Interview: ParaNorman’s Writer and Co-Director Chris Butler and Co-Director Sam Fell

It seems the world of animated features for children is forever growing more crowded, more competitive, louder, and more about marketing and studio brands than genuinely imaginative and entertaining works.

But every year (a couple times, if we’re lucky) an animated film comes along that doesn’t pander to kids and fast-food toys and leaves grown up dazzled by its smart vision and humor.

Yes, ParaNorman is one of those rare and to-be-cherished films.

Told with visually rich stop-motion animation (a la Coraline or Fantastic Mr. Fox) that pays homage to the garish style of ’70s horror flicks, ParaNorman follows a young horror-movie buff (the eponymous Norman) whose ability to see actual ghosts puts him front and center when his Salem-like tourist town experiences an outbreak of living dead Puritans (thanks to a once-burned witch’s curse).

Though it’s made for kids (with plenty of goopy, gross-out gags and a Scooby Gang of both misfit and not-so-misfit youths) ParaNorman also has room for snappy, spot-on satire of American consumerism and shoot-first narrow-minded mob mentality.

ParaNorman was produced by Oregon’s Laika animation studio (which created Coraline), and was written by Coraline‘s storyboard supervisor Chris Butler and co-directed by Butler and Sam Fell (Flushed Away, The Tale of Despereaux). It features voice work from Kodi Smit-McPhee (as Norman), Casey Affleck, John Goodman, Anna Kendrick, Jeff Garlin, Leslie Mann, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse.

Last month I sat down in Chicago with Butler and Fell (who are both very British) for an excellent chat about creative outsiders, making a horror spoof for kids, and especially about the recent post-CGI resurgence in stop-motion film making, and why it seems to be coming mostly out of England.

(Oh, and in case I’m not clear: Go see ParaNorman–easily out-Burtoning Burton, it’s absolutely terrific.)

ParaNorman is playing in theaters everywhere starting today.

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The film centers on being bullied for being an outcast. How much of that came from your guys’ experiences?

Chris Butler: We weren’t bullied excessively. But for me, a big part of the story is the casual, lazy bullying which everyone experiences. Where it’s not necessarily someone running after you and beating you up, but it’s someone looking at you differently and making an assumption about you because of how you look or what color your skin is or the fact you’re wearing glasses or the way you talk.

Sam Fell: The entire crew, we were all in a way oddballs or imaginative kids, slightly out of the norm and the mainstream. Our crew is a wonderful bunch of people! They’re mavericks, but they found their place in the world doing this stuff.

Small children can be delightfully strange and creative, but many hit that point around adolescence where socialization and peer pressure kicks in and says, “Stop acting weird.”

Butler: When I went into writing Norman, I didn’t want him to come across as this angst-ridden Haley Joel Osment type. Talking to ghosts is something Norman is actually very comfortable with. What he is very acutely aware of is that no one else is very comfortable with it. So his approach to it is not to be a victim, it’s not to walk around crying because that just draws attention. In real life you keep your head down. You just try and keep away.

Fell: Keep it invisible.

Butler: It’s what makes really bright, smart kids not speak up and not be themselves. Fundamentally Norman’s journey in this movie is he doesn’t really change but what he realizes is that there are good people out there. You have got to open yourself out to them.

Much of the sillier humor in ParaNorman is aimed at younger, pre-teen kids, but as a horror spoof, the film still has a relatively edgy, darker tone. It seems in recent decades, popular culture—especially in America—has watered down and softened up movies for kids.

Butler: And I think that’s a mistake. For me the best children’s fiction—and it’s not just movies; it’s books, it’s literature, it’s art, it’s everything—is the stuff that’s challenging kids. Kids go to school to learn about history, society, politics, about everything that they are a part of, and it seems too often young fiction wants to ignore all that.

If you look at the tradition of fairy tales, it presents things that are challenging for kids as well. It does present scares, it does present villains that need to be overcome, but that’s what makes it memorable and that what makes it effective. If you talk to anyone about a movie that they remember from their childhood, chances are it will be something that has a scary element to it. You remember the old Disney movies for their villains. I think that we shouldn’t lose that.

Fell: But with us, with the tone of this movie, it’s fun to be scared sometimes. In many ways it’s a fun scare, and we have a lot of humor to temper it as well. And so the ride is kind of like laugh, scream, laugh, scream. You’re taken to tense places, but there is another humorous element in there present or straight afterwards .

Butler: We like to burst the bubble with someone doing something ridiculous.

Fell: And it wasn’t our intention to just go make a movie that is going to disturb children, then they leave the theater.

Butler: But we do have something serious to say, and that’s the fun of it. Going to see a movie like this and enjoying it but also coming out and thinking about something.

In stop-motion animation, where things have to be planned out so far in advance, where does the messy, kind of chaotic part of the process come in?

Butler: I think with stop-motion that’s all the way through.

Fell: Definitely. The script is the most malleable part, then the first year is also open and malleable. We story board the whole thing. We have five story board artists, ourselves, production designers, some artists, so it’s a group of maybe 20 people where we are exploring how to shoot the film, how to design the film, how to light the film, how to color the film. We get to explore those areas, and there is room there for the messiness, to go up a blind alley, to try that, “Oh no, I don’t like that.” Then once that big 300-person crew arrives, we as directors have to have our ducks in a row.

Butler: In the beginning and in pre production we are working out the design and the look of the thing. When you’ve got a production designer like Nelson Lowery, who is so intimate with stop-motion as a process and he just knows everything, there is a lot of innovation that goes into the physicality of it, like what things are made of.

There is a whole workshop full of people who are just trying crazy stuff with different materials and you talk about getting messy, you would see really messy people if you go into the studio–covered in paint and clay and God knows what else.

Fell: It was an incredibly organic creative process all the way through.

Once the animators are working on the sets, how much improvisation or creativity goes into the actual moving of the characters?

Butler: A lot.

Fell: In the beginning what they do is go away and act it out themselves. Some of them are brave enough to video it and show you the video of themselves acting it out. Sometimes they are just doing it in their heads, all quietly. So they are trying stuff out, and then they do a rehearsal. Then we discuss it and start refining it.

Butler: You need to know the shape of the performance. But what I think was interesting to me was what’s often described as catching lightening in a bottle. Because once they start on that shot on the set, that’s it and it’s straight ahead, there is no going back after you’ve done it and tweaking it.

Fell: It’s not in our hands anymore.

Butler: So in that way it is spontaneous. Sometimes an animator would do a quite detailed rehearsal, and there was something about it that was so beautiful and magical and real you were almost were like, “Arrrgghh! I wish he hadn’t done that then because I’m never going to be able to get it again.” It’s intangible.

With any animated film but even more so with stop motion, it seems the brain and imagination are working harder to bring the viewer into the world, and that makes it a richer, more active viewing experience.

Butler: I think a big part of it is the reality you are showing people has to be very consistent, it has to exist in and of itself. Yes, you’re saying this isn’t the real world when you first see it, but as soon as you’ve got past that, that world might not be our world, but it is real. For example, Hayao Miyazaki [Spirited Away, Ponyo] is very good at showing you small details that are extraneous to the plot. At a big studio, those shots would be cut out because they weren’t important to moving the story along, but we want that because it creates the world.

There was a lull in stop-motion film making in the ‘90s, but now we seem to be seeing resurgence. Why is so much of it coming from England?

Fell: Britain’s a very small country, and it’s overcrowded, so working in miniatures is a good thing. [Laughs] And it’s full of introverts. And there probably is a connection between the intricacy and the old craft of it.

Butler: Yes, there is a rich tradition of stop-mo in England, and I think that is simply because it is such a small industry. And now that it is getting bigger, you need the people in the studios to build it up.

When Coraline was being made it wasn’t just England, actually a lot of it was from Europe. They were reaching to wherever those people exist because there aren’t that many of them. And then they come in and they train up other people, so hopefully there is a whole new generation of people.

But certainly when we were crewing up for ParaNorman because there were two other projects going on. Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was being made, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie was starting to move. It was a bit of a worry that you might not actually find enough people to do it.

Well, hopefully ParaNorman will inspire a new generation of future stop-motion animators.

Butler: It’s come back ’round. I was there starting as a stop-frame animator in the ‘90s, and it did lull because of Pixar and Toy Story. I couldn’t believe it when I saw Toy Story–we were all like, “okay, we’re done.” But today CG is no longer a novelty, and audiences are very, very adept at understanding what CG is and how it’s done, so there is still that magic to stop-mo where you look at it and you think “Wow, how or why…?”

Fell: We’re not losing what makes stop motion magical in the first place because what makes it magical, what we all love about it is the imperfection–we love the tactile quality of it. It is literally a real object coming alive, and taking that and using technology to take it further. What we get in stop motion, that sense of a real object moving is what CG is chasing and still hasn’t got there.

So just from an aesthetic point of view, what we have is beautiful and we want to treasure it, but we don’t want to say it’s a historic novelty–we want to keep moving forward and the technical innovations we’ve got on this movie do that. It’s still stop-mo, it’s still got that beauty, but we’re aiming higher, and I think that’s what’s always going to make stop-mo remain vital, if you keep pushing the boundaries.

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf
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