Deep inside a windowless warehouse on the edge of Portland, Oregon, a pristine meadow glistened in the sun, golden rays of afternoon light filtering through to strike Travis Knight, president and CEO of the stop-motion animation company LAIKA, as he towered over the wooded glade.
“This is a really cool example of the different things that come into play when we make one of these sets,” Knight said, gesturing toward the miniature meadow, a location for the company’s new film ParaNorman. Pointing to the trees in the distance – actually a series of scrims painted to look like a larger forest – he explained that like LAIKA’s debut feature, 2009’s Coraline, ParaNorman melds cutting-edge technology and low-tech crafting to achieve its unique look.
“This big tree here, and all those trees back there, are made of corrugated cardboard,” Knight told Spinoff Online during a visit to LAIKA studios, where animators were wrapping up shooting of the film. “The cover of the trees are made out of shredded paper and chicken wire. These little bits of grass here are a combination of Astroturf sort of material and little bits of glass that are actually formed in the shape of grass, so when the light hits it on camera it picks up this glistening thing which really gives it a really beautiful quality.”
Although serving as CEO of LAIKA and producer of the company’s second feature seems more than enough for a full-time job, Knight was adamant about working on ParaNorman as a hands-on lead animator, just as he had done on Coraline before it.
“I was an artist long before I was involved in the business aspect of it, and as I increasingly took on more responsibilities for the business it was important to me to not lose that direct connection with the creativity of the work,” he said. “This particular story, it really spoke to me, and I think it had great resonance with the crew here because I think the story of ParaNorman, in large measure, is the story of the people who are making it: It’s the story of outsiders, of people who are kind of marginalized for who they are and what they represent, but at the same time have extraordinary gifts.”
ParaNorman revolves around Norman, a little boy whose ability to see ghosts has alienated him from his skeptical classmates. But when a witch’s curse brings the dead back to life, Norman may be the only one who can stop the walking dead. Although the film is a horror/comedy aimed at kids, Knight said the true heart of the film is Norman’s struggle to deal with his unique abilities and being the town misfit.
“That’s the story of Norman, and it’s true of this crew here,” he said. “There’s a bunch of strange people in this building who are kind of on the fringes of society but they are amazing, talented people with extraordinary gifts, and when they share it with the world it really does enrich those around them.”
Proudly labeling himself and the other animators at LAIKA as “weird,” Knight continued, “We all found each other, a little land of misfit toys here! But I kind of think you have to be. Think about what we do all day long — it’s a very strange way to spend your day, but it’s an amazing group of people.”
Standing between the cardboard trees, Knight explained that while there were similarities between the dark children’s fantasy tone of Coraline and the dark children’s horror/comedy tone of ParaNorman, LAIKA was determined to ensure the company never copied or repeated itself.
“Visually, I think we certainly don’t want a house style, we don’t want each film to look like what we’ve done before or anything else out there, so you can see this film doesn’t look anything like Coraline,” he said. “But also in terms of content and tone of the films we do, we are looking for a variety of different sorts of things.”
Above all, story was king in Knight’s eyes. “We’re just looking for really powerful stories with emotional resonance,” he said. “We do want to tap into the zeitgeist, we do want to be in tune with the spirit of the times. We don’t want to make little pop culture ephemera or confections, that sort of thing, and so ParaNorman like Coraline has something meaningful to say.”
Speaking specifically about the animation style of ParaNorman, Knight described it as being “naturalistic” without being too “realistic.”
“How we approached the design, the art, the camerawork, the set building and materials, it’s all what we called a skewed naturalism,” he said. “Coraline was more theatrical, so the performances tended to go that direction, but this film required something different. It required more verisimilitude, and so as we approached the animation it was important that we don’t go for pose-y stuff, that we don’t go for real broad theatrical stuff, that they felt like real people. That’s not to say we’re trying to mimic reality, it’s just very well-observed.”
As lead animator, Knight was directly responsible for some of the film’s emotional and action-heavy scenes, including a somber discussion between Norman and the ghost of his grandmother, and a scene in which the zombies first burst from the ground. This second scene required him not only to animate the zombie puppets but also every single pebble and bit of dirt flying from the ground.
“Oh, my God, was it a pain in the ass!” Knight laughed. “At one point we had talked about doing elements of it in CG, and I said no, we can do that practically. And then when I was out there stabbing my fingers with pins and scraping my hands bloody with wires I was like, why did I ever agree to this?”
While he admitted that it might’ve been easier to animate that sequence in CG, Knight was ultimately happy with the way it turned out. “Because it was all done practically, in camera it had a feeling we couldn’t have captured in CG,” he said. “It has a veracity to it.”
Although one could construe that Knight was an in-camera purist from this story, he said that CG was a valuable tool in the stop-motion process, pointing out that the lines between what is done in computer and what was done in-camera were incredibly blurred.
“At the core of it, both Coraline and ParaNorman are stop-motion films, but increasingly we’re incorporating other things into it with the rapid prototyping,” Knight said, citing a new puppet-making method in which animators create puppet parts on a computer and then produce them in silicone, metal and other tangible materials using a 3D printer.
“We’re not purists in the sense that everything has to be done in-camera, but we tend to go that way because it has a certain vibe and a flavor,” he said. “But if there’s something we can do in CG, in visual effects in hand drawn animation that does the job better, we’ll use that.”
While LAIKA began using 3D printers on Coraline, the studio refined the process to allow color 3D printing on ParaNorman.
“I think we continue to challenge and evolve the medium, to push the edges of what it’s been. We saw that with Coraline by integrating different bits of technology into the process, and it gave it something we haven’t seen before,” Knight said, describing the rapidly evolving animation technology as a “seismic shift.”
“This medium of stop-motion, it can be much more than it’s been kind of defined as — it’s not just a creaky and anachronistic way of making films, it actually is a very vital art form that can do wonderful things if put in the right hands,” he added.
But for all the excitement of being at the cutting edge of stop-motion, what thrilled Knight the most was working on the horror-centric component of ParaNorman’s story: animating the zombies.
“That’s one of the things that appealed to me right away, this idea of these George Romero-esque shambling ghouls done in a Ray Harryhausen style, just what a cool thing that could be!” Knight said. “This film taps into my childhood as it’s just this combination of schlocky horror films merged with this John Hughes-ian coming-of-age heartfelt comedy, and a big kind of Amblin-style adventure. It’s the kind of film so many of us loved growing up and the kind of films nobody makes anymore.”
However, Knight concluded with a grin, perhaps not all childhood loves should be revisited.
“I had a memory of what those [films] looked like, and I went back and revisited some of them — they’re terrible! Oh, God, are they bad!” Knight laughed. “So I quickly put that behind me and said, ‘OK, what is my memory of what those scenes looked like,’ and that’s sort of what I went with for [ParaNorman].”
ParaNorman arrives Aug. 17.