ParaNorman: Costuming Stop-Motion Animated Characters
On August 17, Focus Features and LAIKA, the companies behind the Academy Award-nominated animated feature “Coraline,” present the comedy thriller “ParaNorman.”
In the film, 11-year-old Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is gifted with the ability to see and speak with the dead, and receives word of a centuries-old witch’s curse that is about to come true. Norman bravely summons up all that makes a hero – courage and compassion – as he finds his paranormal activities pushed to their otherworldly limits.
As is the case for any major movie, duplicates of characters’ outfits had to be kept handy. With animators handling the puppets used in the stop-motion animation process thousands of times, there were at least half a dozen duplicates of each costume.
Creative supervisor of costume design Deborah Cook elaborates, “We start with images of regular clothing to see how we might want it to look. Then we research fabrics and do color and fabric tests. What works in the studio might not on-camera. For example, some fabrics will have a little grain or weave on them, which would be fine – but for the fact that a close-up on-screen would be distracting.”
One testing method is to have someone of comparable real-life height and stature to a character walk around in an outfit so Cook’s department could see how key planned costumes hang and flow. “We try to get the same movements out of the costumes as in life-sized, because it helps make our characters believable,” comments Cook. “We have to take into account whether it’s an active character or a sedate character, so we also do tests with the puppets themselves. Usually, the puppets are still being built as we’re making the costumes so we’ll get a dressing dummy to work on. When we get the actual puppet, we can final tweaks and adjustments.”
The production’s painters worked on Cook’s group’s costumes as and where needed, whether to “age” them accordingly or provide detail on clothing. Even buttons on a costume are sculpted by hand and then painted. Everything done on-site is coordinated with the production’s confirmed color palettes and visual directives. While the actors voicing the characters are not direct references for the department, their photos might be kept nearby as talismans.
Some of the core fabrics proved highly adaptable; the ghosts’ appearances were enhanced by tulle – not as a material for their costumes, but as the substance that doubled on-screen for the particles and vapor they float around in and with. As a footwear contrast, Norman’s at-home “zombie” slippers were hand-made with dyed fabrics and also were made in different sizes.
As befits the lead character in an adventurous story, Norman has what Cook calls “an iconic costume, which was a pleasure to try and get on-screen. He’s always wearing his favorite jeans and hoodie, and is never without his goodies-filled backpack which has badges on it. Then there’s his key fobs and his zipper tags. All of this was made by us. His backpack is a regular piece of green fabric for which we did our own stitching so it was in scale with his clothing; the zipper tags were sculpted here, cast in silver, hand-painted, and then sewed on.”
She further notes that Norman’s favorite jeans “have little panels in them, which brings in the design concept of the movie; everything is slightly asymmetrical, as flat planes are mixed in with the curves. On-screen they will look like chunky denim; in our world, they are lightweight summery chambray cotton shirt fabric. His T-shirt is made of an extremely fine nylon stocking that we’ve dyed to look like denim. There is latex sheeting underneath that and his hood so that they always fall back into shape. Underneath his jacket is some wiring that anchors into his armature and his hood – so the animators could move it incrementally with his body movements so that it looks like a real boy walking along.”
That jeans creasing had to be precisely positioned many times over; while there was only one lead character, there were 28 puppets of him. Cook reports, “To keep continuity, we had to ensure that we could duplicate things – and make more than 28, since they sometimes had to be changed out because of getting worn out during the shooting. Whatever we make has to be easily accessible and maintainable – and we work with other departments to make sure that they can access the armature or mechanisms underneath. On ‘ParaNorman,’ we made a concerted effort to move forward in pushing the boundaries of the engineering that must go within the costume structures.”
With production company LAIKA based in Oregon, Cook says that her department “tries to source materials locally – we pillage the local stores, really – but I’m looking out wherever I am; it’s always in the back of my mind. We’ve gotten things from London, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. We try to keep abreast of developments in textile-making. But on ‘ParaNorman,’ there is not a single fabric that is a straight-away store-bought fabric; we treat and hand-dye every costume.”
Cook’s department is dotted with high-tech sewing machines and surrounded by sketches. As with other LAIKA departments, she and her staff looked to real people to inspire the stop-motion characters they work on.
“I loved working on the zombies’ Puritan-era costumes because they’re so textural,” says Cook. “It was a challenge getting into the historical aspect. Doing the research, I looked at archaeological finds and clothing that had been x-rayed, seeing how they were and then how they rotted.”
Cook and her department also watched the 1996 movie version of “The Crucible” and the 2002 miniseries “Salem Witch Trials.”
Early in the design process, the lead, or “control,” of Norman and every other character has also been crafted to scale as a maquette – a puppet-sized detailed clay figure (though not a workable puppet) that can be found on mounts at the LAIKA workspaces. The maquettes serve as artists’ models, reference points of both character and look. For the puppets’ hair, the production experimented with various types of human hair, animal hair, and even tinsel.
Tools of the trade in the costume department range from Carmex lip balm to dental scrapers to paint thinner. Cook adds, “We also make good use of needles, pins, and surgical tools like tweezers and syringes. The cotton buds we use are miniature. We have brushes that we dip into latex so that we can get tiny specks off of the characters’ costumes without pulling the fabric – you often can’t put your hands on there.”
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