ParaNorman (2012) is one of those rare films that acquire critical acclaim as well as a decent box office reception. With eight Annie nominations (the highest honors in the animation industry), including Best Picture, this film is more than just good filmmaking and great storyline. It is a work of art, though not in the traditional sense, but rather the actual production of it was nothing short of artistic craftsmanship. This is a stop- motion animated movie featuring the hand-crafted feeling of Claymation (animated clay figures) with the fluidity of modern 3D animation.
Stop-motion is very simple to execute; you fix a camera in one position and put your subject/toy/design/puppet in the frame. After every picture, you move the subject ever so slightly. Repeat this for 24 pictures per second across a series of actions, and you’ve created an animation. This process takes some time, but the results are worth it. If you have seen Robot Chicken (2005), you will recognize the potential. It is a fascinating subject and something anyone can do even with a simple mount and a camera phone.
ParaNorman was created by Laika Studios, already famous for Coratine (2009) — another stop-motion animation worth checking out. This genre of animation has one major limitation when it comes to facial expressions, as you cannot get the feel of a 3D character with clay figures.
ParaNorman utilized a fiber glass body and a mechanical mount on which a face can be attached. Each expression, including transitional expressions (for example going from sad to happy) were created in 3D; then they were printed out. When production had started on this project back in late 2009, the option to print 3D in color was available, but texturing was not entirely possible, so facial expressions (and there were thousands) were hand-painted to have the exact same texture as all the others — so as not to interrupt the uniformity of the design.
There were cupboards full of upper halves and lower halves that could be combined to create just about any facial expression they might require. This, as you can imagine, is a painstakingly long process, but it was all done in the name of art. Simple objects like hammers, tools etcetera, were printed and used directly (since they were not going to change shapes). The 3D printing process is a very detailed study as to how each face was printed, hardened, shaded and stored. The movie was shot in 3D, but instead of using traditional stereoscopic 3D cameras, they used 60 Canon 5D Mk II cameras, manually taking each picture such that the resulting frames can be used to create a film in 3D format.
For more details on how the film was put together, do read The Art and Making of ParaNorman”, especially if you are part of the animation industry. It will open your eyes to a whole new world.