Going Naturalistic with ParaNorman
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.
"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.
"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."