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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...

Norman prototype

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"

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

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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.