Tuesday, August 14, 2012

ParaNorman Crew Talk Undead Details

While running the gambit we call San Diego Comic Con, I took full advantage of moments where I could sit, enjoy functioning air conditioning, and chat with film makers and the actors that bring their creations to life. This weekend, we get to take in one such project. Paranorman, the instant stop motion masterpiece from the mad geniuses at Laika, promises to elevate the art of stop motion animation to new heights and, on a simpler level, make you smile like crazy. Here's the skinny...

When a small town comes under siege by zombies, who can it call? “Norman!”

From Focus Features and LAIKA, the companies behind the Academy Award-nominated animated feature Coraline, comes the comedy thriller ParaNorman. Following Coraline, ParaNorman is the second stop-motion animated feature to be made at LAIKA in 3D, unifying the two stunning art forms to tell an all-new frightfully funny, magically emotional, and hilariously spooky story.

ParaNorman is set in the town of Blithe Hollow, whose locals profit from mining the town’s history as the site, 300 years ago, of a famous witch hunt. 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. In fact, 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 up in arms and 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.

When I first entered Focus Features interview area, I was asked how geeky my coverage was going to be. I answered "as geeky as humanly possible" and with a pleased smile and pat on the back of approval, I was directed to the first table space for my first round of interviews including Producer Arianne Sutner, Production Designer Nelson Lowry and Brian McLean who offered a peek behind the curtain.

For ParaNorman, Laika utilized a 3D color printer, which, in theory, was supposed to work flawlessly. For the uninitiated, this is a machine that will produce fully formed items from information fed into it, cutting out the need for a seperate company to cast molds and produce the materials required. In the case of these stop motion films, more often than not, the body is hand made but there are elements that require mass production of one thing changed slightly..like a face. What I had learned from talking to the Laika crew on Coraline was that every little thing possible was stop motion, including her awesome facial expressions and manor of speaking. To get those minute details on film, the crew would swap out the face throughout the painstaking process we'll just call "click and repeat". Can you imagine how many faces are in a box somewhere?! At any rate, utilization of a 3D color printer had never been done before. They purchased the printer 3 months before shooting so it was a massive undertaking to get it to do what they wanted in time to be of use. This new 3D color printer seemed like a way to cut their work down considerably, as they could crank out those faces, in house, with speed. Apparently, the operation of this device is a supernatural mix of art and science that takes time to master, so Brian and his crew had to re-tool and invent new technologies to come to the happiest of results. Case in point, during early testing Laika sent over a green zombie head to the 3D printing company for a test. The results came back looking fantastic, so spirits were high and the thought was the process would now be streamlined. The printer was purchased and powered up, but the skin tones were coming out horrifically off. When they contacted the company to find out what they were doing wrong, the company admitted the printer is aces on greens and yellows but none too brilliant beyond that. In the end, it took human ingenuity to really get the printer singing, the result being more beautiful and sophisticated characters and better animation!

Laika prides themselves in hand manipulated, stop motion animation, and were after a hand made feel even with the few digital effects involved. In one scene there’s a huge storm cloud with a witch’s face in it..and even that was originally built by hand. They used clear plastic and a bridal vale and motion controlled the face forming. What you see in the film is a digital replacement, but Laika wanted the digital animators to know EXACTLY what it should look like when done by hand. There is a lot of that in the film where things were built by hand, photographed practically to use as reference material and then closely matched and extended. There are also a few scenes where they digitally extended environments as well, but even then, foreshortening was used to suppress the feel of infinite space in a digital playing field and play up the “set” effect.

When I covered Coraline, Director Henry Selick told me the film was for "Children of all ages." I asked a similar question of the Laika crew and Arianne Sutner had this to say...

“I don’t think we make a conscious decision to say this will be appropriate for “this” age group. We just follow the script. We’ll have a scary scene followed by some humor which will temper that. We’ll go right to the edge of what we think will be too scary and then a lot of it is just tongue in cheek. While the zombies are scary looking, they are meant to look unreal. We work to keep that balance. The threat of what is happening is real but we try to have as much fun along the way as possible.”

ParaNorman opens this FRIDAY, August 17th in theaters nationwide! Be sure to get out there opening day and show Hollywood that art triumphs over all.

CLICK HERE for more Making of ParaNorman images and stills from the film!

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