A Stitch in Time
Norman, the star of LAIKA’s animated feature ParaNorman, appears on screen wearing clothes typical for a kid his age: jeans, t-shirt, hoodie, and running shoes. And that’s the point.
“People have to believe what a character says,” says Deborah Cook, LAIKA’s award-winning costume designer. “The costumes make the characters believable, yet extraordinary. Norman is meant to be an iconic boy. He wears things kids his age might wear.”
Norman’s tiny clothes look believable even when the foot-tall puppet appears on a 10-foot tall movie screen. No small feat: His shoes are not quite an inch long. His T-shirt measures two and a half inches from top to bottom. His waist is only about three inches around. His jeans are roughly three and a half inches from waist to toe. Like most kids, Norman has a backpack that he decorates with pins and badges. But Norman’s badges have little zombie faces. Believable, yet extraordinary.
And he’s not the only one. Each of the approximately 180 tiny characters wears a unique costume, cut, sewn and reinforced specifically to make it easy for animators to achieve exact silhouettes, and then stitched by hand onto the puppet. In addition some, like Norman, have costume changes.
“We dress them to enhance their personalities,” Cook says. She led a team of six to eight people in the costume department that sourced fabric, cut, and stitched for more than two years to make ParaNorman’s costumes.
Cook started the design process by reading the script and talking with directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler. “We discuss what the kids might be like in school,” she says. “The jobs their parents might have.”
Norman, for example, a hero that everyone can warm to, wears an iconic hoodie, and the hoodie becomes a symbol of Norman’s character arc in the film. “In the beginning he’s insecure and shy,” Cook says. “The hoodie is slightly big on him so he can huddle down in it. But as he gets braver in his role, he discards the hoodie and wears only his T-shirt and jeans.”
To create his jeans, Cook used chambray shirt fabric, a cloth that looks similar to denim, but is lighter in density and weight. “Norman is so tiny, the cloth looks like heavyweight denim,” Cook says. “We dyed the front and back in two different shades of blue, so they reflect the light in different ways, which helps keep him from looking flat.”
The tailors also aged the jeans. “We wrapped tiny bits of sandpaper on toothpicks and sanded the creases and the knees,” Cook says. “We sand in wear on all the costumes to make them look authentic.”
The costumes’ fabric is always new, fresh off the bolt. “We need to know we can re-order,” Cook says. “Although we use tiny amounts of fabric for each costume, we make lots of duplicates. We have roughly around 40 sets going at the same time during the peak of filming.”
Norman, for example, is actually 28 puppets, and each wears a costume with pieces of clothing that are identical from one to the next, down to individual stitches.
“Norman’s T-shirt has hand stitching around the neck and hem,” Cook says. “And hand stitching, like hand writing can vary.” To assure that each T-shirt exactly matches the next in shot after shot, even when those shots might be 10-foot wide close-ups, the tailors use a map.
“We take high res photos of the first hand stitching,” Cook says. “Then we count how many stitches lie between the seams. We measure the size of each stitch and the distance between stitches. That makes it simple and easy for the next person.”
So that animators can position the clothing, the tailors engineer each piece of clothing to move and hold a position. “We want the costume to follow the action of the puppet,” Cook says. “So they have a lot of engineering beneath. We need to know the properties of the fabric and what we can add to make it animatable. We use copper mesh, foil, wires to make creases, and foam latex sheeting that we bake to the thickness we want.”
Norman’s hoodie, for example, has texture appropriate for his scale, so the fabric is very thin. ‘To make it look thicker, we lined it with panels of latex rubber,” Cook says. “And, we embedded wiring. If an animator pushes the cuffs into one position, they’ll stay until they are moved again.”
The tailors cut Norman’s little two-and-a-half inch long T-shirt from fine cotton Lycra, very thin, very sheer. A small amount of foil inside shirt and a proper cut helped animators make it look like it was flying out from the boy’s body in the wind. “It was a great achievement to get that to work,” Cook says. “Mainly it was the cut of the fabric, the fabric we chose, and how we tailored it to his body.”