2012 Summer Movie Guide

Stopping Zombies

TFK talks to the directors behind ParaNorman

August 17, 2012
LAIKA, INC.

Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) can see and talk to the ghost of his grandmother (voiced by Elaine Stritch)—unlike his mom (Leslie Mann), dad (Jeff Garlin) and sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick).

Meet Norman Babcock, the unlikely hero of Focus Features’ new 3-D stop-motion animated movie, ParaNorman. Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a kid who can see and talk to ghosts. This doesn’t make him too popular at school, where he’s bullied, or at home, where his family doesn’t believe him. That is, no one except his odd Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman), who reveals to Norman that he has a similar gift and has been using it to control an ancient witch’s curse. When the curse begins to come true and a group of zombies rises from the grave and invades the town, it falls to Norman to put a stop to everything—with the “help” of a ragtag group: his new friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), Neil’s older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), Norman’s boy-crazy older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), and the school bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

ParaNorman was created using stop-motion animation by the same studio behind 2009’s Coraline. Stop motion is when the movie crew creates miniature puppets, sets and props and photographs them frame-by-frame, moving the pieces a tiny bit each time. It’s a lot of work, but it creates a unique movie experience (see how Norman was created in the video below). Recently, TFK chatted with the film’s co-directors, Sam Fell and Chris Butler (Butler also wrote the movie). Read on to learn about the movie magic behind ParaNorman.

TFK:

Chris Butler, you've been working on creating this movie for a long time—you worked on the script for 10 years. Why were you determined to tell this story?

BUTLER:

I thought it was a good one. I thought the idea of a zombie movie for kids sounded like a lot of fun. I loved Scooby Doo as a kid, and I just love the idea of this gang of kids racing around town in a beat up van, investigating the paranormal. But I also liked the fact that it was a group of kids who, if you look at them, really shouldn’t get along, and they’d actually be pretty useless if anything really happened. So it was that kind of idea. I thought it was special enough with the central character and the bullying theme in it. I thought it was worth telling.

TFK:

Why was stop motion the right way to tell the story?

BUTLER:

I always thought in my head that it should be stop motion, and I think it’s because zombies just seem perfectly right for stop motion.

FELL:

There’s something nice about how our puppets are inanimate, like dead things, and our animators bring them to life using this magical technique. So that seemed right.

BUTLER:

It seemed perfect for the undead.

Co-Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell pose on the red carpet at the premiere of ParaNorman, in Universal City, California, on August 5.

ALBERTO E. RODRIGUEZ—GETTY IMAGES
Co-Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell pose on the red carpet at the premiere of ParaNorman, in Universal City, California, on August 5.

TFK:

What makes the character of Norman so relatable to kids? And did you relate to him as well?

BUTLER:

There is a lot of me in Norman, definitely. Certainly the stuff (that happens) in school, that’s kind of how I remembered school. I think he’s easily relatable because he is an outsider. Everyone at the age of 11—or probably the age of 8 through about 15—feels that they don’t necessarily always fit in. I think it’s because you are trying to find who you are, or at least you know who you are, and you want to make sure someone else can see it in you.

FELL:

You’re trying to fit yourself into the whole picture. The playground is such a jungle, isn’t it? And also, I think that Kodi Smit-McPhee did a wonderful job doing Norman’s voice. He really brought a lot of range to that character, and it was very important. This isn’t a cartoon, you know, he’s a real kid.

TFK:

You mentioned that the group that helps Norman is this sort of Scooby-Doo-like gang. Did you have a favorite among them?

BUTLER:

Yes, Courtney. I loved Courtney. I think that’s partly because it was Anna Kendrick (voicing her). She could turn from super sweet to (mean) in like a second.

FELL:

I really loved Norman’s friend Neil, especially the way his voice was done. I loved what Tucker Albrizzi did with it. He just seemed so fresh and out-of-the-box.

BUTLER:

Neil was a scene-stealer for sure.

TFK:

I read that the bathroom scene, where the ghost of Prenderghast comes out of the school toilet, took a whole year to make. What made it so challenging?

FELL:

It was because we gave the scene to one animator. We wanted the animator to own the whole thing. We could have done it quicker if we had put more people on it. This one (animator) said, “I really want to do that scene. It looks like such fun.” And then maybe after about a year, he wasn’t so convinced. (Laughs.) He was in a bathroom for about a year. It’s very difficult because it’s a small space, and Mr. Prenderghast is also a very big man, so that was tricky.

TFK:

How did you make characters like Mr. Prenderghast look like ghosts? Were they actual puppets with special effects?

BUTLER:

Yes, we used real puppets. We always wanted to start by using real things as much as possible. We didn’t want to rely on computers. We wanted to have it real and tactile, like the real magic of stop frame. It was a real puppet, a shot against the green screen, and then there were layers of effects put onto him.

TFK:

What was it like to walk on set and see the actual sets and characters built out?

BUTLER:

It was inspirational. I think that’s one of the best things about this medium. You can physically see the stuff around you. If you are starting to get lost in all the challenges that are going on around you, the best thing in the world is to wander down to an empty set and walk around it and look at all the craft and art that goes into this thing that we are doing and how passionate the crew is about realizing it. And you pretty quickly realize that what we are doing is fantastic and very few of us get the chance to do this, so it is a real gift.

TFK:

Did you have a favorite set piece or prop?

BUTLER:

I loved Mr. Prenderghast’s house. I think it’s a gorgeous piece of set. The thing is huge. We built this entire house, but we built it for one shot, and I think that’s what I love about it. So much beautiful, handcrafted toil went into this one thing that you see on screen for a few seconds.

FELL:

I liked the main street scenes with all the shops outside. There was a funny (hot dog shop) called “Witchy Weiners” (Laughs.)

TFK:

Why should kids go see this movie?

BUTLER:

Because it’s a fun ride. It’s a roller coaster ride. It has scares, it has a lot of laughs and it has a lot of heart, as well. I think it’s a really fun story, but it also has something to say.

FELL:

And it’s so beautifully made that it’s really worth coming out to watch it on a big screen, be it 2-D or 3-D, even better. It’s a real big-screen experience. We really designed it that way.


 

Paranorman is rated PG. The movie will also be playing in IMAX 3-D theaters. Also starring Elaine Stritch, Leslie Mann, Bernard Hill and Jeff Garlin.

 


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