ParaNorman Interview 2 of 3: Roundtable with Travis Knight

Photo Credit: Jacob Williams
August 20th, 2012

I recently participated in a roundtable interview of Travis Knight, lead animator for ParaNorman, the new stop motion feature from Laika.  Knight went into detail on the trials and opportunities of stop motion animation, the new 3D printing technologies used in ParaNorman's production, and more.  Read on for excerpts from the discussion.

Stop motion animation can be slow going.  When asked how much an animator can get done in an average day, Knight had this to say:

We tend to think in weeks rather than days.  On average, an animator will do about five seconds of finished footage a week.  A fast animator, like me, I can do about 10 seconds of finished footage a week.  Then of course you have people that are slower, but on average, it's about five seconds of footage a week.  We have about 20 to 25 animators going at any given time.  So we finish anywhere between one to two minutes of final footage a week.  You see it takes a long time to make these things, a year and a half to two years of actual production time.

A stop motion film like ParaNorman involves many built objects besides the puppets, from sets to models to props.  Some of these can be extremely small intricate, such as Norman's cell phone:

It's an insane process.  Stop motion is very unique in filmmaking in that everything you see has to be completely built from the ground up.  When we start one of these things, nothing exists.  Everything has to be designed and then built, and then manipulated by hand to bring it to life.  You can't go into a prop shop and get a cell phone or anything else, you've got to build it.

So [Norman's cell phone] is probably about as big as my pinky fingernail.  It's very, very small, and it has lights inside it.  So when he holds his phone and hits a button with his finger and a light comes on, there actually is a practical light inside the phone, with a wire that's kind of hidden in his sleeve that then goes under the set and is controlled by a rheostat which will bring the light up when he hits the button.

Then for things like closeups of hands, which is one of the things that really don't hold up well in closeups on one of these films, because those hands are so small, we usually do a double scale version of the hero's hands.  And for the closeup of the phone, it's still small, but he had a bigger phone so you could actually see the type on his phone on that closeup in the movie.

Pretty much everything you see for the most part on screen is something that has been built.  We have a series of shots in the film, it's an electronics store, where we see a bunch of TVs.  Those TVs are actually functioning.  They have little cell phone screens.  That's what they are.  We work in a very strange scale.

On why not to simply use double scale on everything:

If you do a double sized puppet, you got to do a double scale set.  Then you'd never be able to do it all.  So you try to come up with a scale that generally works for the most part with everything.  Then there's only a handful of times where you have to do something that's a little bit bigger.  Norman, he's about nine and half inches tall with his little spikes on his hair.  That's about the perfect size for your hero puppet if he's a kid.  Then of course there are characters that are smaller.  You get too much smaller, and you can't get the kind of nuance you want out of them.  You go too big, and they're just too unruly, you can't control them easily.  So that's about the perfect size for a puppet.

The puppet for Prenderghast, Norman's eccentric uncle, was particularly difficult to animate:

He's a nightmare.  He's a big block.  There are inherent limitations to the medium.  There are things that are very difficult to do: Things like car chases, big environmental effects, big crowds, and those sorts of things.  There's also design things.  It's hard to do big bulky characters and actually have them have a performance so they're not really stiff and stilted.

He's supposed to be this big demonstrative guy, and it's a big block.  It's like, “How do you get that to move?”  We went through a long process of R&D to figure out what materials we could use, how we could lighten him up, what sorts of silicone we could use that would handle that kind of movement.  So it took a long time to figure that out, but when we did, it was a huge breakthrough.

We just didn't want the limitations that exist in the medium to get in the way of the designs that we wanted and the performances that we wanted.  So we just didn't let it.  We just fought through it.

Different shots can vary widely in difficulty, and can suddenly become much more difficult than expected:

We did this whole sequence with dirt flying everywhere.  It was awful.  All those little tiny bits of dirt that you see have to be held on the set by little bug pins or wires.  I was poking my fingers constantly and I was bleeding everywhere.  It was horrible.

Then I got to this shot, and it was just a closeup of a zombie shaking his head, and I was like, “Oh thank God.  No more stuff flying around.”  I'm sitting in the editorial bay with Chris (Chris Butler, Writer/Director on ParaNorman), and he's like, “Hey, what if when he's shaking his head, what if a bunch of saliva comes out?”  So we went in there, and it's little pieces of silicone or dried hot glue, and they're like the size of a pin.  So he's shaking his head and the stuff is flying out, and it's really tricky to keep track of that stuff.  You bump one thing with your pinky, and you got to start all over.  But when you see it, it really sells the idea that this is a disgusting creature with slavering crap all over the place.

Knight had this to say about his opportunities as an animator in stop motion to add to the creative process during production:

A lot of it is the character moments, the personalities that evolve out of these characters.  Stop motion is really interesting, because even though you wouldn't think that it is, it's actually very spontaneous.  It has kind of an improvisational quality, because you'll get out on set, you'll have the whole shot planned out, you think know exactly what you want to do, but these are physical things, and sometimes they don't do what you want them to do.  So sometimes it can be a battle of steel and sinew.  You want it to move this way and it simply won't move that way, so you got to think about it, “Alright, what am I going to do?”, and you got to come up with something new.

That is one of the things that I love about stop motion, is that these happy little accidents that occur along the way that you just have to roll with whatever limitations that you have with the puppet, whether there's a set piece in the way or there's a camera in the way, or there's a big light thing, you've got to be able change all those plans that you've come up with over the course of the shot and do something that has the same idea, the same feeling, but is a different sort of thing.  That's happened countless times.

The biggest one that I can remember, not from ParaNorman, but from Coraline, was when I animated a scene where Coraline is trying to get her dad's attention in the doorway.  She's swinging on the door, she's yelling at her doll, she's imitating her mother.  Those are the sort of things that I've seen with my own kids.  In the moment, I just incorporated that into the shot.  Sometimes that can be a risk, because if the director doesn't like it, you got to go back and do it again.  But sometimes, you just go with what you're feeling.  That felt right for the moment.  Then if it works, it's a magical thing.

3D printing is a relatively young technology that is used in precision manufacturing and rapid prototyping.  This technology has been making its way into the film industry, and Laika is at the forefront:

We've all seen sci-fi films about machines becoming self aware and taking over the world.  When that happens, they will use this technology to build cybernetic enforcers.  The streets will be littered with human remains.

It's insane.  It shouldn't exist.  We have the computer, that sends some kind of crazy signal to this machine, which is just a giant printer basically, and it lays down really thin layers, as small as a human hair, over and over and over again.  Imagine an ink jet printer that lays down a sentence of type or a graphic image.  Now imagine that same ink jet printer going over the same spot over and over again, laying down material until it builds up an object.  That's effectively what happens here.  We print out dozens of these faces at any given time.  The thing we did on Coraline, where we printed in resin, which is basically this kind of gray plastic material, we had to hand paint all the different colors and textures on the face.  That limited how far we could push those designs.  With this film, we integrated a color 3D printer, which allows us to infuse the face with color, textures, which allows us to take the design to places we hadn't been before.  For example, Coraline had I think 10 freckles on her face.  Neil has thousands.  It just gives the characters a verisimilitude that we couldn't get any other way.

And we printed this powdery material that we then coat with with a super glue, which makes it hard, but it also allows light to seep into the powder, which gives it a more skin like quality. There's a moment where Norman is backlit by the setting sun, and you can actually see his ears glow, just like a person's ears would glow.  That's one of the byproducts of using these materials, is the skin ends up absorbing light in a very natural way.

But it is a crazy process.  I apologize in advance for our role in the end.  It's our fault, I'm sorry.  Enjoy the entertainment, but we're all going to die.

Unlike most visual effects heavy films today, ParaNorman uses digital effects sparingly, instead employing practical, in camera effects wherever possible.  Knight offered a few thoughts on the why's and how's of Laika's methodology in this regard:

You want the film to have a unified look and sensibility.  The best way to do that is to use the same process every single time, to do as much in camera, as much practically as you possibly can, and that is what we try to do.  But we're not purists just for the sake of being purists.  If there's a better way to do somethings, we will.  If there's a more efficient and more effective way to do something, we will do it that way.  It is one of the things that guides our filmmaking philosophy.  We'll use whatever tool makes the most sense, which is why our films have stop motion, puppet stuff, it's got stage stuff, it's got hand drawn animation integrated into that, it's got CG and technology integrated into that.  It's just whatever makes the most sense.  We could've done all the faces using the old method of sculpting them or carving them, but it would have had limited expressivity.  We thought, “Well let's just take that whole replacement idea and we'll bring that into the digital age.  We'll do that stuff on a computer, print it out with this insane bit of technology. Then all the sudden, these characters will have much greater expressivity.  We'll be able to get more nuance, more refinement out of their facial performances.”

We take it on a case by case basis.  Some things are just really tricky to do...It's almost impossible to do effective clouds and stuff roiling around.  So what we would do, where we wanted it to feel like it was in the same environment, we made what we called a tu-tu tornado, which is a bunch bridal veil bunched up on a spinner.  We made it out on set and photographed it from all different angles, spun it around, gave that as reference to our visual effects team.  Then they made that in the computer, but it was based on something that we actually physically made on set.

For things like that, it's just better done in the computer. Because we have our own in house visual effects team, we're working side by side.  It's a great combination of luddites and technophiles working together.

By having the physical reference, we're able to make those things feel like their the same environment, like they're integrated.

The process of creating the final performance of the characters seen on screen is a long distance, absentee collaboration between the voice actor and the animator(s) for any given character.  Knight outlines the process as such:

The process for developing characters happens early on when we just have armatures, where you're trying to figure out how these characters move.  You don't want an 11 year old boy moving the same way as a 60 year old man.  So you start to define how these characters will move and give them their own personalities.  That happens absent of any vocal performance.

It goes on to that next stage when the actors do their lines.  We don't shoot any shot until we have that stuff recorded.  That becomes the foundation for what the animator does.  It's a strange collaboration that I think the actor doesn't even know they're even collaborating on, because they'll record their lines, and months or even a year later, the animator will get that scene, and the vocal performance becomes the foundation for the physical performance that the animator brings.  So you'll listen to that line over and over and over again, trying to pick up on the nuance and the inflexion the actor brings to it.

We were fortunate to have incredible actors on this movie who brought so much rich material.  Sometimes you're struggling to draw anything out of one of those vocal performances.  These guys are fantastic.  This is the best group of actors we've ever worked with.  There was just so much stuff you could do with that that it just allowed us to go on a lot of different avenues as animators.


Before we start animating any shot, we'll previsualize it in the computer at a workstation. The stop motion animator will work with some facial animators.  He'll go through the entire shot, going through, listening to all the different changes in the voice, and you build kits based on all those faces that we sculpted on the computer.  Then the animator will get a little tray of faces and a little sheet with the numbers of the faces corresponding to the frame that their working on.  When you get to frame 58, you put on face XY3, and then there you go.  It's all defined.  But we try to give a little bit of padding on each side of those faces that we give to the animators. So if in the moment it doesn't feel right, you can go in and change things up, which happens all the time. Even with all the planning, it just doesn't quite look right or feel right when you're out there on set.

Lastly, Knight had this to say about the overall message of the film:

I think the main idea is that conformity does not beget greatness.  Those things which often push us to the fringe of our communities or society, those things that make us weird or strange, are also those things that allow you to contribute something special, something unique to the world.  I think that we've all gone through those moments in our lives where we've felt like we don't fit in.  This movie explores that and is a reminder that sometimes fitting in is not the best thing.

ParaNorman opens nationwide on August 17th.