Arianne Sutner Talks ParaNorman
DS: How do you think this film will impact the animated feature film business?
AS: Well I don’t know as far as a business model. This place is pretty extraordinary. It’s takes a lot to get something like this going. It’s an extraordinary challenge. But I think what it does is offer something really different than what other studios are producing for family movies. It’s something for the audience. There is something different that they can choose to go see and I hope that audiences respond. But as far as setting this up as a business, I think we have a unique situation here in that we have a distributor, but we are not creatively beholden to that distributor.
Also I have a boss who my tastes are aligned with, so that really helps. Of course, I think he has the best taste in the world. There are a lot of things that people can do independently in terms of putting productions together, but not quite the way this company has done it.
DS: Would you consider this a more risky feature to make than DreamWorks’ latest Madagascar film?
AS: Yeah, of course, definitely. I mean, I liked the latest Madagascar movie and I think production design-wise there is a lot of beauty in it. Companies are always looking for a franchise, something that has come before, or something that is based on a book, something that is known already. So for us to take a chance, for LAIKA to take a chance on a story artist, working from original material, I think is a huge risk. Original material is risky these days, in this kind of culture. Yet original content is the kind of thing I want to see.
DS: Was there a time in the production when you walked into your office, sat down at your desk and thought, “My goodness, did we bite off more than we can chew?” Conversely was there a point during the production when you said to yourself, “We’re going to be OK. We got it.”
AS: From the get go, I thought, “Oh my god!” From development, I thought, “Oh my god, we should not be doing this, we have too many characters.” I knew we had too many characters, that we were really going crazy with the third act. But I would say, usually, when you start to shoot, about half way through you start to pick up speed and you start to do the impossible. You notice how we set the bar for animation? We shoot on ones, it’s very detail oriented. It’s fluid, it’s a naturalistic style. To do that well, you really need the best animators in the world. I don’t think there has been animation done as good as this in terms of the style we achieved. In order to get there, every shot is really hard. Not only do we have this incredibly hard animation style, but the animators have to learn how to do this style maybe never having done it before. They have incredibly challenging shots with a lot of rigs, a lot of moving parts and a lot of CG elements with lots of characters. So if you were to look at shot complexity, almost all the shots are the highest complexity all the time. It has all those things working against it.
When you are half way though the movie and the numbers are not supporting your schedule, it’s always terrifying. Then you start to knuckle down and people start to get this rhythm, to figure out how to do this. You start to pick up speed about half way through and you feel like, “Wow, anything is possible, we are doing it!” We had all this beautiful footage, and we knew the script was good, and everything was being put together well, so it gave me a lot of confidence. I knew the material was good and that there weren’t any surprises like, “Ok, we don’t know what we are doing in the last act so we are just going to have to wing it.”
So it was really just a matter of knuckling down every day, just trying to support these exceptional, hard-working people. Once we got through our shoot, there were always these little challenges, but we had all these fantastic people working with us and directors who had a vision, who knew what they wanted. That’s how we got through it. We have great people here.
DS: It sounds like you had a good time making this film.
AS: It’s a fun place to work. We work incredibly hard and we don’t see the light of day. You are working on stages that are curtained off, roped off with you and the team. It’s kind of like a sound stage. We have about 50 of these units, three-dimensional, hand built, beautifully detailed and painted, lit with real lights, and these incredibly sophisticated puppets. It’s a very magical and creative environment to work in.
You are doing all this impossible stuff, but you are working in an environment with three hundred plus artists, who all love all the same things that you do - problem solving this funny, archaic way of filmmaking. If you have the right momentum, and everyone believes in that project, you have this group feeling that we can do anything. We just get it done.
Dan Sarto is publisher and editor-in-chief of Animation World Network.