My oldest daughter and I were invited to a tour of LAIKA Studios about six weeks ago. LAIKA is the animation studio that created Coraline. LAIKA’s next movie is ParaNorman (Focus Features), which opens in theaters this summer (August 17th). My daughter and I got a behind-the-scenes tour for the production of ParaNorman [Facebook | Twitter]. All production on ParaNorman took place in a huge, 151,140-square foot building in Hillsboro, Oregon. A large space was needed because ParaNorman had a crew of over 320 designers, artists, animators and technicians. At any given time during the shoot, there were 52 separate shooting units.
The upcoming ParaNorman movie is about a small town that comes under siege by zombies. The main character of the story is Norman Babcock, who is a ghoul whisperer that can talk to the dead. Norman has to take on ghosts, zombies, witches and even grown-ups to save the town from a centuries-old curse. The 3D animated film features the voices of Casey Affleck, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, Jodelle Ferland, John Goodman, Bernard Hill, Anna Kendrick, Leslie Mann, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Elaine Stritch. It was directed by Sam Fell (The Tale of Despereaux, Flushed Away) and Chris Butler (also writer).
Until my daughter and I went on the tour, we didn’t realize how much work is involved in producing a stop-motion film. It’s not just manually moving objects and taking a series of photographs. A lot of things has to happen before LAIKA could even begin shooting ParaNorman. First, there’s the story that has to be written. In this case, Chris Butler wrote the original story for ParaNorman. The next phase is puppet fabrication. I was surprised to learn this, but puppet fabrication for ParaNorman took about two years. This is because puppet fabrication isn’t just about making models for the characters in the film. The studio also has to design the gearwork so they can manually manipulate the puppets. In addition, they have to create hundreds of extra fingers and limbs because those parts are easily broken during animation. BTW, 120 different costumes were also designed and created for ParaNorman.
In puppet fabrication, they have to create multiple facial expressions for the puppets. At LAIKA studio, this is done by creating the character’s face with a 3D color printer. For the main characters, the face is split into two parts — top half for the eye brows, and bottom half for the mouth and nose. By designing the face in two parts, animators can create all sorts of facial expressions by using different combinations of the face sets. The eyes are also replaceable and repositionable for even more expressions. In fact, there are so many combinations that animators have to use cheat sheets to keep track of the facial expressions. The main character, Norman has about 8,000 sets of faces. According to the press material, there are about 1.5 million possible facial expressions for Norman. BTW, ParaNorman is the first stop-motion movie to use a 3D color printer to create replacement faces for the puppets. Over 31,000 individual facial parts were printed for the film.
While the puppets are being created, props and sets are built by a different team. But before props and sets are built, an artist is brought in to render the overall style of the film. This is needed to ensure the film has a consistent look and feel throughout the movie. Otherwise, the look of the props could change if another person is brought in to build them.
LAIKA Studio also has a team of people who work on the rigging of the film’s practical effects, which are essentially special effects for stop motion animation. Practical effects are produced on-set, without computer-generated imagery. Practical effects include things like the the ground shaking, rain, and moving storm clouds. BTW, the harness used to create some effects have to be manually removed during post production.
During the tour, my daughter and I also saw a few of the ParaNorman sets. It was interesting to see that parts of the set were made from corrugated cardboard, tree branches, and even sheets of paper. BTW, I noticed the camera they used was an off-the-shelf Canon camera. The camera was mounted on a motorized arm to shift the camera a little bit to create the 3D effects. That means you don’t really need fancy equipment to create a stop-motion movie. In fact, my daughter and I will try to make s short stop-motion clip this summer.
My daughter and I had a great time during the LAIKA tour. We even saw a small portion of ParaNorman. The movie looks really good and we can’t wait until ParaNorman comes out this summer.