You don’t normally hear a kids’ animated movie pitched as “John Carpenter meets John Hughes,” but ParaNorman, like its protagonist, is no ordinary brainchild. Like the previous Laika studios feature Coraline, it pushes the envelope. “There was a certain era of family movie-making that was more irreverent and edgy,” said screenwriter/codirector Chris Butler at a recent press day. “There’s something very easy to relate to when you see a family that isn’t quite perfect, for example. You present these challenges, these obstacles for a kid, these scares, but this kid onscreen who’s not normal succeeds and gets past these obstacles… I think that’s what makes it cool for kids.” His less-talkative partner Sam Fell, a veteran of Aardman animation, agreed.
But if you’re going to give shout-outs to two live-action directors – and reveal that the cinematography was inspired by equal parts Italian giallo horror and David Gordon Green’s George Washington – why stop-motion as a medium? We like Butler’s answer: “I think it’s something fundamental. A zombie puppet is literally a dead thing till an animator puts soul into it and brings it to life. And there’s a nostalgic element, of playing with dolls and bringing those dolls to life.” Both directors added that one of the main reasons they got into animation was their enjoyment of the work of Ray Harryhausen.
Given that they name-check everything cool, we had to catch up with the directorial duo afterward. They didn’t disappoint.
Nerdist: So Sam, there’s a very good chance that this fall come awards season, this movie could be going head to head with an Aardman film, The Pirates: Band of Misfits. Has the taunting back and forth begun yet?
Sam Fell: No, I think we all know each other, we swap notes. It’s a very small industry. And I think ParaNorman‘s a great film. That’s all I’m going to say.
N: It feels like after the witch’s curse happens in this movie, the 3-D depth-of-field changes, like in Coraline where she enters the other world. Was that something that actually happened, or did I imagine that?
Chris Butler: It did happen, but not necessarily quite like that. What we did was, after the witch’s curse happens, the zombies rise, and because then we are referencing a lot of old horror movies, we felt that it was appropriate to increase the depth and actually have monsters coming out of the screen as well. So it was a stylistic choice, but it wasn’t from that point on in every shot. Definitely the more supernatural stuff, the horror-inspired stuff, we pushed it.
N: How many people caught the Grindhouse reference at the very beginning?
SF: A lot of people – the Comic-Con crowd kinda get it. It was very fun to do that.
N: When watching the clips, things like the purple storm look like they’d be CGI, but seeing the Comic-Con featurette, I saw that was actually a lot more practical.
CB: Yeah, I think that was our approach on most things, that everything started – even if it was just in the design – everything was hand-built at some point or other. We did have plenty of skies that were purely digital on the finished frame, but we started out by creating those by hand first, just as a point of reference, so the digital artists and animators could really get a look at how something that was real would move. Something that was not just real, but hand-made. We’ll use whatever methodology makes a shot better, but it’s important for us to always have that consistent vision, so everything fits together really well.
SF: They should be seamless in the end; you shouldn’t be able to tell how it was done.
N: All told, aside from wire removal and stuff like that, what percentage of the effects would you say was digital?
CB: It’s hard to give a percentage. Most shots were touched digitally in some way, even if it was just to remove the seams of the rapid prototype faces, and we did regularly use green screen, to either remove rigs, or… because our puppet designs were very unusual. They didn’t lend themselves to puppet-making, necessarily, so sometimes we needed rigs to hold the puppets up. Sometimes we used green screen to just extend the world. So there was kind of a routine use of digital effects.
N: How did you do the shot of the van falling down the hill?
CB: It was very, very well-rigged!
SF: A lot of motion-control unit, actually. We just had a gigantic arm and rigged it onto that unit and programmed the animation.
CB: Which is actually very difficult to do, because you want to get all of the – it’s down to capturing imperfections. The danger with programming anything is that you seldom get that handheld feel of live-action, which we were aiming for.
N: It’s always noticeable when animals are created digitally and they move too fluidly…
CB: Because they don’t have the imperfection, yeah.
N: How do you, as directors, train yourselves to see at 1/24th of a second, to know exactly what needs to be moved in each shot?
SF: Luckily we don’t have to do the animation as such.
CB: But I think it’s probably some sort of weird mindset that’s genetic, because we’ve both been animators.
SF: There’s definitely a feeling…
CB: You understand how movement works.
SF: Yeah, I agree. And timing.
CB: So we come from animation. It probably would be difficult to direct one of these if you hadn’t been in this world before.
N: You mentioned earlier this great parallel about zombies being inanimate objects brought to life, like stop-motion puppets or action figures that get played with. So what action figures have you guys played with, and do you still own any?
CB: All of them! I had the most vast collection of Star Wars figures ever. I collected everything, and I’ve actually still got a bunch of them, but they’re in my parents’ attic, I think, which my mother constantly reminds me of.
SF: I had a brilliant selection of stuff. I played with my sister, so we had a real mixture. I had some Planet of the Apes figures, a Mummy figure from some horror series, a G.I. Joe, and Barbie, so we had all kinds…
CB: You had Barbie?
SF: Yeah, well, my sister had Barbie, so we just mixed them all up.
CB: Good for you.
N: There are so many great things in this movie, like the zombie slippers, that we want to own. Has anybody talked about rolling some of that stuff out for real?
CB: There’s been a lot of talk of people wanting them…
SF: Me included!
CB: There are so many cool ideas in there, and I think that’s part of the joy of this thing. The art department gets to make up pretty much everything they ever wanted to own. Whether it ever actually gets made, I don’t know. The zombie slippers do exist in swag form, but I don’t think they’ll ever be sold.
SF: And there’s a set of limited-edition figures.
CB: But unfortunately, as yet, there is no zombie-hand alarm clock. I know.
SF: That’s a crime.
N: You’ve talked about pushing and challenging the audience a bit; do you think we’ll ever push and challenge them enough to where we could get a movie like this that isn’t for kids?
SF: Yeah, yeah, definitely, and those are getting made already, I’m guessing
CB: There is an R-rated stop-mo movie being made right now by the Robot Chicken people – what are they called?
SF: Shadow Machine.
CB: I think this medium can be used to tell any kind of story. I still think there is some reticence from a Western point of view to accept animation for grownups. It’s happening, but very, very slowly. I am all for telling any kind of story with this medium; it’s such a wonderful thing to be able to explore a different aesthetic.
N: Chris, it took you 16 years to get your first screenplay produced. Is it going to take you that long to do the second?
CB: At the same time I was writing ParaNorman, there were other things that I was writing. So maybe one of those will crop earlier than me being fifty-whatever. Fifty-four! Watch out for my next movie then.