SDCC2012: A Roundtable Interview with “ParaNorman” Producer Arianne Sutner, Production Designer Nelson Lowry, and Director of 3-D Rapid Prototyping Brian McLean
Arianne Sutner, producer for ParaNorman, was also animator producer on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, coordinator of the story department on The Nightmare Before Christmas, and editorial coordinator on James and the Giant Peach.
Nelson Lowry, Production Designer for ParaNorman, is LAIKA’s Senior Art Director. He was selected by the National Society of Film Critics for their Best Production Design award for his work as production designer on Fantastic Mr. Fox and received an Annie Award and Emmy Award nomination for his work as art director on The PJs.
Brian McLean, Director of 3-D Rapid Prototyping, won an Annie Award for Special Achievement in Animation for his work on Coraline. Before LAIKA, he worked creating large scale characters for Warner Bros. and Disney and hand-built toy prototypes and scale models for TV and print ads.
ARIANNE SUTNER: On this particular project? Well, the head of story on Coraline, Chris Butler, had a script, and at the end of Coraline, I had come in working development. I got that script and started working with him about four years ago on the script, developing it. That’s how we started working on it. We developed it pretty intensely for a year, and we were lucky enough to have it greenlit.
Q: I read a little bit about the face technique, where you were actually printing out faces. At what point in the process did you start using it and have you used it on other films before?
BRIAN MCLEAN: LAIKA was the first company to use rapid prototyping for stop motion on Coraline. We used a 3D printer that printed out a plastic and it just printed it in basic white material. So we were taking an age-old technique of replacement animation. If I very carefully remove her hair, then I can actually take and remove her entire face. Drop her eyeball out of it.
::demonstrates on Courtney puppet::
ARIANNE SUTNER: This will not hurt.
Q: It looks painful.
BRIAN MCLEAN: So replacement animation is where you’re taking multiple different sculpts, all different subtle expression changes, and having little magnets, and you’re able to place each face frame by frame. When you string them together, you get animation. The technique of replacement animation is not new. It had been around for years and years, fifty, sixty years back with George Pal and it was used on Nightmare Before Christmas. Jack Skellington, basically his whole head would pop on and pop off. So with Coraline we were trying to do something unique, we were trying to really compete with CG, we were trying to have a wonderful range of facial expressions but still allowing it to be feasible to do. So we went to the 3D printer where we could animate it in the computer and then print it out. What ultimately we needed to do was hand-paint everything on Coraline. So Coraline, as beautiful as she was, and as much as she pushed performance, she had five freckles on one side of her face and five freckles on the other and we negotiated back and forth for months to get those freckles right because we knew that if she had six freckles, that meant some poor painter had to sit there and paint thousands and thousands of faces.
On ParaNorman, we really wanted to push the performance along with pushing the character design, so we looked into a 3D color printer and this 3D color printer had never been used before for stop motion. It was a rapid prototyping machine that was used to just produce very quick models so we had a lot of R&D and a lot of hard work to figure out a way to make this work for a feature film.
Q: I noticed on these puppets, they utilize real hair as opposed to rubber hair as in other films. Seems like they would need some sort of advancements in the creation?
ARIANNE SUTNER: Creatively, they made a decision per character and per style what they wanted to do. We have a few incredible women who are incredible with hair, and that’s what they do, so they come to a solution for every puppet differently. It’s a variety of materials including real animal materials, but no animals harmed during our production.
Q: You noted the freckles on Coraline, do you see this as another step?
NELSON LOWRY: Yeah, I think some of the people that worked on it even got better, too. I know it’s really fetishy, but you go and see what they’re doing with the hair technology, and it’s just like a science, you can’t believe. Because then they have to reproduce it flawlessly over and over again, and with the work they use…artificial materials and we go out and find shavings. Neil’s hair started out as just shavings from a milling machine and we had to cut from that, so you just walk around the studio looking on the floor. They pushed the hair a lot on that.
Q: I was told one of the monster puppets is a mechanical one?
NELSON LOWRY: Yeah.
ARIANNE SUTNER: The zombies are mechanical. They’re sophisticated and we have a ton of characters in this movie, and we didn’t want to limit ourselves, so sometimes we’re splitting up mechanical versus these replacement series ones. We wanted to keep a distinction between traditional zombies, stemming from Ray Harryhausen and having them be old fashioned, mechanical heads and just have them work that way. But the lines blurred a little because we had so many characters to do and I think when characters have a lot of lines and they’re emoting a lot, we prefer to use this system because you just can emote more and express vowels.
Q: So it’s harder with the mechanical?
NELSON LOWRY: Yeah, yeah.
ARIANNE SUTNER: It’s not as sophisticated. You can get a ton of expression out of them now, but you’re limited. It’s a little more like subtitling.
Q: Is this more detailed?
NELSON LOWRY: It depends what kind of performance you’re looking for, too, because I think with a mechanical face, you can compensate with the body and what the performance is like, so it’s appropriate for some things. Travis just wanted the human characters in this film to have really…he wanted to push the animation so they’re really emotive so you’ll notice the subtlety at times in their performance, that they’re beautiful.
ARIANNE SUTNER: I think that is the thing, so zombies, we figure have less subtlety of emotion. These would have a range of emotion as much or more than the woman who is playing the voice of Courtney.
BRIAN MCLEAN: With a mechanical face, you start with a sculpt, and then that sculpt is made into silicon and stretched over a series of gears and paddles, but you’re always limited to that sculpt. You can manipulate and move that sculpt around but if it was an open mouth, you’d have a hard time getting into a good “Ooo” shape or a smile or a frown because silicone can only squash and stretch so much.
ARIANNE SUTNER: And that’s a real LAIKA thing. LAIKA wants to push character animation, have the characters have as much subtlety as a live action movie but not done by computers. Computers always aid in things, but that’s just our aesthetic, that’s what we want to do.
Q: That’s what I loved about it. It’s a puppet but it seems actually real.
BRIAN MCLEAN: Yep.
ARIANNE SUTNER: Yeah.
Q: It’s like a person, the story is important, and they’re doing it the right way.
BRIAN MCLEAN: Yeah.
ARIANNE SUTNER: And like all studios we really pay attention. The animators are really close, we follow the work that the voice actor does, looking at their mannerisms. We have 2D animators creating these shapes, so I keep referring to Courtney here. With Anna Kendrick, we know what her vowels look like, the shape of her mouth looks like. It’s really pretty close to the character, and they invest a lot in it, just from them voicing the role. So again, less that it’s mechanical faces, but it’s not like we don’t love them too, it’s just we kind of cast them appropriately.
Q: When you have 40,000 different faces, how do you keep track of them and how do you utilize so many individual faces. Did you have to develop a language?
NELSON LOWRY: Each face has a number and a letter on the back. Believe it or not, the animators want to have that on them, so they would want this smile, face, to have some series of letters that would very easy be able to indicate what that is. It’s basically alphabet soup for anybody other than an animator, so for anybody else, we like to just have a number, and the faces are numbered 1 through 40,000, basically, but we have a whole team of probably 25 people whose job it is is just to keep track of these physical assets. We have a—
ARIANNE SUTNER: It looks like a–
BRIAN MCLEAN: A library.
ARIANNE SUTNER: A library, and it looks like a bakery/library where there are trays and everything is really well organized and they have boxes that are well organized, but I always laugh with them because we have, shocking, near millions of these, yet it always seems like we have to, oh no, that’ll never work for this scene, we’ve got to do a new one. There’s a new human emotion that we don’t have covered.
BRIAN MCLEAN: I don’t know if you guys saw the panel, but there’s a quote in there that Norman has 1.5 million possible expressions and we didn’t print one and a half million faces. It’s because we printed a series of eyebrows and a series of mouths and then there was a split line that was digitally erased after the fact, so when you multiply the number of mouths by the number of brows, that’s how you get to 1.5 million
NELSON LOWRY: Those are possible combinations, but you wouldn’t want to use all those combinations.
BRIAN MCLEAN: Right, so Norman has more emotional range than I will ever have.
Q: Stylistically, because you guys are so far from Hollywood, do you think that that separation influences that taking a different approach to the design, the look, the mechanics of it?
NELSON LOWRY: I’m not sure, I think it’s a pretty unique place, but I think it’s more the people than the geography. They were able to assemble quite an eclectic group of people from a lot of different disciplines, and there was a spirit of ingenuity there that’s encouraged by Travis Knight. For real, no matter how comfortable we are at a point where we solve problems, he wants us to push more. It’s like every time we finally rest, and like “thank God, we figured it out,” he wants the next thing, and it’s fun for those of us that are obsessive compulsive. It’s like finally, someone’s asking us to do all this crazy stuff.
NELSON LOWRY: No, but it helps.
ARIANNE SUTNER: I think it’s less a where we’re located than the company and being independent and that being a function. It’s not really the location, although you know, Portland, it’s a good period of time, because it’s the kind of city where rents are low, you can attract tons of artists and artisans. I worked in the 90’s in stop motion in San Francisco when rents were low and it created a lot of people coming to that area too, so it might be that, but probably yeah, you know.
NELSON LOWRY: It’s pretty fun, it’s good. You know, you walk in there and it’s like a giant Santa’s workshop, you can’t believe this crazy stuff from room to room you’re like Oh my god, oh my god. It’s just so much cool stuff.
ARIANNE SUTNER: Don’t forget to see the movie on August 17th.
NELSON LOWRY: On opening weekend.
Toonzone News would like to thank Arianne Sutner, Nelson Lowry, and Brian McLean for taking the time to talk with us, as well as the ParaNorman PR team for setting up the roundtable sessions. ParaNorman opens in theaters on August 17, 2012.