Laika Studios' follow-up stop-motion animated feature ParaNorman features the vocal talents of young actors Kodi Smit-McPhee ( Let Me In, The Road) and Anna Kendrick (Up In The Air, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World), and comes from the minds of writer/director Chris Butler and co-director Sam Fell. While promoting their recent project, the four sat down to share exactly why stop-motion is so respected, the joys of voice acting, and creating such a complex, living world in ParaNorman.
Emmanuel Itier: ParaNorman has been in the works for several years, and has set itself apart from other films with its advances in stop-motion animation. Besides the obvious technique, what do you think set stop-motion apart from hand-drawn or CG animation?
Kodi Smit-McPhee: I think they are both… You have to put a lot of heart and soul into it. Because it takes so long to do. But with stop-motion, it – I feel like it takes you into another world. Because it is so clear, and it is real. It feels real. It is more like a sculpture I feel like. It is an art form. It is very – it’s a beautiful thing.
EI: Do you bring the same skill set to voice acting as live action?
KSM: Yeah, it is a different thing. I feel like animation and acting, they are two different worlds. I love animation so much. I would love to do more, but. Because you have to kind of get all those emotions out that you show with all this through your voice. It is kind of a challenge but I love that about it. Because it is awesome.
EI: Your performance in the horror-drama Let Me In was met with great acclaim. Now it seems you’re in another monster movie of sorts. Do you prefer that genre?
KSM: I do love the kind of horror and creepy genre. When I audition for stuff, I do a handful of comedy and all different type of things. But I guess I am just very good at this horror, kind of weird, deep stories. That's not a problem with me, because I love that kind of stuff...
EI: What else attracted you to the film, besides the stop-motion aspect?
KSM: I love that it was so different from everything else that I have done. Because Let Me In and The Road, they didn't really have any comedy in it. It was just very deep. This was obviously animation, and it had a comedy in it. But it was very scary, very sad. It was very related, I think. It was definitely a good thing to kind of clear everything and just start fresh.
EI: There are of course always challenges in making a movie, especially when you switch to a different medium. Was there a specific challenge making ParaNorman?
KSM: My challenge on this one was to keep the Norman voice normal. Because it was dropping through the whole thing. You cannot really change that. There is nothing you can do. We just tried to get it all out. By the last session my voice had completely changed.
I feel like when he was climbing the town hall and yelling at the witch, it was a hot scene. Because it was just trying to get so much emotion out. Put it into this lifeless object and make it alive. It was – it was a hard thing to do.
Emmanuel Itier: This is your first time in an animated movie. Obviously the techniques are different, but what did you notice specifically about your approach to an animated film versus live action?
Anna Kendrick: I actually found the process of recording just a voice surprisingly liberating. I thought it would be a hindrance to not have my face and my body to put things across. But actually I had much less problem really going for things and embarrassing myself. I found that to be really quite freeing – that it really only helped the finished product to just kind of let go and know that you looked really foolish. But then it did not matter because no one was going to see it.
EI: There are so many sides to ParaNorman that set it apart from other animated movies. What was the main attraction for you to get involved with this project?
AK: To be perfectly honest, I really did want to do an animated film. I have always wanted to. I was ready to just kind of pounce on the opportunity when it came up. Then, it turned out to be this really kind of special project that it is stop-motion.
Also, just that it is funny, and scary. It has all this heart. I don't even really think of it as a horror movie. I think of it as kind of an adventure movie. Because I love when this group of kids kind of has to band together and save the proverbial day. Those were my favorite kind of movies when I was a kid; Those, 'kids on an adventure movies'...
EI: That humor and heart all ties in together with Norman’s story. Were there any themes that stood out in particular to you?
AK: Yeah, I mean, I was actually surprised when I saw the finished film. How much of it is really about family. The way that it all kind of wraps up, and the way that the family has to kind of rally around the black sheep of the family I think is really lovely. That was certainly in the script. But when I saw the finished film, that theme really resonates, I think.
EI: Fans had been counting down the days until ParaNorman’s release. What do you think it is about this particular style of animation that resonates so much with its audience?
AK: I feel like when you look at stop-motion you can just feel the love that these animators have for the characters. They kind of lived with them for so long. I know that is true of traditional animation as well. But, it is…
...They are a very strange, very lovable and geeky group of people who are so passionate about this particular art form. I feel like it really comes across how much love they put into these inanimate objects. How they think of them as characters with the life of their own and not just objects.
Sam Fell & Chris Butler
Emmanuel Itier: Tell me a bit about this project - where did the idea stem from? Why did you two choose stop-motion over "regular" animation to tell this story?
Chris Butler: I started writing it many years ago because I thought it would be a very cool idea to do a stop zombie movie for kids. When I first started playing around with the idea, I liked the idea of taking some of the movies and T.V. shows that I grew up watching and kind of throwing them together to do kind of like a modern take on an episode of Scooby Doo.
So it was the John Carpenter meets John Hughes idea. But at its center it was always about this – the story about this kid who doesn't quite fit in. But makes him weird is actually what saves everything.
Sam Fell: And stop-motion is just so right for this, you know, like zombies? You’ve almost got to animate that in stop-motion. We are big fans of Ray Harryhausen’s stuff and those monsters. It was just something about that sort of herky-jerky kind of movement of a zombie, that…
CB: Yeah. Once you’ve seen the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts, it’s like… that’s how the undead should move.
EI: And the way they move takes so much work! What was one of the challenges you faced, technically or otherwise, while making ParaNorman?
SF: One thing is the overall scope and scale of it. It felt like… the script already felt like a big screen movie. And so yeah, we just wanted a bigger world. We wanted to fill it with people.
We wanted crowds and we wanted big special effects and stuff in the sky. Like on all fronts, just making that feel like a big screen movie was tricky. Because it is – traditionally, it’s a smaller medium, this. It’s, it’s… you don’t get anything for free. It’s all built for real. Yeah, that was one of them.
CB: The acting style, I think, as well. We really tried to go for a very naturalistic acting, which is uncommon in stop-motion. Because it’s – because of the nature of the medium. Because of the puppets. But because of the technical innovations that we had, we could get far more nuanced performances.
EI: What was the heart of the story for you? What is ParaNorman really about?
SF: It’s a lot about tolerance and judgment. I guess that, if you go deep down. I mean, on the surface, it should be a rollercoaster ride and just a lot of fun. It speaks to how we judge each other by the way we… By its stereotypes.
CB: Yeah, don’t judge a book by its cover... even if they’re zombies.
Focus Features' 'ParaNorman' is currently playing in theaters nationwide.