Book Review: The Art and Making of ParaNorman
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?
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 World Magazine since its #5, August 1996. A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.