Arianne Sutner Talks ParaNorman
As LAIKA’s much anticipated stop-motion follow-up to 2009’s Coraline hits the theatres tomorrow, much discussion surrounding the film has centered on technological innovations in 3D printer rapid prototyping used to create huge numbers of replacement faces for each of the characters. However, if you focus solely on the size, scope and complexity of the production, the intricate details of hand-crafted sets, armatures and props, you’ll miss the most truly unique part of the story – how 300+ artists, working in a small, independently financed studio, spent several years filming a zombie action-comedy with little hand-built puppets, using untested techniques never used before, actually managing to pull off a stunningly beautiful, funny and poignant film.
Earlier this week I had a chance to speak to one of the film’s producers, Arianne Sutner, about the genesis of the film, the struggles to harness new technology while staying true to the story, and the inherent risk and fear taking on such a unique and different film.
Dan Sarto: This production has a lot of moving pieces, no pun intended. You were pushing the envelope with regards to integrating new stop-motion techniques with CG elements. As a producer, trying new things never done before, when do you say, “Ok, let’s give it more time, let’s give it more bodies, let’s give it more whatever…” as opposed to, “Maybe we need to drop this and move on.”
Arianne Sutner: Each problem is unique and each answer would be different depending on what the schedule was and where we were in production. Then, certain things became a priority. For example, what’s the most important thing to me? Character animation, making sure animation is supporting the story. So what supports that? Ok, we thought, I really really wanted that color printer and we weren’t sure yet how to make it work for our needs, in terms of reproducing the faces in a way that was consistent enough without a lot of chatter, without making them look terrible. But I wanted it for our movie. We would be the first to use it. The results we were seeing, when they were good, were so beautiful that it really made a difference. So we just aggressively charged ahead. The backup plan would be that we still knew how to do it the previous way even though we would be a little bit behind schedule. But that was just something we wanted to push forward with and take a risk on. I’m glad we did it. I think on this movie we definitely did some of those things, like we are building the plane as we are flying it. That’s true. But sometimes you end up having happy accidents. Part of stop-motion is the perfection in its beauty as well as the imperfections too. So not everything in this movie is absolutely perfect in terms of the use of technology. But, that’s what I love about it.
It’s always something different, it’s always a case by case thing. We will always try to juggle that schedule to support doing the best we can for anything artistically. So out on the shooting floor, what can we do? You know there is only so much we can do. But, say we don’t have a certain character ready, what other shots can we juggle? Can we start our movie with all extreme close ups even if that’s the worst way to do it, so we have a little more time to perfect some other things to give us the flexibility to shoot larger shots later? Bigger shots. We always want to push ourselves.
DS: It sounds like that is the studio’s mantra, boldly push ahead and we’ll deal with problems as they present themselves.
AS: Right. We had characters that posed new problems. We call them fat neck characters. They have really big necks. Traditionally, you have seen lots of stop-motion where the characters lend themselves to armatures and animating them one frame at a time. They are tall, thin and scarecrow-like. You see in our movie that we have these fat necked characters, big and bulky characters with tons of heft and weight. We knew that would be a challenge and we didn’t know exactly how to solve it. I was here from the beginning. We just decided to make our characters look that way and we just figured it out along the way. We did that all the time. For example, we wanted to make the camera move as much as possible. We did a lot of things antithetical to traditional stop-motion. We just insisted on it. We have so many great people here who know what they are doing. They have a lot of skills and experience. So, the question becomes how to bring those capabilities into experimenting and figuring out new things.