Laika CEO & ParaNorman Producer Travis Knight Talks the Rebirth of Modern Stop-Motion Animation and More
In 2009 Laika established itself as one of the premier up-and-coming animation studios by releasing the sublimely dark fairy tale Coraline, based on the classic Neil Gaiman story of the same name. This weekend Laika is set to unveil its latest stop-motion animated project, ParaNorman.
The 3D ParaNorman (review here) follows an 11-year-old boy named Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), who can see ghosts and must use that power to save his small town from a 300-year-old curse that unleashes a tribe of zombies on the unsuspecting townsfolk.
During a recent press day for the film, Dread Central had the opportunity to speak with Laika CEO and ParaNorman producer/animator Travis Knight (pictured right) about developing the project with directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell, the look and feel of the project, and why stop-motion animation will always endure even with all of the technological advances in filmmaking throughout the years.
Check out the highlights of our roundtable interview with Knight below, and look for more on ParaNorman later this week!
Question: How was your experience working on ParaNorman?
Travis Knight: It’s been a long ride. We started developing the film when we were partway through Coraline. Chris Butler approached me with this idea he had. The simplest version of that idea was that he wanted to do a zombie film for kids. I was instantly intrigued. I was the kind of kid that grew up on a steady pop culture diet of George Romero zombie films and Ray Harryhausen creature features, and the idea that we could bring these creatures to life in this medium I thought was really exciting.
But that’s not enough to sustain a movie so we started to dig into what that means. And it really was a very special story that I thought needed to be told, about this kid who was kind of a misfit, an outcast on the fringes of his society because of who he was. Who had something extraordinary that he could contribute that would bring his community together.
I thought Norman’s story had an analogous connection to all of us - the people who do this, the artists that are bringing this story to life - that in a lot of ways his story was our story. All of us, pretty much, were weird kids growing up. We were kids who were picked on, or were strange, or were on the fringes of our groups. But all of us had really unusual or really special gifts that, when we could contribute them to the world, it was actually something that enriched the lives of those around us.
I thought it was a really beautiful story that we could tell in a very fun way.
Question: You founded Laika, which does primarily stop-motion animation. With the industry mainly focusing on CGI, how did you come to the decision to do stop-motion?
Travis Knight: We wanted to move the art of animation forward by looking backward, by looking to stop-motion and to the roots of where so much of this stuff began. It’s basically one of the first visual effects developed for cinema, it’s basically been around since the dawn of film. Taking this creaking, 100-year-old art form into the new era, that’s something I wanted to do. We could do that by incorporating technology and CG and whatever tool made the most sense to reinvigorate this old art form.
In the late 80s and early 90s, with the ascending of CG, a lot of people thought that was it for stop-motion, that it was dead. Steven Spielberg was going to do Jurassic Park with stop-motion dinosaurs, but when he saw tests from ILM, where they did the digital dinosaurs, CG dinosaurs, that’s when he switched over. We all thought that was pretty much the end.
Phil Tippett is the guy Spielberg hired to do that job, the stop-motion for Jurassic Park. There’s a famous exchange that they had where Spielberg said, “You’ve just been fired” and Tippet said, “No, I’ve just become extinct.” And that actually made it into the movie. But it also is kind of the feeling that we all felt - that the whole world was going to this new digital platform, that stop-motion was being left behind.
But there is something kind of magical about it. There is something beautiful about it. It has a distinct magic, warmth and a charm and a beauty that’s unlike anything else. It’s not to discount other forms of filmmaking. It’s just to say that in a digital world, the idea of making something with your hands it something very special. To see on the screen the artist’s hands at work, it’s a beautiful thing. You can see that, you can feel that. It’s not a visual retranslation of a binary code or a computer. It’s an actual artist who’s brought this thing to life; I think there’s something very beautiful about that. And still, it’s a very effective way to tell a story.
Question: As an animator and head of an animation company, what are the technical changes between Coraline and ParaNorman? What has set those two films apart?
Travis Knight: At the core of what stop-motion is, it hasn’t changed in 100 years. You still have an animator with a puppet, an armature inside it, on a set with lights and a camera and you’re taking a frame at a time. That stuff doesn’t change. What changes is the stuff on the fringes of it. I thought, at the time, Coraline really did represent a seismic shift for what we did within the medium. It had been kind of creaky and hadn’t evolved too much so we decided to bring technology into the mix, to embrace the author of our demise effectively. That just opened up a whole new world for us. We could actually take this tool and do really interesting things with it in this old art form.
We used this digital 3D printing technology on Coraline, but we had never done it before and we were just figuring out how to do it. We build a lot on that for ParaNorman; we took it beyond where we could have on Coraline. We integrated color 3D printing, which infuses the faces that we make in the printer with color and texture. Those used to be painted by hand so there was only so far you could take the designs. Now we can pretty much do anything.
And because of the materials we’re using, the skin on the puppets really does absorb the light in a more naturalistic way. There’s a scene where Norman is standing in front of the setting sun and you can actually see that his ears glow. And that’s because the materials we’re using feel and look much more like skin. And that too, them coming up with whatever materials make the most sense. His hair is made out of goat hair because that had the exact qualities that we were looking for. The trees are made out of cardboard, shredded paper and chicken wire. You find whatever materials make the most sense, that’s kind of the old school idea. But bringing technology into it, we use whatever tool makes the most sense. And if something we want to do doesn’t exist, we have to invent it, which we’ve done for each film.
And by continuing build on that and to grow and continuing to expand what we can do, we just become that much more ambitious. Coraline was a fairly small film in terms of its scope; ParaNorman is much, much bigger. We tackle things which you’re just not supposed to be able to do in stop-motion. But we didn’t want that to get in the way of us telling the most effective story.
So by continuing to do that, we’re just getting better at it. It just means that our ambition for what we want to do just continues to grow.
Question: A lot of times with animation studios, each project kind of looks similar to the one before it. I feel like Coraline and ParaNorman are both very stand-alone projects, independent of each other. There’s not a whole lot that feels very similar about them in terms of the visuals. Can you talk a little bit about the aesthetics of this movie? Was it conscientious that you didn’t want to bring the world of Coraline and just throw these characters into that, too?
Travis Knight: Absolutely. We don’t want a house style. We don’t want to repeat ourselves visually or thematically. Coraline very much looks like a Henry Selick film. He’s the artist behind it; he’s the driving creative force behind it. But ParaNorman is a different kind of a film. Coraline was a dark, modern fairy tale; and ParaNorman is kind of a quirky, coming of age adventure. It demanded its own aesthetic, its own look.
We really wanted to try to find something unique, a really interesting and unique way to bring this story to life. So we found a character designer straight out of school, who hadn’t really done anything. But she had this really weird, idiosyncratic way of looking at the world. That was kind of the root of where everything came from. She had this strange kind of nervous, line quality to her illustrations. And everything was kind of askew but really well observed. That ended up informing our environmental design, and it just kind of builds on that. You find the one thing for the story, and the one thing in this case came from out character design.
Question: Can you talk a little bit about the tone? You mentioned the word "quirky," and that’s a word I’d probably use, too. But it’s a little bit daring, a little bit subversive; more so than you’d see in a bigger studio’s film where it doesn’t play it as safe. Chris (Butler) used The Goonies a lot as a reference point, and that’s a movie that I don’t think we could make now. Can you talk a little bit about maintaining that tonal quality?
Travis Knight: We’re big fans of, and heavily influenced by, the classic Disney fairy tales from the 40's and 50's, things like Snow White and Pinocchio. Those fairy tales that really did have a terrific and perfect balance of darkness and light, of intensity and warmth. But those are not the films that Disney makes anymore, nor are they the films that any family filmmaker makes, for the most part.
So yes, he’s (Chris Butler) right and you’re right. Those movies that we were inspired by in the 80s that we all grew up loving, things like Goonies and Ghostbusters and Gremlins and those great Amblin movies, I really think you’d be hard pressed to find a way to make those these days. You just don’t do it. And it’s a shame because I think those are the most powerful kinds of films, those things that have that balance. To have that sort of dynamic range in a film I think is the most power kind of emotional experience you can go through in a cinema. You can’t have a really light moment without a dark moment to offset it. That gives those light moments kind of a euphoria that you’re not going to get otherwise.
We wanted to make sure that we didn’t flinch from those things. To really get to the emotional core of it, the story demanded we go to an intense place or a dark place, even though it was a little scary for us. It’s like, “Is this really something we should be doing? It’s a little out there.” But it felt right for the story; it felt like something that we should do. That would be the most effective way to communicate what we were trying to do. We didn’t shy away from it, we embraced it. That’s what this story is, that’s the story we want to tell, so that’s what we did.
But yeah, I think it’s not without risk, with full acknowledgement that these films are not generally made anymore. But these are the films that we love to make, and these are the films that we think will have the greatest emotional resonance with the audience.
Question: Can you talk a little more about the materials you used? Can you give us an example for Norman, what kind of materials did you use?
Travis Knight: Underneath his body he has a steel armature, like a little metal skeleton, which allows you to position his body and it’ll hold in place so you can pose him. These puppets take a lot of abuse over time. You put them in all kinds of whacky positions. So those things need to be really strong but flexible and refined enough so you can get subtlety out of them.
He’s covered in a silicone skin. He’s got real handmade and hand-sewn clothing, designed by a costume designer that makes these tiny little clothes, which is tricky because you have to get the kind of fabrics that hold up on the big screen. He wears denim jeans, but you couldn’t use denim jeans because the thread would give the scale away, the thread would be huge on his little body.
So you have to go and find really fine materials that you screen and paint to kind of look like denim. His hair is goat hair and it’s got little bits of pros-aide. And other characters, like Courtney, have kind of like Barbie hair, synthetic hair. But it also has little bits of raffia and paper within it to give it kind of a graphic quality. You really just find whatever material makes the most sense to get the design thing that you’re going for. It’s finding things that exist in the world and inventing your own things.
Question: You had to do the graveyard scene where they’re (the zombies) coming out, correct?
Travis Knight: Yeah.
Question: You had to animate all those little pieces of dirt and hands and all that other stuff; you said your hands ended up being pin cushions. How did you keep track of all of that? Besides computer software, was there a track sheet?
Travis Knight: No, you keep all that stuff in your head. I think people can understand that it’s a physically demanding thing, standing on concrete for hours on end, contorting your body in all kinds of weird positions and cutting your fingers and everything else. People understand that’s a physically difficult thing to do. But probably more than that it’s really mentally taxing and demanding. Because you have to focus on tiny bits of detail for hours and hours on end, it’s intense focus. When you have dozens and dozens of little tiny pieces of dirt that have to fly through the air in a choreographed way, at any given time you could bump it with your pinkie and they all fall over and you have to start again.
You keep track of it with the software programs that we have, where you look frame by frame where everything is going. But you have to keep it all in your head so typically what you do is come up with a routine. ”Okay, I move this first. I work my way around kind of counter-clockwise.” You kind of keep a little mathematical diagram in your head and just continue to do that over and over again until you get the performance. But it is painful, it is horrible. But if you do it right it’s also pretty beautiful.
Our films are really of a combination of all different forms of animation. There’s 2D animation in them, there’s CG animation and stop-motion. So, while our predilection is that they’re heavy on stop-motion, I think the combination of things can make for interesting films in any of those variations. So there could be a point where it goes the other way, where it’s more of a CG film with less of a stop-motion influence, or even a 2D film. With all those three things in play, that’s the way that we make our films. It’s just a matter of what is the proportion of those different ingredients.
Question: What’s your next project?
Travis Knight: More to come! We’ll probably announce that before the end of the year.
ParaNorman is directed by Sam Fell (The Tale of Despereaux, Flushed Away) and Chris Butler (Coraline, The Corpse Bride) from Butler's original screenplay.
A small town comes under siege by zombies. Who can it call? Only misunderstood local boy Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is able to speak with the dead. In addition to the zombies, he'll have to take on ghosts, witches, and worst of all, moronic grown-ups to save his town from a centuries-old curse. But this young ghoul whisperer may find his paranormal activities pushed to their otherworldly limits.
The voice cast includes Academy Award nominee Casey Affleck (The Killer Inside Me), Tempestt Bledsoe ("The Cosby Show"), Jeff Garlin (Toy Story 3), John Goodman (Red State, Matinee, Monsters, Inc.), Bernard Hill (Titanic), Academy Award nominee Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), Leslie Mann (Rio), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Fright Night 3D, How to Train Your Dragon), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In), Tony and Emmy Award winner Elaine Stritch ("30 Rock"), Tucker Albrizzi (Good Luck Charlie), Alex Borstein ("Family Guy"), and Jodelle Ferland (Case 39, Silent Hill, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse).
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