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Immersed in Movies: Previewing 'ParaNorman' in the 'Land of Misfit Toys'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood May 18, 2012 at 9:44AM

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.
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While "ParaNorman" shares some of the "Coraline" DNA, it's rooted in a more skewed naturalistic style than its theatrical predecessor. "This film required more verisimilitude so we don't go for broad theatrical poses," Knight adds. "Well-observed personality ticks incorporated in a stylized way into the animation. It's very difficult to pull off.

"At one point we talked about doing elements of [the environment] in CG, and I said, 'No, no, no -- we're going to do that practically.' And then when I was out there stabbing my fingers with bug pins and wires and scraping my hands, bloodied with wires, I thought why the hell did I agree to this? But in the end, when you watch that sequence [with the zombies], because it was all done practically in camera, it definitely has a certain feeling that we couldn't have captured in CG. It has a sort of veracity to it. And now the last sequence I'm working on goes back to the start, a really delicate, subtle moment between two characters. And so I've come full circle in terms of the animation and it's a nice way to go out."

"ParaNorman" is actually the brainchild of artist Chris Butler, who conceived the idea 12 years ago as "John Carpenter meets John Hughes." He wrote the script and was initially mentored by Selick and has now been mentored by Knight. He's co-directed the movie with animation vet Sam Fell ("The Tale of Despereaux," "Flushed Away").

"Saying 'John Carpenter meets John Hughes' is always funny and it's cool," Butler admits. "Actually, I think John Hughes is the best reference here because he always used comedy but there was a strong emotional current underneath. And that's the biggest part of this: you care about Norman."

Butler and Fell
Butler and Fell

Fell adds that "they're a great combination of flavors because, if you're making this as a family film, the comedy really tempers that horror stuff."

Yet "ParaNorman" couldn't have been made as effectively without the latest technology, especially Rapid Prototyping with a new 3D color printer. Although Laika introduced the game-changing technique for face replacement on "Coraline," the printer was black and white so the skin was simplified and had to be hand-painted. Under the supervision of Brian McLean, however, here you get more of that verisimilitude: teenage acne, witches' warts, and zombies with squash-and-stretch. The faces are animated in the computer and then fed into a printer that uses liquid resin and U.V. lights. Out pops an assembly line of faces with 31,000 different expressions for its 178 individual puppets (supervised by Georgina Hayns). Thanks to the latest face replacement technology, Norman has about 8,000 faces with a range of individual pieces of brows and mouths allowing him to have approximately 1.5 million possible facial expressions. Plus there are 275 spikes in Norman's signature hair style (primarily made out of goat hair held together with hot glue, hair gel, fabric, super glue, medical adhesive, Pros-Aide make-up adhesive, thread, and wire).

Meanwhile, the sets comprise a Salem-like town that is both spooky and invitingly retro. "ParaNorman" was lit by Tristan Oliver as though it were a live-action movie, referencing "American Beauty," "Pulp Fiction," and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," among others. How does light shine through a window or a door? This is not a typical kid's movie aesthetically.

Production Designer Nelson Lowry began with a photographic essay of Salem and Concord, Massachusetts, during a scouting trip and even visited his home town of Weymouth for inspiration. He didn't have to stray too far from home to find the perfect house and school for Norman. This adds another personal dimension and lived in quality that plays to the wonderfully tactile quality of stop-motion. Like Knight, Lowry's come full circle as well.

And Laika is nurturing its own wacky Band of Misfits.

This article is related to: Animation, Coraline


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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.