For Travis Knight, the lead animator and president/CEO of Laika, "ParaNorman" represents a game-changer. He can still keep his animation chops honed (he handled both the zombies coming out of the ground and the serene finale in the meadow) while at the same time focusing on the Big Picture. "I think you have to go to some of those dark, more intense places," Knight suggests. "But certainly we don't want to traumatize anyone, let alone children, but I do think family entertainment has gotten so sanitized and so safe, and people are so concerned about scaring kids or frightening parents, that they're not making interesting stories and I think that's to the detriment of audiences and to the artists working in animation.
"We tried really hard to get [a naturalistic look]. Stop-motion has inherent limitations and one of those is by virtue of the fact that it is a physical object brought to life by the hands of an artist. It's going to have flaws; it's going to have mistakes baked in. And if you have enough of that it's going to be a constant reminder to the audience that it isn't looking at something that's real. But that's taking you out of the story and diminishing the emotional connection you can have with the characters, so it's something we were very mindful of. People had to feel for Norman and connect with him and have that kind of empathy for him, and you can't do that if you don't think of him as a real person. In my mind, to do that effectively, we really had to come up with an animation style that was very naturalistic, that was very observed and really refined and subtle and nuanced. And that's what we did. It's probably the hardest way to animate in stop-motion, but if you pull it off, then people forget that they're watching an assemblage of steel and silk and they think of this as a real boy in a real world."
So where does Laika go from here? Knight says he'll announce the next movie by the end of the year. It'll either be an adaptation of a literary property or an original they've developed and ideally would be released in the second-half of 2014. Among the adaptations are "Goblins" (sorcery with a bite to be directed by Mark Gustafson, animation director of "Fantastic Mr. Fox"), "Wildwood" (a surreal take on Portland), and "Here Be Monsters!" (Dickensian detective story meets steampunk). Beyond that, the goal is to release a movie a year by 2016. Knight is nothing if not ambitious.