‘ParaNorman’ Set Visit Teases What May Be the Year’s Most Impressive Animated Movie

By  · Published on August 18th, 2012

Editor’s note: With FSR favorite ParaNorman opening today, we thought it was only appropriate to re-post our very special set visit from the film, originally posted on May 21, 2012.

I recently visited a nondescript building outside Portland, Oregon that would feel right at home in any corporate office park in America. Nothing about the bland, uninteresting exterior even hinted at what to expect beyond the front doors. There’s no sign outside to tell you where you are. No iconic sculptures alluding to what they do inside. Nothing at all that even hints at the harmonious blend of magic and technology within.

But make no mistake, what LAIKA Studios is hiding inside those four generic-looking walls is nothing short of a revolution in film production…a revolution 115 years in the making.

LAIKA is the studio behind 2009’s critical and commercial hit, Coraline, a film that utilized creepy but beautiful stop-motion puppetry to tell Neil Gaiman’s dark childhood fable. Their follow-up feature is an original work called ParaNorman. It’s an Amblin-like tale of a small New England town, a very special boy who can see and talk with the dead, and a zombie uprising that threatens to destroy them all. And yes, it’s a comedy.

Keep reading for a peek behind the scenes of LAIKA Studios’ upcoming production, ParaNorman, and their secret, high-tech weapon…Rapid Prototype 3D printers.

Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an average kid who happens to be able to see, hear and communicate with ghosts. His ability, alongside his interest in horror paraphernalia and a head full of spiked goat-hair, has left him a social outcast in his small New England town. Just how much of an outcast should be evident by the fact that the school bully who harasses him on a daily basis is voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse. As if a life filled with swirlies courtesy of McLovin’ wasn’t bad enough, things get even worse for Norman when his recently deceased uncle (John Goodman) appears to him in a bathroom stall warning him about a curse that’s about to unleash zombified mayhem all over town. Now it’s up to Norman, his sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), his best friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), and even Alvin the bully to find a way to save Blithe Hollow from the undead onslaught.

This visit was different from the norm for a few reasons with the most obvious being that the entire trip lasted less than a day. I flew into Portland in the morning and was heading back to the airport by 4:30pm meaning my time at Laika Studios only lasted a few hours as opposed to the few days I enjoyed on my first set visit (Fright Night, check it out here). That film ended up being pretty underwhelming (yet somehow also underrated), but being on set was still more than a little magical for me. Watching cinema being shaped and created, seeing known actors practice their craft in person, and meeting people like Howard Berger amidst a trailer filled with his gruesome creations were experiences I’ll never forget.

How could a puppet movie ever hope to compete?

It turns out the answer is pretty damn simple. Movie magic is still magic whether or not the onscreen “stars” are living, breathing, recognizable faces. Laika Studios is filled with extremely talented and passionate movie lovers who work behind the scenes but still show real enthusiasm for their craft, and their puppet creations are just as charismatic, lively (and animated) as Colin Ferrell or Anton Yelchin have ever been. (That’s less of a knock on either actor than it is a compliment towards the film’s puppetry. Honest.) They shared the effort and detail that goes into this incredible art-form, and I couldn’t help but find a new appreciation for stop-motion animation… and an intense interest in the tech behind 3D printing.

My day job finds me working a block away from Pixar’s recently remodeled headquarters in Emeryville, CA, and the animation behemoth has a visually appealing campus and series of buildings designed to please the eye and pamper the employees. By contrast, walking through the front doors of LAIKA’s uninspired facade leads directly into a slightly less underwhelming lobby with a single desk and small pieces of artwork on the walls.

But just beyond that room exists a world that constantly reminded me Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Replace the magic and mystery of candy making with the art of making inanimate objects come to life, and you’ll have an idea of the workshop within LAIKA’s walls. Desks are covered with tools, supplies, personality, and tiny elements that will eventually come to life onscreen.

Our tour started in the fabrication workshop where some of Portland’s finest sat focused on the minutia at hand. Speaking of which, they actually have an entire department that just makes hands. The workshop is where the various characters are constructed, modified, accessorized, painted and more. Hair is added one strand at a time, skin is touched up and clothing is sewed and fitted. It’s also home to the puppet hospital responsible for emergency fixes of broken and damaged puppets. We got a better sense of what exactly could break on a puppet when we were shown their skeletal armature that hides beneath the rubber skin. It turns out they’re mini Terminators sent from the future to kill Jeff Dunham’s puppet Walter.

We checked out the ridiculously cool Rapid Prototype Printing (RPP) next, but that’s covered in more detail further down below.

A walk through the rigging and props departments followed where we got to see various set dressing being constructed alongside the gang’s Scooby Doo-inspired van. The vehicle, constructed from parts printed out via RPP, is used in a high-speed action set-piece in the film’s second act. After seeing how they rig and secure puppets, props and even flying dirt clods we were escorted into the Facial Library to meet Facial Animation Specialists who memorize every single face and the Face Librarians who mix and match the appropriate parts for the desired expressions. It’s a good sized room lined with row after row of shelves holding stacks of thin boxes. Inside each box are dozens of face plates. Thanks to the speed and ease of use afforded by the 3D printers each of the lead puppets has an incredibly wide variety of upper and lower halves of their face. They’re held in place with magnets so they can be easily swapped out to change expressions on the fly.

We also visited a handful of sets including the school, main street, and the deceased Mr. Prederghast’s cluttered house. The attention given to even the most intricate details was never less than astounding as evidenced by small pieces of trash along the ground, street signs named after some recognizable horror icons, the woodwork on buildings and even the blades of grass. Animators were active on some of the sets including the film’s lead animator, Travis Knight. He’s a multi-hyphenate employee though as he’s also the employer – Knight is LAIKA’s President and CEO.

In an unusual move the animators were given their own scenes to complete from beginning to end. They were encouraged to lobby for scenes knowing that they’d be taking ownership of the entire sequence. Knight was no different, and the scene we witnessed him working on was one he claimed specifically for the challenge it represented. It takes place in a bright green forest where Norman meets an unknown girl. ParaNorman is being shot for 3D, meaning each setup has two images taken (one for each eye), but this particular scene revealed seven cameras setup around young Norman. Knight wouldn’t exactly say what was going to happen there, but he hinted at a Matrix-like visual that spins around the characters. The fact that a Microsoft XBox Kinect was also being utilized for the scene only enhanced our curiosity.

All of the folks we spoke with were knowledgeable and friendly including co-directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell. Butler is also making his screenwriting debut with the film after serving as storyboard artist on Tarzan II and The Corpse Bride as well as Coraline. Fell is returning to the director’s chair after Flushed Away and The Tale of Despereaux. Butler describes his inspiration as a zombie movie for kids, basically John Carpenter meets John Hughes. Think The Fog meets The Breakfast Club and you’ll be in his frame of mind. Their collective influences for the film included The Goonies, E.T. and Ghostbusters, and they unapologetically blame childhoods fueled on a healthy diet of American movies. While the overall feel and tone of the film is theirs, they do credit artist Heidi Smith for the characters’ ‘s distinctive look. They reviewed several portfolios of art that screamed Disney and/or Pixar in their style and execution, but Butler describes Smith’s as an “assault to the eyes.” In a good way. They loved it’s “outsider art” quality and immediately brought her on board to create the characters’ visual bible.

As cool as a visit to the creative side of ParaNorman was, and it really was an eye-opening experience that promises a spectacularly fun adventure later this summer, it’s the 3D printers they used that my mind keeps returning to again and again. LAIKA used an older version of the technology on Coraline that had limitations in material, cost and color functionality… as in it could only print in very expensive, monotone plastic. The newer models can print using a much wider array of materials, offer colored options and make skin translucence possible.

Rapid Prototype Printers have been around for close to twenty years and were first developed by the US military (unsurprisingly). NASA reportedly had one aboard the space shuttles along with 3D image files for the shuttle’s various parts in case something needed to be replaced while in space. From there the tech was adopted by large commercial corporations for use in product prototype design. The printers take a 3D file, often one designed with Maya software, and prints it in three dimensions. The materials available for printing include plastic, resin, metal, silicone, and even human organs.

You read that right. They’re currently being used to “print” simple tissues like skin and muscle, but the potential is immense.

LAIKA isn’t printing body parts, at least not that they’d admit to, but they are using the technology to create the faces and other props described above. Norman’s head has 70 internal pieces, all printed on RPP, including his tongue, uvula, and teeth. CGI artists can cheat when their characters close their mouths, but puppeteers don’t have that luxury so it all has to be present at all times. Over 31,000 individual facial parts were printed for the production.

There are two types of these printers in use here. The one originally used on Coraline is a plastic printer (from Objet) that takes the 3D software image and slices it like a cat-scan. That data is then converted into spray directions for two material types, model and support. As the hose nozzles move back and forth across the printer bed the model is squirted down with support material around it, UV lights then cure that layer, the tray then drops a distance 4 times thinner than human hair, and the process repeats for the next layer. Once complete, usually 1.5 hours later, the support material is rinsed away with water leaving the hard object behind. We were given small, working wrenches made in this fashion.

The newer color model sprays colored resin (essentially a glue/binder) alongside a white powder before being cured via UV and then repeated. The end result differs from the other model in that instead of a cookie sheet effect you’re left with a drawer of what looks like flour. Digging your hands into the soft powder reveals the hidden, complete objects within. Neither model is cheap with prices starting at $50k, but just like the razors and razor blades the real cost here is in the materials. Resin cartridges range from $90 -$900 depending on the material being used.

LAIKA is still a small player in the animation field, but if they continue turning their profits back towards talented people and industry-advancing tech instead of outward facing remodels and perks then the future looks mighty bright indeed. ParaNorman should cement their status as a studio on the rise with its mix of humor, heart and technical achievement, and judging my the film’s trailer and the handful of clips we got to view it also looks to be a “kids” film that appeals to all ages. That Halloween-themed ringtone gag gets me every time.

Paranorman starts scaring up laughs and thrills on August 17, 2012.

Here are a few more cool and/or interesting bits of information about the film along with several more photos.

Many of the crew have a history with the art-form that extends even beyond Coraline to include Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, James and the Giant Peach, and even Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic.

– At the height of production LAIKA had 50 to 60 artists working with 160 to 170 different puppets across 52 individual sets.

– Stop-motion animators usually complete 3–5 seconds of footage per week, but a quick animator may do up to 10.

– It took 60 puppet makers to create 178 individual puppets for ParaNorman. Thanks to the face replacement technology created by the 3D Color Printer, Norman has about 8,000 faces with a range of individual pieces of brows and mouths allowing him to have approximately 1.5 million possible facial expressions.

– John Brion is scoring the film, and some of his past works include the scores for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Magnolia, and I Heart Huckabees.

– There are 275 spikes in Norman’s signature hair style. His hair was primarily made out of goat hair held together with hot glue, hair gel, fabric, and super glue – as well as medical adhesive, Pros-Aide make-up adhesive, thread, and wire. Once built, it was hand-finished with paint and human hair dye.

– It takes 2.5–3 years to finish a 90 minute stop-motion movie which is similar to the time frames found in CGI animation.

– There were 120 different costumes designed and created for the film’s puppets.

– LAIKA plans on producing and releasing one film every two years (via their deal with Focus Features) starting in 2015.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.