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SDCC2012: A Roundtable Interview with “ParaNorman” Writer/Director Chris Butler, Director Sam Fell, and Producer/Lead Animator Travis Knight

by on July 27, 2012

Chris Butler

Chris Butler, who did storyboard and design work on The Tale of Despereaux and Corpse Bride, received an Annie Award nomination for his previous work at LAIKA as head of story and storyboard supervisor on Coraline. He makes his directorial debut in ParaNorman, which he also wrote.

Sam Fell wrote and directed Flushed Away, which garnered him a BAFTA Award nomination. He earned an Annie Award nomination for Best Directing for both Flushed Away and The Tale of Despereaux. He worked as director on ParaNorman.

Travis Knight, who began working as a stop-motion animator in the late 1990’s, is the President and CEO of LAIKA and has been involved in all principal creative and business decisions since the studio’s founding in 2003. He was lead animator on LAIKA’s first feature, Coraline, which earned him an Annie Award nomination and a Visual Effects Society Award nomination.

Toonzone News sat down with the three of them at the 2012 San Diego Comic Con for a roundtable interview session with several other members of the press.

Q: So who’s idea was it to give Anna the big butt?

CHRIS BUTLER: I’ll have to say that is our character designer.

SAM FELL: Yeah. It got smaller, actually, didn’t it? Initially, it was bigger, I thought.

CHRIS BUTLER:: There’s a lot of big—

SAM FELL: Big butts in the film.

Q: Did you start designing the characters before you knew who was cast or was it developed as it was going?

CHRIS BUTLER: Yeah. Courtney is a good example that there are definitely characters that represent stereotypes in this movie, so you’ve got the cheerleader, you’ve got the jock, you’ve got the school bully. There’re types already, and I think the fun part was finding the vocal actor who could bring actually bring something else to that. I think a big thing in this movie is that you think you get someone, but there’s actually much more to them than that. I think in the end it’s a combination, though.

SAM FELL: Yeah, they definitely bring something to it when you finally cast them. Anna would then do the performance and then someone animates the puppet to Anna and that’s the magic moment, that first time you see her live and breathe and talk in that voice.

TRAVIS KNIGHT: It’s a collaboration that I don’t think the actors know that they’re collaborating on. The actor does the vocal performance and then the animator does the physical performance, and so much of the animator’s choices are informed by whatever the actor does in the studio. If you have a really great actor like we have in this film, it gives the animators so many different choices on where they’re going to take the physical acting of the character, so it’s a joy to animate when you have that much rich source material.

Travis Knight

Travis Knight

Q: Some of the actors were telling us, all three of them, actually, that they notice their characters would pick up the inflections in their body or face.

SAM FELL: Sometimes that just comes out in their voice. We do video that as well, so the animators can watch what the actor did at the time, but we don’t copy, it’s not about copying the actor.

CHRIS BUTLER: Personally, I’m not a huge fan of designing a character to look like the actor because you can do anything you want in this medium and I think what’s amazing is when you have a vocal performance that’s completely against type for what they would do in live action because they’re bringing a whole different world to it.

TRAVIS KNIGHT: Beyond that, animation is unique from live-action in one element because it’s really a distillation of an idea or an emotion or a kind of a personality. You can design a character exactly the way you want her, or how you want the audience to react to her, and then of course you can play against that in how you animate her or how Anna, in this case, would do the vocal performance. It shouldn’t look like her. We’ve seen a lot of animated films where they do that, but I think they’re sort of missing the point about what’s special about animation.

SAM FELL: It’s good casting that way because obviously you wouldn’t go Casey Affleck, jock.

TRAVIS KNIGHT: Right, so they’re their own character.

SAM FELL: Yeah. As Chris said, there’s dimension to the character you get the surface and then you get the real personal.

Q: When I saw the trailer, it’s like they’re not puppets, they’re real. It’s all about story and character.

CHRIS BUTLER: Yeah, yeah. A lot of people are really kind of happily shocked by Christopher Mintz-Plasse playing a bully, for example, because that’s completely against type, you know, but it’s perfect. And his voice works so perfectly for that character.

Sam Fell

Q: As you were making the film, you had a multitude of choices to do whatever you want, it’s almost an excess of choices. What’s that process like, of an issue comes up, deciding I want to take it one way? Is it a group decision by committee or is it animators saying it should be this way, directors saying it needs to be this way?

SAM FELL: We had some iterations along the way, we make the movie on paper first in storyboards and cut it together. So already, the pair of us can discuss a sequence and a scene and talk about a character’s motivation and his feeling through there. We already honed it down, and then we liked the animators to bring their thing to it, actually, so each scene was owned by one key animator, and they really got to inform the way the scene played. We were always learning from the animators, also, about how things could go.

CHRIS BUTLER: I think definitely the idea of an animator owning a scene was a big deal in this movie. I worked on movies in the past where the shots are such a grab bag of different animators that they don’t actually get a full context of the performance, so you end up with not having that through-line. Especially if you’ve got a crowd scene, and suddenly you’ve got an animator who is excited about a crowd scene, and they’re putting too much into it. You know, holding back sometimes and watching how the whole scene plays can make such a difference to the performance.

Q: When you have all these scenes being built at the same time, how do you make sure that the tone stays the same through the entire film and how do you inform your crew to stay on the same page?

SAM FELL: It’s just the iterations, isn’t it? We literally spend a year making the film on paper first, and even before we start doing that, we spend time in the room just discussing the flavor and tone of the film. A lot of it is just like driving a big ocean liner, you’ve got to have a plan, or building a cathedral, you know, you have a blueprint and a lot of preparation goes into it.

CHRIS BUTLER: And you constantly meet with people. I mean, we do have a lot of meetings.

SAM FELL: Yeah, we do.

TRAVIS KNIGHT: One of the ways that you keep the performances consistent the way you want them is that we cast animators just like we cast actors. So there are some animators that are really great at subtlety and emotional performances, some animators that are great at big action sequences, some animators that can get kind of feminine motions, and you put those animators on those sequences that are heavy in that area, and in that way, you’re able to kind of give those parts of the film the sort of attention and care that they deserve.

Travis Knight animating a scene from "ParaNorman"

Travis Knight Animating on “ParaNorman”

Q: When you guys first started, do you actually do a treatment or did you do boards first?

TRAVIS KNIGHT: Well, we had the script. Some animation studios will find the film in the boarding, but we don’t do that. We start with the foundation, which is a script, and we had the benefit on this film of Chris kind of knowing because he wrote it.

CHRIS BUTLER: I’ve worked on loads of movies where you get into production, you don’t know what the ending is, and that kills me because you know, that’s the main reason to go through this story, is to get to an ending. So when I was writing it, I started with the ending and worked backwards, so we already had that, and then we go into boarding.

Toonzone News would like to thank Chris Butler, Sam Fell, and Travis Knight for taking the time to speak with us, and the Laika/ParaNorman PR teams for arranging it. ParaNorman will open in theaters on August 17, 2012.

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