Sam Fell and Chris Butler on the social commentary and hybrid tech of 'ParaNorman'
It's easy to see why Sam Fell and Chris Butler's "ParaNorman" from the LAIKA animation studio ended up reaping the most critical prizes throughout the film awards season. At a time when the issue of bullying is very much in the social dialogue, the film's themes resonate and elevate it from the ghetto of "mere entertainment" that animated feature films can often struggle to escape.
The idea of what would become "ParaNorman" first came to Butler 16 years ago. It was just the superficial spark of "how cool would it be to make a stop-motion zombie movie for kids?" But the more he mulled over the genre and why it had always been so compelling to him, the more he realized there was a thematic draw there.
"The zombie movies that worked best, and certainly my favorites, are the ones that have social commentary," Butler says, "that use zombies as a metaphor to say something about a human condition. And so it made sense to me that if I was going to do a zombie movie for kids that I should try and address an issue that affects kids. I think that was like a fundamental part of the movie right from the start. It's part of the fabric of it."
Butler mulled over ideas of tolerance and not judging a book by its cover as he went, but he notes that bullying, while very much in the media these days, has always been around. And so he tried to work all of that into his slowly percolating story. He would work on it when he could and it would sometimes be years before he'd go back to it. There was something about this idea of "John Carpenter meets John Hughes" that kept it alive for him as something worthwhile. "I think all that time I was just expecting somebody else to do it, to be honest," he says. "So I was quite pleased that they didn't!"
Meanwhile, he made his way to LAIKA as a storyboard supervisor on Henry Selick's "Coraline" after working on films like "Tarzan II" and Tim Burton's "Corpse Bride." It was at the Portland studio that he met his future co-director, Sam Fell, who stopped by to have a look at all the things they had going on.
"Chris's project really stood out to me and a lot of the references, all the things he was talking about, really clicked with me," Fell says. "The story resonates with all of us, with myself and with the whole crew, really, because it's a story about an outsider, someone that didn't quite fit in. I think a lot of people end up in animation because they have some kind of notion that they want to do something different with their lives."
And beyond just the themes, it was Butler's various movie references that really clicked, too. In addition to the two Johns, Carpenter and Hughes, Butler "was talking about schlocky kind of zombie stuff, talking about Dario Argento and Scooby-Doo and early Spielberg," Fell says. "All of the things in that recipe really appealed to me."
At a time when companies like Pixar Animation Studio are brand-building around production identity, the collective screenwriting process, etc., LAIKA's identity isn't as defined for the public yet. And as a still young-and-growing studio, that's understandable. "It's a little bit more like a renegade outfit," Fell says of animator Travis Knight's company. "LAIKA is fresher. It's a very young-feeling place. It was quite open to getting behind someone like Chris, who had an idea and worked it out, and pushing him forward."
Butler says at first people may have looked at LAIKA as "the studio that makes the scary movies for kids," but he believes it's much more than that. "I think what people are starting to see is that we are making stories that the other studies aren't," he says. "You can't mistake 'ParaNorman' for a DreamWorks movie or a Disney movie. It has its own feel; it has its own sensibility. And it's also very different from 'Coraline.' I think the point of view for the studio is that there are so many different stories you can tell with this medium. Animation is not a genre; it's a medium. There are so many different stories that have not yet been told and we can maybe address that balance."
Butler also appreciates that with only a handful of films under its belt, the company is doing well with the critical press also. As noted, "ParaNorman" has collected more critics awards for Best Animated Feature Film than any other contender in the Oscar race. As much as Pixar gets attention for offering critically hailed work, LAIKA, which recently announced the start of production on its latest feature, is right there in the same boat.
"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.