Chris Butler and Sam Fell interview: on writing and directing ParaNorman

With ParaNorman out this Friday, we caught up with its makers to chat about how they made it...

Could it be that we’re in the middle of a new golden age of animation? With Dreamworks’ computer-generated output improving with each subsequent release, Pixar exploring a very different visual style with Brave, LucasFilm entering the CG movie realm with the sublime Rango, and Disney’s potentially great Paperman and Wreck-It Ralph on the horizon, it’s a great time for animation of every kind.

This month sees the release of ParaNorman, the latest stop-motion animated film from Laika, who brought us the captivating Coraline back in 2009. Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell (with a screenplay written by the former), ParaNorman’s a zombie comedy flick, school drama, and loving homage to classic horror movies of the 70s and 80s. 

And while the process of making it involved traditional techniques, which at one point saw around 300 people building sets and making clothes, ParaNorman also used new technology to bring its characters to life. 3D printers were used to print the thousands of different faces required to animate its characters’ range of expressions, which speeded the process of animation, while also allowing the filmmakers to add greater nuance to each painstakingly wrought performance.

Ahead of ParaNorman’s release, we caught up with Butler and Fell to talk about how the movie was conceived and created.

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How did the idea for ParaNorman come together?

Chris Butler: Many years ago, about 16 years ago is the current estimate, I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to do a stop-motion zombie movie for kids. That was the initial seed, it was as simple as that. What’s great about zombie movies is that they always have some sort of social commentary – they always have something else to say; they use zombies as a metaphor.

And I thought, how cool would it be to do that for a kid’s movie. So we’re playing out a situation in a high school – or a middle school in this case – but then I’m using zombies along with that. It’s like juxtaposing the real horror of what it is to be 11 years old with the horror of zombies.

So that was the original idea. And then it became, very rapidly, this soup of ideas from the 80s; that’s where the John Carpenter meets John Hughes idea came from. But it was very much based on The Goonies, Ghostbusters, Scooby Doo. And over the years there was more and more of that world that I wanted to go back to, and wanted to play in. 

Sam Fell: You wrote the script during Coraline, and I came along while it was in development. I came along just to get involved in the studio, actually, but I read Chris’ script and loved it. We started talking, and we became a team at that point, in about 2009.

You talked about the themes in the story. They’re quite dark, aren’t they, for a family film? You’ve got death, horror, bullying [Laughs]. Did you think when you were writing it, “Right, I’m going to tackle these themes head-on”?

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CB: In a way, yeah, but I think the key is to balance it. So if you are going to tackle weighty themes – which I think there’s nothing wrong with, and I think more movies probably should – but if you’re going to do it, you have to do it responsibly. You have to find the right tone, and in this case, it was always supposed to be a funny adventure as well as a serious commentary on bullying. So it’s finding that balance, so every time you have an intense moment you puncture it with a laugh or something light.

SF: Movies are entertainment as well, but we wanted it to work on both levels, so you can go and have a great time. That fun means you have some scares as well, so it’s like funny jokes and enjoyable scares.

CB: It’s a rollercoaster.  

SF: Yeah. And kind of emotional, as well. It’s got a lot of heart, which helps when you’re dealing with serious issues, that there’s an emotional core to it.

CB: The movies I remember from my childhood had that emotional core. They had that heart that really makes it stick with you. It wasn’t just some flight of whimsy; it has something to say that you remember. We liked that time of filmmaking, and wanted to go back to it.

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Do you think that animation’s exploring weightier themes, these days, in a way that a lot of mainstream live-action films aren’t?

CB: Yeah. I think it helped with our zombies. Having a live-action zombie movie for kids may have been a bit too dark, but we can play with their designs, and play with the balance of comedy and horror a little more.

So how did you divide up the job of directing the film?

SF: We didn’t really divide it – we worked as a team. Even early on, we worked really hard on getting a unified look for the movie – what’s the camerawork like, what’s the design like, what are the colours like, what’s the editing style for each scene – because we didn’t want it to be a schizophrenic film, with two directors pulling in two different directions. We worked very closely together, in the first year and a half, probably. [To Chris] Me and you, in that last year, we spent so much time together.

CB: We spent a lot of time together. Many, many hours a day, many days a week. You end up knowing what the other would think in any given situation. It’s very strange.

One thing I was interested to read about was your use of 3D printers. How did that come in, and how did that help you?

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CB: It started, actually, with Coraline. It was such an innovation on Coraline, to enable stop-motion animation to have much more nuanced and varied facial animation by designing them on the computer and printing them out.

On Coraline, it was a black-and-white printer, so every single face – and there were many thousands – had to be hand-painted. Now, the innovation in ParaNorman was colour printers, so we could paint really elaborate paint jobs on the faces, and print them out in colour. That just opened up a whole new world for us. And we were also aiming for a performance style that was much more nuanced and naturalistic, so being able to use the colour printer gave us the opportunity to use much more subtle close-ups, and much more subtle acting.

How do you retain a handmade feel? Is there the possibility of losing that with the use of those printers?

SF: The prints aren’t perfect. The machine was a prototype, designed to print one offs.  So the faces aren’t absolutely perfect – they still jitter a little bit. And the clothes are all hand-made, as are the sets, so most of what you see is handmade still. I don’t think you’ll ever lose that feel.

Chris Butler and Sam Fell, thank you very much.

ParaNorman’s out in the UK on the 14th September. You can read our review here.

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