From England to New England to Oregon
It took more than a decade –– from director/screenwriter Chris Butler conjuring up the story in Britain to him finding a home for it at the Oregon-based LAIKA Studios –– for PARANORMAN to move notion to motion picture.
“To do stop-motion animation – or, as we call it in Britain, stop-frame animation – you have to love it…for years on end,” says director Sam Fell, who has extensive experience, and was self-taught, in the art. “On ParaNorman, we wanted to try a new, fresh approach to the animation – with less of a theatrical feel and more of a movie one. ParaNorman has so much going on that you ‘shouldn’t’ do in stop-motion; big crowd scenes with extras, chases, overlapping dialogue, close-ups and reaction shots – with two-thirds of this taking place in outdoor settings.”
ParaNorman director Chris Butler reflects, “There were all these bars that we set for ourselves. You do feel the ambition of the project every day, but you get to lose yourself in the fantastical. When you’re working on a stop-motion movie, you’re working on something special that you hope will be seen for decades to come.
“I have always worked in animation. Norman is the kind of kid who likes to write stories, and I was too – when I was 8 years old, I knew I wanted to tell stories in animation, with the characters and the visuals. I pursued that, and it happened for me.”
Long before Butler began work at LAIKA and was storyboard supervisor on the company’s Coraline, he had an idea for an original animated movie that he began to script. He notes, “There is a tradition of storyboard artists and supervisors becoming directors of animated movies; you make a movie first with the drawings, and then you make it again for real. I wanted to see my own story visualized, and in stop-motion.
“Writing ParaNorman was a labor of love. I wanted to do a zombie movie for kids – taking a Scooby-Doo mystery to its logical conclusion, rather than having it be debunked – and there was also a ‘what if’ idea that had to do with my relationship with my grandma. So I combined them into a script that would be irreverent and full of adventure, and also be about identity. One of the themes of our movie is, ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover.’”
He elaborates, “It took 10 years for me to complete the script. I would dip in and out of it; I’d work all day on someone else’s movie and then come home and relax by writing the script. So ParaNorman – which at first had no real title, just Zombie Movie Something – was a long time coming.”
Producer Arianne Sutner came aboard early on, before the script was even finished. She reflects, “Stories about an outsider kid and stories about monsters have had a universal and timeless appeal, but this one was going to be like no other we had seen. What impressed me about Chris’ writing was how he conceived the movie as being for and about kids, without talking down to them, and how it also spoke to parents like myself; Chris shows how Norman faces his fears and makes peace with the special gift that he has.
“Chris had worked hard to combine great characters, heart, spectacular action/adventure sequences – and comedy, meaning not just gags for their own sake but genuine humor.”
The latter was always a key component because Butler had realized years earlier that “it’s not the scares that will carry you through this story; it’s the character-based humor.”
Sutner, whose stop-motion experience had included collaborating with Coraline director Henry Selick for over a decade, worked with Butler to further develop the script. She notes, “Stop-motion is such a beautiful way to make movies, and one that evolves as a truly collaborative effort beginning even in the script development phase. Because of the medium, and Chris’ own story department experience, we focused a lot on visual exploration in addition to the pacing and the structure.”
At LAIKA, producer Travis Knight read the unfinished script. He acknowledges “seeing a lot of myself and my kids in Norman,” and therefore being curious to see how the story would turn out. So, midway through production of Coraline ParaNorman would be added to LAIKA’s development roster – and soon move to the forefront.
Sutner muses, “In the world of animation, nothing can happen very quickly – but getting this movie on track happened kind of quickly!”
Butler remembers, “The final pages, including the climax, had been all mapped out – coming from [the] story [department at LAIKA] myself, I knew how important that was – but were written during working on Coraline. Once that movie was finished, we went immediately into planning ParaNorman; in fact, I haven’t had a proper vacation since Coraline…!”