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Immersed in Movies: Exploring 'ParaNorman' VFX

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood January 25, 2013 at 2:57PM

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. It's a testament to both "ParaNorman's" individual accomplishment in pushing verisimilitude and Laika's commitment to transcending the limitations of stop-motion...
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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."

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies, ParaNorman, Animation, Interviews , Video


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.