Plenty of technologies have come along since Disney's Snow White to speed up the process of making an animated feature. But stop-motion animation, which has been around since the dawn of cinema, remains a lengthy painstaking process if you want your miniature world to feel real on the big screen.
Almost everything, including props, is handmade. The pint-sized characters are brought to life by animators who move them one frame at a time – and films move at 24 frames per second.
But the folks at Oregon stop-motion animation studio LAIKA are not averse to playing with new toys. The company's first feature, Henry Selick's Oscar-nominated Coraline, was the first stop-motion feature conceived and shot in stereoscopic 3D, using technology designed specifically for the film.
For the zombie-powered family thriller ParaNorman, co-directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler, LAIKA's rapid-prototyping department figured out how to use 3D colour printers to create some 31,000 individual replacement faces or face parts, allowing for greater emotional range in the performances of supernaturally gifted Norman, his friends and family, the zombie crew and the angry townspeople.
At the height of production, which took two years, more than 300 people were working on 52 different sets. In the midst of them all was ParaNorman lead animator Travis Knight, who defined the film's overall style and animated three key scenes, including the dramatic bursting forth of the zombies. He's also LAIKA's president and CEO.
"When I found out I animated 15,000 frames it made my stomach hurt," he laughs during a recent conversation. "It's true, the way I spend my days is strange. Overseeing the company and being in the trenches making art does create a tension, but I found I can balance those things."
Modern stop-motion, Knight says, is also a balancing act. "We use technology in service of the art, as a storytelling tool – and if we want to do something that's never been done we have to invent the technology," he said. "ParaNorman represents the realization of stop-motion's potential. We champion the handcrafted philosophy, but we also believe we can reinvigorate this old art form by embracing the computer."
But most importantly you need a compelling story worth the long days. "Partway through Coraline our head of story, Chris Butler, approached me with an idea of a stop-motion zombie film for kids and I was instantly intrigued," recalls Knight, also one of ParaNorman's producers. "I thought it could be visually extraordinary but that's not enough to sustain a film."
As the script developed so did the character of Norman, who can see and communicate with ghosts, not to mention the zombies, who just want to be understood.
"We live in world that wants to burnish the rough edges and straighten the crooked line, but conformity doesn't beget greatness," said Knight. "What resonates with me is that the very thing that sets Norman apart is the thing his community needs. Norman's story is also the story of the people who made the film – the freakshow, the weirdoes, the people who see the world in a different way and thus enrich it."
While audiences will certainly be dazzled by the action, detail and humour found in Norman's small-town universe, it's the emotional space Knight hopes they'll remember. "Norman is just a nine-inch tall puppet," Knight says. "One of the things that gives stop-motion its inherent magic is that you're seeing something imperfect and thus undeniably human – because it's made by human hands."