Sam Fell and Chris Butler on the social commentary and hybrid tech of 'ParaNorman'
"We actually had something to say with this movie," Butler says. "We're not using animation as just a colorful babysitter. We're actually trying to address an issue. And yes, absolutely, all those awards are great, but we were also aware that we were doing something that was quite irreverent and therefore quite risky in a way. So it wasn't a guarantee that we would get all these accolades at the end."
Adds Fell, "But I think it's good to stand out, isn't it? There's more and more product out there, if you like, and in some way the formula has begun to solidify. So I guess people are just happy to see someone go somewhere slightly different."
Speaking of going somewhere slightly different, "ParaNorman" also stands out in that it embraces CGI as an additive element for enhancing practical stop-motion effects. It's part and parcel of the further hybridization across the visual media industry, from conflation of visual effects wizardry with digital cinematography and production design to the synthesis of performance via performance-capture.
"I used to do stop-motion in the 1990s and I kind of got frustrated by it," Fell says. "There was just a number of limitations to it. I've always loved the fact that it's real photography and real objects, but there's so many laborious and difficult things. And coming back to it I found that with plugging the new technology into it, it just lightened the medium."
"I'm exactly the same," Butler adds. "I'm not interested in making curios or novelties. I think that we are using a medium in order to tell the story and, therefore, you should use whatever tool that is at your disposal to tell that story best. We don't want to limit our storytelling because there is a practical limit to the things that we're using.
"In 'ParaNorman,' if we hadn't used any digital effects, our mob scene, for example, would have been about six characters. That's not a very scary mob. So it would have undermined the story. What you want to do is maintain what's beautiful about the craft, about the artistry of stop-motion, but you also want to present the best possible image on screen. I'm not interested in just creating some coldly respectful thing that doesn't serve the story."
Nevertheless, those strong feelings on his medium of choice aside, Butler makes it a point of mentioning the wide cross-section of media on display in the animated feature film Oscar category this year. There is the reverent, classic stop-motion of Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie" as an interesting complement to "ParaNorman" and the claymation arena of the form well-represented in "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" from Aardman Animations (which Fell worked for when he co-directed "Flushed Away"). Meanwhile, Disney has two of the top-tier examples of computer-generated animation in "Wreck-It Ralph" and especially Pixar's "Brave." And the variety stretches out of the ultimate list of nominees, too.
"The 21 movies that were up for consideration, they're actually very different," Butler says. "I'm just thrilled there is a lot of diversity and to have three stop-motion movies made in one year is already special. To have them all nominated for an Oscar is even more special."
He mentions that in a year without such stiff competition (21 eligible contenders is a big number), a movie like the Cesar Award-winning "The Rabbi's Cat" might have received more notice. Fell, meanwhile, cites Studio Ghibli's "From Up on Poppy Hill." Each of those films are distributed by GKIDS, a presence both filmmakers are thankful for amid the dominance of bigger-budgeted animated features.
"They each have their strengths and they're quite different," Fells says of the landscape. "So it doesn't feel like it's especially dominated by one picture, which sometimes happens in a way. And I think it's great that we're kind of like the plucky little indie film."
"ParaNorman" is currently available on DVD/Blu-ray.