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Immersed in Movies: Pushing Verisimilitude with 'ParaNorman'

Thompson on Hollywood By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood August 13, 2012 at 6:33PM

Although Laika's "ParaNorman" (opening Friday) doesn't reach the brilliant heights of "Coraline" (Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick are a pretty unbeatable combination), it achieves something remarkable in its own right: verisimilitude. That's pretty unique for stop-motion, and the Portland, Oregon-based Laika now has something to build on for the future...

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.

This article is related to: Animation, ParaNorman, Academy Awards, Awards, Awards, Oscars

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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.