ParaNorman Interview 1 of 3: Roundtable with Sam Fell and Chris Butler

Photo Credit: Jacob Williams
August 20th, 2012

I recently had the chance to participate in a roundtable discussion with Director Sam Fell and Writer/Director Chris Butler about their new animated feature ParaNormal from Laika Studios.  Fell and Butler shared some thoughts on everything from production techniques, developing the ParaNorman story, the history of stop motion, and more.  Read on for excerpts from the discussion.

Butler and Fell were co-directors on the project.  Here are a few of their thoughts on how they got started in that effort:

Chris Butler:  From the start, we were both directing.  It just takes up your whole day.   It's just kind of set in stone.  I generally work in per-production, and have done a lot of storyboarding.  I think what helped me on this was having done a bunch of design on past movies.  I was very familiar with process.  So it was an easy step to make.

Sam Fell:  We actually were the heads of story.  We both storyboarded or thumbnailed stuff when we first got started.  Once the thing gets bigger and moves quicker, then you need your team, but we both did hands on storyboarding.  That was kind of cool, because we were trying to establish the style of the filmmaking.

Butler and Fell share a few things about their sources of inspiration for ParaNorman:

Butler:  From watching all the wrong movies as a kid.  When I was a kid, I loved horror movies.  I still do, I still watch every horror movie that comes out.  But also, when I was growing up, I watched a lot of family movies, but they were a little more irreverent.  They were a little more... edgy.

Fell:  That's a good word, yeah.

Butler:  They were fun, and funny was a big part of it, but they weren't afraid to take a few chances.  I sometimes think that children's cinema especially has got a little more conservative.  Like we often look at the early Amblin movies, like E.T.  The family unit in E.T. is a little dysfunctional.  There's problems with it as well.  I think that's what's nice about it.  It's very relatable for a kid.  Everyone knows what it's like to hear your parents argue.  So when you see that on screen, it's easy to relate to it. I'm personally never fond of the idea of creating this perfect world to tell a kid's story, because the world isn't perfect.  So it's kind of harking back to that kind of storytelling.  We always talk about this as John Carpenter meets John Hughes.  So it was very much influenced by a certain era.

Chris Butler on when he first started working on the story:

Butler:  I don't know.  I keep saying different things.  I'll say, “Yeah, I started writing it 10 years ago,” but I realized I've been saying that for six years.  It just keeps changing.

On whether Norman's ability to speak to the dead was inspired by their own childhood quirks or peculiarities:

Fell:  It's like being artistic.  For me, it was like playing with models and making models.  I don't think either of us, or any of the people at the studio actually, were mainstream kids.

Butler:  We're all outsiders.

Fell:  You were an artist, weren't you...

Butler:  Yeah.  The difference is my parents actually encouraged me to pursue art.  Which, if they hadn't, I wouldn't have made this movie.  I think my parents are a bit pissed of because they think [they] are in the movie.  No, no, no.  That's not supposed to be you.

Bullying in schools and elsewhere has has become part of the national conversation of late.  With ParaNorman's main character being an outcast, bullied kid, that national conversation is particular pertinent to the film:

Butler:  I think unfortunately bullying is always there, it never goes away.  Right now, it's very current.  That's coincidental, by the way, but it makes it all the more pertinent.  It's that side of bullying though that isn't just the gratuitous getting beaten up every day, it's the bullying that everyone displays, where you're passing a judgment on someone because of the clothes they wear or the way they speak, or the color of their skin.  That happens every day to everyone.  Everyone is making a judgment about someone else.  I thought that was really good raw material for a kids movie, because we want kids to see this, go on this fun ride, and really laugh and find it scary, and really a good experience, but at the end of it, maybe they'll think about other people a little bit differently.

When watching the film, be on the lookout for sage advise from Neil, Norman's fellow social outcast and friend:

Fell:  Neil's very wise I think. 

Butler:  In a very strange way.

Fell:  Some of the things he says are very inspirational.

On whether the anti-bullying message was in response to recent events or was naturally part of the script:

Butler:  It was absolutely fundamental to the script.  It was part of the reason for writing it in the first place.

Fell:  The great thing is that, like you said, it's not like preaching on the subject.  It's very hard to talk to kids about something serious.  They don't want to listen.  So to entertain them first and then have that woven in seamlessly is the way to do it.

Butler:  We didn't ever want to take the approach of...It's very easy to condescend when we are a bunch of adults making movies and saying, “Yeah, we really understand the voice of kids.”  No, we're 30-whatever.  But I think I was very conscious of that, of trying to do it from an 11 year old's point of view.  Part of that is exploring these things that mean something to an 11 year old.

There is a longstanding association between the medium of stop motion and the genre of horror.  Fell and Butler had a few things to say about this phenomenon:

Fell:  One thing is that there is literally this sort of dark magic to the technique.  You're literally taking dead things and bringing them to life, and imbuing them with a soul.  So there is something uncanny about that.  Every other form of animation is of the thing itself.  It's a digital version or a drawing of, but this is an actual thing brought to life.  That goes way back to Starevich and those early weird Eastern European surrealists.

Butler:  I think because of that tradition, some of the early stuff was literally animating bones strung together.  So it already had that dark aura.  That's invited and encouraged people to step into that world.  It's certainly why Tim Burton, for example, loves stop motion, because of it's darkness. But that in itself, it ends up as this cycle, because then everyone loves Tim Burton's movies, and then, “Oh look, we're making a freaky movie.  We're going to go Tim Burton.”

Yes, we love all these things, but I think for us, the appeal of stop motion is this tactile quality to it.  It's hand made, hand crafted.

Yes, this is a spooky movie, but I think as a medium, it has the potential to tell any kind of story.  That's what's encouraging about where it's going, is that you can break out of just doing creepy little dead things.  We love creepy little dead things, but there are definitely other directions it can go.

3D Printing is a relatively new technology that has been used for precision manufacturing and rapid prototyping.  Starting with 2009's Coraline, Laika has been using this technology in their production pipeline, particularly for character faces.  They took this technology a further leap forward for ParaNorman:

Butler:  A lot of our main characters have printed faces.  The traditional way of a puppet, animating its face, is that it's got a mechanical face, which means it's got lots of little gears and paddles under the silicone skin.  An animator has to physically manipulate that to get the performance.  But there are limitations to it.  The gears and all the mechanisms can only do so much.  One thing that we started to do on Coraline, it's been used before, is for every frame use a different sculpted face, so 24 different faces a second.  On Coraline, we innovated the technique of printing the faces out.  It's a 3D printer, which means you sculpt the object in the computer and then you physically print it out as an object.  It's very sci-fi.  It's like Star Trek.


Butler:  On this movie, the difference was that we had these 3D printers, but they were in color.  So we could print out painted objects.  So all that paint work that goes into to all the character's faces, that comes out.


Butler:  [On Coraline,] everything had to be hand painted, which was in itself quite difficult.  Coraline had 10 freckles, so every frame, someone had to hand paint those freckles, and they had to register, so they did little tiny bumps on the print so that they would know exactly where to paint it.  Now, we've got a character in this, Neil, who has thousands of freckles on his face, and in every frame, they are perfectly registered because we could print them.

On how many 3D printers the production used:

Fell:  There was a room of them.  Three?  There was a whole room printing, and there was whole room of people correcting the faces, because they don't just come out perfect.  There's a lot of hand work that goes into getting them right, because this printer wasn't made for this.  Then there's the whole library as well, just shelves and shelves and shelves of faces.

Butler:  It takes a long time to print these things.  And it's not just faces they were printing.  A lot of the more difficult props often printed out.  Parts of costumes, other parts of characters.  The characters' ears are all printed.  They've got a lot to do, so we have to start that process well in advance of shooting so that we already have a stock of faces, for example, to begin with.

I want to thank Sam and Chris for taking the time and offering up a lot of great insight into their filmmaking process and ParaNorman in particular.

ParaNorman opens nationwide on August 17th.

Tags: ParaNorman