Going Naturalistic with ParaNorman
The hardest part was the naturalistic acting, according to co-director Sam Fell: "The sense of spontaneity, just playing out in front of the camera. One of the great examples is the boys in the garden talking and throwing around a stick. It's tricky to be understated and just be observational and not show off."
Animation supervisor Brad Schiff adds that the range of expressions they can get with the RP faces is virtually limitless and they are able to achieve incredible subtlety while maintaining the tactile feeling of stop-motion.
"Another aspect, quite possibly the greatest benefit of the RP faces," Schiff insists, "is that each character is always 'on model.' There is no clay to be oddly altered or no facial mechanism that can be pushed too far making the character's face look odd. All the faces are approved expressions of each particular character so regardless of who is animating a given puppet, there is always continuity throughout the film."
But it's a slippery slope going more and more digital and CG with stop-motion. You don't want it to look too perfect, which defeats the purpose of using this very precious, hand-crafted medium in the first place. Some prefer showing off more of the imperfections, as Wes Anderson did so brilliantly with Fantastic Mr. Fox. Or Tim Burton's more theatrical, less pristine approach. But once you introduce the digital camera and VFX, there are so many opportunities to advance the medium. Even Aardman has evolved with Band of Misfits by introducing rapid prototyping and CG water. "We try to shoot as much practically as possible," Knight maintains, "not because we're purists necessarily but because it gives it a unified sensibility. But there are times when you can't get it practically, in-camera."
For instance, for the tornado, smoke, electrical storm and ectoplasm-like wisps on the ghosts, they used Tulle, a thin bridal veil material. For a surprise character at the end, they combined 2D, CG and stop-motion. "We made an emaciated puppet and all the things that would be too difficult or too time consuming on stage would be done VFX wise," explains VFX supervisor Brian Van't Hul. "Once the puppet animation was done, we tracked her body and then attached a CG dress to it so it was flowing and constantly moving. We used Nuke for 2D compositing and Maya and RenderMan and Houdini.
"And then all the Tesla Coil hair coming off her head and off her body and around her body are CG elements. But a real physical dress was made and scanned in to make our CG dress. And on the Tesla Coil hair, the directors wanted a very stylized approach. So these little arcs of energy are actually based more on inkblot drawings you used to do as a kid to make a tree and then blow with a straw. The art department made several of those, the directors picked the ones they liked the best and we arranged those and then animated them coming on and off so they had the appearance of lightning. Some of those arcs of electricity zapping Norman have some hand-drawn bolts of lightning. There were lots of compositing rather than synthetic creations."
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld. He's the owner of the Immersed in Movies blog (www.billdesowitz.com), a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen and features interviews with all six actors.