Writer/director Chris Butler on 'true hybrid' Oscar contender 'Paranorman'
“I want to see every kind of story told in animation,” says Chris Butler, writer and director of “ParaNorman.” “To me, it comes down to what story are you telling? I think too many people see animation as a genre, as opposed to a medium, so they believe it has to fit into this box. You should be able to use animation to tell any kind of story.”
“ParaNorman,” which Butler co-directed with Sam Fell, tells the story of Norman, a young outcast with the ability to see the dead. When a wicked witch tries to destroy his small town, Norman must use his abilities to battle zombies, ghosts, and even adults. The film is nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars and is currently ranked fourth in our odds to win.
“Many years ago, I had the initial seed of the movie, which was a stop-motion zombie movie for kids,” reveals Butler. “Part of that was growing up on a diet of Ray Harryhausen movies, particularly the skeleton fight in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ (1963). Once you’ve seen that, that’s how the undead should be brought to life.”
Butler used a mix of stop motion and computer animation for the film. “I think it’s a true hybrid in that sense. We love stop motion, we absolutely embrace it and applaud it and want to push it forward. Part of pushing it forward is utilizing technology that is out there. Where stop motion can be quite constrained is in the scope of it. You can’t have that many characters in that many locations simply because they have to be built. So you’re limited by budget and you’re limited by space. Suddenly, you now have the ability to have as many characters as you like. You can do crowd scenes. You can now do street extensions.”
“On the flipside of that was on the nuance of the acting. We really wanted to go for a style of acting that was way more nuanced and more detailed than I think we’re used to seeing in stop motion. That’s where doing replacement faces came in. We would create the facial animation on the computer, and then print that out physically onto faces that were then put onto the character. It allowed us to record facial expressions that were more subtle.”
The film includes several eye-winking references for horror movie fans, from “Halloween” (1978) to “Friday the 13th” (1980). Yet although those references may go over the heads of most children, Butler feels they work on another level. “What’s interesting is that, for example, when Neil wears the hockey mask, children squeal with laughter just because Neil himself is funny. I don’t think you need to get that it’s a reference to ‘Friday the 13th.’ I think it works on multiple levels.”
Butler got his start doing character design for films such as “The Tigger Movie” (2000) before becoming a storyboard artist on films such as “Corpse Bride” (2005) and “Coraline” (2009). With “ParaNorman,” Butler makes his debut as director, and the results have paid off: not only has the film been nominated for an Academy Award, but it has also won prizes from critics in Chicago, D.C, San Francisco and Toronto.