SAN DIEGO - Things may have gotten started with a few communication glitches, but once "Entertainment Weekly" writer Dave Karger took the stage to moderate the "Paranorman" presentation, everything else ran smoothly, resulting in a frequently funny and raucous glimpse at the new stop-motion animated film from Laika Studios.
It seems appropriate that the Friday the 13th programming would begin with this odd hybrid of horror and comedy aimed squarely at a family audience. Karger brought out a full panel of guests, including producer/lead animator/president/CEO Travis Knight, the co-directors of the film, Sam Fell and Chris Butler, and three of the actors who contributed their voices to the movie. Kodi-Smit McPhee, who voices Norman, was last onstage at Comic-Con when I moderated the "Let Me In" panel a few years ago, and he's changed a lot since then. Anna Kendrick plays his older sister Courtney in the movie, and she was very sharp and funny during her time onstage. Finally, Chris Mintz-Plasse got cast against type here as Alvin, the school bully.
Chris Butler was the one who initially imagined this project, and he says he did so almost sixteen years ago. The actual production of the film got underway a little over three years ago, and in that interim, Butler's been continuously playing with the idea of the film, a zombie movie for kids. He's one of those filmmakers of a particular age who is looking to pay tribute to the films he grew up with like "The Goonies" and "Ghostbusters." He originally pitched it as "John Hughes meets John Carpenter." It all grew from there.
Travis Knight talked about how he first heard the idea midway through production on "Coraline." While he was attracted to the genre mash-up quality first, as they started developing it, he said it became "a gumbo of all our childhood interests," also comparing the film to "Ray Harryhausen on bath salts."
For a quintessentially American story in execution, it seems a little odd that it originated from two English directors. As Butler explained, though, during his early years, almost all of England's pop culture was imported from America. He cited Spielberg as well as "Stand By Me" as work that had a major impact on him at just the right time.
A number of jokes were made about the way star Kodi Smit-McPhee's voice dropped midway through production, resulting in him being unable to reproduce the voice of Norman anymore. He's a big animation fan, and he talked about the pride he feels at having played a role in this film. Kendrick talked about how she would throw her whole body into her performance and how much she liked knowing that she could do anything without it eventually being seen, at which point Mintz-Plasse joked that they had a reel of her work in the booth to show today. He talked about his own character, Alvin, who is a school bully, and Mintz-Plasse joked that "he looks exactly like me if I was super-large and only ate In 'n' Out 4x4s all day every day."
The first footage they showed us was a mix of behind the scenes images and finished shots, and it was great seeing a few time-lapse sequences showing the animators zip in and out of the set in high speed like ghosts while the stop motion characters themselves seemed to dance across the sets.
Part of the panel was spent talking about how young fans of this sort of work could eventually try to find work at Laika, and it's always good to see filmmakers encourage their fans to try it themselves. Knight said at one point, "We're looking for people who must create, who have no choice," and then Fell pointed out how there are apps that help people create stop-motion on an iPhone, something he could never have imagined as a kid learning to do this with a Super 8 camera.
"Paranorman" is a technically ambitious film, with scenes that are remarkably complicated in a production sense, and Fell talked about how new tech breakthroughs allowed them to try some delicate subtle detail work in the characters faces that they never could have done in the past. The actors talked about their impressions of the animators after visiting Oregon to see the studios. Kodi said the patience the animators showed really impressed him, and Anna talked at length about the details that she spotted during her time on-set, details that may never make the finished film, but that make everything feel real and lived in. She also revealed her favorite moment of the production, practically giddy as she said, "I went after they finished shooting, so I got to stomp around the sets and take pictures like I'm Godzilla.
Fell introduced the next clip, which is the actual beginning of the zombies rising from their graves. Norman, as it turns out, can see ghosts, and so for the whole first act, a ghost of a crazy old guy tries to convince Norman that the ghost of a witch is going to set off a sort of zombie apocalypse unless Norman reads from an ancient sacred book at her grave site.
Sounds easy, right?
Alvin unfortunately interrupts and takes the book from Norman, causing him to miss his deadline. As a result, zombies erupt from the earth all around them, and it's actually a pretty nice little horror scene, not played for laughs at all. Knight animated the entire sequence and referred to it as "a year of my life."
Butler talked about starting with an ending, then working his way backwards in order to figure out the story, and Fell talked about the designs of the zombies and how hard it was to figure out the right balance of funny and gross.
A second clip came from the opening of the car chase, once Norman and Alvin have been picked up by Natalie and her boyfriend Mitch, voiced by Casey Affleck. They find themselves trying to shake off a zombie that has attached itself to the car even as they try to outrun the Sheriff, played by Tempest Bledsoe of "The Cosby Show." It was a solid clip, showing the way humor is used to defuse a bit of tension, not undermine it.
It's hard not to laugh when a director describes his own film as "'The Breakfast Club' meets 'The Fog,'" but it helped make the point for Butler, who said that he always loved movies where a group in a tense situation was made up of people who should not be together. Mintz-Plasse talked about how one thing that helped that group dynamic was recording together instead of individually as in most animated films. This group obviously enjoys each other. At one point, Mintz-Plasse beatboxed while Smit-McPhee danced onstage, and Anna seemed to take real pleasure in tormenting the filmmakers a bit. While talking about how they each had to make some very strange sounds during the recording, Smit-McPhee talked about being shaken by the filmmakers, and Kendrick said he should have tried some Shake Weights, and as she said it, she mimed it. Of course, what she mimed looked filthy, and so within three minutes, Mintz-Plasse was laughing and miming it himself and asking if Kodi liked "being shaken," and it was all Dave Karger could do to throw it out to the audience for some questions.
The Q&A just barely remained family friendly. The first few people to ask questions were adorable little girls in comic book costumes, and the microphone wasn't working so the cast had to listen closely to hear what they said. The first little girl asked "What's the next idea from Laika?"
CEO Travis Knight told her that it's still a secret, but that she was free to "come see me later and I'll tell you in private." When the audience groaned suggestively, Knight looked exasperated. "Stop that!" he ordered them, shaking his head, going on to explain, "We have a number of different things like adaptations and original ideas, and we'll announce our next project within a couple of months."
The next little girl was dressed as a unicorn, and when she asked, "Why were the monsters so scary," Kendrick almost burst into tears from the cute overload.
Fell answered her, saying, "In the end, they're not that scary at all, and as the story goes on, you find out that they're more sad and silly than scary."
Knight elaborated, saying, "I think kids from seven or eight up will be fine and they won't think it's too scary. Every parent knows their own kid and what they can handle. Of course, at her age, I was seeing 'The Exorcist,' so…"
Mintz-Plasse challenged the next person up at the mic, a dude in his 20s, to top the cute little unicorn girl, and the guy obliged by pretending his hoodie was a costume and making a "cute" face at the panel, getting a laugh from all of them in the process. The guy asked Smit-McPhee if he has a particular fondness for horror films since he's been in this and "Let Me In," and Smit-McPhee said they're so different that it's not really like they're in the same genre, then assured the fanboy, "You're very cute."
Anna talked about how she was less than flattered when she found out they cast her as the annoying teenage sister based on hearing her voice in an interview, not based on a past performance, and then all three actors got to play offended when Fell said, "We didn't feel like we needed big name comedy performances in this." After they ragged him, he continued, "We just needed good actors with a real range, because the film's got a fairly sophisticated tone." Butler talked about using the same casting director as "Freaks and Geeks," and how that show's portrayal of teen life was a definite touchstone for them on this movie.
There was one inevitable "Kick-Ass 2" question for Mintz-Plasse, who says they're going to start shooting in September. He seems very excited about going back for round two on that one.
Knight earned another groan from the audience when he called stop-motion animation "the red-headed stepchild of animation," but he went on to talk about how every single stop-motion guy he's met is inspired by Ray Harryhausen, and how it's very difficult work. "It's painstaking work. It's grueling work. You're burning your body and bleeding from cuts from the armature wire and it's a horrible process. But it's beautiful, and you really see the artists in the work."
Fell went on to elaborate, saying, "There's a revolution/evolution thing going on. I think 'Coraline' helped with that, and the stereoscopic thing has made it more tactile, like you can reach into the screen. I think people have seen so much CG and they're used to it, and these days, we get the best of both worlds. Every shot is lightning in a bottle, a one time thing. It's magic to see inanimate objects brought to life."
Butler agreed. "I like the limitations of stop-motion. You can't do whatever you want with the camera. You have to know what you're doing. One of the reasons I started writing this was the skeleton fight in 'Jason and the Argonauts.' Looking at that, I thought, 'How else would you do zombies?'"
Finally, to wrap things up, Karger asked the filmmakers which of the characters were most challenging to create and animate, and they all agreed that it was Norman himself. Fell said, "Norman's the most challenging to create because he drives the film and he's the hero. We spent the longest on him."
Butler offered up that "Writing him was easier. He was based on me. He was a very sad child. But I really liked the challenge of writing Courtney's dialogue and channelling my inner 15 year old cheerleader."
Mintz-Plasse observed that we all have a 15 year old inner cheerleader, and as the panel disintegrated into laughter from everyone on the panel, Karger asked what Norman's hair was made of. Butler said it was dyed goat hair, and Fell observed that anyone could make one of these films with the resources available to them today.
That led to Knight's final quote of the day, "All you need is a goat and a camera."
I'm fairly sure Hitchcock once said the same thing.
At any rate, "Paranorman" will rise from the dead on August 17, 2012.
Everything: Comic-Con 2011
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