INTERVIEW: ‘ParaNorman’ Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell on the Benefits of Stop Motion

ParaNorman Interview (2012) Chris Butler, Sam Fell

ParaNorman is only the second feature film in Laika Studio’s brief history, but there is already much praise brewing for the exciting new voice in animation. Their debut film Coraline, directed by Henry Selick and based on a Neil Gaiman story, was widely praised as it introduced a completely unique and imaginative universe for the human characters to inhabit. That universe seems to return in its complete form in ParaNorman with a wonderful use of asymmetry and remarkable attention to detail.

Much of the creative team from Coraline returns for ParaNorman including the talented team of artists at Laika Studios. The story comes from a script by storyboard artist Chris Butler who steps into the director role with the aid of Flushed Away and Tale of Despereaux director Sam Fell. The two Englishman were on press tour in the United States for their latest effort and I had the distinct pleasure to speak with them during their stop in Minneapolis.

My first question was for first time director Chris Butler:

ALEX CARLSON: Any big surprises about being a director?

CHRIS BUTLER: The fact that it happened! I mean honestly, this project to me is like that pipe dream, it’s that dream come true. I had a story that I’d been working on for a long time just for fun as much as anything and I never thought anyone would seriously make it into a movie. I got the opportunity to show the script to Travis [Knight] while I was working on Coraline and not only did he say “yes,” but he asked if I wanted to direct it as well. That just doesn’t happen!

[Laughs]

That turned my life around. Apparently when he greenlit the project he called me into his office and sat me down and said “we’re going to make your movie.” Apparently my response was to sit there and just say “ok…” and he waited and then said “is that it?” I think he was expecting me to say something more.

SAM FELL: Of course! This is America, man. You’re supposed to say “Yeeha!”

CB: What surprised me also was that I didn’t know whether I knew enough or whether I had the necessary tools to do this and I think surprisingly I did.

ParaNorman Interview (2012) Kodi Smit-McPheeAC: How did you guys get connected together?

SF: We’ve got a mutual friend actually and she invited me to get in touch with Laika and I came over. It was after Henry Selick left and they wanted someone with experience to come along and look around. I was looking at some of the development projects and this one just stood out. It’s cool and funny, like a lot of animated projects in development, but this one had its own flavor. Chris was talking about this idea for a film that was influenced by John Carpenter and John Hughes, which seemed like a perfect blend. He already had a good story worth telling that was worth three years of my life to tell.

AC: Speaking of Laika, there were a lot of similarities between Coraline and ParaNorman – how it follows an individual child who is an outcast and deals with supernatural elements…

CB: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that is Laika’s brand, I don’t think it was intentional. I think Laika is the perfect place to make that kind of story because it is literally made up of artists who are on the periphery, who are like outsiders in a sense. The kind of story who is about someone who has a gift, who is slightly out of the ordinary, it makes perfect sense for that to happen at Laika because every one of the artists who worked on the movie, and there are over 320 of them, every one of them is a skilled craft person or artist. Honestly I’ve worked on a ton of these movies and I’ve never seen a crew so passionate about the material. Having said that, I think Laika is reaching out, pushing the boundaries and I don’t think they would ever limit themselves to a certain type of story.

SF: I think if there’s any difference, I actually think ParaNorman is certainly funnier. It’s more of an action/adventure ride. We really wanted our own signature for the film and one thing was to make it into a real movie – sort of shoot it and edit it like a movie. Make it influenced by the movies and shoot it in a sort of cinematic way.

CB: Yeah, that’s true, we took a very different approach and Coraline is sort of the old school of stop-mo. It’s kind of what is expected from stop-mo, to tell this theatrical, whimsical, creepy story and that’s not to downplay it, because I think it’s a beautiful work of art, but we definitely wanted to do something different. Coraline is like an old fairy tale, [ParaNorman] is like an old episode of Scooby Doo directed by Sam Raimi.

ParaNorman Interview (2012) Chris ButlerAC: Why did you feel like stop motion animation for this particular story?

CB: I think mainly the initial hook was the zombies. I think a big part of that is that stop-mo has such a great history tradition of monsters, specifically with Ray Harryhausen for me it was the Jason and the Argonauts battle with the skeletons. You see those things and it just seems like the perfect way to animate that kind of undead creature. Sam, you always mention Evil Dead 2

SF: Yeah, I love Evil Dead 2 because the zombie girlfriend is stop frame. The period we were looking at, that’s just how it was done with stop frame. Another thing Chris mentions is how stop-frame is truly an inanimate object brought to life and that’s perfect for these 200-year old dead puritans brought back from the dead.

AC: I really enjoyed the soundtrack of the movie, whose idea was it to bring on Jon Brion?

SF: Chris had been using him early on in development just as a flavor, he had storyboarded the piece and put some of Jon’s music to it. It took it to a slightly of a more indie sort of world and the script always describes the world as scruffy and messed up with a little rough around the edges and the music fit that really well, I thought.

CB: Honestly, when I started putting his music together with some really early images it worked very well and I think it showed it would work, but I honestly never thought for a second that we could get Jon Brion to do it. When we first talked about it, we thought who should we consider and were like – why not?

SF: It turns out he had just been waiting for the right movie to come around. We showed up and we showed him some of our reel and we already had his music on it from his past shows…

CB: …which he hates by the way. The one thing we didn’t have knowledge of him doing before is that kind of eighties electronic vibe and he was really excited to try that out because he’s a real aficionado of vintage music technology, so he got to play with all his old toys.

ParaNorman Interview (2012) Sam FellAC: One of my favorite scenes is early on when Norman is walking down the street and waving hello to all of these people who aren’t there and I really feel like it is the music that prevents the scene from being truly sad and helps you get on the kids side right away.

SF: We didn’t want Norman to be a tragic figure. He’s not afflicted by this thing. Kodi Smit-McPhee brought sort of a lightness and strength to this character and the music helped that. He’s not tortured by this.

CB: That was a big thing from the start, a lot of people say “oh it’s like The Sixth Sense” and that’s what we tried to veer away from. He’s not angst-ridden by this. What makes his life miserable is not dead people, it’s the living. It’s far easier for him to talk with ghosts than the kids at school and I thought that was a far more interesting play on what we’ve seen before.

AC: What is the next big project for either of you?

SF: I’d like to do a musical one day. Animation and musicals go together well and someday I’d like to do that.

CB: I’m staying at Laika for the time being. All I can think of right now is getting through the press tour and then having a vacation, so what’s next isn’t really defined right now. Animation for sure, stop motion probably. Laika’s development slate is pretty healthy right now, so I think there’s plenty more to come.

AC: I kind of think that Laika is emerging as the new voice in animation, I mean Pixar has been kind of dominant for a while…

SF: Yeah! If you think about it there hasn’t been a new studio since DreamWorks in 1996. There are a lot of production companies, but this is a real studio, you know, they’ve got financial backing, they’ve got the creative talent, and the facility and that’s really exciting to see that emerge.

CB: I think initially, certainly with Coraline, people see this is an emerging studio and just want to know what the brand is. What makes a “Laika movie.” It’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that Laika’s voice is about making stuff that other studios wouldn’t. That doesn’t mean that it’s creepy movies for kids or not necessarily about the supernatural or buttons for eyes or anything like that. I think it’s about using this medium to tell any kind of story and certainly you could see ParaNorman and Coraline and say “that’s definitely not a Pixar movie, and it’s not a Dreamworks movie,” and I think that’s healthy.

Listen to next week’s episode of the Film Misery Podcast to hear more of this interview including Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s thoughts on working with the A-list cast, designing an off-kilter world, and the process of using a 3-D printer to create thousands of faces.

ParaNorman opens in theatres everywhere today.

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  • http://highoncelluloid.blogspot.com Duncan Houst

    I doubt I’ll be catching “ParaNorman” in theaters, but I have an extreme respect for stop-motion filmmakers, not only for the amount of time it takes to complete a single minute of footage, but for the specificity they can put into such small moments. I’m interested to see where Laika moves forward from here. I do hope “ParaNorman” amounts to the studio’s equivalent of “A Bug’s Life”.

    • Jose

      What did you think of A Bug’s Life?

      • http://highoncelluloid.blogspot.com Duncan Houst

        It’s a film that takes its cues entirely from simple plot machinations, and not out of character motivations. It’s all zip, quip, and no sting.

    • Jose

      Well, one reason I thought it was like A Bug’s Life, was how after a great first movie (PIXAR’s Toy Story, LAIKA’s Coraline), their second movie isn’t nearly as good.

      • http://www.filmmisery.com Alex Carlson

        Completely agree with that statement. Also the fact that, like ‘A Bug’s Life,’ ‘ParaNorman’ further establishes Laika’s unique visual style.

  • Dylan Cuellar

    I’m not sure if anyone has heard but Tony Scott has reportably just commited suicide. This an awful and terrible day in movie history. One of the worst I’ve witnessed.

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