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Earlier today I published an article-- read it HERE-- about my trip up to Laika Studios in Hillsboro, Oregon to visit the set of the upcoming stop-motion animated film ParaNorman. What I got to see during the trip was absolutely incredible, with hundreds of people working in sync to complete work on the film. And the two men in charge of all of it are Chris Butler and Sam Fell.
During our lunch break the group of journalists on set, including myself, had the chance to sit down and talk with the directors about managing the epic production, picking the voice actors, and the serendipity of being in the middle of the zombie boom.
(NOTE: This is only part one of our two part interview. Come back tomorrow to see the second half!)
This production is operating at such an incredible scale, how do you keep your heads around it?
Chris Butler: We’re lucky because we gradually get into it. You’re not just dumped in with 250 people [laughs]
Sam Fell: Chris developed this forever.
Butler: It’s been with me my whole life…I meant to say that happily [laughs]. And here’s the baby newly born!
Fell: It is the great thing about animation is that you get to bake it properly over time and we’ve worked on it a lot. We worked together just the two of us before we had any crew and then we did the whole storyboarding thing where you draw the whole movie first and it’s just a small group of people so we got our shit together before it was the whole big crew.
I think I understand what you are doing throughout the stages of pre-production and as things are being built but once the animators are on-set working, where are you guys?
Butler: [laughs] We stand in the corner with a megaphone going “Move it, no not that way, the other way!’”
Fell: At the start of the day we meet at about 7:00am to talk about what’s ahead. And most of the time when we’re in the thick of production like we are now we start out the day by reviewing people’s blocks, rehearsals and shots so that’s every shot in the movie at various points in its life we see it discuss it and then send it off to be worked on. And at any time there’s dozens of these shots being worked on during the day. So we edit the shots that are ready into the movie and slowly the movie starts coming together, but really slowly. We build the movie first in storyboards, so we draw it all. Then we cut it together with temp sound, temp music and temp voices and then replace it bit by bit as it goes along over the two years.
Butler: And on this we’ve been able to give an individual animator a chunk of the film and that’s worked out well for us because that animator has in their head in a scene and the can start to own it and have a sense of the continuity in the acting from one scene to the next.
Fell: They are actors really so giving them the opportunity to work through a whole scene is pretty amazing because then they get to tell the whole story rather than a fragment of it.
Let’s say I’m an animator and I’ve sent you my rehearsal…
Butler: Not good enough! Do it again!
Do you go onto set with them and give specific directions?
Fell: Yes, and we watch it in edit, in the context and talk about it.
Butler: And we talk through it, frame by frame.
Fell: Sometimes they video themselves or somebody else acting it out.
Butler: Actually, those are some of my favorite moments when you’ve got some of these guys like miming Courtney the 15-year-old cheerleader and performing her role on video thinking that no one will ever see it but we are secretly lobbying to have it on the DVD.
Fell: That version of the film is really funny.
How early do you get the voice actors in?
Butler: Really early because they animate to the voices because there is so much inflection and unique performance that is in the voice alone. We can storyboard and plan for it but when the actor gets into the studio they bring so much more to it and you want to be able to give all of that raw material to the animator. And sometimes they use the footage of the actor in the studio for a reference to give it a more naturalistic feel.
Fell: The hardest thing in animation is to get spontaneity. Because it’s so not spontaneous, you’ve got to create it. That’s the thing about this film; we’ve tried to give it a real sense of naturalism. I mean it’s a comedy and there are some very broad things in there but it actually has a very dramatic heart to it. It’s not a cartoon in that sense.
Butler: That main characters in the film are kids and we wanted it to feel like they are real kids and that it’s told very much from their point of view. So we’ve had the majority of the main characters voiced by the appropriate age group and that in itself is tricky, but when you find them it’s magic.
You really do have an incredible cast here in writing the project did you have certain voices in mind?
Butler: I did, and actually I think we were really lucky because we got pretty close to getting everyone we wanted on our first list. We wanted the main voice cast of the kids to harmonize so we would listen to their auditions mixed together with images of the characters. Some of the characters changed from where I started when I wrote them initially. Mr. Prenderghast was a frail, dapper creature and it was the character design by Heidi he became this huge, awful stinking looking creature and in rewrites it took on a different direction and we got John Goodman to voice it and it was perfect.
Is it a delicate balance between the humor and the horror?
Fell: Yes. This film works for a strong-willed five-year-old and certainly eight and up. And if we have a scary moment we’ll often move quickly into a funny one.
Butler: The intention narratively is to turn things on their head, so even though it has zombies in it there are a few surprises along the way. It’s not always the thing that you think would be scary that is the scariest. We have a movie within the movie where we set up the stereotype of the zombie in the beginning – it’s got bad lighting and cutting, the whole bit – and we set up that premise that zombies are evil and going to kill you so that we can have fun with it and play with it. And we always bring it back to a laugh.
It’s serendipitous that we’re in the midst of a zombie boom.
Fell: I remember thinking about 12 years ago that somebody has got to make a zombie movie for kids, and luckily that hasn’t happened yet. But it’s actually become something more than a zombie movie.
Butler: This is influenced by all the movies and TV shows that I loved growing up and there’s absolutely a zeitgeist of the same mentality that grew up watching Scooby-Doo and The Goonies and E.T. I’m just pleased that no one did it first. I used to watch Scooby-Doo and would, even as a kid, think ‘why are they friends with each other?’ It doesn’t make any sense. Shaggy and Velma would never be friends. And Fred, the kind of guy who wears white cashmere and little neckerchief is probably not as interested in Daphne as she thinks he is. And so I thought if you take that to its logical conclusion then what if those characters were in a contemporary story – what would happen? And what would happen is that they would want to kill one another. And so this is a contemporary story of a group of kids who shouldn’t get on and don’t want to get on but they kind of forced together and that’s part of the comedy of it. And it seems entirely appropriate to do a monster movie as stop-motion.