How 'ParaNorman' was made - Interview with Brian McLean and Brian Van't Hul

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The team behind 2009’s Coraline is back with another 3D stop motion masterpiece, ParaNorman. ParaNorman is about an 11-year-old Norman Babcock who can see and speak with the dead. When his town is overrun with the undead, it is up to Norman to save his town and become a hero.

Animation studio LAIKA employed new technologies to create ParaNorman. Over 31,000 individual facial parts were created with 3D System’s full color 3D printers, and the entire movie was shot with the Canon 5D MK II DSLR camera.

I had a chance to sit down and chat with Brian McLean (Creative Supervisor of Replacement Animation and Engineering) and Brian Van’t Hul (Visual Effects Supervisor) from LAIKA. 

Watch the video above or read the transcript below to learn how they made the characters in ParaNorman come to life.

Q: Both of you worked on Coraline together. What have you learned from working on Coraline?

BL: Coraline was the first time we ever used 3D printing - first time any company had ever used 3D printing for a stop motion film - so there was a lot of trial and error.

Q: How has 3D printing changed what you do?

BL: It's different in the fact that the computer is a wonderful tool that allows you to get a tremendous amount of detail, whether it's a model or an animated face, and the printer bridges that gap between the CG world, digital world, and physical world. 

But I think it goes hand in hand. You can't just take somebody who is used to working in CG, and put him in the [traditional sculpting] environment, because they are not used to the physical objects. And you can't take somebody who is used to working with physical objects and put him in the CG world.

The group of people that work on rapid prototyping on ParaNorman have a unique blend of skills. and we have computer engineers and technicians, and we also have wonderful model makers. They compliment each other really well

Q: Brian Van’t Hul, you worked on live-action blockbusters like The Lord of the Rings movies, and King Kong. What are some of the differences between VFX in stop-motion and VFX in live-action?

BVH: There is very little rapid prototyping on the hobbits that we had to do. Thank god (laughs). 

The biggest difference is the amount of planning that goes into almost every single frame in stop-motion. Before you dedicate an animator to do a hero performance, there are a lot of steps and a lot of planning. Everything's really nailed down when [the animator] shoots. 

When you shoot live-action, usually scenes and sequences evolve and change while they are being photographed. And that's a good part of the process - you start with a script, you have storyboards, when you get real actors, real characters, real sets, things normally evolve and change. That's a certain amount of unpredictability that you have with live-action that you don't necessarily have with stop-motion.

A lot of rehearsals take place [in stop-motion]. You have to program the camera moves, and those camera moves have to be in sync with characters walking around and performing. It is a very meticulous process.

Q: Is ParaNorman more VFX heavy than Coraline?

BVH: Basically Coraline was almost entirely a two-dimensional show. We did a lot of 2D compositing, a lot of paint in roto. We digitally manipulated some sequences in 2D.  

ParaNorman, on the other hand, has a huge amount of 3D effects in it. At the beginning of the film, our marching order was that the studio wants to start opening up the scope and feel of these films. There are certain restrictions to the size of the sets they can build, fit, and light, so we were doing a lot of digital extensions to sets. Once we made the world bigger with the digital extensions, we populated the area with digital characters. Those are all things we did not have to do at all on Coraline, so this was a big step forward. Those are some of the approaches we are taking on all of [LAIKA] films from now on to make the films feel more epic - to try to get away from that small box feel that you often get in stop-motion films.

Q: How are the puppets created in ParaNorman?

BL: Norman (the title character) is 9 and 3/4 inch tall. We start from doing a clay sculpture, which is called a maquette, that clay sculpture is then scanned and brought into the computer. The rapid prototyping department just focuses on the head. The rest of the body is created in the puppet department. They do what is called a puppet sculpt where they sculpt the puppet naked, they'll cast it, building armatures on the inside, and then they'll build real clothing [for the puppets]. At the same time, we take the head and we model, rig, and animate it. 

Those steps are similar to any CG pipeline, but our difference is instead of taking the 3D model and animating it, we take it to the 3D printer.

Q: Every facial expression is painted separately?

BL: They are all printed separately. We printed over 31,000 faces for the show. One of the common misconceptions is that we would animate the entire movie ahead of time, then print each frame of face - that would be extremely inefficient. 

What we do is we listen to the dialogue, watching the storyboard and the 2D animations, we create a series of kits or faces that can be reused over and over again. Ultimately, we'll print these kits - multiple copies of smile or frown kits. When it comes time for the stop-motion animator to go out to the set with their puppet, they know the dialogue that Norman needs to do while screaming and running away from the zombies. They'll sit down with a facial animation specialist, look at all the faces we created in digital form, and string together faces they want for that particular shot.

Q: There must be tons of puppet faces at LAIKA

BL: We have a tremendous amount of faces. Norman has 1.5 million possible facial expressions. We didn't print 1.5 million faces - it's a combination of the brow and the mouth. Norman has more emotion than I will ever have… and Brian [Van't Hul] too. 

BVH: That's true.

(Both laugh)

Q: You used the Canon 5D MK II to shoot the entire movie. How was that experience?

BVH: Classically these films are shot with film cameras. Shooting 35mm can be quite big and bulky. Shooting with a DSLRs, you have a much smaller capture device, and you get an immediate feedback. You can instantly see your shots as soon as it’s done shooting, rather than downloading the film, sending it to a lab and waiting for it until the next morning. The director is able to approve the shots and we are able to move on very quickly. We can shoot more shots much quickly. 

The other good thing is we can look at the shoots with our video assist, so we can see a full-resolution color image that we are animating by. With film, we had to put a black-and-white CCD camera next to the actual film camera, because we could never afford the really high-end cameras that have the internal video assist. When you do that, the CCD camera is not completely lined up with the actual camera, so it might be a little bit off, so they are animating to a slightly different camera angle.

These are all things that make DSLRs perfect. The other thing is that they are all commercially available, and amateurs can grab them and do the same quality of production that we do. They can grab a cheap used body, and start shooting stuff. If they know how to  light well and animate well, they can create a very high end product by themselves.

Q: What were some challenges to shooting with a DSLR?

BVH: Often times we would get a few cameras with dead pixels. Since they are very small and isolated, we can use some software that detect [those spots] and automatically squish in information around that to cover up that pixel.   

The other thing is that these cameras were never designed to sequential frames - to string together into an image sequence. For example, sports photographers can shoot burst frames, but they never look at those in sequence. They just use one of those.

We find that when we shoot over a long period of time - it might be one or two hours between individual frames - the camera sensor gets warmer and warmer throughout the day. On the 5D in particular, the warmer it gets the more magenta it casts in to the darks. You don’t get good blacks. By the end of the day, it might be quite heavily flashed with magenta. We shut the camera off [at the end of the day], the camera cools off overnight, we turn it back on in the morning to continue shooting, and then you have a huge pop [of magenta]. You look at the footage and it gets more purple, and then *BOOM* it’s very black again. What we’ve been able to do is track the density of the blacks to see that color change, and then counteract that.

Q: Why stop motion instead of CG animation?

BVH: I’m asked this question a lot. If you don’t appreciate the difference between stop motion and CG, it doesn’t make a difference. The example I always use is ‘why would you paint somebody’s portrait if you could just take a photograph?’

It is a different representation of the same image, but people get completely different feelings from it. Stop motion is an art form. We are not saying that it’s a commercially viable thing for a whole industry to do. We try to maintain this artistic craft, this style of animation. That’s what we are all about. 

BL:  For me, I think it brings back that old movie magic moments I used to get as a kid, going and seeing a film knowing that it was done with miniatures, and knowing that it was done as a hand-crafted thing.

Unfortunately for the last two decades, with computers taking over everything, people started to take computer graphics for granted. They think it’s easy. They’ll walk out of the latest VFX blockbuster, and they think it’s fantastic, but say “oh that was just done with a computer.” They forget that artists, technicians, and geniuses were making it all work.

When you walk out of a stop motion film, you are forced with the fact. Remembering that this is actually a physical little puppet, physical sets, and real cameras that somebody had to hand-manipulate and hand-animate. So, to me it brings back that movie magic moment. You know, “how the heck did they do that?”

Going back to the DSLR question, the cameras are allowing the animators to really hone their performance. When it used to be shot on film, it would take a couple of days [to see the results]. Now, they can really make sure that every frame is as perfect as possible. Animation ends up looking fantasitc, and it adds to that movie magic of “oh my god, I can’t believe that was done by hand.”

Many thanks to Brian McLean, Brian Van't Hul, as well as the ParaNorman PR team for setting up the interview. ParaNorman comes out in theatres on August 17th 2012.

Sean