Picture this: A 140-square foot production building filled with 52 separate shooting units and brimming with 320 talented designers, artists, animators and technicians all functioning as one, gorgeously choreographed hive working toward the creation of a 3D stop-motion animated children’s zombie movie. This is Laika Studios where “ParaNorman” has been in production for the past few years.
Stop-motion animation is experiencing a resurgence and that is in large part thanks to the innovations currently underway at Laika. The studio joined forces with Focus Features to bring us director Henry Selick’s dark fairytale, “Coraline” and have now reteamed for Sam Fell (“Flushed Away,” “The Tale of Despereaux”) and Chris Butler’s “ParaNorman.”
Butler, who penned the script, had been ruminating on an idea for a kid-centric Zombie film for years. The final product of his decade long ambition is slated to hit AMC Theatres on August 17th. The film tells the tale of Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) an unusual boy with an even more unique ability: Norman can speak with the dead. When an ancient curse threatens to destroy his town, Norman and a crew of unlikely saviors join forces in the fight against a tide of zombies, ghosts and an all powerful witch.
The directing duo have amassed a powerhouse voice cast that includes Anna Kendrick, Leslie Mann, Casey Affleck, John Goodman, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jeff Garlin and Elaine Stritch.
We had the opportunity to take a tour of the Hillsboro, Oregon studio and meet with the eclectic group responsible for bringing these charming characters to life. We were walked through each of the stages of production culminating in a screening of some stunning 3D footage that gave us a taste for what we can expect to see from the film as a whole.
Laika created stop-motion animation is an intricate, slow and lovingly meticulous process that involves everything from hand stitched and painted costumes to stunningly crafted hair to a high-tech 3D printer that allows the studio to create characters with remarkably subtle variance in their facial expressions (more on that in a moment).
During our time there I was deeply impressed with the skill and dedication of each of the craftspeople we met with and utterly fascinated by the process of stop-motion animation. Indeed, I would highly recommend taking a look at the behind the scenes feature for "Coraline" below which visually introduces the viewer to the medium and the boundary-breaking artistry that is done at Laika.
We will keep you updated as similar features for “ParaNorman” become available.
In the interim we present you with first two of the top five things that you are going to love about “ParaNorman.”
1) The Organic Feel Of The Animation:
As you can see in the above video each puppet and set piece utilized in a stop-motion film has been carefully created by several artisans. As such, a stop-motion film inherently has an appealingly touchable and organic feel. The innovative minds at Laika take that to the next step with their attention to detail and open-minded craftsmanship.
There are 60 arts and craftspeople ranging from costume and hair designers, sculptors, jewelry makers, engineers and silicone chemists in puppet fabrication alone. Of course, it all begins with a skeleton. In the case of puppet construction, skeletons are armatures (think of a metal stick figure with movable joints) which are described as “high-tech tinker toys meets engineering meets the game operation.”
The game of operation comes into play when the puppets sustain an injury and are admitted into the “puppet hospital” (a wonderfully real thing).
The armatures give the puppets their mobility and are then covered in silicone and foam latex materials to give them their fleshy appearance. From there they are sanded, painted, dressed with hand sown costumes and adorned with masterfully manufactured wigs (Norman alone had over 40 wigs comprised of a goat hair that is then dyed to give it the hombre effect – so he is really quite stylish). Each wig has 250 spikes that are placed by hand.
The facial expressions are achieved with a technique that we will soon discuss.
The sets are stunning pieces of artistry, one of which is a glorious forest setting that was lit to look as though the sun was fading through the trees in the magic of the coming twilight. The picturesque setting was created using an eclectic combination of blown glass, corrugated cardboard, AstroTurf, chicken wire and fake fur.
But what really gives “ParaNorman” its unique aesthetic flavor is the original character design by Heidi Smith.
“The amazing thing about Heidi is how well her drawings really lend themselves to stop-motion animation,” Christina Haynes, the creative supervisor for puppet fabrication says. “All of her drawings are initially drawn on paper with pencil which is really rare these days and we wanted to get in out animation as possible.”
All of the departments have integrated the wonky asymmetrical shape and line work that Smith originated giving the film a holistic and entirely unique feel and tone.
Of course when so many things are hand-crafted continuity is challenging but the directors feel that those slight variances add to the texture of the piece.
“That added element of not being able to minutely plan it means you sometimes get real surprises with our process,” Butler says. “Certainly some of the innovations that we’re doing haven’t been tested before, so you’re trying stuff out that’s never been done. And some of the things that come as a result of that are mind blowing, because they’re not perfect, and you would have to actually work very hard to replicate them in CG. What makes it vital is that we’re not trying to make things super seamless and smooth. When you see a handmade costume on the screen and you see the stitches and the work that’s gone into it, there is something really tangible about that, and with the new technology we can see that stuff better and I think that’s really exciting.”
As to groundbreaking technology…
2) Revolutionary Facial Dexterity
There are two kinds of facial animation in stop-motion. The first is mechanical and the second is replacement.
Mechanical animation is used on all of the zombies on “ParaNorman.” What that essentially means is that a silicon skin covers something that looks a bit like a Swiss watch, a group of tiny mechanics that move eyebrows, eyes, and jaws so that they can give expression. The issue with this method is that you’re restricted to the sculpt you start with and the flexibility of the skin. Haynes tells us that mechanical often lends itself to demure Victorian characters that don’t really move that much or the “ParaNorman” zombies who are essentially meant to lumber and “arghhhh.”
In order to achieve the “Disney squash and stretch” facial movement the team wanted to have available to them, Laika has revolutionized facial replacement with 3D color printing. Brian McLean, the Director of Rapid Prototype (3D printing) walked us through the evolution of the process as it applies to the studio’s needs.
What Laika has made its name for is taking the age old technique of replacement animation in which there are a hundreds if not thousands of facial expressions which can pop off and be replaced 12 times to 24 times a second in order to create a beautiful illusion of movement. As an example of technique, Jack Skellington had roughly 800 heads for “A Nightmare Before Christmas.”
Each individual expression used to be hand sculpted which was, clearly, an intensely laborious process. On “Coraline” Laika looked at how to combine replacement with CG and 3D animation. The 3D printer is as simple a technology in theory as it is awe inspiring in realty. Artists design objects (in this case facial expressions) in the computer program Maya and then set them to be printed in a three dimensional, physical form. The device can work with substances ranging from rubber to metal. I like to imagine printing a 1965 Mustang convertible, red, one day.
We watched, utterly flabbergasted, as they printed tiny (working) wrenches for each of us to take home.
The issue on “Coraline,” as effective and useful as the technology is, was that each face needed to be hand painted which was, again, labor intensive and restricted the nuance the artists were able to provide for their characters. Coraline had five iconic freckles that the team had to place perfectly on each individual expression.
On “ParaNorman” the production moved to color 3D printing which provided them with the ability to create a more naturalistic look for the characters, which was a crucial element in terms of the aesthetic that the directors envisioned.
One character, Neil, has thousands of freckles, each printed in to his individual expressions. More than that, when the color is printed onto the faces it goes about a 16th of an inch into the material and, as such, operates in a similar manner to how skin holds color and reflects light which adds to the sense of realism.
The technology has allowed the team to produce approximately 8,000 different unique facial pieces for Norman alone which equates to roughly 1.5 million different facial expressions. The innovative, hybrid use of old-fashioned tools with state of the art technology has opened a whole world of possibility in terms of the visual use of the medium.
Of course, as McLean says, when a new technology opens previously closed doors it becomes particularly crucial to get clear as to why you are making a creative choice. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.
Stay tuned for part two of our “ParaNorman” set visit in which we discuss the fresh new take on the zombie movie, finding beauty in the trash and the love that can be felt in every frame of the film.
“ParaNorman” opens in AMC theatres on August 17th.
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