With PARANORMAN being only the second feature film under LAIKA's belt (CORALINE the first), the studio is quickly carving a distinct place for itself in the world of animation. These are darker stories being told with more mature emotions that aren't anywhere in line with the typical family fare Hollywood is generating today. For better or worse, LAIKA is taking risks in the films it is making, and so far they remind me of some of the more frightening flicks that I grew up, flicks that don't exist anymore for today's sheltered kids. And, yes, parents... some of your children can handle these types of movies, and they won't have nightmares either. At some point, they're going to need to learn how to be scared... and these are the types of films to do it.
As I saw PARANORMAN being developed, I was quite curious as a zombie fan. Outside of LAIKA, I couldn't see anyone else doing them justice - not Pixar, not Aardman, not DreamWorks, etc. - and without sanitizing horror for the sake of animation, they were the only studio who I thought would have the balls enough to depict zombies as we've come to know them. The paranormal, zombies, the undead... this was an animated film I had to see... because when else might we get something like it again.
Chris Butler and Sam Fell have a pretty extensive background in animation, so their experience was never in question as they were brought onto direct PARANORMAN. Chris, while set to make both his writing and directing debut, had worked for Disney in the past, acting as a character designer on THE TIGGER MOVIE in addition to a storyboard artist on TARZAN II. He would later act in that same capacity for CORPSE BRIDE and then moved onto storyboard supervisor for LAIKA's first feature CORALINE. Sam, on the other hand, had served as director before, getting behind the camera for Aardman's FLUSHED AWAY and THE TALES OF DESPEREAUX for Universal. Combine their years of work together, and you've got one formidable team to bring PARANORMAN to life.
A few weeks back, I had the chance to talk to Chris and Sam together about all things PARANORMAN from the zombie design to the voice casting to the overall feel of working at LAIKA... not to mention, more zombies. They were great to talk to in tandem, and you'll be able to tell rather quickly how much they joke around with each other and how well they play off one another... so enjoy.
Sam Fell - I didn’t know you [Ain’t It Cool] were based down here...
The Infamous Billy The Kidd - I am. There’s...We’re kind of all over the place.
Sam Fell - That’s cool. You’re all over. Yeah, yeah.
The Kidd - You guys talked to somebody at Comic-Con probably.
Chris Butler - Yeah, probably.
Sam Fell - Yeah, and someone came to the studio once, I can’t remember who that was...
Chris Butler - I can’t remember the name either.
Sam Fell - You’ve got nicknames, haven’t you?
The Kidd - Yes.
Chris Butler – Comic-Con was... There were so many people kind of thrown at us, and... Ahhh. At one point we were being dragged down the carpet.
Sam Fell - Just talking and, like... Somebody’s going “Sound bites! Sound bites! Talk in sound bites!”
Chris Butler - It’s weird. You find yourself talking like a West Wing character because you’re just like, [very fast] “Yeah, this story’s about Norman, he’s walking down the street and when he sees the ghost...” And he’s like, “Next one.”
The Kidd - Yeah, because it’s literally... you’re literally trying to get as many people in as possible.
Sam Fell – Yeah.
Chris Butler - Yeah.
The Kidd - And I’m sure it gets boring after a while, because you’re like... You feel like you’re giving the same...
Sam Fell - Yeah. You kinda wonder whether you should just do one DVD and dish it out. Say, “Well here it is.”
Chris Butler - I dunno, sometimes I feel like I’m just gonna change the stories that we tell. Like I’m afraid I’ll just make shit up.
Sam Fell - We have got another week and a half to go, so yeah.
The Kidd - I know you’re going to Fantasia [International Film Festival], because... I’m actually going. When the schedule first came out I was a little bit disappointed that I was going to miss it by a couple days because you’re closing the festival.
Chris Butler - Yeah, yeah.
The Kidd - And I was like, “Ah! Agh! I really wanted to see that!” So I’m glad I got a chance to see it.
Sam Fell - When did you see it?
Chris Butler - You’re seeing it here, yeah?
The Kidd - I saw it last night but I know I’m in Fantasia like right towards the middle.
Chris Butler - So we might see you there?
The Kidd - Well, if you guys are there, we’ll meet up.
Sam Fell - Yeah, sure, man.
The Kidd - So right from the get go, PARANORMAN heads into familiar territory, at least as far as old school horror is concerned, as far as the zombie sequence. Even the titles are very carefully designed to kinda give that old school horror feel. Were there any particular films or directors that kind of influenced the vision you had for PARANORMAN when you were putting it together?
Chris Butler - The initial seed was “John Carpenter meets John Hughes,” and, very specifically, it was if you took the same kind of stereotype kids you have in THE BREAKFAST CLUB and put them in the plot of THE FOG, what would happen?
Sam Fell - Yeah.
Chris Butler - So the John Carpenter thing was a big thing, but then... Part of it, we actually went... We looked at Italian horror, just for a visual cue.
Sam Fell - That was like the color, yeah?
Chris Butler - Well, yeah. We wanted to take a different visual perspective on this. Horror, well... Horror has been referenced in stop motion many times before. Gothic horror... Even the Universal kind of 40s... The cheesy horror, black and white horror. That’s all been done before and it’s been done very well, so we didn’t want to do that, we wanted to take our own... We wanted our own voice, and that’s why we want to the 80s. Because the 80s were such a bigger influence on us anyway, just story-wise, so it made perfect sense to go that way visually as well.
Sam Fell - Yeah. And so there’s a lot of [Mario] Bava and [Dario] Argento, the real colorist for us, because we wanted it to be a real color movie. Not like a black and white thing, like a real strong color thing.
Chris Butler - Yeah, exactly. And that’s why that opening, the opening titles, the opening movie is in that lurid kind of blue.
Sam Fell - Garish.
Chris Butler - Yeah. The reason we did that as well was to set it up as what you think a zombie should be. Right from the start say that this is about zombies and they’re gonna want to eat your brains. And once you’ve done that, then you can have some fun with it.
The Kidd - The industry has changed because they don’t really make films like that anymore. At least that aren't playing mainstream. There used to be... But now they’re kinda straight-to-DVD, all the monster films are going sci-fi but there’s nobody like an Elvira or Joe Bob Briggs to kind of bring these to the forefront, and I think that’s interesting. I think there’s a lot of people who are going to see it, and they may not get some of it, because it’s... They’re not exposed to it. LIke we kinda grew up with films like that...
Chris Butler - But I don’t think you need to get it. I think what you need to take from it is... First of all it’s just good to look at, and in this instance we have streamlined it and made it into our own style, but as long as... Storywise, if you’re getting what you should from it, I think that’s the main thing.
The Kidd - I don’t mean not get it. Appreciate it, a little bit more.
Sam Fell - It’s funny, because animation is for everyone. It’s so not a kid’s medium anymore. On this tour we’re meeting a lot of adults who are like, getting it, like “I loved those films in the 80s, I loved Amblin and THE GOONIES and stuff like this.” But yeah, if you’re a kid who doesn’t know any of that, then yeah. We hope they’ll just get really into Norman’s story and identify with that kid, because it’s a very real situation in a way.
Chris Butler - And it’s told very much from his... an 11 year old’s point of view. What actually... In terms of those influences, and what they do, I think it’s still completely pertinent to do it. I think that, you know, it’s an evolving thing, and current pop culture is dripping with stuff that is influenced by those very things.
Sam Fell - Yeah. There is a through line, all the way, you know. And some of that’s just really cool camera style. We got into Sam Raimi at times, just that kind of cool camera style. It’s just got it’s own oomph, and that’s always going to work.
The Kidd - Even the score is very influenced by those 80s... I mean, I’m listening, it’s like that synthesized kind of sounds, and I’m like, “I’ve heard this sound somewhere before.”
Sam Fell - That Moog [Synthesizer], that’s John Brion, he’s a freak for old instruments. Like, he looked it up, he found what John Carpenter used on Halloween and he found that Moog. Not the exact same one, but that type of Moog. So yeah, there’s a little bit of that. For the aficionado.
Chris Butler - John Brion was a perfect choice for this really, because if you look at LAIKA and the way LAIKA is set up, it’s a bunch of crazy people just kind of building things out of chicken wire and then you get to John Brion’s studio and it’s like this...
Sam Fell - Mess!
Chris Butler - … Hoard of all these vintage instruments.
Sam Fell - Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s a real high-tech/low-tech approach, and that’s the LAIKA approach as well.
The Kidd - Well let me ask you about that, because you guys have worked with Aardman and also Disney, and now LAIKA. What is... How different is it in terms of the process and just kind of creative culture in working with three different places that all do variations of animation, but they all do it in a very different way, so how different are the approaches that those three take?
Sam Fell - Very different! I mean every film you make is completely different from the last one and you learn something, and you try and bring what you learned, but then you’ve got a whole new set of things. For me, coming to LAIKA is... It’s... It feels like a real frontier studio. They’re really pushing the envelope, they’re up there in Oregon... Travis Knight has this kind of courage, to tell stories that no one else is going to tell, deal with material that other people would be worried about. He’s quite fearless. And there is not... It’s a funky little studio. In some ways it’s still a...
Chris Butler - It’s still guerilla style.
Sam Fell - A funky guerilla style studio. Yeah, there isn’t like a huge network. There’s no suits there. No layers of people that you have to work through to get to Travis.
Chris Butler- I imagine it’s like how Pixar was at the beginning. Probably less Hawaiian shirts, but...
Sam Fell - Yeah. [laughs] It’s more tattoos and piercings than Hawaiian shirts.
Chris Butler - [laughs] Yeah. But, just from like, because my background is storyboarding, and every project that I’ve ever worked on, you feel the weight of formula pressing down upon you. And, you know, the formula works to certain degrees but it shouldn’t be that that’s all you can do. I got so tired. Even though I think the quality of animation was steadily rising as I was... You know, through my career, and there were more choices starting to come up of different kinds of stories, you still felt this weight of formula. Everything you worked on, “Oh, now’s the time for the chase. Oh, we’re five minutes in, we should have a moment where...” Nyeghhh!! Bullshit.
Sam Fell - Yeah. And someone has to now speak and explain what the theme of the movie is.
Chris Butler - Right. Exactly. And it’s just so tiring after a while. Every movie is the same.
The Kidd - It’s repetitive.
Chris Butler- Once it becomes repetitive, then you can predict it. And as soon as you can predict it, it’s boring. I think what’s great about LAIKA is that, you know, I presented this script that was challenging in many ways and fairly irreverent, and at no point has anyone made me change anything. Or, even, if it was another studio, there would have been a dozen writers. We’d be taken off. [laughs]
Sam Fell - Yeah. You would be here, but you wouldn’t be talking to me. [laughs] You’d be talking to someone completely different by now.
Chris Butler - So, that approach is pretty impressive and it’s exciting, because you do get what Travis is always talking about, which is a vision. A strong central vision.
Sam Fell - But you kinda hope for them that they... In a way... You know, I was just walking down High Street in Boston to waste some time in Boston the other day. It was like, Gap, Starbucks, it was like all of that... Brands that have just nailed it, and there are no surprises, and it feels like with LAIKA, you’ve gone around the corner, and there’s this very new shop with very odd things in the window and you go in and... It feels like that to me. It’s maybe just off Main Street, but you know, boy it’s good to get there.
The Kidd - Norman is very much a film geek in that he... With his expertise being in zombie films, and there’s so much detail that especially goes into his room, into his setting that’s on display. How much is in there that we don’t get to see?
Sam Fell - Lots.
The Kidd - I mean there’s tons. So are there things in there that we can’t see with the naked eye?
Chris Butler - Yeah, there is. The whole point of that, I think, was to just instantly get across the idea that this kid is comfortable with this supernatural gift, and he’s trying to understand it, and he tries to understand it by immersing himself in popular culture images of horror. That’s his mistake. He judges things just as much as everyone else does. He thinks a zombie is just about eating brains, because that’s what he’s watched. So really, what it was about was getting that across in succinct a way as possible and actually, I think for the designers and the prop makers, it was just a bit of a gift, really. You give that material to a bunch of artists, they just...
Sam Fell - And we don’t have time to examine every bit of it, so we like...find stuff ourselves. Like, "Oh my God! What is that thing?!" And they’re like "Oh, yeah it’s uhh...yeah."
Chris Butler - One thing we did do with his bedroom was... Dave Vandervoort, who designed most of the posters that go on Norman’s wall, he is also a bit of a geek, and a bit of a fan of fringe, out there cinema, so he did a lot of sci-fi stuff, a lot of western stuff, all different kinds of monsters, and as a whole he starts to look at it, and you’re like, "Where's the fuckin’ zombies?"
Sam Fell - Yeah yeah, he got a bit lost in his own world, didn’t he? It’s like "Hey Dave! Come down!"
Chris Butler - It’s like, "Hang on, hang on. Let’s have some more gaping drooling mouths please."
The Kidd - You know people are going to want the clock and the toothbrush.
Sam Fell - Yeah! The toothbrush exists but no one’s made a clock unfortunately.
The Kidd - Does it really?!
Chris Butler - At Comic-Con, because there are so many people lining up for hours on end in the sun, sweating and stinking, Focus, I believe, went around with little bags full of toiletries, and one of them was Norman’s toothbrush, so people could freshen up. It was a great idea.
The Kidd - It’s a great looking toothbrush! Especially, being a zombie fan, you’re like, "Thats..."
Sam Fell - You want it.
Chris Butler - There was some debate as to whether the toothbrush should actually come out of the zombie’s mouth or his eye, and we ended up with it coming out of the eye.
The Kidd - Even with... Because you guys are fans, you know that zombies have kind of hit a real height of popularity. I mean they’ve been around forever, but between THE WALKING DEAD, and the Romero films... With your knowledge of zombies, why do you think now they’ve kind of... Not peaked, but really...
Chris Butler - Critical mass.
The Kidd - Yeah! Really kind of gotten into the mainstream.
Chris Butler - I think it’s because all of the people who grew up watching those movies are now making movies or comics or books or toys, and so it’s just become cultural currency. It’s as easy to find something that’s zombie related as it is to find vampires, werewolves, whatever. It’s just part of our current pop currency now. And I think that... Also, zombies as well, much more than... You can’t really play around with vampires. You know, TWILIGHT proved that. What can you do, oh, they sparkle, oooohhhh. Werewolves, you know, it’s puberty or nothing, but zombies have always been used to make some kind of social commentary in different ways and I think that’s the beauty of zombies and that’s why they keep enduring, about why they keep "coming back."
Sam Fell - [laughs]
Chris Butler - It is though! Because you can say different things with them.
Sam Fell - Things about the world, yeah.
Chris Butler - They’re a blank canvas, in a way.
Sam Fell - I think it’s apocalyptic as well. Like that whole nuclear destruction thing and they went, "Ah shit, we need a new apocalypse." Some kind of biological... Either biological or overpopulation. It’s like those two big scares.
Chris Butler - And of course bath salts don’t help.
The Kidd - Oh, that was right down here.
Chris Butler - We couldn’t predict that!
The Kidd - Who could have?! Like a guy really eating another guy’s face? Like how did that even happen?!
Chris Butler - I know, I know.
The Kidd - One of the things I’ve always been interested in in terms of animation is the voice casting. How difficult is it to go into a film and try to find the right voice where you’re very wary, I guess, to an extent of the voice dictating the role as opposed to the role dictating the voice, and having someone identifiable or recognizable that may overpower the film? So how difficult is to kind of find the right voice for a character while also having it be sellable?
Chris Butler - It’s not actually difficult, it’s all in the approach.
Sam Fell - And it’s down to your attitude, isn’t it? If your attitude is like, "Oh, I need a name, I need a star, I need a voice that everyone recognizes"’ then you’re kind of done for, really. See, they go the other way, which is, do your character designs first, write your script and know your characters really well, which is where we started.
Chris Butler - And I think the... You know, just from an acting point of view, and I know Anna [Kendrick] has talked about it a lot, “getting” a character on the page that she’s like, "Okay, I can... I know where I’m going with this," rather than... It’s going back to that thing of, often with animation, you start production before you really know what your story is or where you’re going, and that goes with the voice talent as well. They come in repeatedly trying to find a character that doesn’t really exist. And I think we knew what we were going for. We knew Courtney was going to be a fifteen-year-old bitch, and Neil had to be this weird, funny little naturalistic kid, so that’s what we went for in the casting.
Sam Fell - But we listened to a lot of people, you know. A lot of it is just time consuming... Just like, listening to people... Get them... Don’t look at their faces, because you’re not going to get that, and it’s surprising how different actors are to how you perceive them. You might think, "Oh that guy’s great!" Then you listen to his voice, and actually it ain’t there in the voice. Some actors, it’s all about their appearance, and what they do physically. Other actors, you think, "Oh yeah, he’s a handsome kind of guy," and then you listen to his voice and he’s got this quirky voice! Do you know what I mean?
Chris Butler - Handsome doesn’t count for nothing!
Sam Fell - Yeah! But it’s just kind of quirky, to take someone’s voice, to put them in a void and listen to it.
Chris Butler - And we wanted their voices, as well. So when we were finding clips, we were finding clips of interviews and... Because we wanted to create this kind of symphonic thing because a lot of these characters are talking over each other or talking together, especially the gang in the van, so you have to make sure all those voices work with each other. So that’s why... When we first got Casey [Affleck] and when he walked in he went, "What kind of voice do you want me to do?" And it’s like... "Yours."
Sam Fell - Because we’d seen him in interviews, sort of stumbling, and he’s got a great way...
Chris Butler - He’s so charming!
Sam Fell - He stumbles away and then he says something really funny. Little ad-libs and... He’s hilarious. And [Christopher] Mintz-Plasse was great because... Take his voice away from him, forget about who he is but just take that voice and play it in front of that Alvin, bully character. It just completely popped.
Chris Butler - It’s got some real grip to it, but it’s also got vulnerability.
The Kidd - If you’re... especially with Mintz-Plasse... if you’re used to see him playing a certain role, which in terms of what he plays here, it’s totally against what you would...
Chris Butler - And that, again, was purposeful, you know, from the point of view of... It’s about not judging. About not judging a book by its cover. So we wanted to play around with that as well, and do things that you weren’t expecting. I always talk about Grandma, we got Elaine Stritch to voice Grandma. Now, that role, if it was voice by, I don’t know...
Sam Fell - Betty White...
Chris Butler - Betty White, alright. It could easily become sentimental because she has these very emotive scenes... intimate scenes with Norman. But if you put Elaine Stritch’s voice in there, it suddenly gives it a realism because you feel like this woman, who actually loves him, but she has had a life... She probably swears like a sailor and smokes forty a day...
Sam Fell - Fooled Perry all the way for years on end.
Chris Butler - Yeah. But suddenly it adds this layer to it, that you just...
Sam Fell - You believe it more. It’s just more believable. It’s like where Norman is sitting in his bed and his parents are arguing downstairs. It’s like, yeah, I believe Norman. I think kids recognize that.
Chris Butler - You can relate to it.
The Kidd - And then the other thing I wanted to ask about was the zombie design. How... Not that there’s rules, but there’s like a certain expectation towards what a zombie looks like. So how... What kind of line do you have to walk in terms of making a zombie feels authentic and also kind of making sure that it’s something of your own?
Sam Fell - I like the logic thing about it, because you sit and think about it and you’re like, "Oh, the thing’s been rotting for 300 years, right so his flesh just fell off of his jaw, but his jaw’s still clacking there..."
Chris Butler - Like a windsock of skin.
Sam Fell - I enjoyed that, kind of. You have to have a bit of logic in there. A little bit of thought.
Chris Butler - Yeah, you want to tick all the boxes that people expect, and I think a big part of that... The design, it comes from Heidi [Smith], who is our character designer, so she did... She’s already kind of introducing this kind of outlandish caricature, but a cute observation, and I think that carries through the zombies as well.
Sam Fell - Now did she do the Puritans first and then...? I can’t remember.
Chris Butler - She did them both.
Sam Fell - Both together? I can’t remember which way around...
Chris Butler - Sometimes it was the other way around.
Sam Fell - Sometimes we do the zombie first and then we worked out what that person looked like.
Chris Butler - Yeah.
Sam Fell - Other times it was like, ‘Oh well here’s a person, how did they rot.’ But you’ve got to think about a living version, too.
Chris Butler - Yeah. Exactly. But I think a bigger part of it as well, because I think we could go kind of goofy, and really go out there in terms of the stylization of the zombies, but what really makes it a zombie is the walk. And that’s the movement. So that’s up to the animators, and we basically had some kind of zombie school going on with lots of reference... Almost every animator was doing their own zombie walks on camera. Because every one of those guys has a unique walk, as well, that incorporates all of the rules of zombie walking.
Sam Fell - So then there was a bible that says, "Well this zombie walks like this, everyone’s got to know that." And there were some that were just too funny... This one guy has got like a flip-top head, and he was just like running and his head is going like, [mimics flip-top zombie] Nyarn, nyarn, nyarn. [laughs] It was so funny.
Chris Butler - And we cheated a few times as well, because we’ve got like a close up of feet, and if you’ve got a close up on zombie feet, one has to be dragged.
Sam Fell - Yeah.
The Kidd - Yeah. I think, in the sequence, the nice close up of the one dragging...
Sam Fell- Yeah, when they come in the house...
Chris Butler - Yeah.
Sam Fell - And to their story, as well, because there’s some sort of tragic serious stuff, like the judge, you have to have gravitas, and carry that sort of serious scene but there’s a really goofy one, so you can’t have him in the shot because he’s like... [makes a funny face] Just, get him out of that shot, because he’s blowing the vibe of the scene.
The Kidd - Thank you very much, guys.
Sam Fell - Thank you.
PARANORMAN opens in theatres this Friday, August 17.
"The Infamous Billy The Kidd"
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