The stereo 3D stop-motion animated feature ParaNorman from Laika puts the emphasis on handcrafted puppets and details. But digital plays an important, behind-the-scenes role, not just in painting out rigs but in creating ghosts, dramatic, witch-filled skies, crowds and set extensions. Laika's visual effects supervisor Brian Van't Hul, compositing supervisor Steve Emerson and CG/look dev supervisor Andrew Nawrot talk about the creation and integration of the digital with the real in ParaNorman. (Potential minor spoilers in the article)
When ParaNorman opens on August 17, it will be the second feature from Portland stop-motion animation house Laika, which birthed Coraline, and only the third stop-motion animation feature to be made in stereoscopic 3D (Coraline and Aardman Animations'The Pirates! were the first and second, respectively). At Laika, 550 2D, CG and stop-motion artists painstakingly handcrafted and shot every frame of ParaNorman over a two-and-a-half year period.
Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler (who also wrote the screenplay) and released by Focus Features, ParaNorman is a visual treat and a rollicking story. Eleven-year old Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) loves scary movies and is growing up in the placid town of Blithe Hollow, which was the site of a famous witch hunt 300 years ago. Norman also has the odd gift of being able to see and speak with the dead, including his beloved grandmother (Elaine Stritch). Ostracized by those who scoff at his paranomal ability, Norman spends his time tolerating his parents (Jeff Garlin, Leslie Mann), dodging the bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), befriending Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) and dealing with the overly dramatic teacher Mrs. Henscher (Alex Borstein).
Grandma Babcock's ghost (voiced by Elaine Stritch) talks to Norman. Credit: LAIKA, Inc.
His world is upended when his odd uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) reveals that the centuries old witch's curse is real, and that only Norman can stop it from harming the town. When the witch's judges arise from the grave as zombies, Norman and his friends race against time to find a solution for the curse, while the townspeople arm themselves to fight the menace.
Visual effects supervisor Brian Van't Hul summed up the making of ParaNorman in three words. "Stop-motion, Portland, computers," he said. "We specialize in stop-motion. We're based on creating a handcrafted look and bold stories in a way that helps celebrate making physical things. We also have visual effects and use these tools to complement, not overwhelm, the handcrafted sentiment. It allows us to make things more efficient and cheaper, but CG is not the be-all or end-all. We don't want to steal the show from the visceral, physical things that we believe helps our movies stand out from the CG films."
The process started with testing. "We begin on stage, we do a lot of testing with real materials and real cameras," Van't Hul said. "For a single second of film, we have to photograph the puppet 24 times. The design of Norman was a three-month process to get a single character ready, and there were plenty of puppets. It's an art form engineering the armatures, creating the miniature clothes, creating the hair and making it all capable of being animated."
Kodi Smit-McPhee comes face to face with Norman while visiting the set of ParaNorman.
Credit: Reed Harkness / LAIKA, Inc.
Shooting in stereo 3D for the miniature world of stop-motion animation had its pluses and minuses. "One advantage is that our characters are frozen in every frame," said Van't Hul. On the other hand, the two standard lenses can't get close enough to replicate stereo space for the small size of the characters. "The width should be the width of our puppet's eyes," he said. "So we use one lens and use it to shoot both the left and right eye. The camera goes back and forth in space, shooting left, right, left right. It keeps the camera package very small."
Much has been written about the immense labor behind stop-motion animation. In ParaNorman, for example, any facial expression can involve 24 discrete mouth shapes, for a total of 40,000 faces. And even VFX supervisor Van't Hul is committed to the "shoot it in camera" aesthetic. "At all times, we want to do as much on stage, real and practical as possible," said Van't Hul. "In most instances, if it's done for real, it looks better. Many people look at a storyboard and say, Oh gee, can we do that in CG? And I say, let's try to do it for real. I'm usually the last person in the room to offer up CG fixes."
Even so, the need for visual effects was inevitable, and Laika's VFX team relied on Autodesk Maya and ZBrush to model, Maya to animate and light, and RenderMan for rendering and, for 2D compositing, Nuke, for everything from rig removal to character creation and set extensions.
"The way we use the rigs says a lot about the creative mind-set at Laika," said Compositing Supervisor Steve Emerson. "In stop-motion, when an object needs to be suspended in the air or needs performance that defies gravity, we need to attach rigs, like a pin that attaches a bit of zombie drool or larger, more complicated rigs. Then someone has to go in there and get rid of the rig."
For ParaNorman, animators attached rigs, rods and pins to every pebble, rock and dust particle and animated them one frame at a time over the course of several days, recounted Emerson. "Rigs help balance and move the puppets," Van't Hul said. He pointed out a sequence where a rig moves a child's swing. "With the rig, the swing is doing a subtle amount of movement and the rig is five times bigger than the swing it's moving. This is where we have to paint it out. Computer animation makes it quicker for the animator who can do better animation in a shorter period of time."
Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is spooked by Mr. Penderghast (voiced by John Goodman). Credit: LAIKA, Inc.
VFX also helped resolve a problem inherent with the camera. "The digital SLR cameras aren't designed for capturing sequential animation sequences," said Emerson. "At the end of the day, they'd shut the camera off and fire it up the next day when the sensor had cooled down. So we had a lot of plates with camera flicker in the lower portion of the image, in the blacks." After trying numerous solutions, the team turned to VFX. "People who have done de-flickering are familiar with this," said Emerson. "We took a sample of the black value of the image at Frame 1, and then took those values across subsequent images and figured out the differences and applied it back to the image to get an even curve." That's how it worked for a locked-off shot but, of course, the typical shot had a lot of movement and in-camera lighting effects. "In the end, we came up with an arsenal of techniques," he said. "Sometimes we'd combine image stabilization with the tools. If all our techniques weren't working, in the true spirit of stop-motion animation, I had an artist keyframe it out, frame at a time."
Digital techniques were also used to speed up facial animation. The fastest way to get a range of emotions was to use separate top and bottom halves of the face, which created a seam that needed to be digitally painted out. "This allows the animators to get a better range of motion and cuts down on the number of faces they have to make," Van't Hul said. "Every single character with replacement faces has a seam across the eyes and down by the ears. In this movie, we had four or five characters in a shot, so doing these invisible effects is a heroic effort."
(L to R) Courtney (voiced by Anna Kendrick), Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi), and Mitch (voiced by Casey Affleck) hit the road -- and something else. Credit: LAIKA, Inc.
Although painting out rigs and facial seams are invisible VFX, Van't Hul is loath to use that term. "It's an injustice to our paint and roto artists who have done an amazingly heroic job," he said. "The plates coming off the stage aren't always ideal. Roto and paint has become a very sophisticated art and it should get a huge amount of credit."
Since Norman's particular ability is to be able to see ghosts, the question arose of how to create them. "Sam Fell and Chris Butler didn't want a classic semi-transparent glowing blue ghost," said Van't Hul. "They had us try several different things, designing and developing with the art department. We wanted them to look like fairly normal characters, a bit organic as if they could be done on stage."
Most of the ghosts were created in CG and enhanced with chromatic offsets to the RGB channel. Norman's grandmother, however, who has a more extensive speaking role, was a real puppet with CG enhancements. "We shot her animating the bed sheets and then used that as an animation for the ghost to animate the bed sheets," said Van't Hul. In another scene, Norman's Uncle Prenderghast dies on the floor of his house, and Laika's VFX team created a digital ghost arising from the uncle's real puppet. "As much as possible, we tried to shoot them in the same set with the same lighting," he added.
Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is surprised by a zombie. Credit: LAIKA, Inc.
In yet another ghost-filled scene, Norman walks down the street to school, greeting numerous ghosts, including a grumpy woman with a hair dryer, a hippie and a parachutist in a tree. "We created 40 full CG ghosts but only seven end up in the final film," said Van't Hul.
Crowd scenes also required CG characters, but even these sequences were a mix of real puppets and CG characters. "On any given shot, you'd be lucky if you had six or seven hero shots," said CG/Look Development Supervisor Andrew Nawrot. "Some had 10 or 20 or even upwards of 200 in a single shot. One sequence has an auditorium of people with 11 foreground puppets and the rest CG. One of the longer sequences in the film is the riot in Blithe Hollow. The mob has six or seven foreground puppets and then a lot of VFX background puppets. Another aerial shot is fully CG."
All the CG characters went through an intense design and performance process. "We had generic background crowds, but they were heavily designed," said Nawrot. "We have a puppet vault in Laika used in films past, so our artists can check out a puppet, shoot the heck out of it and get lots of references. There's a lot to work with in look-dev. We're also very conscious of using the same camera, a Canon 5D Mark II, so that when we bring the image to comp and lighting, it sits well within the plate."
Director of Photography Tristan Oliver adjusts the lighting on one of the sets. Credit: LAIKA, Inc.
The most dramatic VFX in ParaNorman also play a big role in the story: the witch's face appears in the sky as part of a swirling, dynamic environmental effect at the climax of the movie, when Norman is doing his best to keep the witch and zombies from destroying Blithe Hollow. Early on, the look-dev team gravitated to the use of tulle, a fabric often used for bridal veils and ballet tutus.
"A lot of thought went into how the sky would look and how the witch would manifest herself in the clouds," said Nawrot. "The idea was that of frantic areas, complemented by smooth, subtle areas where you can almost see a ghostly impression of the witch's face." The art department provided a wide variety of reference elements, from sculpts to color studies. "The sky feels tactile, and the face integrates into that, made up of the same stuff of the clouds," Nawrot continued. "The color of the green look on purplish-magenta was fairly dominant."
When it came time to discuss the animation of the elements that made up the sky, Compositing Supervisor Emerson said that computer simulations alone created a "sense of perfection you don't see in stop-motion animation." He further explained, "So we got a full-time 2D animator and every element that was dropped into a comp was hand-animated and then went through a series of approvals. We went to a library of elements and put them into a shape that felt intriguing and interesting, then used organic textures to bring it to life. We combined that with the hand animation and also added god rays -- because you've got to have god rays! -- and then there was a bit of final color grading and integration into the shot. There weren't a lot of short cuts in the workflow."
According to Van't Hul, the combination of elements that went into making the witch face in the sky deliberately paid homage to the artist Basil Gogos, who did cover memorable art for the magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland. "It was those classic universal monsters with extreme color palettes," he said.
In addition to tulle, the environmental effects include other real effects. In one scene with "angry Aggie," the young witch, a Tesla coil lighting effect comes off her hair and dress. "There was a conscious design decision to make those lightning bolts look like dropping a bit of liquid on a paper and blowing it with a straw," he said. "Our art department gave us director-approved ink blots."
Another crucial scene that combines real and CG elements is when the zombies break out of their graves. "In the first meeting, people said, oh, that's CG debris," said Van't Hul. "I said, let's try to do it for real. In most instances, if it's done for real, it looks better." That's where the rigs holding up dirt clods and dust particles came in.
Producer and Head Animator Travis Knight at work with Norman on the graveyard set. Credit: LAIKA, Inc.
Despite the relatively extensive use of digital visual effects in ParaNorman, for Van't Hul -- and, one assumes, everyone at Laika -- CG will always play a supporting role. Stop motion, in all its minutely laborious detail, is the star. "The main philosophy is that we don't want to impose on the art form but support and enhance it and make it economical so we can do it better and make more films," he said. "Cheaper isn't a compromise in quality but to do it more efficiently. CG is a tool that helps to enhance the quality of the art form by cutting out some of the difficulties."
The result of judiciously using visual effects, says Van't Hul, is to free the artists to animate. "The bar was raised so much higher with the quality of performance," he said. "I've been involved with stop motion for years, from The Nightmare Before Xmas and James and the Giant Peach. I continue to be impressed with the caliber of animators we have, and the amazing amount of acting and subtlety they can put into characters. It's a constant reminder of why we're here trying to preserve this as an art form."
Above left: Costume Designer Deborah Cook inspects Norman's outfit for ParaNorman, the new 3D stop-motion comedy thriller. Says VFX Supe, Brian Van't Hul, "We're based on creating a handcrafted look." Above Right: Animation Supervisor Brad Schiff and Creative Supervisor of Puppet Fabrication Georgina Hayns study the Neil puppet. Click individual images for larger view. Credit: LAIKA, Inc.
In this digital age, stop-motion animation might seem like an anachronism. But the magical realism and the sense of wonder it instills makes it as relevant as it ever was. The fact that digital effects can smooth the path for the painstaking animation work makes it the perfect marriage of techniques. ParaNorman is the charming result, a lovely film in its own right and an addition to the canon of modern stop-motion animation.
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