One of the best parts of my job here at the site is the opportunity to visit movie sets. In four and a half years, I've traveled around the world to get a first-hand glimpse at dozens of different productions, but in all that time, I don't think I've ever visited a set quite like the 3D stop-motion animated tale ParaNorman, which hits theaters August 17.
Back in January, I traveled up to the LAIKA Studios facility in Hillsboro, Oregon, a sprawling 150,000 square-foot complex which houses hundreds of talented artists, designers, animators, and technicians. This was my first time visiting the set of a stop-motion animation project, and I wasn't quite sure what to expect. It didn't take long before I was blown away by the whole process, and their painstaking attention to detail. We were met by Georgina Hayns (creative superviser/puppet fabrication) and Brian McLean (Director of rapid prototype), who showed us around this massive facility.
We were first shown a huge array of maquettes for each of the characters, and right away, it was clear that this innovative project is well ahead of the curve. Here's what Georgina Hayns told us about their process for making the very unique faces
"Of course, one of the big, big issues is how we're going to make the faces. This is something that LAIKA is really pushing the art of facial animation and stop-motion animation. There are two different varieties of facial animation. There is mechanical, which has been used for a long time. These zombies are all mechanical animation. Basically, it's a silicon skin that sits over a skull, not unlike a human skull, and embedded into that skull are ball and socket joints. The animator hand manipulates the movement he wants. With the zombies, it works great because they don't have to talk, they're just groaning. There are issues when the puppets do need to talk, because there are so many tiny joins in the mouth."
The other form they use is facial replacement. While the format has been around for many years (they employed this technology for Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas), ParaNorman is the first movie to use a "3D color printer" to make replacement faces for each of the characters. The main character Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) has over 8,000 faces, all of which have moveable lips and eyebrows and allow for a whopping 1.5 million possible facial expressions. We were lead into a room and shown how this 3D printer works. They use this fascinating device to create replacement faces and props the characters use in the film. Here's what Brian McLean had to say about LAIKA's use of this emerging technology.
"On Coraline, we became the first company to look at some emerging technologies like rapid prototype, which takes a computer model and prints it out in three dimensions. We became the first company to use a 3D printer to print out thousands and thousands of replacement faces. It was a fantastic thing. It really pushed the level of animation and performance and emotion that has ever been seen in stop-motion. The tricky part on Coraline, was everything had to be hand painted. On ParaNorman, we didn't want to have the design stifled by the technology. We looked into a new type of rapid prototyping, which can print in color. There is no painting after the fact. They are painted in Photoshop, they're modeled in Maya, and they're animated in Maya. The really interesting side effect of this process is that the printing process actually creates a very realistic skin tone. When you hold your skin up to light, the skin is not bouncing light off, it's absorbing it and you can see veins. You get the exact same thing here. When you hold a printed ear up to the light, you can actually see through it."
He went on to demonstrate the printer, by making small crescent wrenches for all of the journalists, which actually do work. We were then lead into a large screening room to watch some footage from the film. In case you aren't familiar, ParaNorman centers on a young boy named Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a loner who doesn't have many friends and has a passion for horror movies. He comes to learn that he actually has the ability to see and communicate with the dead, a skill he must put to the test when his hometown is overrun by zombies, ghost, witches, and all sorts of evil creatures. The first scene we were shown sets up Norman as both a loner (we see him being teased at school) and a horror freak (his cell phone ringtone is the Friday The 13th theme). We also meet Norman's uncle, Mr. Pendegrast (John Goodman), who tells Norman about the curse he must break. Norman goes to the cemetery to read from this ancient book to break the curse, but Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) interrupts the reading, and we see corpses start to rise out of their graves. I was very impressed with the footage we saw, because, for one, there are some very funny moments in here, and, most importantly, this doesn't look like any stop-motion movie I've ever seen. Everything is so seamless, and you might even mistake it for a traditionally animated movie, if you didn't know it was stop-motion before going into it.
After the footage presentation, we were lead into another set area where we met Travis Knight, the President and CEO of LAIKA, who also serves as a producer and lead animator on ParaNorman. When we walked in, the executive was working on an elaborate set where Norman is standing under a tree. You won't find too many studio CEOs who have such a hands-on role in their films, but Travis Knight is obviously not your typical executive. Here's what he had to say below.
Travis Knight - Producer and LAIKA CEO/President
How do you keep track of where you are?
Travis Knight: There is so much stuff to keep track of. Each puppet has dozens of points on the body, the eyes, fingers, elbows, everything. Sometimes there are environmental effects, things that are blowing in the wind. It's a lot of stuff to keep track of. People think that what it takes to do stop-motion is patience. It's actually not that. It's the ability to focus for long periods of time. It is mentally taxing, but fortunately, with the advancement of technology, we have this frame grab system, which allow us to see where we're going. We can keep track of our performances, which aren't hindered by this very difficult process. We have these tiny, small-scale things, which aren't supposed to look like small-scale things. There is a lot of things to keep track of, which is why there aren't many people doing this.
What has changed the most, for the better, coming from Coraline to this? How has the technology advanced which makes things easier for you guys?
Travis Knight: On Coraline, it was the first time that anyone had used this rapid prototyping technology for facial animation. With Coraline, we thought, 'How could we integrate the best of digital technology into this age-old art form?' It's an anachronistic way of making movies. It hasn't really changed much in 100 years. We revolutionized that, but everything still had to be hand painted. On this film, we found a way to effectively print the facial textures in the objects. We didn't have to hand paint them. By doing that, you're able to get really beautiful, subtle gradation. You can see he has these ruddy cheeks. We have the grandma character who has these burst blood vessels in her face, and we have this character, Neil, who has thousands of freckles on his face. Because of the material, which is this powdery material which we coat with, basically, Super Glue, it has this really translucent quality, which is much more like actual skin. If Norman stands in front of the light, you can see his ears glow. It's really about trying to find ways to integrate high technology into this low-fi way of making movies, which hasn't changed much. It's technology and craft smashing into each other.
Coraline looked almost like claymation at times, whereas this is so much smoother.
Travis Knight: There is a difference in the approach to the animation style. Coraline was more theatrical. This film, because of the subject matter, we really pushed hard for this skewed naturalism. I wouldn't say more realistic, but it does have a more natural quality. It's very well observed, the acting choices in the way these characters move. They all are things animators think about people doing, little tics, and it all comes down to those tiny little bits of execution, which gives it that much more vitality. You see it in the performances in the animation.
Can you talk a little bit about how you divide your day as the president and CEO of the company, and the lead animator on this film?
Travis Knight: One of the things that is exciting and draining about this process, for me, is that there is no set schedule on any of my days. It's a weird thing, when you're working on a shot, focusing on the tiniest bit of minutae, the tiniest bit of movement in fractions of seconds, and then have to shift gears when I have to go to a board meeting. It can be a challenge, but I think one of the things that prepared me for it is working in stop-motion. Being able to keep track of all these things, focus on the tiniest bits, and then being able to extricate yourself from that. It's that, just on a bigger scale. The last handful of years for me, is really a portrait of an artist finding his inner executive. It's been kind of a strange journey for me, but one of the main things that helped me was, as an artist, I just have to trust my instincts. It's the same thing while working on the business side. I found that when I trust my instincts, things tend to go well, and when I question them, they don't. It's a challenge, yeah, but it's all fun.
Does the animator in you tend to get more annoyed with the CEO in you, or does the CEO get annoyed with the animator?
Travis Knight: Oh, God. There are times when it's getting stressed out about the business, then coming down to focus on a shot, something I can control very precisely. There is kind of a solace to it. Then, when the puppet won't do what I want it to do, I want to run kicking and screaming out of this place and never come back. There are wonderful things about both, and there are challenging things about both.
Can you talk about what specifically drew you to the story, as a follow-up to Coraline?
Travis Knight: It's an interesting thing. We want to do films that are bold, distinctive, enduring, things that are timeless, things that are brave, and really distinctive. Coraline was all those things. We didn't want to repeat ourselves, but (writer-director) Chris Butler had this idea for this story, that immediately resonated with me. It combined all of these wonderful things I loved while growing up. It's got the George A. Romero zombies running around, it's got this John Hughes coming-of-age quality, and it's done in stop-motion, this beautiful Ray Harryhausen style of animation. It's a lot of fun, it's a thrill-ride, it's kind of a comedic, coming-of-age thing, but at the same time, when you really get into the film, there's something much deeper happening. It's really emotionally resonant. I think for the people who do stop-motion, in many ways, the story of ParaNorman is the story of the people who made it. We are freaks. We're strange people, but we're people who have extraordinary gifts. You look at this crew, it is unbelievable, the things these people can do. There is an autobiographical quality of this movie, and the people who made it, which is perfect. At the end of the day, I think there is an emotional resonance that I think people will respond to.
This has a darker theme than Coraline. Is that going to be a continuing trend?
Travis Knight: We don't want to repeat ourselves. We don't want to keep doing the same kind of movie. When I look at our slate, I'm impressed by its variety. At the same time, we're not going to shy away from that sort of thing. If something needs to be intense for the sake of the story being stronger, we'll make it that way. We're not going to water it down. We didn't on Coraline, and we're definitely not on ParaNorman. If you look at the classic Disney films, they were dark. It's interesting to see how animation has progressed. It's gotten safe, and I don't think that's the best thing, to only have those kinds of stories. I think kids and families really do benefit from being challenged by the subject matter. It's in a great tradition of Disney animated films, and family films, that have gotten lost along the way.
Can you talk about the cameras you're shooting with?
Travis Knight: On Coraline, we had these crazy medical imaging cameras, because we were trying to figure out the digital technology. We always used to shoot on film, but in Coraline, we shot the whole thing digitally. This is really like a pro-sumer camera. You can go to the store and buy one of these things. It's amazing how far the technology has come, and the quality is unbelievable.
And you're shooting in 3D?
Travis Knight: Yeah. Every single camera is set up with a motion control rig. At the very least, they all have these little sliders. When you capture a frame, it takes the left eye, and then it slides over slightly and takes the right eye image. When you put them through the project, it gives you a sense of depth. The way we figured it out was, the distance it travels, is the distance between the puppet's two eyes, so it's just a tiny little bit.
So you don't need the two different cameras?
Travis Knight: You couldn't. You couldn't put two cameras close enough together. That was the thing, we wondered if we would need two cameras for every shot. As we sorted it out, we figured out that if we're in this world, if we're in this space, the distance between the two eyes would be just this little amount, and it was.
After speaking with Travis Knight, we were introduced to production designer Nelson Lowry, who showed us a vast array of tiny props (cell phones, pizza boxes, vending machines) and discussed the overall aesthetic they're going for in ParaNorman.
"It's kind of wonky, there is a nervous-line quality. We're trying not to make it so strong that it's distracting. We wanted it to feel cohesive and real. It does make it more difficult. The table saw doesn't cut these lines."
He also showed us a number of sets, such as Pendergast's house, the town's Main Street, and an incredibly elaborate town hall set, which was just stunning, and based on a town square in Salem, Massachussetts. Nelson Lowry mentioned before that all of the sets were to contain no straight lines or perfect circles. Everything is slightly askew, in one way or another, which will also help set this movie apart. As I was walking around the set, something caught my eye. I saw a tiny coffee lid on the sidewalk that circles the town square. They obviously could have gotten away with not having a coffee lid lying on a sidewalk, but the fact that they actually thought that needed to be there, and took the time to craft a half-inch coffee lid, really speaks volumes about how detail-oriented these LAIKA folks really are.
We then got to sit down with directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell. Chris Butler, who also wrote the script, makes his directorial debut with ParaNorman, but he previously worked as a storyboard artist and storyboard supervisor on Tim Burton's Corpse Bride and Coraline. Sam Fell previously directed The Tale of Despereaux and Flushed Away, but this project marks his first with LAIKA. Here's what they had to say.
Chris Butler and Sam Fell - Directors
Chris, this was your idea, right?
Chris Butler: Quite a long time ago, I came up with the idea, and I was writing it on and off. I was working on storyboards for a lot of projects. The first idea was I wanted to do a zombie movie for kids, and it kind of grew into something else, like John Carpenter meets John Hughes.
Sam Fell: It kind of morphed into something else, this eclectic group of kids. Norman's story is certainly more important than the zombies. It's not a zombie script.
I noticed in the footage, you have the Friday The 13th theme as a ringtone. I was wondering if there are any other horror franchises you take shots at here?
Chris Butler: Yes. The bar in town is called the Bargento, so there are lots of little things, but we were very careful not to make it a spoof or a pastiche. The real story is about not judging a book by its cover, and a kid who is different and is being bullied. All the other stuff is dressing, and that central story is very strong. I always wanted there to be a serious side to it, and that's the bullying thing. You can't have these goofy bully characters. Alvin, a character voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, he's a great comic character. But there are lots of characters in this who do bad things to people, and we've always taken that seriously. There is quite an emotional, powerful truth to it.
Was it always going to be stop-motion?
Chris Butler: Absolutely. It made absolute sense to do zombies in stop-motion. It has such a rich history of supernatural, creepy stuff. Some people, when they first read the script, said, 'This is a live-action script,' almost like that was a bad thing. There tends to be such a formula for animation, and this veers away from that formula.
Sam Fell: We wanted to see the rough edges. Often times, with animation, it creates a world that's fantastic and whimsical, but it's unreal because it's perfect. It made visual sense to make the town kind of crappy, but beautiful crappy.
The town itself really seems obsessed with the horror genre. Can you talk about that aspect?
Chris Butler: This town basically has very little going for it, other than this haunted witch hanging around, so they built the tourism trade around that. There are two little things. One is our own horror references, which is peripheral, but the town itself, is just a desperate attempt to cash in on this hanging of the witch 300 years ago.
Sam Fell: We looked at Salem, but it's basically the crappy version of Salem.
Was there anything in the script that you couldn't technically achieve in stop-motion, and you had to leave behind?
Chris Butler: No, and that's been a really, really good part of working with LAIKA. Whatever is on the page, they'll do it. I worked on Coraline, and that was ambitious and brave, in certain ways. One of the first comments I had from an early draft was, 'Think bigger.' You never get told that in stop-motion. We purposefully tried to do things that haven't been done before in stop-motion, like crowd scenes and car chases. I think that's why, when people read it, they thought it was a live-action script. We're aiming a little bit higher.
Can you talk about bringing the voice cast together, and the things you were looking for?
Sam Fell: It's an ensemble piece. It's comic, but it has a serious edge, and we wanted actors who could do both. We didn't just want big funny voices, and we didn't want to cast adults as kids. It's definitely from the kids' perspective, so it was really important to us to get a really good child actor. We ended up with two amazing child actors, with Kodi Smit-McPhee, who does Norman, and then, for his best friend Neil, we found this undiscovered, at the time, kid named Tucker Albrizzi. He basically is Neil, which was kind of cool. We were really aiming for natural performances, and he brought something that I don't think you can ever plan for. He's just so weird, in a good way. It feels so real. Having said that, we do have Christopher Mintz-Plasse playing a 14-year-old, but that does feel appropriate, because this particular character has been held back so much in school.
Can you talk about working with Travis Knight as an animator?
Chris Butler: If he was a crap animator, it would be problematic, but he is probably one of the best animators in the world, he really is. How many places have a CEO who is animating? It's unreal.
That about wraps it up for my day on the set of ParaNorman, which arrives in theaters August 17. It was incredible to get a glimpse inside this motion-capture world. It definitely isn't as glamorous as your garden variety movie set, but it's certainly a unique and fascinating art form that I'm glad to have seen first-hand.