It's definitely a banner year for stop-motion. First, Aardman pushed the craft forward digitally with "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" (despite a lackluster box office response in the U.S.). Next, we have "ParaNorman" (Aug. 17), Laika's highly-anticipated follow-up to the acclaimed "Coraline," and, finally, Tim Burton's very personal and ambitious "Frankenweenie" (Oct. 5).
Speaking of Focus Features' "ParaNorman," I was invited once again to the Portland-based Laika a few months ago to cover a set visit. My, how they've advanced in four years. It's a different culture -- a different world. Yes, you can still sense the Henry Selick influence -- the Yoda of this studio. But it's now Travis Knight's place: the gifted artist and protege-turned mogul, who has become Laika's John Lasseter.
In fact, there he stood, peacefully beside a beautiful meadow set, lit in golden light, explaining the Laika ethos and the essence of "ParaNorman," the funny and endearing story of a misunderstood kid who sees the dead and possesses the only power to defeat the zombies, witches, and ghosts haunting his bucolic New England town.
"This particular story really spoke to me and I think it has great resonance with the crew here," Knight says. "I think the story of 'ParaNorman' in large part is about the people who are making it. It's this story of outsiders -- people who are marginalized for what they are and what they represent. But, also, at the same time, these people have extraordinary gifts, and that's true of Norman and this crew here. Because of that core, I absolutely had to be involved. Plus, what's better than a stop-motion zombie? We all found each other in the land of misfit toys."
So Knight took it upon himself to shoot a scene whenever he could: He started off with a somber moment between Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a friend and his grandmother, and then segued to a high-energy action sequence with zombies bursting from the ground and dirt and debris flying everywhere.
And Knight revels in the hand-crafted detail. "If you look at some of the materials here, for instance, this big tree and all the shrubs back there are made out of corrugated cardboard. The cover on the trees is made out of shredded paper and chicken wire. If you look at the grass here, it's made of Astroturf material and bits of glass. So when the light hits it on camera, it picks up these little glistening things, which gives it a beautiful quality. And then to give depth, we add a few thick scrims."