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Going Naturalistic with 'ParaNorman'

Read why ParaNorman is a game-changer for stop-motion.

Interim sculpted faces of Courtney, Neil and Norman await final touches. All images courtesy of LAIKA, Inc.

Everyone's calling this the year of stop-motion; we've already witnessed Aardman pushing forward digitally with The Pirates: Band of Misfits. And by the look of the awesome trailers, Tim Burton pushes his goth aesthetic to new heights with his very personal Frankenweenie (Oct. 5). But what Laika has done technically with ParaNorman is astounding: it's arguably the best-looking stop-motion movie ever made.

That's because they've adopted a naturalistic look in striving for verisimilitude and their secret weapon is the new color rapid prototype 3D printer introduced on ParaNorman. It spits out face replacements animated in Maya with softer skin and greater texturing. Combined with brighter colors, a larger sense of scale because of set extension work, and more naturalistic acting, you forget you're watching stop-motion. Why, the sight of the sun shining through Norman's ears at sunset is dazzling.

The rapid prototyping process generates different facial expressions.

"We had that transition period between Coraline finishing and Para beginning and we really wanted to continue to try and find new and better and more interesting ways to tell stories in this medium -- to really infuse technology within this craft," asserts Travis Knight, the president/CEO of Laika in Portland, Oregon, and the lead animator on ParaNorman.

"But it was scary; it was challenging. We reached a point in the pre-production period where we had to decide whether we were going to go the safe route, the Coraline style, which we knew we could do, or we could go this more ambitious path that if we could pull it off it would be amazing. But there was no guarantee that it was going to work because it hadn't been done before. I just thought that the upside was so great for advancing the medium. Before, we would print and it would come out with this gray, resin material and then it had to be painted by hand but you couldn't get very detailed textures on the face. So there was only so far you could push the design. But with this new technology, the printed faces are infused with color and so the texture is built within the face so it comes out looking like that. It's this powdery material but it absorbs light that is much more like human skin. So there's this scene when he's standing in the setting sun, you can actually see his ears glowing in the light of the sun. It's a really beautiful thing that we couldn't have gotten any other way. It adds to the verisimilitude and allows us to take the design to a different place.

Detailed painting of one of the zombie heads.

"There's a scene where his uncle's having a coughing fit. And as he's getting more out of breath, his face gets redder and his cheeks start to blush and you can kind of see the burst blood vessels start to pop up. And we animated the facial textures within that character."

For co-director Chris Butler, who's nurtured ParaNorman for a decade, it was an opportunity to push story as well as technology. He saw this horror/comedy mash-up as the cast of The Breakfast Club getting lost in The Fog. "I always think about the heart of John Hughes and the scene with John Candy in the motel in Planes, Trains and Automobiles: that speech is hilarious and heart-breaking as well," he suggests. "It goes along with the scares. If you're invested in these characters and the jeopardy feels real, you want them to succeed. The rapid prototyping gave us the opportunity to do nuanced acting, which I think was such a huge leap for this medium to have shots of characters in extreme close-up where they're reacting to someone else speak. It's so subtle that ordinarily you wouldn't be able to get away with it. And stop-motion is so theatrical and so we steered away from blacks and whites and grays -- the kind of gothic stuff that Tim Burton does so well -- and we wanted to do something different. And the color gave us the opportunity. We could go to the lurid Technicolor of Italian horror movies but we could do it in a really well-informed way."

The hardest part was the naturalistic acting, according to co-director Sam Fell: "The sense of spontaneity, just playing out in front of the camera. One of the great examples is the boys in the garden talking and throwing around a stick. It's tricky to be understated and just be observational and not show off."

Animation supervisor Brad Schiff adds that the range of expressions they can get with the RP faces is virtually limitless and they are able to achieve incredible subtlety while maintaining the tactile feeling of stop-motion.

Once printed at LAIKA Studios, there are thousands of faces for animators to choose from.

"Another aspect, quite possibly the greatest benefit of the RP faces," Schiff insists, "is that each character is always 'on model.' There is no clay to be oddly altered or no facial mechanism that can be pushed too far making the character's face look odd. All the faces are approved expressions of each particular character so regardless of who is animating a given puppet, there is always continuity throughout the film."

But it's a slippery slope going more and more digital and CG with stop-motion. You don't want it to look too perfect, which defeats the purpose of using this very precious, hand-crafted medium in the first place. Some prefer showing off more of the imperfections, as Wes Anderson did so brilliantly with Fantastic Mr. Fox. Or Tim Burton's more theatrical, less pristine approach. But once you introduce the digital camera and VFX, there are so many opportunities to advance the medium. Even Aardman has evolved with Band of Misfits by introducing rapid prototyping and CG water. "We try to shoot as much practically as possible," Knight maintains, "not because we're purists necessarily but because it gives it a unified sensibility. But there are times when you can't get it practically, in-camera."

Aaron Matthews carefully paints details on a hand.

For instance, for the tornado, smoke, electrical storm and ectoplasm-like wisps on the ghosts, they used Tulle, a thin bridal veil material. For a surprise character at the end, they combined 2D, CG and stop-motion. "We made an emaciated puppet and all the things that would be too difficult or too time consuming on stage would be done VFX wise," explains VFX supervisor Brian Van't Hul. "Once the puppet animation was done, we tracked her body and then attached a CG dress to it so it was flowing and constantly moving. We used Nuke for 2D compositing and Maya and RenderMan and Houdini.

"And then all the Tesla Coil hair coming off her head and off her body and around her body are CG elements. But a real physical dress was made and scanned in to make our CG dress. And on the Tesla Coil hair, the directors wanted a very stylized approach. So these little arcs of energy are actually based more on inkblot drawings you used to do as a kid to make a tree and then blow with a straw. The art department made several of those, the directors picked the ones they liked the best and we arranged those and then animated them coming on and off so they had the appearance of lightning. Some of those arcs of electricity zapping Norman have some hand-drawn bolts of lightning. There were lots of compositing rather than synthetic creations."

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Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld. He's the owner of the Immersed in Movies blog (www.billdesowitz.com), a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen and features interviews with all six actors.

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