ParaNorman

ParaNorman (AP Photos, Focus Features)

PORTLAND - Brian Van't Hul knows how to win over a conference room full of visiting Canadian film journalists fast.

"I have three Canadians who work for me," he announces immediately.

We laugh. It's early March 2012 and the visual effects supervisor for animation studio Laika is in his last week (week 81, if you're counting) of production on the zombie kids' film ParaNorman. Van't Hul, who also worked on Laika's last film, 2009's Oscar-nominated Coraline, is obviously tired but still upbeat. So he should be: ParaNorman is a macabre but funny film whose trailer generated many murmurs of approval from the young movie audience I saw it with just a month prior. ParaNorman may have zombies and witches and all manner of spooky stuff going on, but these kids were oohing and aahing and veritably foaming at the mouth in anticipation.

Developed and written by Coraline's head of story Chris Butler, who directs the film with Sam Fell (Flushed Away), ParaNorman is about the misadventures of Norman (voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Road), a boy who can speak with the dead and must save his little New England town from a 300-year-old witch's curse. The production has been a massive undertaking for the Portland, OR-based company (whose name means "little barker" in Russian), employing over 300 artists in a vast complex tucked away in an industrial park in the suburbs outside Portland.
Producer Arianne Sutner greets us as we enter the lobby. She speaks of the "temerity" of Laika's unique approach to stop motion animation - where models are moved fractionally, photographed, and then the frames run together to create the illusion of motion - and how the studio, which was cofounded by Travis Knight, son of Nike co-founder Phil Knight, always puts its cutting-edge technology "in service to the story."

Sutner hands us off to Georgina Hayns, Laika's creative supervisor of puppet fabrication. Hayns waxes ecstatic on the laborious processes which go into the making of each puppet (the originals of which require three to four months to design and build) and shows off copies of each of the main characters.

For the stiff-haired Norman, production made 28 puppets, with each duplicate taking about six weeks to build.
"And that's with a team of about 20 to 30 people," Hayns notes.

She explains that Norman's unique spiky coif is composed of goat hair, with each strand individually dyed and reinforced with wire to make it amenable to animation.

"The idea with Norman is that he's constantly scared," she says. "He's scared of life so his hair is generally sticking upright."

Hayns is especially proud of the costume department led by Deborah Cook (Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox). She shows us Norman's shoes which are made from vintage leather gloves sourced from Portland.

"The vintage shops don't appreciate us buying all their gloves and then chopping them up!"

Brian McLean, Laika's creative supervisor of replacement animation & engineering, joins us to explain how Laika uses sophisticated technologies like colour printing and rapid prototyping to create the thousands of plastic faces used for each character. The faces are modelled in the computer, sculpted, and assigned a paint job with particular colours. They are then printed out in plastic with a very expensive 3D printer, the same technology late night talk show host Jay Leno apparently uses to create replacement parts for his vintage cars. Each replica face has magnets on its back, making it easy to interchange them as each frame of film is shot.

For Norman himself, McLean estimates that more than 32,000 faces were printed, giving the character upwards of 290,000 possible facial expressions. (Each face is divided into two parts: above the eyes and below.)

"As I like to joke, this little guy has more emotional range than I will ever have."

McLean shows us the company's massive 3D printers before introducing us to the rigging department and character designers. We're then led to the sound stages where 52 shooting units are still hard at work putting the finishing touches on dozens of unfinished sequences. We get to see several sets up close, including Norman's dilapidated house, his school, and the town square, complete with a statue of the Blithe Hollow Witch. The detail of each set is incredible.

We are then introduced to first assistant director Dan Pascal. He explains how animators are assigned to portions of the script.

"Each shot is very different, and each animator is very different," he says. "You get to know that certain animators are better at certain action or certain characters. We really try to play to their strengths with the scheduling as well because it helps us to get the shots in a timely fashion. It's a real balance between making it beautiful and getting it done."

Animation supervisor Brad Schiff adds: "[Animators are] like actors, really. You wouldn't have Schwarzenegger come in and do a De Niro-type performance."

Adds co-director Sam Fell in a separate interview: "They are definitely actors, and they're definitely creating a one-time performance, and you're capturing it."

Adds Chris Butler drolly: "Really slowly."