Classic (Re)animation

Zombies come to life, one frame at a time, in the stop-motion feature ‘ParaNorman’


The fate of a sleepy New England town lies with a kid named Norman.

The unsung hero of “ParaNorman” is Tony the leaf guy.

“He spent 2½ years painting leaves,” says Chris Butler, co-director of the stop-motion animated film about Norman, a kid who can talk to dead people and who must save his town from a zombie invasion.

Stop-motion animation requires incredible attention to detail. Characters’ faces, clothes and surroundings are carefully sculpted and photographed, then moved a bit and photographed again. The frames are stitched together to create the illusion of movement — think of those flip books you used to make, then add four state-of-the art 3-D printers, 93 artists and a lot of time (one 42-second sequence took a month to shoot).

Stop-motion technology has been around since the original “King Kong,” but Butler (a storyboard artist on 2009’s stop-motion triumph “Coraline”) and co-director Sam Fell were interested in taking the medium to new places.

“I think stop-motion is often seen as this ancient, arcane thing,” Butler says. “What we’re trying to do is push the boundaries of it using technology,” particularly the 3-D printers that were used to create easily swappable faces for the characters. “So we still maintain what makes it beautiful, what makes it aesthetically unique, but we’re actually using modern tools to take it further.”

Don’t fear, purists: The movie’s sets, the figures, the costumes — and those hand-painted leaves — “are real things,” Fell says. “Those [computer-generated imagery] studios, the big ones, they have people from NASA working on that — rocket scientists figuring out how to get realism.”

“That’s the irony,” Butler says. “We’ve got it for free, and that’s what they’re chasing.”

“ParaNorman,” which opens Friday, is either a horror film for kids or a kid’s movie for adult fans of horror films, with its allusions to “Night of the Living Dead” and “Friday the 13th.” Those aren’t there just as winks to Mom and Dad: Butler and Fell deliberately play with all the tropes that make the horror genre, well, a genre.

Even the zombies. By the end of the movie, the viewer learns that the real danger isn’t the undead.

“We set up the stereotypes so that you think you know what they’re going to do, and then we turn them on their ear,” Butler says.

“You see the monster and you expect it to be the villain,” he says. “But what’s interesting is that there is no villain in the film. That’s why I love it.”

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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