puppet or a prop. Whether it's
a "Double Ball Joint" or
"Swivel Blocks & Pins" that are needed, boxes of those and more are close at
hand - for use by hand.
One might be put in mind of a science lab, though assemblage is the priority
rather than dissection. Great
care is taken with what is being painted and crafted; powder-free latex gloves
and hand sanitizer are always
within easy reach.
Per LAIKA tradition, if someone drops an object and it makes a noise on the
floor while landing intact, there
is a round of applause; if the object breaks, then there is silence.
Even that silence can be broken by music playing; with all the activity going
on, musical accompaniment is
sometimes seen as necessary to maintain work momentum. Disagreements over
musical selections have
been known to occur, so the solution is often to alternate days.
Nearby, 8-feet tall color-coded scheduling boards - maintained by hand - line
the heavily trafficked office
hallways en route to and from the LAIKA stages, tracking progress of scenes in
various stages of "Review,"
"Rehearse," or "Shooting;" and quantifying whether "Reframe Dress" or "Light
Dress" are needed. Crew units
are tracked as well, with assistant directors responsible for providing updates.
The stages themselves are clustered as a hive of activity. Heavy and yards-high
curtains discreetly close off,
and curtail outside light from, the entrances to dozens of sets of varying
dimensions. Call sheets that have
been producer-approved early in the morning are affixed to the curtains,
indicating who is working on what,
A "Hot Set" sign signals for extra caution when proceeding through the curtains
to the sets; a red light outside
a stage indicates that it is currently in active use. Even after entering, the
sets are recessed a few extra feet
inside so that the animators can concentrate on the work at hand.
A set may be active for weeks at a time, depending on the challenges of a
particular sequence, since
directors and crew have to walk from set to set rather than settling in on just
one. "Unfortunately, for safety
reasons, scooters are banned," laments Fell. "Not even wheelbarrows are
allowed," laughs Sutner.
Some of the "Hot Sets" do in fact need to be cooled off, with portable air
conditioners. This is so the
characters and/or sets will not melt under the hot lights - and so the animators
themselves won't get
overheated while working.
Visual effects supervisor Brian Van't Hul adds, "Since stop-motion is time-lapse
photography, when a set
heats up or cools down, elements of it can physically expand. If the set has
shifted and it can't get back to
the way it should be, then our department has to help the animators get the best
out of their image. We will
paint out rigs that have to be brought in to guarantee a performance; the
performance is what's important,
and not technical perfection."
There is a constant hum of activity as workers are on the move from one set to
another. Once through the
curtains, they move among artwork and standing props that are of museum-display
quality, so detailed are
the characters and creations.
Using a rig comprised of a single 3D camera, the exact same frame is shot twice
on a stage before the crew
moves on to the next frame. The camera - on ParaNorman, a Canon 5D Mark II,
which is in fact a stills
camera - is programmed to shift left and right on a slider, shooting separate
frames for each eye (the left
and the right). The two images are taken by the same lens of the same camera.
However, the cameras had to
be replaced during the lengthy shoot, requiring multiples just like so much else
in the production.
With recent advances in 3D into uniformly digital lensing, cameras are no longer
unduly big and heavy,
affording the moviemakers greater flexibility with the camera moves as well as
the freedom to move three-dimensionally
around their subjects. Director of photography Tristan Oliver comments, "It's
easy to control
the camera, especially since you can now use the same one to take both shots. As
stop-motion is a frame-by-frame
shoot, the lightweight and compact Canon 5D worked very well."
Crew members remain in contact through a communications system as camera moves
are ordered up and
acknowledged. "When there's a shot being done and an animator is
mid-performance, directors tend not to
be on the set," Fell reveals. "We leave them to it. But if something has been
missed, we have to go in there
and say so. Having been on stop-motion movies as an animator myself, I know how
difficult it is to have to redo
something and regain that focus."
Animation supervisor Brad Schiff says, "What's rewarding is, at the end of a day
where you've been on your
feet and mentally fixating on a puppet, you can press 'Play' and you're able to
see the life that you've created
that day - our own little species.
"The coolest, though, is on Fridays when you go to the theater [screening space
on-site at LAIKA's studios]
with everybody, and you see all the finalized shots with people reacting. That's
Van't Hul says, "What stands out about LAIKA's movies is the tactile quality.
You can see little flaws, but that
is part of the character and charm of the stories we tell."
There are more of the latter to come; feature animation projects in development
at LAIKA include the
fantasy-with-bite Goblins, the young-adult-themed magical story Wildwood, and
the adventure Here Be
Whichever the story being told by the LAIKA artisans, Creative supervisor of
replacement animation &
engineering Brian McLean offers that "we want the sense, when you're watching
one of our movies, that
there are physical objects and characters under real lighting and being
photographed with a real camera
"You can sit back, enjoy the movie - and maybe also wonder, 'How the heck did
they do that?'"
Cinematographer Tristan Oliver adds, "After the first five minutes of
ParaNorman, you might even forget
that it's animated; we hope that you will be immersed!"
On ParaNorman, editing of the movie began surprisingly early - very early - on
the production, back in
"It's very liberating to be an editor of animated movies," enthuses ParaNorman
editor Christopher Murrie, a
veteran of LAIKA's editorial department. He reveals that "unlike with a
live-action movie, we can edit the
feature before any footage has been shot. We built a version of ParaNorman,
several times, with the
storyboards and temporary dialogue - sometimes from me! - sound effects, and
music. We will work on it
extensively for over two years before we had to finalize anything. All told,
it's a three-year process versus
maybe three months for a live-action movie. But the principles of telling a
story for cinema are the same.
"We can add or remove scenes and rearrange them - all before the choices on-set
are made. We can request
the shots we want from the storyboard artists - 'Can I get a couple more panels
of this?' - and not have to
wade through thousands of feet of coverage. The analogy I make is that we start
with a blank canvas and
add layers upon layers; on a live-action movie, it's more like sculpting out of
marble. I've edited different
forms of animation, and working on stop-motion projects is particularly
The editor notes that, given the digitized information banks in place at LAIKA,
"When Sam or Chris would sit
down with me and say, 'What about that take where this actor tweaked that line
just a bit,' and it was
recorded 2 years ago, well, I can actually find it in our system. It will take a
couple of minutes, as opposed to
what would take a long time if the audio files hadn't been properly named in our
database. Yet there's a lot
you store internally, from your own memory."
Once shooting progressed, elaborates Murrie, "we would take the storyboards out
and put animation in. The
lion's share of editorial on an animated movie is in the pre-production process,
and not - as on live-action
movies - in the post-production process. As shots come off the [LAIKA Studios]
floor, we had to make sure
that they fit with each other in the right way. Every department's work comes
through editing; we inherit all
the problems, and hopefully don't create new ones!
"By what is in fact the post-production phase, my department does go back to the
more traditional editorial
role of doing the final cut and making each little moment sing. We work closely
with the sound designers and
The production had utilized two-time Grammy Award nominee Jon Brion's music from
previous movies -
including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Magnolia - as "temp tracks"
for the early assemblages
of ParaNorman. Director Chris Butler reports, "Jon's music fit so well with what
we were creating that we
reached out to him during the final phases of production and asked him to
compose the entire score."
When LAIKA came calling, Brion was most receptive to the prospect of scoring his
first animated feature. "I'd
been waiting for the right one for some time now," reveals the composer.
Murrie enthuses, "The musical element of Jon's score really helped the van chase
sequence coalesce. He
added a propulsion even beyond what was on-screen."
Producer Travis Knight calls Brion "prodigiously gifted. His inventive,
genre-defying musical storytelling
provides the perfect accompaniment for ParaNorman's groundbreaking visuals and
Director Chris Butler comments, "ParaNorman very much tells the story I
envisioned over 10 years ago. But
the look and the scope of it has exceeded my expectations; I don't think I ever
dared imagine that it would be
this big and beautiful."
Extending the visual and thematic narratives of ParaNorman into printed and
electronic form, Little, Brown
Books for Young Readers will be publishing several books in the U.S., with
Hodder Children's Books issuing
the U.K. editions. The original illustrated middle-grade novel based on the
movie is being written by Elizabeth
Cody Kimmel, author of the Suddenly Supernatural series. For younger readers,
there will be a storybook
centering on Norman and the zombies, as well as an early-readers book focusing
on Norman and the ghosts.
Actor Casey Affleck comments, "I go to a lot of movies with my kids, and I
wanted to be part of
ParaNorman because this movie is one that both kids and grown-ups will like,
which is rare."
Director Sam Fell offers, "I'm lucky to make a living doing what I've been doing
since I was 6 years old,
spending hours creating worlds. Now, I get to bring movie audiences - including
my son - into those worlds."
Producer Arianne Sutner reflects, "It's been very gratifying to work on a
project that had so much potential
and to see it come to life - faithful to the original vision, to what was
Knight says, "I do feel that ParaNorman will speak to pretty much everybody who
grew up feeling that they
didn't quite fit in. People like Norman who have a special gift are sometimes
ostracized, but what may push
them to the fringes is what makes them unique and gives their lives real value.
"It's a powerful thing to recognize those experiences in not just another
person, but in the whole army of
people who brought this story to life."
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