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Book Review: 'The Art and Making of ParaNorman'

Chronicle's new book goes in-depth to show the considerable differences and complexity of a full stop-motion feature utilizing LAIKA’s unique techniques.

All images courtesy of Chronicle Books.

The Art and Making of ParaNorman, by Jed Alger.  Preface by Travis Knight.  Forewords by Chris Butler and Sam Fell.

San Francisco, Chronicle Books, July 2012, hardcover $40.00 (160 pages).

These glossy, coffee-table animation-art books usually focus upon CGI or traditional 2-D animation features.  The Art and Making of ParaNorman is unusual in that it is about a stop-motion animation feature, and it really goes in-depth to show the considerable differences and complexity of a full stop-motion feature utilizing LAIKA’s unique techniques.

How does this differ from other deluxe making-of animation-art books?  Superficially, not too much.  The Art and Making of ParaNorman has been made with the full cooperation of the LAIKA stop-motion animation studio in Portland, Oregon, as the other animation-art books are made with the full input of their production studios.  The book has a Preface by Travis Knight, LAIKA’s president and CEO, and the producer and lead animator of ParaNorman.  There are two Forewords, by the writer/director of ParaNorman and by the director of ParaNorman – why not just call them co-directors?

ParaNorman in 3-D is released on August 17.  It would seem to be an excellent Halloween feature, but it was deliberately set earlier.  “Originally the story was set around Halloween, but we brought it back to early fall.  I was excited about the way the green drains out of the trees just before they turn orange and red, so our green is not super vibrant; it’s a late summer green with splashes of color as the leaves start to turn.”  Nelson Lowry, production designer (p. 95).  Advertised as “the new animated zombie comedy from LAIKA”, and with the catchphrase “It's all fun and games until someone raises the dead”, its protagonist is 11-year-old Norman Babcock, the only person in the quaint New England town of Blithe Hollow who can talk with the dead.  All of the time.  He spends more time talking with ghosts than with the living, because they all buttonhole him with messages to be passed on to loved ones, or to perform the last deed (such as to return a library book) that will allow them to rest in peace.  The ghosts include animals as well as humans, such as Neil’s “two-part” ghost-dog.  (There seems to be a discrepancy here between the book and the movie.  The book refers to the ghost-dog as Philbert, while on the official ParaNorman website he is Bub.)  Nobody else can see the ghosts, so Norman gets the reputation of “Ab-Norman”, the “ghoul whisperer”, the crazy kid who ODs on horror movies and imagines that he talks to the dead.  He is looked down upon by his father who wants a normal sports-loving son, and Courtney, his boy-crazy older sister who never misses an opportunity to humiliate him in public.  He is the favorite target of Alvin, the Blithe Hollow Middle School bully.  Chubby Neil Downe wants to be Norman’s best friend, but Norman is so used to being laughed at by the people of Blithe Hollow that he brushes off Neil’s overtures of friendship.

Blithe Hollow’s one claim to fame is that it was the locale of a famous witch’s trial in the days of King James II over 300 years ago.  The modern town has adopted kitschy witchcraft as its theme, on posters and T-shirts and a statue of a witch in the town square.  The Middle School’s class play is “The Witch’s Curse”, and the local fast-food restaurant is Witchy Wiener.  But nobody takes the witchcraft seriously. 

It turns out that the town has a 300-year-old curse put on it by the real witch.  Every year since then a secret exorcism, the reading of passages from an ancient book over the witch’s grave, has been performed to defer the curse for another year.  For longer than he has been alive, it has been the mission of Norman’s “crazy” uncle Prenderghast (who can also talk with ghosts), whom his father has refused to let him associate with, to read from the book.  When his uncle dies before passing on to Norman the secret of how to block the curse, all Hell starts to break out.  Mr. Prenderghast’s ghost tells Norman the whole story, but by then nobody will believe him. As 300 years of skeletons and zombies of the dead in Blithe Hollow rise from their graves, and the witch returns, all the grown-ups about him panic.  Norman and his adolescent associates – nerdy Neil, brainy girl Salma, Neil’s hunky older brother Mitch because he has a van, Courtney who follows Mitch, and even Alvin who connects the zombies with Norman -- must figure out how to find the ancient book, locate the 300-year-old witch’s grave, and read the exorcism to her.

Description

Like other animation-art books, the early pages include many model drawings; in black-&-white character sketches, in storyboards, and in full color digital paintings.  Each piece of art is identified by its artist.  Chris Butler.  Julian Narino.  Ean McNamara.  Dave Vandervooort.  Trevor Dalmer.  Heidi Smith who designed most of the supporting and incidental characters.  Kevin Dart.  Pete Oswald.  “The [two] directors’ vision unites the film, but that vision is communicated to and interpreted by LAIKA’s 300-odd (and in some cases, very odd) artists, craftspeople, engineers, model makers, tailors, woodworkers, and problem solvers, each of whom puts a bit of him- or herself into the work.” (p. 11).

Since ParaNorman is a stop-motion feature, drawing and digital painting soon gives way to clay maquettes – many more of them than there are for traditionally animated films – and wire-frame armatures.  LAIKA’s major innovation in stop-motion animation for ParaNorman was in the development of Rapid Prototype (RP) technology for replacement face animation.  “Replacement face animation can be incredibly simple.  But to do real animation – to show emotion and reaction moving across the character’s face – you need a lot of replacement faces which, traditionally, has been a time-consuming and expensive process due to all the sculpting and painting involved.” (p. 47).  The solution was the development of 3-D printing in color.  ParaNorman is the first stop-motion feature to use a 3-D color printer to create character faces. “However, the first generation of 3-D printers did not print in color.  That meant that for Coraline, each and every face needed to be hand-painted.  […]  With ParaNorman, LAIKA took the process a step further, incorporating technology capable of embedding color directly on the printed faces.  This new methodology baked color into the material, obviating the need to hand-paint each individual face and resulting in a face with a translucent quality similar to real skin and a greater compatibility with the silicone in the puppet bodies.” (p. 50).  “A full range of expressions means a huge set of faces – thousands for each character – which are then printed and cataloged in the face library, a surreal depository of thousands and thousands of tiny faces neatly stored in compartmentalized plastic trays.  At the same time, a digital image is taken of each face and this gets sent into editorial.  When a stop-motion animator is getting ready to do a particular shot – say a piece of dialog from Blithe Hollow’s resident drama teacher, tortured playwright, and ham actor, Ms. Henscher – he’ll sit with a facial animation specialist who knows the library inside and out, and together they’ll string together a series of faces that match the dialog and the emotion.” (pgs. 52-53).  A large photograph shows that each face may include up to sixty items: face, eyes, ears, nose, etc., plus all the screws and other tiny components.

One facet of stop-motion animation that is not duplicated in cartoon or CGI animation is the making of clothes.  Deborah Cook, head costume designer, had to create a whole wardrobe department to clothe both the 1690s Puritan period and the modern Blithe Hollow.  “A big challenge for wardrobe in stop-motion is finding materials that are fine enough to read at this scale, yet still have enough substance to perform.  […]  Even after every costume is made, the costume department is kept busy, repairing damaged clothes or running onto set and opening a seam to let an armaturist get at the joints with an Allen wrench to adjust the tension when necessary, then sewing it back up again when he or she is done.” (p. 70).  There is a brief mention on page 47 of the earlier stop-motion of LAIKA’s predecessor, Will Vinton Studios; the stop-motion of LAIKA today is a far cry from Vinton’s Claymation, where all of the clothes were part of the clay or plasticine. 

CGI is employed in ParaNorman, too.  Digital effects supervisor Brian Van’t Hull describes how CG effects are used for such purposes as to digitally extend crowd scenes, and to create “the very dramatic sky that swirls ominously over Blithe Hollow”. (p. 155).

A humorous touch, scattered throughout the book, is faux horror-movie posters.  The filmmakers have used Norman’s devotion to old horror movies to create many pseudo-1930s to ‘50s horror movie posters, both in ParaNorman as posters decorating Norman’s room, and as posters in the traditional horror-movie style to promote ParaNorman.

“Everybody” knows today how a traditional cartoon or CGI animated film is made.  The Art and Making of ParaNorman tells the equally fascinating story of how one studio makes its stop-motion animated features.

This book mentions frequently that ParaNorman is LAIKA’s (or Laika Entertainment’s) followon feature after 2009’s Coraline, and describes in what manners ParaNorman was an advance over Coraline’s techniques.  What about 2005’s Corpse Bride/Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride?  It was “contract work” during LAIKA’s first year rather than LAIKA-conceived from the beginning, but it does showcase LAIKA’s model stop-motion specialty. What techniques used in Corpse Bride were improved in Coraline and improved still further in ParaNorman?

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation WorldMagazine sinceits #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelinedhim for severalyears, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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