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Chris Butler & Sam Fell—ParaNorman—7/27/12

/content/interviews/358/3.jpgSam Fell's animation career includes directing the features Flushed Away (for which he also wrote the original story) and The Tale of Despereaux, while Chris Butler put in years as a storyboard artist, character designer and sequence director before writing ParaNorman. Together, the British pair have co-directed the 3D stop-motion-animated ParaNorman, LAIKA Animation Studio's follow-up to Coraline. I spoke to Butler and Fell at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

G: So this movie fits into—there’s a sort of sub-genre of cinema of fifties horror nostalgia movies. But also it has an eighties feel that you wanted it to capture. Can you talk about it?

SF: We definitely didn’t want to do the fifties thing. We feel like that’s been done and done really well. So why do it again? We’re fresher and younger, to be honest, Chris and I. We’re from a newer era. So the eighties was our time, I guess, and so like those—we love Amblin and early Spielberg, the John Carpenter stuff that was going on at the time. Chris always—the hook for Chris was “John Carpenter meets John Hughes,” which really hooked me into this project. So yeah, we’re really—we’re a color movie, we’re not in black and white and all those kind of creaky old angles. And the world we’ve created is a much more rich and kind of like more live-actiony world.

G: Yeah.

CB: It’s—just from a design point of view—everyone knows Gothic, Victorian, black and white, creepy, stop-motion for kids. Everyone knows it. Tim Burton has nailed that.

G: Right.

CB: And we have no interest in doing that. And it was actually a big part of our process right from the start. We want a different voice. So when we were doing design rounds, we were seeing people’s work. If it was veering off in a direction that seemed it was something we’ve seen before, we stopped it. You know, it was a conscious effort to try to do something visually different.

G: Mmm. One of the major themes of the film is bullying, which is sort of a hot topic at the moment. And sort of the "judge not lest you be judged," kind of idea.

SF: Yeah, judgement.

G: How did it find its way into the script?

CB: It was there from day one. My approach to writing this was to do a zombie movie for kids. And the best zombie stories are the ones that have some kind of social commentary. So I felt wouldn’t it be cool if you juxtaposed the true horrors of what it is to be eleven years old with the fictional horrors of movies. You know, to an eleven-year-old, the kid who lives down the lane, who flushes your head down a toilet every day, is more terrifying than a hoard of zombies. So it was that juxtaposition, it was playing around with that idea. And that’s where the John Hughes/John Carpenter thing comes from. It’s throwing this middle-school dynamic into a supernatural story.

SF: Yeah.

G: Can you talk about the character design and what sort of inspirations you might have had in creating those? I mean, they’re very recognizable as people.

/content/interviews/358/1.jpgSF: Our aim for the whole movie was to hold a mirror up to the real world, you know? It’s very much where this story’s set in the real contemporary world, and then fancy elements come in. So that was always our notion: to create some kind of naturalism but skewed. Chris had found this girl named Heidi Smith, whose character design is straight out of college. She had such an unusual style. She is a real maverick. And her thing is to get out and observe people. And her drawings were these crazy, scrawling, mad but brilliantly observed characters from the real world. They were utterly unusual for stop-frame because they broke every single rule of puppet-making. And I think it was unconscious. She didn’t know she was doing it. So really it began with her and her drawings, and it began with the world. You know, our world out there. And then we had a great sculptor called Ken Melton come and somehow manage to turn those 2D scrawls into these three-dimensional shapes, and they were a great team.

G: I think you guys succeeded brilliantly with, you know—I saw the film before I read the production notes, but immediately it was something that I noted that the voices of the kids, in particular, were so naturalistic and subtle, that voice work. Can you talk a little bit about your approach to that and—I guess you had seen Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road before you cast him?

CB: Yeah. He’s clearly a good actor. He was a good actor when he was seven years old. And he’s improved. We knew that the movie kind of had to rest on his shoulders. Norman, as a character, is probably the only smart character in the whole movie. And he has a lot of complexities. He has to be this vulnerable little kid who doesn’t fit in, but he can’t be whiny. He can’t be precocious. He has to have a comedic touch as well. And Kodi hits all that. But definitely it was our approach right from day one, even in the writing stage, was to make it feel like it was real kids. I hate movies that feel like that it’s kids talking with the voice of an adult. And I know I’m an adult, but barely. You know, I’m pretty immature.

SF: A lot of animators are still in touch with their inner child[ren], oddly enough.

CB: Yeah. And it was important to me to try and make it feel genuine. And that was our approach going into the production as well. And so it was definitely our approach with the casting. We wanted kids to sound like real kids. Kodi was perfect. He nailed that aspect of it because he’s so real. And we had Tucker, who plays Neil. He was quite a find. Because again, he has very—he’s just natural. He just becomes that character very easily. He’s not reading the lines.

SF: It’s kind of him, isn’t it? We put them together. It’s another thing we were able to do. Because they’re younger, they’re less busy so their schedules are a bit more open. And you can actually find time to put them together in a recording. And so you get this wonderful spontaneity and that—

G: Back and forth.

SF: Yeah. So, again, you said that key word: naturalism. We’ll say it many times hopefully because it’s really what we aimed for, was to make it really feel like it was a real place.

CB: And with the other roles as well, oftentimes for the first record, the actors would come in and ask what kind of voice to put on, and it’s like you don’t put on a voice. It’s not a cartoon, basically. We chose people for their voices so that they could properly act. These aren’t—you know, they’re stylized individuals who make up this story, but they’re not cartoons.

G: Now, I would expect probably ninety-five percent of the viewers of this movie will not even have the slightest idea how much—how challenging it was to make.

(Both laugh.)

SF: That’s good.

G: In terms of stop-motion in particular. So educate the audience here a little bit. What are some of the biggest challenges of telling this story in stop motion? I would think things like leaves and, like you said, locations and such.

SF: It’s an enormous—this is a—I think this is probably the most ambitious stop-frame project. I mean, you know, it’s all hand-made. You don’t get anything for free. Everything is built. Every blade of grass is cut by hand by somebody and constructed—all the trees are constructed. Everything you see on the screen has been made. And it’s animated at one twenty-fourth of a second at a time. So, one animator does five seconds a week. In full production we have fifty sets going; we have twenty-five animators working. A big week was like two minutes.

G: Right.

SF: So it’s like incredibly slow-going and incredibly detailed.

G: But as you say, this one in particular was more ambitious than most.

SF: Yeah. So they’re bad anyway. That’s right. So they’re big anyway. But with this—we have crowd scenes—which we don’t normally do. We wanted to expand the world because we wanted, again, to make it feel like a real place, not like a theatre set. So we expanded the scope of the world; we wanted to build a whole town. We wanted crazy special-effects storms. At one point we wanted to have the whole world implode and float away. So in our early stages in the script already and in the storyboarding stage, Chris and I just got more and more ambitious. And more and more excited about where we could go now, given that we could use some new technology with this old technology. So we really set our bar incredibly high.

/content/interviews/358/2.jpgCB: And I think, that you know, what it comes down to is...especially CEO producer and lead animator Travis {Knight]—he never stopped us. You know, we were encouraged to aim high. Like Sam said, all these things that you’re not supposed to do in stop motion, we did. And it was a matter of sitting down in a room with all these very talented heads of department and saying, "We know we can’t do this but we’re going to. So how can we solve it?" And we found solutions. I think we opened up the world. I think Coraline started it in terms of innovations. But I think using technology and using the know-how of a very talented group of craftspeople and artists. I think we’re taking stop-motion into the next century, which people haven’t done. It’s easy to think of stop-motion as this historic novelty. And it is a beautiful, beautiful, almost arcane art form. But there is no reason why you can’t drag it kicking and screaming into the next century.

G: Well, I wanted to ask about that too. How has new technology affected the way a stop-motion film is made?

SF: Well, there’s many—I’ll start with three things. There’s—LAIKA has a visual effects department, like, integrated into the studio, so we used a lot of green screen and a lot of atmospheric and special effects. A lot of the special effects techniques that you would have in a live big action movie like The Avengers, we’re using those techniques, but in miniature. And those computers and that software and those people are just more sort of readily available than they were; more people know that stuff and the prices have come down. That’s good. It’s stereoscopic, so we shoot in 3D.

G: Right.

SF: Which again is such a beautiful, hand-made, tactile medium—to pop that into another dimension.

G: Because that’s the appeal of stop-motion to begin with, in a way—

SF: It’s beautiful. You want to touch it. You want to reach out and grab it. And with the extra dimension, it just feels like you’re really immersed in that amazing world.

CB: It’s not a gimmick. The 3D here—it’s actually a perfect marriage. It’s very easy to think, "Oh yeah, animation has gotta be 3D." It is. It’s the perfect way to be immersive. It’s the perfect way to invite the audience into this hand-made world.

SF: And then the other thing that has to be mentioned is the faces: we use a rapid prototype color printer. We do the animation of the faces in a computer. And then we print each of those faces out frame by frame as objects we then use on the set and attach them to the puppets with magnets.

CB: Yeah. And you can’t like—when you talk about this thing, it’s difficult to get across to people—this is pure sci-fi. It’s Star Trek. It’s like faxing an object. You’re printing out a painted object. It’s an unbelievable thing. And when you actually see it happening—

SF: Yeah, I still don’t believe it actually. I do not believe it.

G: We’re living in a time, of the history of animation, where there are simultaneously films being made in stop-motion and hand-drawn and CGI. And I wonder how those compare fiscally and are they comparable in terms of how much it costs or how big the staff is?

CB: I think in terms of how long they take and how big the staff is, they probably are comparable. But I think what we’re doing probably comes in a little cheaper.

SF: Stop-frame does come in under CG.

CB: But the key thing here is, though, that all those things are happening concurrently. And they’re not just telling the same kinds of story either. I think that’s what exciting to me right now is that, if you look at the last couple of years, the kinds of animated movies that are coming out are so different tonally, design-wise—and that’s encouraging. A lot of people are talking about "Oh, there’s three 'creepy kids' movies coming out this year." But if you put them side by side, Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie, they’re so different. That’s really exciting. It feels like a Renaissance.

SF: In the end, I mean, there’s so much—the combination of digital and traditional animation: the sky’s the limit. And who knows where it will go. In the end it will be the stories that really—if the stories capture the audience’s hearts, then the animation will thrive.

G: Now, I may have this wrong, but I think I remember one of you guys saying in the press notes that there’s a project you had wanted to do in stop-motion and then you met with some resistance—

SF: That was me.

G: Yeah.

SF: Yeah, yeah. Well, it wasn’t resistance—it was just like the possibilities of that time. It was in the mid-nineties. Or late nineties. We were planning this thing, and I wish I had had then what I had now to do it. Because it was all about scope and sky, and we were trying to create a city and populate it and use special effects and—it was a little limited back then.

CB: It’s interesting, though, because even on this movie, we are definitely pushing boundaries and we were using technology that hadn’t been tested before and committing to it before we even knew whether it would work. But even on this there were things that were just within our grasp that we were like "Ooh, if only!" So you can just see if the next project and the one after that, it’s going to continue to move forward and keep advancing.

G: Well, we’re almost out of time, but I wanted to ask—people are always interested in the little Easter eggs that get put into these kinds of films. And maybe some visual touchstones. Like, it seemed to me there was an evocation of the Psycho house, perhaps—

CB: It was actually The Texas Chainsaw Massacre house.

G: Ahh.

CB: There’s a shot in Texas Chainsaw Massacre— this is perfect for kids--

(All laugh.)

/content/interviews/358/4.jpgCB: Where she walks away from a swing toward the house, and it just starts to dwarf her and it eats up the whole frame, and we wanted that same effect with Norman. It’s one of those things actually—that set—it was a huge build. It was a beautiful, beautiful set. And it exists for one shot.

SF: It was a very cool reference. If you know the film Halloween, there’s a great moment where Norman sees his creepy uncle for the first time, and that sequence is shot appearing and disappearing.

CB: There’s lots of little horror movie references...they’re not essential to the story—the bar in the town is called the Bargento.

G: (Chuckles.) Right.

CB: A lot of the character’s names—they’re named after horror movie directors: you never even hear them in the movie. In fact, there’s so much stuff in this movie that we’ve forgotten all the references that are in there.

G: All right. Well, it’s been great talking to you guys. Thanks so much.

SF: Cool.

CB: Thank you.

SF: Thanks a lot.

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