On August 17, Focus Features and LAIKA, the companies behind the Academy Award-nominated animated feature “Coraline,” present the comedy thriller “ParaNorman.” The animated zombie comedy was produced by Arianne Sutner and Travis Knight, written by Chris Butler, and directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler.
The increase in the animation world of “reference” complements the time-honored animation tradition of the voiceover actors providing entrée into the characters, with their performances preceding the animators’ own. “ParaNorman” producer and lead animator Travis Knight remarks, “For the animators, the prerecorded vocal performances are something that we listen – and watch – carefully for little nuances that can give the character more of a personality. We then try to infuse the vocal performance into our physical performances of the character. On this movie, the idea was to get performances that have more of a natural feeling.”
Accordingly, Butler reports that he “loved the voice sessions with our actors; they brought so much to the process, making my jokes funnier. What their inflections would do to lines astounded me.
“We learned not to give Tucker Albrizzi [who voices lead character Norman’s friend Neil] too much to prepare with; instead, we would surprise him with the lines. This kept his readings and responses fresh.”
Fell remembers, “Tucker was a real discovery for us. When we heard his voice, we said, ‘That’s Neil.’”
Albrizzi, who is not yet into his teen years, describes his character as “loyal to his friends, and upbeat with lots of energy. To play him, I had to be very energetic and try to make normal lines turn out really funny. It’s cool seeing my voice coming out of the character! I think I’m like Neil, because we’re both a little weird and have freckles and red hair – but mine isn’t curly. My brother is like Norman, because he’s shy and has the same hair.”
Anna Kendrick and Elaine Stritch perform the voices of Norman’s older sister and grandmother, respectively. Although Grandma has passed on, Norman remains in close contact with her.
With their two characters not occupying the same astral plane, Kendrick and Stritch’s voices were not recorded together. Yet the two actresses are already forever linked by shared voice work. For, in 1970, Stritch sang Stephen Sondheim’s classic “The Ladies Who Lunch,” from the original Broadway staging of his show “Company,” and has been associated with the song ever since; Kendrick’s breakthrough performance in the 2003 movie “Camp” included stopping the show-within-the-film with her own rendition of the same song.
Alternating between working solo and with other actors was Christopher Mintz-Plasse. The role of Alvin, who intimidates Norman at school, was one he wanted to play because of being “picked on in school. Doing this role, I thought of the kids I knew. Acting-wise, my inspiration for Alvin was Andy Samberg’s voiceover performance in ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ – talk about your hilarious bullies.”
Fell notes: “casting [Mintz-Plasse] was unusual in that people think of him for nerdish roles. But having him placed a more vulnerable comic voice into this school bully, showing how Alvin thinks of himself as a tough guy yet is still a scared kid.”
Similarly, Leslie Mann, courted to play Norman’s mother, responded to the depiction of her character’s son “because, as a kid, I always felt like an outsider and felt left out. In the fourth grade, though, I said I wanted to be an actress, and now it’s fun to be able to use the thing that everyone made fun of me for – my high voice.”
Approached to play opposite Mann as Norman’s father, Jeff Garlin, whose voiceover work already included two Oscar-winning animated features, “said yes to doing this movie because I’m completely intrigued by ghosts and because when I was a kid, horror movies were a favorite of mine… But when people say, ‘Oh, doing animated movies is easy,’ I tell them, ‘No, it’s intense.’ Because in live-action movies between takes you go to the craft service table, while they reset this and that, and it’s relaxing. On an animated movie, you’ve always got to be using your imagination – and you might be doing a scene over and over again.”
Kendrick expressed reservations about signing on for an against-type turn as Courtney, since “doing voiceover both excited and terrified me. I was flattered to be asked, although I thought, ‘What if I’m bad at this?’ But Courtney is silly, volatile, and fascinating to me so I wanted to play her.”
Fell observes, “Anna has such a wonderful sense of humor that we knew she could play Courtney’s character arc, showing how there is more to this cheerleader-in-a-track-suit and so bringing forth the movie’s theme of how people are not necessarily as you would have them.”
The Academy Award nominated actress reflects, “It turned out to be a pure acting exercise. Going into it, I worried I would feel restricted having to stand in front of the microphone. It was just the opposite – I felt as if I had no limitations; I didn’t worry about my face or my body or hitting my mark. I’d be given direction and then say the lines without overthinking them. However, since we were being taped, they had to reassure me that the footage would never be released because sometimes I felt I was making a big idiot out of myself. One day, Casey Affleck [who voices Mitch, Courtney’s crush] and I were doing scenes together and he said, ‘Put the [video] camera on Anna’s feet.’ Well, I was doing all this weird stuff with my feet. But I was completely not self-conscious, so hopefully I have carried that into making non-animated movies…”
The idea of casting Kendrick opposite another Oscar nominee, Affleck, came about by way of having matched their voices up by the production, before either actor had been signed. “Their method seems very scientific,” marvels Kendrick.
Like his costar, Affleck initially had some trepidation before finding the voiceover process “liberating, especially not having to worry about what I looked like. I had never done an animated movie before. Usually, when people hear my voice, they fire me; so, this was a first! Turns out that it’s a lot of fun. Everyone put me at ease. It was helpful to be able to work with Anna and other actors in the same room at the same time. I concentrated on getting Mitch’s voice right, and having it come together with what I was hearing from the others.”
Fell remembers, “Casey has a wry, sly sense of humor so he gave us a few unexpected ad-libs – but, always in-character.”
Whether individually or in tandem, voiceover performances were recorded in England, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and New York City. Some of the actors did visit LAIKA Studios to see firsthand the creativity going into the production process. By the time Affleck arrived with his children for a peek, the shooting schedule was nearing its close and just about all the voice work had wrapped up over a year before the physical production did.
Although scheduling is part of the production process on many an animated feature, there was a further reason it was necessary for “ParaNorman.” “My voice was changing,” reveals Kodi Smit-McPhee, who voiced the lead character. “At the last session, I couldn’t really do Norman’s [younger-sounding] voice any more.”
Fell notes, “We were just in time, after going back to Kodi for more and more. The script was always in shape and we weren’t fishing for the story, but Norman’s performance did evolve and we did change scenes and move things around. For the movie, it works that Kodi’s voice got stronger – since Norman does.”
Butler says the risk was worth taking because “that voice in particular had to feel genuine; this is a story about a kid’s journey, written and made with kids in mind.”