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'ParaNorman' creators spill behind-the-scenes secrets

By Michelle F. Solomon, Contributing writer
Published On: Aug 17 2012 01:38:43 AM CDT
Updated On: Aug 17 2012 01:42:16 AM CDT
Travis Knight, ParaNorman premiere

Bret Hartman/Reuters

At face value, the new animated feature "ParaNorman" is good. But when you know what went on behind the scenes to create it, the film is nothing short of genius.

"ParaNorman" was created using stop motion technology, which producer Travis Knight explains as a "process that dates back to the dawn of cinema, with a charm and warmth and a beauty that other forms of animation do not have."

Physical sets are built complete with props (more than 30,000 props were built for "ParaNorman") and puppets (there are 28 different puppets used to create the main character of Norman) are also built to act on the sets to bring the motion picture to life.

"Stop motion is different from other forms of animation in that everything you see in a shot has to be moved by a person. You start with a puppet that has a little metal skeleton inside so you can pose it and it will hold its position and you move it slightly, take a picture, then move it a little bit more, take another picture. When you knit enough of those individual pictures together and play them, it looks like the character is brought to life," says Knight, who is also the lead animator for "ParaNorman," and CEO of LAIKA, Inc., a company in Hillsboro, Ore., whose expertise is animation media, including two dimensional, computer generated and stop-motion animation.

While the company was instrumental in Tim Burton's "Corpse Bride" in 2005, they became known for their own stop-action expertise with the movie "Coraline," which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2009. "ParaNorman" is the company's second film, released in conjunction with Focus Features.

"'ParaNorman' is not only a wonderful story but it is the most advanced stop motion film of all time. I think the audience members will ultimately get so involved in the story that they will forget that they are actually watching a hand crafted stop motion movie. Only after the movie is over do they have time to think 'Whoa, how in the world did they do that?'," says Brian McLean, creative supervisor of replacement animation and engineering at LAIKA.

While director and writer Chris Butler came up with the idea for "ParaNorman" 16 years ago, the movie itself took two years to make. Two minutes of footage can take a week or more to shoot, say the filmmakers, while one very intricate scene that takes place in a lavatory took one year to shoot. Fifty-two stages were used to create the world of "ParaNorman" and the number is the most ever assembled for a stop-motion animated feature.

"At any given time during the shoot, there would be 52 separate shooting units working," said Sam Fell, co-director of "ParaNorman."

"ParaNorman" is set in the town of Blithe Hollow, a New England town filled with history. Three hundred years ago, it was the scene of a famous witch hunt. As odd as the town is given its legend, 11-year-old Norman Babcock is the town's oddest. He is obsessed with scary movies and ghost lore and is also gifted with the ability to see and speak with the dead, including his beloved grandmother, who spends her days sitting on the family couch and sharing her love of horror movies with her grandson. When Norman's odd uncle Prenderghast tells him a secret about a witch's curse that is about to come true, Norman is charged with saving the small town from a vengeful witch and zombies who are summoned from their graves.

Butler hopes that by the end of "ParaNorman" there's a nice takeaway from the story about an oddball kid who isn't seen favorably by everyone from his father to his classmates. "Maybe they'll look at the person next to them and see them in a slightly different way," says Butler.

Watching the movie and knowing the painstaking work that went into it will also make moviegoers see an animated film in a different way, too. "ParaNorman" is a unique gift for moviegoers and a hand-made work of art. But, most of all, it's just plain fun.