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Unearthing the truth about "Paranorman" with Chris Butler and Sam Fell

Joe Strike dives beneath the rotting flesh of Laika's new film "Paranorman" and uncovers some surprising facts about Chris Butler and Sam Fell's 3D stop-motion zombie romp.

“It’s John Carpenter meets John Hughes.”

            That’s how Chris Butler describes Paranorman, the spooky, shot in 3D stop-motion film co-directed by himself and Sam Fell (Flushed Away). And that’s just for starters; there’s no shortage of pop culture markers in the film, everything from The Goonies to Ghostbusters and even the random Scooby-Doo episode. “It’s a grab bag of anything from the 1980s.”

A zombie wants to lend Norman a hand. Photo by LAIKA – © 2012 - LAIKA-Focus Features.

            There’s no small piece of The Sixth Sense in the film as well: adolescent Norman Babcock, like that film’s Cole Sear, can see and speak with the dead. It’s an idea Butler first had some 16 years ago that didn’t go into high gear until he partnered with Sam Fell in 2009. “The film only spent one year in development before we went into production,” says Chris. “That’s kind of quick.”

Sorry, 2D purists: CGI is now an integral part of both traditional and stop motion films – and Fell has no problem fessing up: “CG was there on the set every day, not just in post-production,” adding that many of the film’s supernatural effects or helping to animate crowd scenes that would be next to impossible to physically create.

“But we always start with something tangible. A 2D animator drew all the facial expressions,” then rendered into physical reality via a three-dimensional color printer. Paranorman’s the first film to employ this tool, something the directors are particularly proud of. “The machines weren’t built for stop motion, says Butler, “but they opened up the world for us. The technology generated one and a half million possible facial expressions, but we didn’t use all of them – only a few thousand.”

Norman's a loner - but not by choice. Photo by LAIKA – © 2012 - LAIKA-Focus Features.

The film did make use of some 160 puppets and sets like a 70 foot long road for a two second tracking shot of a van escaping a zombie attack. Even the most unreal effects had their roots in the real world: spiraling supernatural clouds were inspired by flowing ballet dresses and when an angry undead spirit momentarily sprouts a distorted second head it’s an actual puppet, not something out of a computer. (Although Butler admits “we did dress her in CGI,” referring to her glowing, lightning-spewing onscreen appearance.)

It’s the tangible reality of stop motion that sets it apart (and for many, a step up) from the too-perfect world of CGI. (Am I the only one who finds Alex the lion’s (Madagascar) finely detailed, every-individual-strand-visible mane distracting?) Props like Norman’s mobile phone and the family car look like funky handmade toys – which they are, not virtual objects that only exist inside a computer. 3D filming brings out their physical tangibility to an even greater degree. “Stop frame looks beautiful in 3D,” beams Fell. “It’s one of the things that should be in 3D.”

One reflection on the movie itself: Beneath all its booga-booga! thrills and chills, Paranorman’s core message – understanding and acceptance of those who are “different” from us, whether they seem weird or even dead – pays off in a zinger of a you’ll-never-see-it-coming gag near the end of the film, too good to relate here. “This is a story about tolerance and it would be gutless of us not to do it,” says Butler. “It always gets a cheer – on the east and west coasts, anyway.”

Dental hygiene, Zombie-style. Photo by LAIKA – © 2012 - LAIKA-Focus Features.

Paranorman is the second film from the Oregon-based Laika studio, a follow-up to the even creepier Coraline. “Of course Norman’s weird,” Butler says of his speaks-to-the-dead hero; “Laika’s weird.”