On the Set of LAIKA's <i>ParaNorman</i>

In a giant warehouse space outside Portland, Oregon, the stars of the upcoming feature ParaNorman line the shelves, posing above drawers containing eyes, limbs, mouths and other body parts. Enter one room and you glimpse giants working to animate them in front of a camera, frame by frame. Enter another and the giants tirelessly paint tiny details on their clothes and props.

“Its kind of fun!” animator Suzanne Twining laughed as she bent over to adjust the hand of one of the stars, a puppet.

Welcome to LAIKA studios and the set of ParaNorman, the company’s second-ever feature film, which opens Aug. 17. Spinoff Online received a sneak peek at completed scenes as well as a close-up view of LAIKA’s stop-motion animation process, from puppet building to the clips of the finished product.

Watching a special assembly of 3D footage on the floor of the studio, just feet away from where the animators were hard at work, we were given a sense of the film’s basic story: Norman is a young boy who can see and talk to ghosts, an ability that makes him an outcast in Blithe Hollow. But when a centuries-old witch’s curse threatens to destroy the small town, only Norman can save the residents from an army of zombies.

Our set visit then started in earnest at the literal beginning of the animation process in the LAIKA fabrication room, where puppets are assembled by a team of sixty artists and craftspeople.

”We pull in people from all different walks of life, be it jewelry, engineering, artists, painters, and then we have to give them a certain amount of training into the world of stop-motion,” explained Georgina Hayns, creative supervisor/puppet fabrication. She said LAIKA also recruits painters, costumers, hair people and armature makers (the metal skeletons that go inside each puppet) from across the world.

Pointing to the drawings of Character Designer Heidi Smith that cover the walls in the fabrication room, Hayns showed off a table of maquette sculptures of the main characters, including protagonist Norman, school bully Alvin, Norman’s only friend Neil, and a cheerful ghost dog. Comparing the sculptures to Smith’s original pencil drawings, Hayns described Smith as an “organic” designer whose low-tech drawings lend themselves to the stop-motion process. Hayns showed how strips of paper and other materials were incorporated into the puppets’ hair to mimic Smith’s strong pencil lines.

Whisking us to the costume department, Head Costume Designer Deborah Cook elaborated on that fusion, explaining that to recreate the pencil shading of Smith’s drawings, costumers painstakingly hand-stitched and dyed everything to look as close to the drawings as they could. Surrounded by huge stacks of cloth and wallpaper made of reference photos and drawings, the costumers hand-made all the outfits in the film, and matched the stitching on the costumes of all 28 Norman puppets. They also created both large and small versions of his shoes, backpacks and other items for close-up shots, painstakingly ensuring every detail on the smaller pieces were replicated on the bigger ones.

“I’m a bit of a quality-control freak now!” Cook laughed as her team worked behind her, scouring eBay and vintage clothing websites for costume material.

While much of puppet fabrication is still a low-tech affair, ParaNorman also employs an incredibly high-tech, and revolutionary, process to create facial expressions for the stop-motion puppets. Excitedly ushering us down the hall to a room filled with giant, humming machines Brian McLean, the director of rapid prototyping, explained that there are two types of facial animation employed on the film: mechanical and replacement.

The first process is used primarily for the film’s zombies, as animators manipulate the metal skeleton under the puppet’s silicone skin, frame by frame, to make it appear as if the puppet is moving. The other, replacement animation, was used on films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and LAIKA’s 2009 film Coraline, and actually replaces a puppet’s face every couple of frames, substituting a slightly different expression that, when shown together, makes it appear that a character is moving.

“The problem with it is it’s extremely laborious!” McLean said.

To streamline the process, LAIKA turned to 3D printers, the same machines that fill the room in which McLean spoke. Used on Coraline, 3D printing is exactly what it sounds like: machines capable of printing three-dimensional objects in materials ranging from silicone to metal and plastic to rubber. Although used primarily to create industrial prototypes, like shoes, cars and iPads, LAIKA invested in the technology during Coraline.

“As we were working with the 3D printers we said, 'Hey, can your machine replicate exact faces for thousands of parts?' and their response was, ‘We don’t know,’” McLean said.

Experimenting with the technology, LAIKA created a library of facial expressions on computer, printing them out on the machines to mass-produce puppet parts. But while the thousands of printed parts in Coraline still had to be hand-painted, with ParaNorman the studio upped the ante and began to experiment with color 3D printers.

“[The] color goes in 1/16 of an inch, so it goes pretty deep into the face, and just like skin, the interesting thing about this is when you put it up to light, the light is absorbing in a fraction of an inch and then bouncing back out -- so if you take Norman’s ear and put it up to light it has a very skin quality to it,” McLean said, holding up a puppet to show the light turning his ear a glowing red is it does with real human cartilage.

“It was a happy accident we’re really excited about,” he added. “This material doesn’t look plastic-y at all. Instead, it works really well with silicone and other materials we use for skin.”

LAIKA worked out the kinks in the printing technology for ParaNorman for two years, learning to adjust colors on the computer so skin tones would print correctly and figuring out the reason the colors kept fading on the end of a printing batch was because they needed to replace the inkjet heads in the machines.

“There has been so much R&D and time and money spent on this. I wish we had known about [the inkjet kink] two years ago -- saved us a lot of time!”” McLean laughed as the printers hummed behind him.

Production designer Nelson Lowry continued our tour, showing off the location concept artwork and explaining that in order to get the working-class mill town feel that directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler wanted, Lowry and his team visited Massachusetts, snapping reference photos of buildings in Concord, Salem, his hometown of Weymouth and other small towns. With 43 sets and 60 unique locations, that meant a lot of pictures, and they ended up using many photos of Lowry’s old stomping grounds.

“There was a clearing I remembered as a kid that we went back to and photographed, and that’s represented in the film,” Lowry said, pointing to a board that showed the reference pictures next to their movie counterparts, often exact copies of real-life buildings, homes and cemeteries. Walking us over to the physical sets, Lowry showed off Norman’s school, based on the one Lowry attended in Weymouth.

“Where else do you get ideas? From your own personal life,” Lowry said as he stood in front of the blue-and-gray miniature school.

He said it was fascinating to work with British directors Fell and Butler, as the two had their own idea of what an old East Coast town would look and feel like.

“The directors were like, ‘We’ll go to some New England town like Salem that’s all wrecked and all peeling paint,’ and you go there and it’s all historical societies and restored homes -- but then there’s this ugly ‘70s parking garage next to an old historical society building,” Lowry laughed, saying that they ended up incorporating some of those touches in the film.

“That was fun to play with those things!” he added.

While ParaNorman is set for release Aug. 17, the movie’s animators were still hard at work finishing the last scenes of the movie as our visit brought us to their individual workspaces, separated by think black drop curtains on the warehouse floor. Animator Chris Tootell took a pause from animating the longest shot of the movie, a crowd scene where the camera pans over the destroyed town, to show the couple of seconds he had completed. Although the shot is only 40 seconds of screen time, the animation took him five weeks to complete.

“That’s the hardest part when you’re doing multiple characters is the way each of the characters moves was established by a process that took months for us to outline everything,” Tootell said, waving his hand at the puppet crowd standing on the set of the destroyed town.

While the film is storyboarded out ahead of time, Tootell explained that the animators continually pitch the directors on scenes and new ideas, maintaining a conversation with Fell and Butler throughout the production process.

“With the storyboards, there’s a lot of stuff the directors are tied to, they love, they want to do, they spent time of the boards, and they’ll say, ‘Can you do that?’ Most of the time we’ll say yes!” Tootell said. “But sometimes I think it’s good to have the initiative to say, ‘I think I know this sequence pretty well and I think I would like to try something else,’ and it’s a conversation -- and that’s what’s good about Chris and Sam on this movie, they’re open to that.”

Animator Twining was also hard at work manipulating multiple characters, finishing rehearsal on a scene where kids in the school play make fun of Norman. (A rehearsal is a quickly animated sequence that gives the directors a rough idea of what the finished product might look like, allowing them to make change before they invest time in filming the real scene.)

“I like to get everything really close so I can reach it!” she said, standing on a ladder half in the school auditorium set. Twining then showed us the reference video she used for the kids, made by the other animators as they goofed around and acted out dialogue.

Ending our walkthrough was Director of Photography Tristan Oliver, working on a scene with Norman that takes place in a sunlit meadow. With golden light streaming down from above, Oliver explained that, unlike with other stop-motion films, the crew of ParaNorman tried to light the environment, rather than the puppets, to get a more natural look.

As reference for the palette of ParaNorman, Oliver said he watched such films as Road to Perdition, American Beauty, Pulp Fiction and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to study how they used light coming in through an environment. However, he did’t watch any children’s movies as, “They suffer a bit from being like poorly lit animation movies in that there’s this need to see the kids -- and also there’s a fear of darkness in kids’ movies, too creepy, so they are a bit flat.

But at the end of the day, the goal for Oliver and the rest of the LAIKA crew is not to wow audiences with technical stop-motion feats but to tell and engrossing story. And according to the director of photography, that’s exactly what they’ve done.

“My aim has always been to make you forget you’re looking at an animated movie,” Oliver said. “You shouldn’t constantly be reminded of the process.”

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