<i>ParaNorman</i> Directors Talk Zombies, Horror and John Hughes

ParaNorman, the newest stop-motion animated feature from LAIKA, is a horror/comedy about a lonely boy who becomes his town’s only hope when a witch’s curse unleashes the walking dead. It’s the brainchild of writer/director Chris Butler and director Sam Fell, who sat down with reporters at LAIKA studios in Portland, Oregon, taking a break from shooting the film’s final scenes.

With the prop trees from LAIKA’s 2009 adaptation of the Neil Gaimanj book Coraline on one side and a poster for ParaNorman on the other, Butler explained he had the idea for the film more than 10 years ago while reminiscing about the movies and television shows of his childhood.

“It was The Goonies, Scooby-Doo, Ghostbusters, Poltergeist, all that sort of stuff,” he recalled. “The original idea was John Carpenter meets John Hughes, and it spiraled out from there.”

“I came along two and half years ago, and I was really drawn to Chris’ thing,” Fell added. “It’s a stop-frame zombie movie for kids, which I thought would be super-cool and just knew my son would love.”

“And you would, too!” laughed Butler.

Both Fell, who began his stop-motion directing career for Aardman Animations, and Butler, who was head of story and character design for Coraline, saw ParaNorman as a chance to push the boundaries of stop-motion.

“People have done horror in animation, but [not] this sort of ‘80s bubble,” Fell said with a shrug.

“We didn’t want to do Gothic, creepy, whimsical horror, because people have done that in stop-motion and they’ve done that very well and there’s no point emulating it,” Butler said, “so we wanted to make a different approach to it.”

To that end, the two went for a look they described as “naturalistic,” mimicking life in some ways but never crossing the line into realism.

“It’s not classical animation, it’s not very refined and fluid smooth lines,” Fell said. “It’s got a real organic, messy quality to it and that comes directly from our character designer [Heidi Smith]. ... We wanted it to have something unruly and unhinged about it because we have the opportunity, and it’s the perfect compliment for stop-motion to do something where you can accentuate the tactility of something.”

Like Coraline, ParaNorman utilizes facial animation in which animators cycle through multiple faces, replacing parts of the puppets frame by frame to make it appear as if the expressions are changing.

Coraline scratched the surface and started us down that road, and we invested in a new kind of printer a whole new line of technology we didn’t know whether it would work or not,” Fell said, pointing to the use of 3D printers to mass manufacture the thousands of puppet parts needed to animate Norman and the rest of the cast.

They also used computers to erase wires and lines, and some CG, although for the most part everything from the townspeople to the dirt on the ground was animated by hand.

“One of the most appealing things about physical puppets in stop-motion is the tactility, the imperfection of seeing the texture of a fabric and seeing how it’s put together,” Butler said. “And it’s not perfect, it moves slightly weirdly.”

“Literally in Flushed Away we were trying to get a stop-frame feel and you just can’t,” Fell added, citing the attempt by the film to mimic stop-motion in CG.

A central player in bringing the directors’ vision to life was character designer Heidi Smith, who makes her debut on ParaNorman.

“She was straight from college and that was part of it,” Butler said. “We didn’t want to fall back on stuff we had seen before.”

“I got a portfolio -- I was looking through all these Cal Arts [students], and it was beautiful, lots of tiki, lots of ’50s retro, and then suddenly there’s this thing that’s beautiful and ugly!” Fell laughed. “It was grotesque next to them but so well observed, and it seemed absolutely appropriate for a story that was all about the observation of people.”

It also fit in with the physical setting of ParaNorman, a small, working-class East Coast town “that’s not quite right and it’s kind of rotten at the edges, so it’s not a perfect animated town,” Butler said. “We’ve got peeling paint and graffiti and trash on the ground.”

While the town isn’t normal, neither is Norman, and Butler grinned when asked where he got the inspiration for the tiny outcast.

“It was me! A large-headed, bullied child,” he said. “I wanted to tell the story of this kid who didn’t fit in, and I wanted it to feel real. Certainly to have a film that is told from the point of view of kids, there has to be honesty to it.”

Fell and Butler, who are both British, said that American horror filmmakers like Sam Raimi and John Carpenter inspired them, and the film contains multiple references to famous horror movies.

“If you think about the effects in Evil Dead, it was stop-motion,” Fell said.

“The bar in town is called the Bargento!” Butler laughed. “It was really nice to do those little touches, especially because of the John Hughes [tone]. John Carpenter was the perfect match for that because it was of his time, and they were both quite irreverent and forward thinking, and that seemed all really appropriate to a story about middle-school kids and bullying ... zombies, horrible adults and horrible kids!”

However, neither Butler nor Fell thought they were trying to bring a “British perspective” to the story or pop-culture references.

“One of the things I wanted to do with this is, having grown up on all these American movies and TV shows, was not use a British perspective but just turn them on their head a little bit,” Butler said.

“Stop-frame is big in Britain ... it’s a small island, and there’s not a lot of space, and it’s wet and it’s full of introverts, so it’s sort of the perfect place to do stop-motion,” Fell joked. “It’s raining, there’s nothing really going on outside -- might as well stay in an animate a puppet very slowly!”

As far as co-directing, Butler and Fell said they tried to become “of one mind” and worked together on every aspect of the film rather than split the movie in half with each directing a part.

“By the time we got our big crew onboard we were very, very close to the vision of the movie as it is,” Fell said, citing a six-month pre-production process. This included hiring Smith and settling on an animation style that looked distinct not just from Coraline but from other animated properties.

“In the beginning we had six different tables, and there were some things that were too wonky, too jazzy, Cartoon-Network wonky and that’s wrong,” Fell said.

“It’s amazing the signatures you start to see,” Butler added. “There’s a certain way of doing a door that felt like a Tim Burton door. No curlicues!”

They also wanted to make sure the horror in the movie was goofy and not scary in the same “primal way” that Coraline was.

“We didn’t ever want it to become too gory or too grotesque,” Butler explained. “There has to be humor in this because there’s a humor in the story.”

But that didn’t mean backing away from the zombies, ghosts and ghouls populating the film. “Neil Gaiman said it about Coraline: It’s OK to show monsters as long as you also show you’re able to defeat them,” Butler said. “I think that’s very important, and a lot of this story the monsters aren’t who you think they are.”

The directors actually got to meet the renowned author when Gaiman visited the LAIKA studios while they were in the early days of shooting ParaNorman.

“When he came in he said he was jealous. He came in and saw the printed faces we didn’t have for Coraline, and he’s like, ‘I wanted that!’” Fell laughed.

For the voice actors, Fell and Butler decided to cast children for Norman and his pre-teen buddies, but they bent their age rules when it came to selecting Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the school bully Alvin.

“Christopher Mintz-Plasse you wouldn’t think is a school bully, but his voice has some vulnerability in it, which is actually perfect for the school bully in this story,” Fell said.

“We were adamant about using real kids,” Butler added. “He was the one we actually used an adult for, but even that made sense because the kid he plays, Alvin, has been held back in class so much he could be one!”

ParaNorman is only the second feature from LAIKA, but Butler and Fell believe the commercial successes of Coraline, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and other recent films all contributed to a stop-motion renaissance.

“It’s more than an evolution,” Fell said. “It’s been a revolution with the 3D, with printing technology, now digital cameras and the way visual effects have become much more manageable and economical.”

“One of the things for this stop-motion renaissance, if you like, is a broader look of what you can do,” Butler said. “You saw Fantastic Mr. Fox’ looked different. It’s not just Tim Burton, and I think [LAIKA CEO and President Travis Knight’s] point of view for LAIKA is to keep broadening those horizons and to keep doing things that are different.”

Praising Knight, Fell described him as, “An animation nut, a brilliant animator, one of the best, and he completely loves the medium.”

“We’ve been encouraged to reach high and be different,” Butler said, “and I think that’s an amazing M.O. for a studio.”

But no matter how far stop-motion animation has come, both men believe that ParaNorman and films like it are paving the way for future animators.

“This is just beginning, I feel,” Fell said. “There’s no way to tell where it will be in 10 years.”

“There are over 300 people working on this,” Butler said. “With each new project everyone is just raising their game.”

ParaNorman opens Aug. 17.

Related: LAIKA's Travis Knight Discusses ParaNorman and Standing Out

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