LAIKA’s Travis Knight & Arianne Sutner chat about creating “ParaNorman”

Travis Knight is the CEO/President/Lead Animator of LAIKA, which is the animation studio behind films like “ParaNorman” and “Coraline”. Arianne Sutner is the producer of “ParaNorman”. “ParaNorman” is the latest film from the studio and will be released on Blu-ray/DVD combo pack on November 27th, 2012. Media Mikes had a chance to chat with Travisa and Arianne about their work with stop-motion and what they have planned next.

Mike Gencarelli: Arianne, you’ve been working in stop-motion since “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, what is it that draws you to this medium?
Arianne Sutner: When I was starting out I was always a fan of animation and family movies. I was working in the Bay area and the movie that was happening around that time was “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas”. Part of it also was that you get to work on the project for a long time and it was still very new at the time and very exciting. When I started working in that environment, I just love that you create everything by hand. There were these fantastic stages that you get to work on and also the fact that it was this collaborative process. You really get to feel everything and get very involved. I really fell in love with it. I worked at other places like Pixar, in their beginning and they are making fantastic movies. But it is the experience of working on these movies that I love so much and the kind of people that are drawn to them. I always say that it is really fun and Travis says that I am crazy, which is true. You really get your hands dirty and get to collaborate and with some real great artists.

MG: Travis, How does the LAIKA President & CEO also end up being the lead animator on projects like “Coraline” and “ParaNorman”?
Travis Knight: I have been an artist my entire life. I fell in love with stop-motion, since I was child. Ultimately, I wanted to figure out how it was done before the internet or animation schools etc. So I was just learning by practice. It is something that has been a part of my life for 30 years now. I was an artist long before I was an executive. I have described myself as an artist trying to find his inner-executive. As I have been trying to move the company forward, it was always important to me as I began the process of building the company that I never lose the direct connection with the work because it’s what it is all about. It is why we do this. It is why we got drawn to creating something of great beauty. It is something that is critical to me. I think also to have the head of the studio in the trenches with all the other artists and filmmakers, rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands dirty and being a part of the creative process helps to define the sensibility of what the company is all about. We really are all about finding a beautiful way of telling these classic stories in this extraordinary art form of stop-motion.

MG: Arianne, You took on the role of producer in “ParaNorman”; what was your most challenging aspect?
AS: I think it is to make sure that the script we got was so beautiful, so well picked, so ambitious and overall something that was really special that had various different layers. Also that it was at the same time entertaining and had certain messages that we believed in. We wanted to make sure that it brought to life the way that Chris (Butler) intended it. While also making sure that we met Travis’ standards and to have the best stop-motion animation in the world. I think that was my biggest overall challenge that I was reaching for everyday.
TK: Arianne is fairly humble. She really is like a little marvel. She held the entire production on her shoulders. Every day some new crazy challenge was thrown her way and she handled all them with this amazing grace. The fact that we brought this extraordinary film on time and under budget is a testament to her leadership.

MG: Travis, How does the production on “ParaNorman” differ to “Coraline”?
TK: With “Coraline”, it was the first film that we had done from the ground up. So everything was new. We were forging new ground. In some ways we didn’t know better. We had really grand ambition and wouldn’t accept the fact that we couldn’t do certain things with conventional stop-motion, in the sense of what you can do in this medium. So that meant incorporating technology that wasn’t done before. The natural enemy of stop-motion, this age old craft, is technology. We decided to embrace technology and to bring that forward as part of the process with digital capture systems, 3D photography, laser cutters and rapid prototyping. That way we were able to embrace the machine in a way that hasn’t been done before. It allowed us to expand the scope of the movie. We built on that to an incredible extent for “ParaNorman” and we took it even further than we could have imagined for “Coraline”. I think that process of innovating to tell incredible stories in this medium by fusing those two aspects together, art craft and technology, led us to a place where we can really seize our ambitions and see them realized on the big screen. When you look at the evolution in the visual stylization in the technical execution between “ParaNorman” and “Coraline”, it is fairly remarkable that it happened in only three years.

MG: Why do you think that stop-motion films tend to deal with darker subject matter?
TK: That is an interesting question. We can’t fully appreciate what that means until we see how the thing plays out in the fullness of time. I think when you look at the history of stop-motion film; there is a very small amount of films made in this medium. You can attribute about half of them to two guys, Tim Burton and Henry Selick. They have this dark gothic sensibility. When these guys make the films they want to make…they make them. I think you can look at our films and they don’t have that sensibility. They have this warmer sensibility that is distinctly British but is all very entertaining. So I think you need to look at those two things and see that there is nothing inherently creepy or dark about stop-motion. I think also when you have an inanimate object that is brought to life by the hands of an animator; there is something weird about that. They move is this weird jerky kind of way, which does gives a certain creepy feeling. One of the things that we have been trying to do at LAIKA is to really take the performances in the animation of these stop-motion puppets to an entirely new level and make them feel very human. So that people can connect with these emotional characters on the screen. It is really difficult to do that in stop-motion. I think it was important us to get over that hurdle of making these things creepy. I think you can certainly see with “Coraline” and “ParaNorman” they share some DNA in common. Moving forward, I do think that it is important for us at LAIKA to expand what we do and that is telling different kinds of stories in different kinds of ways. So when you see the next handful of films from our company hopefully they will not look or feel like anything we’ve done before.

MG: What’s next in the cards for LAIKA?
TK: We are very selective on the project that we take on. Currently we do have about ten projects in various forms of development. It is a combination of things that are adaptations of literature and original projects. “Coraline” was an adaptation of a Neil Gaiman novel and “ParaNorman” was an original idea. These things take a long time to make since the pace is graceful. There was about three years between “Coraline” and “ParaNorman”. There will be about two years between “ParaNorman” and our next film. We are trying to truncate the time period, so ultimately we are on an annual release schedule and releasing a film every year. It is a challenge and is difficult to do that but it is something that we are shooting for. But that is path that we are aiming for.

Blu-ray Review “ParaNorman”

Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, John Goodman, Casey Affleck
Directors: Sam Fell, Chris Butler
Rated: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)
Studio: Universal Studios
Release Date: November 27, 2012
Run Time: 93 minutes

Film: 3 out of 5 stars
Extras: 3 out of 5 stars

“ParaNorman” is the latest film from Laika, the studio behind one of my favorite films “Coraline”. This is one of those films that really grow with you with each viewing. I really enjoy this film in 3D and though that it added a lot to the film but we only had the chance to review this in 2D. So I feel that it is still worth checking out but I would recommend this in 3D firstly. I would add a half a star to this in 3D, which is an improvement from my theatrical review. I still feel that some parts are a bit too scary for some kids. I love the little horror Easter eggs spread out all over the film.  Enjoy and see how many you can find?! Overall, this is a decent follow-up feature for Laika but it doesn’t come close to the charm of “Coraline”. I can’t wait to see what they are going to deliver next. If for nothing else, this film deserves to be seen just to dignify how much work was put into it.

Official Premise: From the makers of Coraline comes the story of Norman, a boy who must use his special powers to save his town from a centuries-old curse. In addition to spooky zombies, he’ll also have to take on unpredictable ghosts, wily witches and, worst, of all, clueless grown-ups. But this young ghoul whisperer will soon find his paranormal activities pushed to their otherworldly limits. Featuring the voice talents of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin and John Goodman, it’s a frightfully funny tale for the whole family.

This releases does come within a very nice combo pack with a Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy discs and even Ultraviolet Digital Streaming Copy. The 1080p transfer still looks sharp and really pops with the very colorful film.  Though I still feel that it works better in 3D.  The film itself is actually quite action packed and does comes with a decent DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track.  The special features are good and worth checking out if you enjoyed the film.  Starting off, there is a very informative commentary track with Director Sam Fell and Writer/Director Chris Butler. Next we have, “Preliminary Animatic Sequences” again with commentary from Director Sam Fell and Writer/Director Chris Butler. “Peering Through the Veil” is a look into the world created for this film including the town and the characters.  Lastly there are seven short featurettes spotlighting Norman and his extraordinarily unusual costars.

Kodi Smit-McPhee talks about voicing Norman in “ParaNorman”

Kodi Smit-McPhee is best known for his role in the dark horror film “Let Me In”. Kodi also voices the role of Norman in the stop-motion animated film “ParaNorman”. Media Mikes had a chance to chat with Kodi about this role in the film, the process of doing voice work and what he has planned upcoming.

Mike Gencarelli: Tell us about your experience voicing Norman in “ParaNorman”?
Kodi Smit-McPhee: It was really cool. I have done voice over work before but it was computer generated, a lot quicker and overall very different. I knew about stop-motion before this but when I worked on it, it was completely not what I expected. When I when to Oregon to see Laika studios, I was just blown away at how much passion they have and seeing how much work and patience goes into creating the town and these characters. It really motivated me to do the best that I can really do.

MG: Tell us about the process of recorded your role?
KSM: We knew that there were ten sessions that I had to record and there were a few months in between. I would go in and record the whole script and then send it off to Laika. They would work around my around my voice and then I would go back in and touch up anything we had to do over.

MG: How long did the whole process take?
KSM: It was about two years. I started when I was fourteen and now I am sixteen.

MG: When you recorded the voice were you with any of the other cast?
KSM: Yeah. It was really cool when I got to record my material with someone. Usually since I was typically in this black room when recording solo. When someone came in it helped fill in your imagination a bit and makes those scenes very natural. You can actually interact with someone and react off their energy. It was an awesome experience.

MG: What was your biggest challenge doing voice work?
KSM: I think the biggest challenge was keeping the voice up in that area, since I was getting older at the time. In the Town Hall scene, where he climbs up the side of the building and was yelling at the Witch, it was such an emotional scene. It was very hard to do. To get all of that emotion out through my voice was a challenge but we did get it in the end.

MG: After starring in “Let Me In”, what do you enjoy most about the horror genre?
KSM: I think the cool thing of horror is that as it gets older, people are bringing so much more into it. I think with “ParaNorman” and “Let Me In”, there is the horror aspect and it is fun but there are also these underlining deep stories within them. So you are able to take two things away from it.

MG: What do you have planned next?
KSM: Right after “ParaNorman”, I did “Romeo and Juliet”, which is something totally different. It is with Hailee Steinfeld, Douglas Booth and Paul Giamatti. Then I did a sci-fi film called “The Congress” which is also with Paul Giamatti and Jon Hamm. Right now, I am in New York working on a new film called “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” with Ben Kingsley.

Chris Butler & Sam Fell talk about directing “ParaNorman” and working with stop-motion animation

Chris Butler & Sam Fell are the co-directors of Laika Animation’s latest stop-motion animation film “ParaNorman”.  The film is the first stop-motion film to utilize a 3D color printer to create replacement faces for its puppets and breaks all the boundaries which past stop-motion films have faced.  Media Mikes had a chance to chat with the directors about working in the horror genre and blending it with stop-motion animation.

Mike Gencarelli: I am a big stop-motion fan but I see a trend with “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, Coraline” and “ParaNorman” all tend to have creepy aspects, why and do you you feel this aspect relates to stop motion?
Chris Butler: I think is the tradition of the medium. If you trace it back to its early days, in the 1890’s the very first efforts in stop-motion were creepy. “The Dancing Skeleton” was one of the first back in 1897. I think what it comes down to is they feature inanimate objects moving on their own accord, which in itself is something like black magic going on there. If you look at the pioneers of this medium, there was a certain creepiness to them. There has always been that slightly unsettling side of it. I believe it is entirely to do with it being real objects moving. When Tim Burton comes along and re-invents with with “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, he is playing on that and having fun with that slightly dark sense of humor. I don’t think it should be the limitation of the medium by any means. “ParaNorman” is kind of spooky but I think there shouldn’t be any real limits to the kind of stories you can tell with stop-motion.

MG: This is the first stop-motion film to utilize a 3D color printer to create replacement faces for its puppets, tell us about about that decision?
Sam Fell: Obviously these things aren’t designed for stop-motion animation. You are always taking a chance. We wanted to do something different on this film. They got a color printer in the studio and we did some experiments with it initially with the character Neil, who is covered in  freckles. When we saw it on the tested it big screen it just looked so promising. It was one of those spine-tingling moments, when you see something you’ve never seen before. We didn’t know if it was going to work on all the characters or if it would literally last over a two year production. We took a risk and went for it but it really turned out so well. When you see how the light fall on those faces or comes through them. I think the characters look less like dolls and are even more tangible and believable.

MG: I read that Norman alone has about 8,000 faces, how does that compare from other stop-motion films?
SF: I think with the numbers of faces, it has increased exponentially. I think Norman had a possible 1.5 million expressions at hand. We would never even use all of them since I don’t even think the human face can use that many expression. But that was at our finger tips. So pretty much whatever we wanted to do with this character we were able to do. It was really freeing because in the past stop-motion has had it limitations. There was replacement heads as far back as “The Nightmare Before Christmas” but they had to be hand-sculpted, so they were limited. Pretty much every limitation has been blown up on this movie. The boundaries in place of previous stop-motion movies, we broke them all. That was how we felt going into this. We thought let’s push this as far as we can and see what we can achieve. Everything we tried to do…it worked.

MG: The film is animated for a younger audience but is quite scary for some kids, how can you reflect?
SF: I think we wanted to make a family movie more than a kids movie. Something aimed at the teens or actually “tweens”. It is about an 11 year old boy and reflects their lives on screen. We wanted laughs, as well as scares and in a way it is like designing a roller coaster ride. We actually think that kids like scares. It is firstly entertaining and it also adds in a dramatic story. The hero, in this case a kid, has real challenges. You take them through it and show the darkness can be defeated. I think it makes for a great ride. We didn’t want to wimp out on the scares. We may loose the toddlers or the preschoolers but that is the risk you take. It is very hard to make a film for everybody…without being bland.
CB: We were specifically referencing an era of movie making that I think was a little braver. The movie that I grew up watching like “The Goonies” and “Ghostbusters”. They weren’t afraid to have scares and show an imperfect world. But they did it with humor and style. I miss those movies and I feel that they are also sorely missed by many people. So it was nice to play in that era again. Even though it was a contemporary movie, it was very much referenced by the films of the 80’s.

MG: I loved the Easter eggs for horror fans like the hockey mask and ringtone, any other hidden gems?
CB: The movie is so dripped with references that I don’t even known where to start. It is not just stuff that was in the script. I wrote in the bar in touch is called the Bargento, in reference to the old Italian movies. The name of Neil’s dead dog is Bub, which is the name of the tamed zombie in “Day of the Dead”. Most of the characters surnames are either horror movie directors or writers, even if they do not appear in the movie. On top of that we have a whole crew of movie fanatics, who were responsible for making the props and locations. They stick all kinds of stuff in there as well. It is difficult to even pin-point how much there is actually in there. Sam’s name even ended up on the old tramps underpants [laughs].
SF: I didn’t ask for that by the way [laughs].


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Film Review “ParaNorman”

Directed by: Sam Fell, Chris Butler
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, John Goodman, Leslie Mann
Jeff Garlin, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Elaine Stritch
MPAA Rating: PG
Distributed by: Focus Features
Running time: 92 minutes

Our Score: 3 out of 5 stars

“ParaNorman” is the latest film from Laika, the studio behind one of my favorite films “Coraline”. It is a 3D stop-motion animated adventure but may be too scary for the kids and not entertaining enough for the adults.  The film starts off really great  straight through the middle but fails through a in the end.  I am a sucker though for stop-motion animation and you can just tell how much work actually went into this film. I was very impressed with its blend of CG as well.  It is also the first one of them to utilize a 3D Color Printer to create replacement faces for its puppets.   The 3D effects are very impressive and does add a lot to the film.  This is a decent follow-up feature for Laika but it doesn’t come close to the charm of “Coraline”.

The film takes place in the small town of Blithe Hollow.  The town is cursed by a 3,000 year old witches curse. We meet a young boy named Norman (Smit-McPhee), who is misunderstood by everyone around him, and is also the only person that can save the day.  He has the ability to speak with the dead and it is up to him to stop the undead from taking over and prevent the witch from destroying the town.

When it comes to the voice cast in an animated film, the casting is very important.  The main cast here are impressive choices sporting Kodi Smit-McPhee (“Let Me In”), Anna Kendrick (“Twilight” series), Casey Affleck (“Ocean’s Eleven”) and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (“Fright Night”). The supporting cast includes Leslie Mann (“Knocked Up”), Jeff Garlin (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and John Goodman (“RoseAnne”). Casey Affleck was the real shocker of the group and is completely unrecognizable.  There are also a lot of little surprise Easter eggs included for hardcore horror fans, so be sure to keep an eye…and an ear out for them.  Personally I may just be getting old myself but having a younger daughter, I wouldn’t want her seeing this film until she is much older.  “Coraline” is a dark creepy film but this one is a little more edgy.  It does have some really great laughs and looks absolutely amazing, so it is guess overall it is fair toss-up.