A boy able to speak to the dead may sound familiar but it’s a whole new fantastical world when the wizardry of stop-motion animation explodes in 3D in ParaNorman
IN the upcoming stop-motion animated feature ParaNorman, a misunderstood boy called Norman is able to speak with the dead. When his small town comes under siege by zombies, Norman finds himself in an adventure of a lifetime as he takes on ghosts, witches and, worst of all, moronic grown-ups, to save his town from a centuries-old curse.
Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler, ParaNorman is only the second stop-motion animated feature to be made in 3D from Focus Features and Laika, the companies behind the animated feature Coraline, which was nominated for an Academy Award.
ParaNorman, which took two years to make, unifies the two stunning art forms (stop-motion and 3D) to tell an all-new frightfully funny, magically emotional, and hilariously spooky story.
“In this fun rollercoaster ride, there would also be what kids contend with on a daily basis in the real world — fitting in, facing bullying — as well as something they don’t usually face, a zombie invasion,” says Butler, who finds much joy in 1980s movies like The Goonies which “had spark, warmth, and affection — and they didn’t condescend to kids.”
Fell remembers, “I was watching those movies, too, when I was a teenager. They had an edge, and dealt with issues. While being a haunted-house ride, ParaNorman addresses bullying but not in a preachy way, and Butler’s script takes Norman’s story to a really strong ending. “This movie has heart; it is dramatic and emotional, and full of comedy and adventure. We were so excited to push it bigger and bigger in these different directions, in both scope and nuance.”
Set in the town of Blithe Hollow, 11-year-old Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee of Let Me In and The Road) spends much of his days appreciating the finer points of scary movies and studying ghost lore.
Norman is gifted with the ability to see and speak with the dead, such as his beloved grandmother (Elaine Stritch). Most days, he prefers their company to that of his flustered father (Jeff Garlin), spacey mother (Leslie Mann), and deeply superficial older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick).
At middle school, Norman dodges bullying Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), confides in the impressionable Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), and tries to tune out his blowhard teacher Mrs Henscher (Alex Borstein).
Norman is unexpectedly contacted by his odd uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman), who floors him with the revelation that a centuries-old witch’s curse is real and is about to come true, and that only Norman will be able to stop it from going into overdrive and harming the townspeople.
Once a septet of zombies led by The Judge (Bernard Hill) suddenly rises from their graves, Norman finds himself caught in a wild race against time alongside Courtney, Alvin, Neil, and Neil’s musclebound older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) as Sheriff Hooper (Tempestt Bledsoe) chases them all. Worse, the town is taking up arms. Norman bravely summons up all that makes a hero — courage and compassion — as he finds his paranormal activities pushed to their otherworldly limits.
Bringing the story to life
Production designer Nelson Lowry says the look of the movie had to be in service to Butler’s script. “Every set, every prop has to be carefully considered. We had elaborate bibles of information and reference; making a stop-motion movie you have to pace yourself so that you still have ideas to offer after months of production. So, while staying within the specs of the project, the design team was always encouraged to be creative.”
For Lowry’s work as production designer on Fantastic Mr Fox, directed by Wes Anderson, he was cited by the National Society of Film Critics with their Best Production Design award. A selection of his sets are on display at the Roald Dahl Museum. His work as art director on The PJs, the first-ever stop-motion-animated primetime series for network television, earned him an Annie Award and an Emmy Award nomination.
Lowry’s other feature credits include Corpse Bride , (as art director) and Fred Claus (as digital art director).
Below, Lowry speaks more about his work on the film
You have lots of people working on tiny models here. What are their skills?
There are crafts people from all disciplines here. We have jewellers, sculptors, model-makers, painters, and lighting technicians, people who’ve worked on live action films and people from the animation community. A very high level of detail goes into these props. The camera looks at everything so closely and lovingly, so we really can’t get away with much.
What are those tiny little monitors we see on the miniature set? They are about the size of postage stamps.
We’re trying to up the game on animation with ParaNorman so we actually put in monitors that you can see through windows and in the town square and the main street. As the camera moves around we really wanted it to feel physical.
We actually put together some tiny little inserts that play on these little devices which are meant to be games or i-pad like devices. It’s done in CG.
So much attention to tiny details?
Everything here is very much in keeping with the characters and every detail is looked at. We decide first what the camera is going to see and where the focus will be. Once we know that, we build to a very high specification. We have vehicles, books, sky-lights and graves, all with amazing detail.
The other thing that’s unique about ParaNorman is that it’s a very real world. Even though it’s a fantasy story with fantasy elements we wanted to create a town that you really could believe and feel like you could just walk around in. We made things very pedestrian and very common. Even the wastebasket is just like a wastebasket you would see on a street in the East Coast. Everything has the flair and stylisation of ParaNorman.
Did you use any miniature items that you could buy, like a toy?
Everything is original and handmade. It’s one of the fascinating and fun things about stop frame. There are no real locations. We make our locations from scratch. Because of the level of stylisation, there’s nothing that comes off the shelf or from a factory that we can use. All of the artists in the creative group are people who’ve grown up with some love for creating and they get such a great opportunity to work together to create all of this.
What happens to all these miniature worlds and items after you’ve done shooting?
There are a lot of duplicates so they go on display and tour around museums. Occasionally we have to build things in different scales. For example, the scene where the van is driving through some woods is such an expansive scene. The van is amazingly rigged. It can even bank and turn.
Where did you get the ideas for locations in the world of ParaNorman?
We travelled to the East Coast and visited several towns and then built our town, Blithe Hollow, based on that search. We actually went and found every single location that’s in the script. We went to a school gymnasium, to woods, to schools and a Town Hall so that we could meticulously construct this world. This is Norman’s neighbourhood. We even actually found Norman’s house.
Which cities did you go to on the East Coast?
We went to Salem, North Carolina and also to the cities of Brockton, Concord, Braintree and Weymouth, Massachusetts.
So you begin with illustrations and then build from there?
One of the lovely things about ParaNorman is that this artwork is very literal. So the illustrations came first and then we built to a very tight specification to make the sets look like the illustrations. I feel like that’s something that makes the film extraordinary. It feels like it’s a story book come to life. It’s not overly stylised, which could be potentially distracting.
How long does it take to build a complete set with lighting and everything?
It varies but it usually takes about three months. For the sets, we mostly use plywood and MDF (medium density fibreboard). We also use materials like chicken wire and shredded paper. We have about 60 real sets. That’s a lot.
How many stage areas do you have in this building?
We have about 47 stages areas running simultaneously, which is about capacity. We prep things so that animators always have something to move on to. Animators are the ultimate precious commodity because they are the actors and they have to keep working so we have to set it up so they just go from one set to the next.
How many people do you have working here every day?
We’re up to nearly 300 people working here on a daily basis. — United International Pictures
ParaNorman opens on Aug 16 in cinemas nationwide