‘ParaNorman’ Creators Make Dark Magic Fun

(l to r.) Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell inspect the family station wagon sculpture for use in ParaNorman, the new 3D stop-motion comedy thriller. Credit: LAIKA, Inc.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—”ParaNorman” writer Chris Butler, who co-directed the 3D animated zombie-adventure comedy with “Flushed Away” and “The Tale of Despereaux” director Sam Fell, says his inspiration for the story came from “watching all the wrong movies as a kid. I loved horror movies, still do.”

Butler says he also was a fan of family movies that were irreverent or edgy enough to take chances. “I sometimes think that children’s cinema has gotten a little more conservative,” he says. “We often look at the early Amblin movies like ‘E.T.’ (where) the family unit is a little dysfunctional, and I think that’s what’s nice about it. It’s very relatable for a kid. Everyone knows what it’s like to hear your parents argue, so when you see that onscreen it’s easy to relate to it. I personally am never fond of the idea of creating a perfect world to tell a kids’ story, because the world isn’t perfect.”

He says “ParaNorman” harkens back to that kind of storytelling. “We always talk about how this is like John Carpenter meets John Hughes,” he explains. “It was very much influenced by a certain era.”

In the movie, Norman is an 11-year-old who sees and can talk to dead people. No one initially believes him and he is regarded as a freak at school, but things change when a witch’s 300-year-old curse raises the dead.

One real-world subject the comically supernatural movie addresses is bullying, in the form of an intimidating classmate named Alvin who ends up helping Norman, his sister and two of their friends save their suburban town. “Every character and everything you meet isn’t what it seems,” says Fell. “Don’t judge a book by its cover is the theme, in some ways.”

“It’s that side of bullying though that isn’t just the gratuitous ‘getting beat up every day’ (kind)” Butler says. “It’s the bullying that everyone displays, where you’re passing a judgment on someone because of the clothes they wear or the way they speak or the color of their skin. That happens every day to everyone. Everyone is making a judgment about someone else, and I thought that was really good raw material for a kids’ movie. Because we want kids to see this movie and go on this fun ride, and really laugh and find it scary, but at the end of it maybe they’ll think about other people a little bit differently.”

“It’s not like preaching,” Fell adds. “It’s very hard to talk to kids about something serious. They don’t want to listen. And so to entertain them first and then have that woven in so seamlessly is the way to do it.”

Butler, who previously worked in pre-production, character design and storyboarding on movies including “Coraline,” “The Tale of Despereaux” and “Corpse Bride,” says what helped him transition to his first directing job was his familiarity with so many aspects of the animation process. Directing veteran Fell says, “We both did hands-on storyboarding, and that was kind of cool, because we were trying to establish a style of filmmaking.”

The movie was made using the painstaking stop-motion method in which an articulated puppet is photographed one frame at a time in slightly different positions to simulate movement. Traditional stop-motion puppets have mechanical parts under their “skin” that must be physically manipulated to change their facial expressions, but Butler says “there are limitations to that method. The gears and all the mechanisms can only do so much.” Instead, as the animators had done on the Laika animation studio’s previous movie “Coraline,” entire faces were replaced 24 times for each second of screen time.

“On ‘Coraline,’ we innovated this technique of printing the faces out,” he says. “It’s a 3D printer, which means you sculpt the object in the computer and then you physically print it out as an object. It’s very sci-fi, it’s like ‘Star Trek.’ On this movie, the difference was that we had these 3D printers, but they were in color. So we could print out painted objects (with) all that paintwork that goes into the characters’ faces.”

Being able to print the replacement faces that way was especially timesaving when it came to characters such as Norman’s heavily freckled friend Neil. “‘Coraline’ has 10 freckles, so for every frame someone had to hand-paint those freckles,” Butler says. “In this, Neil has thousands of freckles on his face, and in every frame they are perfectly registered because we could print them.”

“There was a whole library of the faces,” Fell adds, “just shelves and shelves and shelves of faces. Tens of thousands.”

Fell suggests stop-motion frequently is used for animated horror movies because the technique itself is a kind of dark magic. “You’re literally taking inanimate or dead things and bringing them to life, and imbuing them with a soul,” he says. “So there is something uncanny about that. Every other form of animation is of the thing itself, it’s like a digital version or a drawing of, but this is an actual thing brought to life.”

“For us, the appeal of stop-motion is this tactile quality to it,” Butler says. “It’s handmade, hand-crafted. Yes, this is a spooky movie. But I think as a medium it has the potential to tell any kind of story.” He adds, “We love creepy little dead things, but there’s definitely other directions it can go.”

The directors say that the 300-plus people who worked on “ParaNorman” for more than two years were given a certain amount of leeway when it came to background details. Fell says they didn’t demand to see every prop, “so there’s a lot of creativity that goes on.”

One example is a flyer posted on a utility pole in the movie about a missing dog named Potato. Asked if that’s an in-joke reference to a short story by writer Miranda July featuring a missing dog with that name, neither director says he has read the story. “That could be it,” Fell says. “It’s funny, because when we watch the film, (even) we notice stuff.”