Behind The Scenes On ParaNorman

Craig Modderno is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of AwardsLine.

Details are everything in animation, but ParaNorman producer Arianne Sutner knows all too well how difficult it can be to get them right. Her seemingly simple suggestion to add a shower cap in a scene in the 3D stopmotion film quickly became a question of balancing creativity and schedule.

“There’s a scene where Courtney comes to the door looking for Norman and is met by Mitch, who is wearing a towel,” Sutner recounts. “I thought having Mitch wear a shower cap would be funny. The trouble came when I remembered in stopmotion you can only do a minute a week.”

The title character in ParaNorman fights off zombies, parents, and other distractions to save his town in this clever horror spoof.
The title character in ParaNorman fights off zombies, parents, and other distractions to save his town in this clever horror spoof.

Fortunately, Sutner had codirector Sam Fell, codirector and writer Chris Butler, and fellow producer Travis Knight—who’s also the CEO of the financing company Leika—on her side.

“We had an unspoken rule that if anyone had a change that could improve the film, we would try it,” Knight says. “We were working from an excellent script, so we looked at ideas like hers as basically tweaking the source material, which we all loved.”

The resulting feature film took two years to complete and is the biggest stopmotion 3D animated film ever produced, employing 320 designers, artists, and animators who worked on 52 separate shooting units. It’s also one of the 21 animated films that qualify for the 2012-13 Oscar race, an exceptionally long list of toons that will result in five nominations for only the fourth time since the category’s debut.

The film’s production team is hoping that ParaNorman will follow a successful path similar to its previous stopmotion animated effort, Coraline, a dark-themed story of a family coming apart in parallel universes that earned more than $125 million worldwide and was a 2010 Oscar nominee. In fact, Coraline’s success allowed the creative team behind ParaNorman (many of whom worked on Coraline) to self-finance and shoot in the laid-back environment of Portland, OR.

Being out of the critical eye of Hollywood meant fewer egos to deal with, but they knew that having a good story is important no matter where the production is based. “The trick is to sell good scripts, no matter who the buyer is,” Sutner says. “Audiences may be attracted to a certain type of film—animation versus live action for example—but they’re always attracted to a good emotional story.”

ParaNormanKnight, however, thinks animation might just have to try a little harder. “Animation has been ghettoized through the years by giving the impression we only do the same kind of stories,” he says. “(But) the classic Walt Disney films have a perfect balance of darkness and light.”

Like Coraline, ParaNorman, which came out on DVD this month, strikes a similar balance between darkness and light and could be enough of a commercial and critical hit to make the Academy take notice. But two years ago, any thought of Oscar gold was the furthest thing from the minds of ParaNorman’s creative team. They needed the right voice talent.

“We wanted to have kids be kids, not over the top. We wanted naturalism and people playing the same genders. Little things are important, like having older characters sound older,” Sutner explains. “Age is really conveyed in the voice. It’s hard to fake a life fully lived through your voice. Elaine Stritch, who plays the grandmother, earned her life history!”

“Each vocal performance is a symphony,” Knight continues, adding that they tried to cast against type when reviewing vocal performances. “When you think of the warm grandmotherly type of character, you don’t think of Elaine Stritch. But she was perfect because you could hear the rough life in her voice.”

Having a very specific vision for the type of family film they wanted to make also helped keep the production focused. “People now look at animated and stopmotion films like ParaNorman as movies with character and heart, unlike the comic-book pictures that dominated the multiplexes all summer long,” explains Fell.

“It was a film made by grownups who see themselves as kids, that is aimed at kids,” Butler continues. “We wanted to catch the suburban underbelly of a John Hughes picture and combine it with the eerie atmosphere of a John Carpenter picture. If it wasn’t so scary this might have been—with a few major adjustments, of course—a Scooby-Doo adventure.”

While Butler and Fell were in sync on the concept, their opinions diverge when it comes to how technology supported their efforts.

“Part of the reason the film took so long to make was the emerging technology,” Fell says. “We could see the performance unfolding during the day, which made it easier to expand the film by adding big-ass special effects without harming the story. We believe ParaNorman is a game-changing film in combining new digital technology and old-craft technology.”

However, Butler says the emerging technology they employed for ParaNorman was not without its own set of challenges. “I disagree with Sam in that I think it’s not easier to film animation because of the evolving technology,” Butler reveals. “You can have digital background extras and a lot more people handling a lot more things with a lot more questions. A fundamental truth of filmmaking is just because you can do more things with the technology doesn’t mean you won’t have to face newer, more complicated problems.”

Planning ahead helped the team face those complicated problems without the production’s pace grinding to a halt. It also helped to refine the details, such as Sutner’s shower cap addition, somewhat on the fly. “We very rarely reshot,” Fell says. “It’s a big deal in animation because we do such extensive preproduction in every department. In stopmotion, you are actually capturing the performance because we shoot on digital camera now instead of film.”

Butler and Fell ultimately found a creative shorthand in their two-year working relationship. “You play off each other’s creative energy, because you’re not cans of beans for two years,” Fell says. “You get excited when you push the story, and the next year your characters come to life. Then you look at each other, and you realize your film is giving birth to itself. It’s a joyous but difficult feeling to describe!”

“We were a good complement (to each other) really since it was my story and his vision at the start,” offers Butler. “At the beginning it was tough, but then we realized how much we liked each other. Sam and I had a marriage that worked, but now we need a little distance to enjoy our creation. I’d love for us to work together again, and Sam’s indicated the same feeling to me.”

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