ParaNorman: Interview with Directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler
On August 17, Focus Features and LAIKA, the companies behind the Academy Award-nominated animated feature “Coraline,” present the comedy thriller “ParaNorman.” The film was produced by Arianne Sutner and Travis Knight, written by Chris Butler, and directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler.
“ParaNorman” is set in the town of Blithe Hollow, whose locals profit from mining the town’s history as the site, 300 years ago, of a famous witch-hunt. 11-year-old Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) spends much of his days appreciating the finer points of scary movies and studying ghost lore. Norman is gifted with the ability to see and speak with the dead, such as his beloved grandmother (Elaine Stritch). Most days, he prefers their company to that of his flustered father (Jeff Garlin), spacey mother (Leslie Mann), and deeply superficial older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick). At middle school, Norman dodges bullying Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), confides in the impressionable Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), and tries to tune out his blowhard teacher Mrs. Henscher (Alex Borstein).
Norman is unexpectedly contacted by his odd uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman), who floors him with the revelation that a centuries-old witch’s curse is real and is about to come true, and that only Norman will be able to stop it from going into overdrive and harming the townspeople. Once a septet of zombies – led by The Judge (Bernard Hill) – suddenly rises from their graves, Norman finds himself caught in a wild race against time alongside Courtney, Alvin, Neil, and Neil’s musclebound older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) as Sheriff Hooper (Tempestt Bledsoe) chases them all. Worse, the town is up in arms and taking up arms.
Norman bravely summons up all that makes a hero – courage and compassion – as he finds his paranormal activities pushed to their otherworldly limits.
For the film, Sam Fell sparked to Chris Butler’s concept of “John Carpenter meets John Hughes,” and was tantalized by the idea of “Breakfast Club” outcasts dealing with a “Fog”-like undead curse.
Fell says, “It became us working together to capture that spirit. Chris was very open to my ideas about working out the structure a bit. We wanted to make something that a family would enjoy seeing, as well as play around with beloved genres. Chris and I both knew we were channeling a 1980s vibe, not doing a pastiche, and that we would take it visually down that road as well – into a small American town. Even though we’re British!”
Butler comments, “It had to be New England; that was part and parcel of the story. I spent time there, and it’s kind of like being home what with warped door frames and rotting fences…Amblin [-produced] movies from the ‘80s, like ‘The Goonies,’ had spark, warmth, and affection – and they didn’t condescend to kids. In this fun rollercoaster ride, there would also be what kids contend with on a daily basis in the real world – fitting in, facing bullying – as well as something they don’t usually face; a zombie invasion.”
Fell remembers, “I was watching those movies, too, when I was a teenager. They had an edge, and dealt with issues. While being a haunted-house ride, “ParaNorman” addresses bullying, but not in a preachy way, and [Butler’s] script takes Norman’s story – and the audience – to a really strong ending. This movie has heart; it is dramatic and emotional, as well as full of comedy, action, and adventure. We were so excited to push it bigger and bigger in these different directions – and at both ends of the stop-motion scale in terms of both scope and nuance.”
Accomplished stop-motion cinematographer Tristan Oliver was impressed with the script and the directors’ ambitious take on the material. The three quickly began brainstorming.
Fell remarks, “This kind of animation serves the idea of two directors. Chris and I just seemed to click, and to complement each other; this movie was a big beast to run, but we shared a common vision and worked side by side.”
“We got joined at the hip,” adds Butler. “Not splitting things up was vital. We made a conscious effort at the beginning to be on the same page – and for most of the production we were looking at everything together, talking about it all, and being of one mind before proceeding. We knew exactly what ‘ParaNorman’ was and what every moment should be, but sometimes we would have to discuss different ways of achieving those. During a day of shooting, we would go off on separate unit visits or meetings with animators. But every single shot was examined and discussed by both of us. While we had never met before, we had both worked on the same movie years prior, but at different times; I had briefly storyboarded on ‘The Tale of Despereaux’ before Sam came on as director. So now we’ve made up for lost time!”
The directors’ past experiences in stop-motion animation meant that they knew what it would take to conceive and implement a boy’s world and its fantastical invading elements – often in miniature.
Butler notes that the aesthetic, and the stop-motion process itself, also called for their “capturing naturalism – not realism – in the performances, in the animation, in the design. The entrée into Norman’s world for the audience is that it’s the dead people who have more time – all the time in the world – for him, and generally he can communicate better with them. He has a special gift that separates him from those around him, but it’s his gift that can save the town from a 300-year-old curse. The heart of the story is how he reaches a better understanding with both the living and the dead, including his own family acknowledging and accepting that he is different.”
In pre-production, art direction and storyboarding came first, as all the moviemakers well knew from experience the importance of storyboard illustrators in visualizing every scene and character.
As crucial as this might be for live-action movies, it is even more so for animated features. Butler explains, “It’s not like live-action, where you can use multiple cameras or do retakes. The animators are moving one frame at a time, so you need to know exactly what shot you’re getting before you actually do it. The benefit of the storyboards is that to be able to work from the script to map out the entire movie in advance in picture form – often with some newly visualized ideas incorporated — and that material goes directly to the camera department. It’s almost like a giant comic book and, certainly, a story artist needs to be able to draw – and tell stories, preferably with comedic skills!”
Fell reflects, “Both Chris and I have ourselves storyboarded in the past, and we would get hands-on and start sketching some scenes ourselves. We’d try each other’s ideas out and see what worked and what didn’t. Without feeling pressured, we would get things done fast. It was us talking about everything from narrative to camerawork to acting. Doing storyboards is something I’ve found to be invaluable, and one of my favorite parts of a making an animated movie.”
Butler further found that “something random that an artist would bring to the table inspired me to change a character or change a location; I’d go back to the script and do a rewrite. I had worked with a lot of the ‘ParaNorman’ team previously on ‘Coraline’ so there was a shorthand. It’s a strong crew, and a group greatly experienced in stop-motion; some of us had worked together even before ‘Coraline,’ growing up in the industry.”
Fell marvels, “In coming over to work at LAIKA on ‘ParaNorman,’ I am impressed by how the place is structured and run. It’s a frontier out in Oregon, away from the mainstream, and rich in old and new technology. It’s an exciting time for animation, especially at this forward-thinking place.”
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