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MovieJay VS ParaNorman Directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler (And Gives Us An Interesting Lesson In Animation)

Two family films come to the rescue this summer just in time for a little respite from the crash-bang antics of superheroes and formulaic franchise retreads. They are Disney’s live-action The Odd Life of Timothy Green, a wonderfully sincere and warm film for the entire family, and there is the 3D stop-motion animated ParaNorman and its wry pop culture digs, destined to become a reliable favorite among youngsters on Halloween sleepovers.

Recently, I found myself sitting across from the lively directing team of Sam Fell (Flushed AwayThe Tale of Despereaux) and newcomer Chris Butler, who also wrote the screenplay and came up as a character designer and storyboard artist for films such as Corpse Bride and The Tigger Movie. “Going into it cold, it didn’t dawn on me until young Norman was engaged in his morning routine, brushing his teeth and trying to part his impossibly stubborn hair that I realized I was watching a seamless marriage of both animation and stop-motion techniques at work”, I said. “It’s the illusion of life!”, exclaimed Butler. “It’s broadly comic and highly stylized, but there’s something…real there”, Butler goes on as Fell jumps in, “yeah, something…familiar there”.

Before my 12 year old self goes onto pick their brains about the painstaking process of actually making a stop-motion project come to life, a little about the film:

ParaNorman comes from the Laika Studio, which put itself on notice as an outfit to be reckoned with when they brought The Nightmare Before Christmas helmer Henry Selick on board and made Coraline their inaugural feature. Cheerfully macabre and creepy, Coraline announced to the world and ParaNorman advances the idea that animation is no longer just for little tykes. Coraline is admittedly darker in tone and atmosphere than the world inhabited by young Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee), but both films have their ways of being able to break down complicated adult ideas to younger minds. It’s refreshing by the end of both pictures to realize that these are movies that parents and guardians don’t have to use to simply distract kids or to shut them up for a couple hours; adults are invited to participate as well in the process of hashing these stories over by the time the end credits roll and to marvel, “How did they do that?”.

In the quaint and sleepy New England town of Blithe Hollow, Norman is a rather normal and well-adjusted kid who happens to have the unusual talent of seeing and interacting with dead people. Of course, that makes him decidedly not normal to everyone else around. His parents are worried for his mental health, his sister finds it totally annoying, the school bully let’s him have it on the regular, and Norman’s new friend would really like it if Norman could play fetch with the ghost of his dead dog. But then Norman’s talents are needed to help save the town from a dreaded curse that the town elders brought about because of their misguided persecution of a girl at the time with the same odd gift.

The movie deals with bullying, death, peer pressure from the mob, as well as individuality. “We wanted real life to be all around it”, Butler says. “The unfortunate truth is that bullying will never go away, there will always be bullying. It’s how we deal with it….I started writing this movie sixteen years ago…there was bullying then, which is probably why I started writing this in the first place! It is a fundamental truth of human nature that we judge other people, pick on them, and persecute. It’s in the DNA of this story…and it’s as much about why we do it as the doing of it itself”.

And the doing of this production tweaked my senses, “Sending me back at various points throughout the movie to totally different parts of my upbringing.” Asked to key into their own sense memories and inspiration for their art, Fell explains, “A lot of it comes from observation, just following a character along and building on that. But there’s that moment when…you know…it was Harryhausen, seeing Ray Harryhausen movies when I was young, it was like, “Ahhh!”.

Ray Harryhausen‘s pioneering stop-motion animation techniques are best remembered in Mighty Joe Young (1949) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and speak to Fell’s sense for the technical wizardry of stop-motion.

CB: As soon as I had a thought about a career, it was to work in animation. For me it was Disney….The RescuersPinnocchio.

And those two titles, not surprisingly, are married within his story of Norman, striking a more gentle tone for the entire family but with some complex and terrifying issues woven amid what Butler wanted to be, “a warm and inviting landscape that just brings you in.”

CB: In animation, we’re all the same. You don’t do it because it gets you kudos. It doesn’t get you groupies! It’s a passion. It’s arduous, it’s painstaking, it’s loooonnng. You cut your fingers on this stuff…you sweat under these hot lights…

SF: 12 hour days, 6 days a week…

MJ: What comes first? The actors doing their voice stuff, doing their thing…

CB: The actors see a rough image, a sketch, but it starts with the actor’s voices first. And then an animator–an “actor” themselves–takes that vocal performance and explores all the nuance in that voice. The animator will use video reference of an actor and they’ll bring their own forms to it, but the template is the actor’s voice.

MJ: The ParaNorman website says you used 9,000 faces for the film…

CB: 9,000…

SF: Hmm, was more than 9,000…

MJ: 9,000 drawn images? Or actual little…

CB: 9,000 printed faces…

SF: Little masks…

CB: Little resin three dimensional masks…

SF: I think there was more than 9,000…

CB: Yeah…the total…possible number of expressions was 1.5 million. We didn’t use that many because (chuckle) that’s more than a human being has! Now, we do start with a drawn image. A 2D animator starts to explore, let’s say, Norman’s face. And we play around with how far we can push it, how cartooney we can get, and what’s the style. And then that gets sculpted and we have a maquette (a robotic-puppet model) that we then scan with Zbrush in the computer. And then using Maya, we digitally animate the expressions. Basically, it’s animating the face in CG, and then the computer gives us all these possibilities, the 30,000 faces I think…

SF: Yeah, closer to 30,000…

CB: And we print it out with a 3D printer. So we send the digital image into the computer and we print out a 3D image of the entire face, head, from all angles, fit it with magnets and attach it to the puppet on set.

Zbrush 4.0 is the latest digital animation software and runs about $450 online, while older editions and alternative software sells for under $200. Maya 3D software gets a little pricier, the latest editions going for over $4,000 online, though editions from just a couple years ago are dramatically less than that, of course.

MJ: And so…can you go back or undo…let’s say after you’ve shot a scene of Norman brushing his teeth and you didn’t like his expression, can you change it afterwards on computer.

SF: No…

CB: No, there’s no going back.

SF: Every shot is like a one-time deal. In CGI or 2D you can get halfway through and go back…but with stop-motion it’s like performance art in a sense. Can’t go back.

CB: The voice actors and the animators really share the responsibility of creating the character. It’s a total collaboration between them and us.

MJ: On a regular movie you yell, “Action!” and then “Cut!”. How exactly does this process work? You move the puppet’s hand and then…

CB: You shout, “Action!” and then three weeks later you shout, “Cut!”.

SF: The storyboard will have like the 3 or 4 drawings you want…and then we do the blocking…like in live-action: you’re going to move from there to there and then turn and face the camera. We start with 6 positions that grow into 24 positions for one second (of movement). We [the entire team] can get about 5 seconds per week. The top guys can do 10 seconds.

The wondrous bathroom scene, I learn, took an entire year to produce, from start to finish.

CB: (Laugh) We only talk about the bathroom scene because it’s funny to say someone was stuck on a toilet for a year!

Their tremendous effort paid off with this magical-looking movie that cares about its characters, is entertaining, painstakingly crafted, and gives parents and their children some real issues to hash over by the end. ParaNorman opens everywhere on August 17.