Thursday, August 30, 2012

'ParaNorman': The Hand Crafted Genius of Laika Studios

Norman lives in Blithe Hollow, a tiny New England town that once held a witch trial 300 years ago. The trial ended badly, with the town being cursed with eternal damnation, which is where the zombies come in. Norman, a strange kid that can see the dead and talks to ghosts, realizes that it's up to him to save his town from the witch's curse.

The "ParaNorman" screenplay was written by Christ Butler. Butler was inspired by 1980's films such as "The Goonies," "Stand By Me," "Poltergeist" and the kids cartoon series "Scooby Doo."  Butler says that "Paranorman" is John Carpenter meets John Hughes-- the director that gave us such comedies as "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Weird Science" and "Home Alone."

Travis Knight, the lead animator of the movie and president of Laika, the animation studio that made, says that "It's a coming of age story, with zombies." The film follows Laika's first amazing stop-motion animated movie "Coraline."

Watch the Interview with the creators of "ParaNorman" below.

Needless to say, the hand crafted genius of Laika's animation style is breathtaking. The studio combines traditional stop motion effects with 3D printed faces that are put on the puppets with magnets and use CG to make the motions seamless. 

Each costume is hand stitched. The set pieces and characters are all made by hand. But what I found to be really interesting is that the facial expressions are first made on a computer. The expressions are used to make models that are printed with a 3D printer to make the different faces needed to animate a character. By "choreographing" the facial expressions for each scene on computer, they have managed to come up with a wider range of facial movement than traditional stop-motion animation has had in the past.

Watch how Laika artists made Norman by hand!

"ParaNorman" is just one example of how hand-crafted traditional practical effects, such a puppetry and stop-motion animation, can still be used in modern times for great cinematic feats. The heavy reliance on using only CG in movies has created terrible, weightless monstrosities that don't even look like they are present on-screen.

By making things by hand, the animated objects and characters visibly have weight and exist in the material world. This fact alone makes the actions of the puppets far more convincing and provides an effective emotional impact on the viewer.

In "ParaNorman," the character models have the right amount of self shadowing and they move in ways that are quite convincing. The realness of the models helps the audience suspend their disbelief and actually care about what happens to the characters. 

By making things by hand, the set pieces don't consist of straight, perfect lines which can induce the uncanny valley effect where things look too real, and become alien to our minds. The imperfect design of the background actually works to gives the set its own personality.

One of the main themes of "ParaNorman" is to embrace the things about us that makes us unique, as we all have talents that may prove to be useful in life that many people think makes us weird. I think that Laika studios itself follows this philosophy, as they employ talented, quirky artists to make things by hand, and don't rely heavily on computers to make the movie for them.

That's not to say that some computer animated movies themselves are terrible. The movies by Pixar Studios are just  one example of how well a CG movie can be done. But when it comes to horror movie makers, I think that they have a lot to learn about the history of movies in general, and how stop-motion animation is not a tradition to scoff at just because it's as old as the motion picture itself.

Stop-motion animation is becoming more seamless and realistic looking with each passing year, and the new technologies allow this fantastic art form to be made are often cheaper than hiring a graphics studio to create a monster with CG. When the CG budget of a movie is meager, it shows, as the monsters are laughably unrealistic and lack dimension and personality.

There is a lesson to learn from studios like Laika that rely on hand crafted stop-motion animation to weave wondrously timeless tales with sophisticated themes. Laika combines both CG and practical effects to push stop-motion animation past its current limits and into a wondrous realm of possibilities. Perhaps the future of horror special effects lies not in just using computers, but by also employing ageless techniques from the past.

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