Julian Narino & Raul Martinez talk ParaNorman

Focus Features releases its newest family film, ParaNorman, this Friday, August 17th, and rather than taking the usual CGI route, they decided to go against the grain and make it a stop-motion feature. A lot of tedious work goes into creating a stop-motion feature, and two of the artists behind it talk about what it takes to make a movie like ParaNorman.

ParaNorman, directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell, is the story of a seemingly ordinary outcast named Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who has the ability to speak to the dead. Eventually, it’s up to Norman to save his small New England town Blithe Hollow from a centuries-old witch’s curse that threatens to overrun the town with the undead. The all-star cast includes Anna Kendrick as Norman’s sister, Courtney; Leslie Mann as his mother, Sandra; Casey Affleck as his friend Neil’s older brother, Mitch; John Goodman as Mr. Prenderghast; and Tempestt Bledsoe as Sheriff Hooper.

Julian Narino and Raul Martinez work for Laika, Inc., the stop-motion animation studio hired by Focus Features to create the world of ParaNorman. Narino is a story board artist who worked on ParaNorman as well as Laika’s other most notable feature film, Coraline. Martinez is a model maker, working specifically on the blue mini-van Mitch drives throughout the film. Four years and countless cups of coffee later, they talk about what it’s like to see their pride and joy on the big screen.
*You can watch the trailer at the end of the interview!

AG: Can you talk a little bit about ParaNorman for the readers?
JN: It’s about a boy who can see ghosts. He’s kind of the outcast at school, kind of a loner, and he befriends another boy at school. He finds out about this curse upon this town that he has to deal with. (laughs) It’s kind of hard to say much without giving it away! 

AG: Julian, you are a story board artist, and Raul, you are a model maker on the set of ParaNorman. Can you explain to the readers what exactly the two of you do?
JN: Story board artists, we’re kind of drawing out the movie, almost kind of like a comic book form. We’re given the script by the directors, and we take that script and draw it all out into scenes. Those go down to editorial where they put them together into a movie. It’s kind of like seeing animation, like traditionally drawn animation, but key-framed. So once we’re done, it goes down to editorial and is made into a movie, and they use that as a basis for the actual animation. That goes into production where they do the sets and the puppets. It’s a jumping-off point into the actual final animation.
RM: We build miniatures for the movies and sets and stuff like that. For ParaNorman, specifically, I built a blue van that you see Mitch drive. They’re about six-scale miniatures, and there are four exterior vans and four interior vans. They all have to interact and be part of the ParaNorman world, and my job was to make sure they worked, looked good, and made sure they didn’t break on set.

(L-R) Greg Boettcher, Raul Martinez, and Coby Lorang discussing how to shape the station wagon.

AG: That mini-van, did you come up with it on your own or did they tell you want they wanted it to look like?
RM: There is always some concept art out there, and they went through very many different stages and many different paint schemes. But I think they always wanted it to be a van, so after they got the final design approval, it went to the computer model makers. Tony Chen, he built it in the computer, and then built it in a way that it’s almost like a model kit you would buy at the hobby store. The parts were grown in a 3-D printer, and once those parts came out, there was a crew that made copies of them through a mold-making process. You take the parts and put them in rubber, and then take them out and make copies. Those copies came to me, and it was my job to assemble and fit and make sure everything worked. Obviously, nothing ever fits right the first time, so there was a lot of trial and error, a lot of sculpting, a lot of extra body work, and then a lot of welding, painting, shaping, electrical work, etc. There were a lot of things going into these vans, but there’s definitely a whole crew behind these vans.

AG: How did you two get into your lines of work?
JN: I went to school at California Institute of the Arts for character animation there, and they teach you all aspects of animation, like character design, story-boarding layout, pretty much all aspects of it. Story-boarding I found was something that was more appealing to me. That was my strong suit. We had made a film every year, so we performed every aspect of film-making. We’d get our own  little shorts, about three to four minutes long. Based off of that, I had a lot of inquiries, and I got picked up here at Laika to do story boards specifically for the studio.
RM: I started back in 2006 in LA for a studio called New Deal, and I started that right after college. I wanted to do this since I was a kid, watching movies like Star Wars, watching all the models in Star Wars, Star Trek and all the sci-fi movies. Also, there was a show called “Movie Magic” when I was a kid, and I would see these people build and create these beautiful, elaborate models to shoot and to blow up, so I knew that was what I wanted to do. I didn’t really have to go to school for this, but it’s something I wanted to do. Right after college, then, I started looking for jobs, and I was lucky enough to land something in LA, close by. In 2010, I moved up here for this movie.

AG: How did you go into that in college?
JN: I knew from a really young age that I wanted to get into film-making. My first obsession was more special effects, more like special effects horror make-up, but I was always drawing comics and making movies with my friends and things like that. I always knew some aspect of film-making was what I wanted to go into. In college, I tried to do some live-action, and eventually I decided to concentrate more on drawing and go into animation. It was just kind of a natural path. I just knew something in film was what I wanted to work in.

AG: So how did you get involved in this project specifically?
JN: I had worked on Coraline. I was brought up to the studio to work on a project in development, and I was moved onto Coraline when they needed help on the second half of production story boarding. It was there that I worked with Chris Butler at that time. The director of ParaNorman was our head of story for Coraline, so through him, that story board team ended up working on ParaNorman. We were the first ones on it, and we helped develop it with Chris off of his script.
RM: Like I said, I was working at New Deal Studios, and a few of my friends got a job up here at Laika. I was looking for work, too, so I went ahead and called them. They said, “Yeah, there are some openings!” So I went ahead and put in my application to LIKA, gave them my resume, and they called me in a couple days and hired me. I was very fortunate to come up when I did, and it was fairly early in the beginning of ParaNorman. I was very lucky.

AG: How long does it take for these stop-motion movies to come together?
JN: I think it’s a four-year long project. I’m not sure how long ParaNorman kind of went on. I know we were boarding on it for three years, and I really don’t know the timeline. Everything is kind of blurred in my mind right now, but I think it’s usually three to four years of production on stop-motion films.
RM: Building the very first van took about three or four months, because it was the first one. We were still trying to get all the bugs out. Once the van was out and they started filming, it depended on the shot. Some shots were really quick and probably took days. Other shots can take a month or two months. It really depends on the shot. There is a shot where the van is tumbling down to the junkyard, or to the shop, and it falls apart. That was two different vans, and I think that took like a week or a week and a half. There were interior vans, too, where the vans actually became like little sets for the puppets. We have Norman and Courtney, they’re all inside the van. The animator is animating the characters. In that case, the van is the backdrop or the actual set. A lot of those shots took months.

AG: How many of these stop-motion films have you done?
JN: This is the second feature that I’ve worked on. Coraline was my first one, and now ParaNorman.
AG: I feel like that kind of work is just really tedious. How did you get through that four-year long process?
JN: A lot of patience. It is a lot of stress, but it’s also a lot of fun. I don’t know what else I would actually be doing. Coming to work every day, it’s amazing working with everybody. Seeing the puppets, the stages, everything. All the stress and everything just works up to that moment where you see that shot. It’s amazing. That feedback you get, it totally pays off in the end. You have the end product to push for, but it’s just a lot of fun. No matter how stressful it gets, it’s always just really rewarding work.
RM: Lots of coffee and lots of late nights. There were times where animators are working really late nights, so you’re kind of rushed to hurry up and get these sets or these models done so they can go ahead and animate them. There have been nights where I’ve stayed until midnight trying to get these vans or these sets done so that the animators have something to work with in the morning. So again, it depends on the shot. It can take months to finish that one shot, and a lot of times, too, they’ll come back to us to fix them. Sometimes they’ll put holes in them so the puppets can stand on them or hold their place or hold onto it, so they’ll come back and we have to fix them. It’s all part of the process.

AG: How long does it take to create one scene with these vans?
RM: Building the very first van took about three or four months, because it was the first one. We were still trying to get all the bugs out. Once the van was out and they started filming, it depended on the shot. Some shots were really quick and probably took days. Other shots can take a month or two months. It really depends on the shot. There is a shot where the van is tumbling down to the junkyard, or to the shop, and it falls apart. That was two different vans, and I think that took like a week or a week and a half. There were interior vans, too, where the vans actually became like little sets for the puppets. We have Norman and Courtney, they’re all inside the van. The animator is animating the characters. In that case, the van is the backdrop or the actual set. A lot of those shots took months.

AG: What was it like working with Chris Butler and Sam Fell? Their combined bodies of work are really impressive when it comes to stop-motion (Corpse Bride, Coraline, Flushed Away, Tale of Despereaux).
JN: It was great. I didn’t know it was going to go at first. Mostly, on Coraline, I just worked with Chris Butler as our head of story, and he would go and work with Henry, the director on that film. For this one, we didn’t have a head of story, so we worked directly with Sam and Chris. They worked great as a team, and they were really great with us. They trusted us quite a bit, so sometimes we would be handed the script pages and then they’d tell us, “Here, do whatever you think works. Work it out yourself and see what happens, and then we’ll review.” Sometimes they would actually do drawings and thumbnails of specific shots they would want, and they had a specific way they wanted the scenes to play out. So sometimes they would give us that, and we would just work with them back and forth. It was a really collaborative effort with the directors as well, just trying to guide it to what their vision was. They worked really great together, and we had a really great dynamic with the team. It was actually a pretty easy flow.
RM: They have a unique view, so there was a lot of trying to accomplish, or trying to figure out, what their vision for the movie was. There was a lot of going back and forth, and definitely trying to tweak the style to match their vision. It was definitely a challenge. It’s only hard to create something when it’s somebody else’s vision. It’s definitely a challenge to accomplish that, to fulfill their vision.

AG: Obviously they had a vision of how they wanted this to come out, but how different is the end product from what you start out with there on the story boards?
JN: It’s different in that when we start out, we have a sense of what the character designs are, but those are always evolving quite a bit. While the art department is designing the backgrounds and everything, we’re still working on the story at the same time. It’s a little bit of a back and forth, but we do do a pass where we put everything on model, and the final designs of the characters, we try to put them into the story boards so we can tell proportion-wise how those characters are going to work in the environment and how the camera angles are going to work and all that. The final boards you see are pretty close to the references from the art department and what the final look of the film is going to be. They’re definitely a lot more cartoonish. They’re drawings, so they’re going to look a lot different, but it’s fairly close to what it is. The lighting and the settings and everything add so much mood and atmosphere, and we’re working so fast with the boards that we don’t quite get it exactly. The animators add and just push all the acting and everything from our boards. They do these amazing things with the final product that it’s pretty incredible seeing what everybody – the whole studio – just adds on top of the boards. It really is just a jumping point for the rest of the film.
RM: I know there were several different changes throughout the movie. There were a couple of changes to the story, definitely some changes to the style, but from what I’ve seen from the original concept work, they kind of stayed on track. It wasn’t that far of a departure from the very original stuff, and just looking around the studio right now and some of the concept work, it’s more along the lines of tweaking a few lines there, some colors here and there. For the most part, they stayed on track. It was very enjoyable. There weren’t a whole lot of headaches when it came to style changes and story changes.

Julian Narino, story board artist on the set of ParaNorman

AG: Are there any stop-animation movies in the past or any movies in general that you wish you could worked on?
JN: My favorite stop-motion film is definitely The Nightmare Before Christmas. I grew up watching that movie when I was younger, and that’s one of those that actually made me want to get into animation specifically. I was a huge Nightmare Before Christmas fan. All of Henry’s movies as well. Visually, they’re amazing movies.
RM: I would have loved to work on the Wallace and Gromit movies. I know that wasn’t possible — that was in England — but there are actually a few people that worked on Wallace and Gromit that work here. I was fortunate enough to speak with them and just kind of get some feedback and some fun stories from that. But yeah, Wallace and Gromit are probably some of my favorite stop-motion films. Also, of course, I think for people in my generation is The Nightmare Before Christmas. I think that’s probably the biggest influencing one for us.

AG: Are there any kind of stop-motion movies you haven’t seen yet that you would love to create? What is your dream stop-motion movie job?
RM: It would have to be something sci-fi. Something with a lot of robots, spaceships, anything mechanical. I love the mechanical stuff, so if they were to make some sort of robot war stop-motion, I would be all over it. It’s definitely something I would love to do.

AG: Are there any last things you think the readers need to know about ParaNorman or about your line of work?
RM: Yeah, I mean, I think the line of work I’m in is, I think anything, the beauty of hands-on stuff, I think, any time you can see a movie where a crew has created something physically and caught on camera, it’s definitely a unique experience nowadays. With so many movies being CG, computer graphics, it’s such a refreshing thing to see things that are hand-built and moved around by hand. It’s just so personal and so interactive. I think it’s definitely a chance for a younger generation to see what can be done with hand-created objects, with different skill sets and different people with different backgrounds, not just a movie done all on computer, I think that’s going to be the biggest difference. These kids will see that it’s not a computer graphics movie, and it’s something very unique.

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