The second feature from Portland-based Laika Studios, which scored a major success with its debut, Henry Selick’s “Coraline,” is “ParaNorman,” which again showcases its commitment to state-of-the-art stop-motion animation in 3-D format. Sam Fell and Chris Butler, the co-directors of the kid-friendly zombie movie that Butler terms “John Carpenter Meets John Hughes,” visited Dallas recently and were asked whether they were horror-movie buffs.
“Yeah, we were both into the eighties-style horror stuff,” Butler, who also wrote the “ParaNorman” script, replied.
“I think Chris has carried on loving horror,” Fell added. “I still love it, but…“
“He’s a wuss,” Butler interjected.
“I can’t take the gore [in today’s horror movies], actually,” Fell explained.
Butler added, “It was the favor of an older kind of horror movie that we were going for. Specifically, not the classic Universal monster movies—we weren’t going that far back, because we felt that had already been done—that’s a big reference point for Tim Burton and his animation. So we were going for the schlocky eighties, lurid, Technicolor, bad cutting, dodgy film stock—anything that could excuse us any mistakes!
“Part of the fun of it is taking things you think you recognize and playing with them, having fun with them. That, especially, is the horror movie part of it. You think you know what you’re going to get, but maybe you don’t.”
And Fell quickly noted, “It’s not just a horror movie, is it? [It’s] a kids’ adventure film.”
Butler talked about the genesis of the screenplay, which developed over years. “The initial thought was simply a zombie movie for kids,” he said. “I thought it was a great idea. And then I kind of liked the idea of a Scooby-Doo pastiche, with a gang of kids investigating…and yes, it has to be in a van. Any other form of transportation just wouldn’t do. I combined that with the zombie idea. It seemed like a strong concept, and one that I thought was pretty ripe. And that was a long time ago, and it just got riper and riper. I just kept popping in and out of it for a long time.”
“Then they brought me on board probably about three years ago,” Fell, who had previously 2006’s “Flushed Away” (the first computer-generated film from England’s stop-motion-centered Aardman Studio) and “The Tales of Despereaux” (2008), said. “I liked the mixture of comedy and a few scares. It had a pretty inspiring hook. I came by and we started talking…and we knew we should work together.”
Butler joked, “The thing I liked most about Sam was when he came, he said, ‘You know, I saw a lot of projects, but yours was the best.’ Done—sold.”
Fell was asked about the technological advances that have occurred since he made “Flushed Away” and said, “Since that time, so much more is possible. You can make a big-screen, cinematic ride of a movie now with it. You get the best of both worlds now, actually. [The stop-motion process is] like a little movie set, and all the departments—lighting, camera, art department—are there. It’s a very natural, organic way of working, much more humanistic in a way than banks of computers. It’s a very warm, human way of working. [3-D] is another element you have to keep thinking of, because the shots have to run together. It’s one of the things that’s revolutionized stop-frame—the 3-D—because [the stop-motion technique is] such a tactile thing anyway—these beautiful little real creations—and to see them in 3-D makes them even more tangible.”
Butler added, “I think one of the things about stop-mo is the audience wants to touch that stuff, because they know it’s a real object, and having three dimensions adds to that.” But, he said, 3-D does bring some added concerns: “3-D can be quite painful and uncomfortable if it’s not done right. That’s not to say that people don’t do it anyway. But we’re still learning how to use it. At the start of ‘Coraline,’ they brought in a few experts, and we discussed it. It was terrifying, because the things they were saying just did not seem to fit with what I knew about filmmaking and composition and cutting. In the end, you kind of compromise, and the approach on ‘Coraline’ was just to make the best movie possible, and use the 3-D as just another element to draw you in. Having said that, we’re making a zombie movie!. But we followed the same methodology, which was to make a really good movie regardless of whether it’s 3-D or not.”
The stop-motion system, which involves carefully-molded puppets, extravagantly fabricated backgrounds and painstaking manipulation of the character figurines, has reached a level of extraordinary detail of place and personnel. “A lot of the ethos of this [project],” Fell explained, “was to build the real world in miniature—realism, but just a little bit off-real.”
Butler added, “Part of it…that can’t be underestimated is that our production designer Nelson Lowry is a genius, probably the best at what he does. No one knows how to build a world in stop-motion like he does, and from the start part of our approach was to treat it as a proper design job, to be really thoughtful about it and make it concise—so it looks like it comes from one hand. Because everything is made by hand and is so beautifully detailed, there’s a danger that you fill the frame and everything just gets busy. One of the things I loved about 2-D animation, especially early 2-D animation, was how it really guided the eye so that every frame was very well composed. And I think that in the design language we used, we tried to do something similar.” He gave as an example the scale of the set for the old, dilapidated house inhabited by the town’s crazy old recluse,
Prenderghast: “This ramshackle house in the middle of the woods. The thing was vast, and stunningly beautiful. And we used it for one shot!”
“It took months to build,” Fell noted. “But proper films are like that.”