‘ParaNorman’ Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell Break All the Rules

By  · Published on August 17th, 2012

“An episode of Scooby-Doo directed by Sam Raimi” is how directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell describe ParaNorman. Their horror-comedy wears its influences proudly. From the John Hughes-esque ensemble to Jon Brion’s whimsical take on a John Carpenter score, it’s all obvious.

Tonally, ParaNorman doesn’t share much in common with LAIKA Studio’s Coraline, a far darker movie. And not only is ParaNorman different from Henry Selick’s film in content, but also in terms of production. Butler and Fell didn’t want to approach ParaNorman as a stop-motion picture, as they saw the technical restrictions in going that route. Instead, they approached the film as if it was live-action, and it shows in the film’s scope and playful camerawork. According to Butler and Fell, they didn’t want to play by the rules of stop-motion.

Here’s what ParaNorman directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell had to say about the film’s epic production, how The French Connection and Ronin influenced their zombie car chase, and the future of stop-motion:

Having seen the completed film more than a few times, have you both noticed any new details lately?

Chris Butler: Just a lot of shop signs in the main street, and stuff like that.

Sam Fell: Looking at some of the stuff pinned on the lockers has been pretty cool. So much goes into this stuff, honestly. People are putting these lovely little touches into these things which sometimes never really appear on screen.

We had a writer of ours visit the Portland studio, and he seemed amazed by the manpower that went into this.

Chris Butler: Yeah, it’s staggering.

Sam Fell: It’s like a big ark, you know? It’s never the same thing all the three years. You’re pushing it out in development, going up the hill, and it grows organically. By the time you’re in the middle, with over 300 people, it’s not like boiling a frog. You gradually turn the heat up on it. Everyone knew the vibe of the movie and what Chris and I were thinking.

Chris Butler: Boiling a frog? Really?

Sam Fell: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah…

Chris Butler: Okay, we’ll go with that…

[Laughs] Now I have my headline. The scope of the film is much larger than Coraline. Chris, when you were writing the film, did you know how much of a challenge capturing all those locations and characters would be?

Chris Butler: I wrote the script a long time ago, and I always thought of it as a stop-motion project. For me, zombies and stop-motion just seems appropriate and cool. Because of a lot of the live-action influences, I never wanted to limit the scope. One of my pet peeves about stop-motion, as much as I adore it, is that it does feel very contained, and that’s just by its nature. Over the years you’ve been constricted by the amount of puppets you have, the sets, and where you can fit your cameras, and that was a big deal for many years. The cameras were big things, so you had to be careful where you stuck them.

I wrote the script as more of a live-action script. Rather than be told I can’t do this, I found pretty quickly that LAIKA’s point-of-view was to make it bigger. Both of us, right from day one, never felt like we were constrained. We aimed high and wanted to push the boundaries. It’s in the script, but also our approach to the design. We went for things that are very difficult to realize in 3-dimensions. Even our approach to the cinematography and how many locations we had, we included one-off shots, which obviously had to be built by hand. Those are the things that are cut out of animation because they’re not economic, but we kept them in. We had crowd scenes, which are a big no-no in animation. Basically, all the rules we were supposed to follow we broke.

Unlike a lot of stop-motion films, the camerawork never feels restricted, so that live-action approach you took makes sense.

Sam Fell: We storyboarded it that way, used CG to pre-viz and stuff, and we were even looking at The French Connection and Ronin, and that kind of camerawork. As Chris said, we didn’t think defensively. We went at it aggressively. The crew was there to catch us, so that was pretty cool.

Did you look at The French Connection and Ronin for the car chase?

Chris Butler: That was specifically for the chase scene. Again, that’s the sort of the thing you don’t do in stop-motion, so we went at it from a live-action perspective. We wanted to make a chase scene that broke the rules. We hired a live-action storyboard artist to do the first pass at that sequence, and he was the guy who boarded the Bond movie chase sequences. It was an intentional, fresh approach to try to break the mold.

Do you think that live-action approach would have been possible a few years ago for Coraline?

Sam Fell: It’s getting better. Specifically for LAIKA, they have their visual effects department plugged directly into the studio, so they really are a part of the team. They were around when we were storyboarding in pre-production. We used a lot of green screen and portable camera passes on stuff, which just allowed us to put the camera where you normally couldn’t put it. It’s just very efficient to have that small, wonderful team plugged into your daily life, as a filmmaker.

Chris Butler: I don’t think we would’ve been able to do this a few years ago, even on Coraline. The technology is advancing so rapidly that even on this film, there were tantalizing glimpses of what we’ll see in the future. That happened on a daily basis.

Any memorable examples?

Sam Fell: One thing about the whole digital scanning thing. We used digital printing, and obviously printing objects from a computer out into 3D, but we started to scan somethings digitally. We were scanning some of our stop-motion digitally into 3D. It sounds far-fetched, but it’s kind of like motion-capture. God knows what you’d do with it, but, God, that sounds pretty exciting [Laughs]. Even in terms of differences between Coraline and ParaNorman, the face printing technique on Coraline was mind-blowing, but even in the time from the release of that to starting ParaNorman, we went from black-and-white print to color print, which just completely blew the top off it. It gave us so many possibilities in terms of nuance, aesthetics. We got to play around with it.

In terms of storytelling, one big difference between ParaNorman and Coraline is the tone. Was the film’s sense of humor a way of not alienating certain kids like Coraline may have?

Chris Butler: I love Coraline. For me, it’s an entirely different tone. Although they’re both creepy movies, Coraline is like a dark, contemporary fairy tale. It deals with the primal fear of having your parents replaced, but it doesn’t sweeten it with humor. Coraline had a darkness to her, and I loved that. We were referencing a lot of fun stuff on this, and it was always supposed to be a roller coaster ride. We talked about it as being an episode of Scooby Doo, but directed by Sam Raimi. The movie is always supposed to have an element fun. It’s all the stuff I remember more fondly from things that I thought of as a ride, where you do have equal parts laughs and scares. It was all a part of the genetic makeup of the film from the beginning, that we aren’t making a dark fairy tale, but a fun movie.

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ParaNorman opens in theaters August 17th.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.