The following notes on Laika Studios' ParaNorman (2012) were written by Tim Brayton, PhD Candidate in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of ParaNorman, from the collection of the Chicago Film Society, will screen on Sunday, October 27 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art, part of hour Halloween Horror weekend and our ongoing Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series.
By Tim Brayton
Stick around through the credits of any of the five features made by Oregon-based animation studio Laika – including ParaNorman, the company’s second film – and you’ll be treated to a short “behind the scenes” snippet. Here, the filmmakers lay bare their process, showcasing the loving labor that goes into crafting and manipulating the puppets and physical sets that are photographed one frame at a time to produce the finished animation. These tiny, impressionistic snippets of backstage activity are part of Laika’s larger strategy of selling itself as a scrappy little artisanal outfit, fussing with the wildly labor-intensive medium of stop-motion animation, a lone hold-out of traditional craftsmanship in a world where everything is made on computers.
The reality is a bit more complicated, naturally enough. Laika’s house style is a far cry from the simple clay animation of earlier decades; it’s a sophisticated, elaborate hybrid form combining hand-made puppets dressed in hand-stitched clothing posed on hand-built sets, with the precision and detail made possible on computers. ParaNorman itself was one of the most important films in defining and developing this style, perhaps most notably in its creation of replacement heads for its characters. Extending at least as far back as director George Pal’s short fairy tales from the 1940s, a common technique in stop-motion puppet animation has been to build one body with several different heads that could be swapped out to express all of the necessary emotions of the story. Crafting a new face for every single frame is, unsurprisingly, an inordinately time-consuming process, and for this reason stop-motion animation has historically tended to rely on slower changes of facial expression, or having characters repeat the same face multiple times across the film. In making ParaNorman, directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler were anxious to give their adolescent heroes access to a much wider range of feelings than had previously been available, even in the same studio’s first feature, 2009’s equally boundary-stretching Coraline. To that end, they designed faces for lead character Norman and the rest of the cast in a computer, using similar software to that used in computer animation. These faces were then printed on a 3D printer and swapped out every frame, with the seam between the face and the rest of the head being painted out later on a computer. As a result of this effort, ParaNorman boasts some of the smoothest, most emotionally wide-ranging character acting in the history of stop-motion animation.
The filmmakers also used computers to help create the inhuman world of ghosts and zombies of the film’s kid-friendly horror. Towards the end of the film, Norman encounters the realm of the undead directly, in a sequence that bends physics and reality to emphasize the otherworldly qualities of the story. Much of this material could never be achieved using physical puppets, and so the animators relied on the same techniques as live-action filmmakers: they staged everything in front of a green screen. The computer-generated elements were then added to the completed footage later. There was still a desire to match the CG imagery to the stop-motion footage, however, and to this end the filmmakers animated reference versions of props and certain characters at the time they were animating the “live-action” material. The computer was then able to match these reference items frame-by-frame, replicating the distinctive movements of stop-motion puppetry in the final computer animation.
None of this means that ParaNorman has somehow become a “computer animated” film. While Laika’s insistence on the hand-crafted artisanal qualities of its projects oversimplifies the method by which they are produced, it only takes a few minutes of watching the end result to understand that there is something unusual and special here. The film depends heavily on the creation of a particular atmosphere, one that’s saturated by damp leaves and low fog and a sense of campfire-story spookiness. The physicality of the characters and the sets is a vital part of creating that atmosphere. The tactile qualities of ParaNorman’s forests and old buildings give it a presence that even the best computer animation would be hard-pressed to match, while the occasional stiffness and lack of fluidity inherent to stop-motion animation imbues the film with just a hint of old-fashioned charm. As the film itself attests, the best ghost stories are the ones that come down with a whiff of history hanging off of them, and ParaNorman’s hand-made aesthetic makes it feel a little bit out of time and archaic even with its bleeding-edge use of technology.
As the action transforms more fully to CGI spaces with CGI ghosts, so does the atmosphere. Images made in a computer are often criticized for being “uncanny”; that is to say, they almost look like reality, but something about them isn’t quite right. In ParaNorman, the uncanny is very much part of the appeal. This is a story about the undead and other malevolent psychic forces attempting to corrupt the world; a little hint that something is “wrong” with reality is exactly the right fit for this stage of the story. The gap between the computer animation and the stop-motion animation is used to signify the gap between the living and the dead, using technology in service to the story rather than as an end itself.
And that, ultimately, is the point. While Laika’s habit of calling attention to its own craftsmanship might serve to break the illusion of its films’ stories, the ultimate purpose to all of this technical wizardry is to create a rich world of vivid characters, the better for us to enjoy the comic and spooky adventures of Norman and his friends (and enemies). What Laika is best at isn’t creating tech demonstrations, but creating beautifully macabre genre tales for the whole family, and ParaNorman is one of their greatest successes in that tradition.