September 18, 2012

Behind the Scenes of ParaNorman: Interview with 2D FX Animator Susanna Luck

Credit: LAIKA, Inc.
When I see a movie like ParaNorman I spend a fair portion of it thinking about the insane amount of work and dedication that goes into creating all the characters and scenes. It's simply a stunning film. Animation - be it regular or stop-motion - has always fascinated me. It's so hard for someone like me (I have no patience) to understand what is involved to make a character take a tiny action. Having an animated character wave a hand requires an immense amount of work. To get an idea of what happens to create an animated film, I talked with animator Susanna Luck via email. She and her team at LAIKA put a great deal of sweat and love into ParaNorman, and she shared some of her experiences with me!

Warning: there are minor spoilers below for those of you who haven't seen the movie yet.

Tell me about the work you did on ParaNorman.
Susanna: I was the 2d FX Animator, so I hand drew effects animation in traditional, old-school style (one drawing for each 24th of a second). In this case it was smoke, like the smoke on the zombies when they rise from their graves, fire, lots of lightning and a lot of the reveals where reality peels away to show us Norman's visions, among other things. Though I was hand drawing it, I did that on a Cintiq, making the drawings digital files, which we then composited with the puppet animation, the sets, the backgrounds, green screen and CG FX to create the world in which Norman lives.

There was a lot of attention to design and having the shapes and movement of the FX work with the style of ParaNorman, which was very asymmetrical, sort of jaggedy and a bit off-balance, so all of my shapes - even ones that might normally be very curved in another situation (like the shapes of fire, for instance) had to work within that style. But it helped to have my hand drawn stuff in there so that the FX had that element of the hand-made in them, which is really key to Laika's work. A lot of my FX design was based on the original character design work, which had a lot of scratchy, angry looking ink lines and then some of the gorgeous art that came from the art department, where they were developing the look of the movie.

At one point I was asked to animate the lightning that makes up Aggie's hair and dress and the notes from the directors were 'it's like ink blowing and bleeding across a surface but it's also lightning'. And I sat down with that and thought "Woah, how am I going to pull this off? Those are two totally different types of action!" But I love animation challenges like that and I think the way she turned out - after pretty much the entire, 68 person VFX department had had a hand in her creation - it was a hugely collaborative process - looked amazing in the end.

One of my favourite scenes to work on was the flaming teddy bear. I saw that in the storyboards early on and thought: "I hope I get to work on that!" So I was really excited when it ended up on my desk and I kind of went overboard with it at first. Chris and Sam (the directors) had to ask me to pull it back a bit! I think the words 'raging inferno' and 'not' might have been used together in the same sentence..

As you developed the film did you become attached to any character in particular?
Susanna: Yes. I LOVE Norman. I got quite attached to him. I would see him in the dailies every week and would want to give him a hug. The poor kid has a really hard time of it at some points, and he's just so stoic. There were some scenes where I was animating the lightning Aggie throws at him, and it was almost painful to keep watching him get struck over and over. Which sounds odd to say, cause he's really only a puppet, but that's part of the magic of stop-motion to me: the animators make those puppets come alive and they're so totally believable as real people for a while.

I also have a soft spot for Neil - I think we all did. His little monologue about why he gets bullied so much always makes me laugh "and I have a lunch-box with a kitten on it."

I really miss seeing those guys every day now that I've moved on from ParaNorman.

Credit: LAIKA, Inc.
What are the most rewarding parts of working on a stop motion film?
Susanna: Well for me, since I have worked my whole professional life in traditional FX animation, mostly on paper and then digitally (I worked at DreamWorks on movies like 'The Prince of Egypt' through 'Sinbad' and then freelance on things like 'Curious George' and 'Enchanted'), being able to go over to the workshops and stages and see things that actually exist in the real world, that you could touch (if you were allowed to!), was just wonderful. The attention to detail on the sets and the puppets never ceases to amaze me. I even love just looking at the ways the buildings are constructed - because some of them, especially on ParaNorman had very few, if any, right angles or plumb lines and it amazes me that they get them to stand up. So coming from a world where nothing really exists until you draw it, to a world where you build it, paint it, print it, sew or knit it first and then animate it is really cool.

What are the most tedious parts of working on a stop motion film?
Susanna: I can't speak for the stop-mo character animators (except to say that they're a breed unto themselves and even though I've been in the business of animation more than 16 years now, and I'm pretty familiar with painstaking attention to detail and working at 24 frames per second, their work never ceases to amaze me). But I suppose it's probably having to go back and do the same scene over again until you've got it right. This project was a huge collaboration of so many different, incredibly talented people and some of the scenes took months and months to get right. The directors would have a very specific idea of how they wanted something to look - I'm thinking in particular of the huge cloud that forms when Aggie first starts to wake up, when Norman and Alvin are in the graveyard - and it took so many iterations from almost everyone in the department, each person adding a piece of the puzzle until we had the final look. Sometimes going back to the same thing over and over can be tedious but any job has some tedious aspect to it and when you do finally see what we all made, it's pretty satisfying.

Which artists inspire you and have influenced your work?
Susanna: Well, I trained as an illustrator and I went to a school (the Academy of Art in San Francisco) that really valued traditional skills, so I got to know and love a lot of the illustrators from America's Golden Age of Illustration, like NC Wyeth and Howard Pyle - and I just love their skill of storytelling through composition and colour. As far as movies go, Spielberg's work really influenced me growing up in England. It seemed like the quintessential American work and I was always very drawn to that for some reason. Although he produced rather than directed it, 'Back to the Future' was the first movie I saw that made me think: I want to be involved in that world somehow. I saw that film a ridiculous number of times when it came out (like 5 times in the theatre - which I had to travel 12 miles on a train and walk the final mile to get to, mind you! And maybe 25 once it was out on video). I still remember how magical the colour and sound and looping story seemed to me then. I found out that Industrial Light and Magic did the FX and that was a big part of my wanting to go to school in San Francisco because the Academy had pretty strong ties to the movie industry and ILM is right there in the Bay Area, too.

These days though, I think what inspires me most is work that I stumble across online; artists all over the world doing all sorts of amazingly innovative things with storytelling and technology and traditional skills, from street art to maker faires, to tiny, independent animation productions, to amazing sculpture installations, to people crafting beautiful stuff and selling it on Etsy. And I live in Portland, Oregon, which is a pretty vibrant little city, art-wise. I'm always seeing something on the street somewhere - a mural, or art opening, food cart or garden even and I get a little influenced by all or it. I don't know if nature can be said to be an artist, but it's also certainly a big inspiration of mine and the Pacific Northwest is a great place to live if you like being surrounded by gorgeous nature. As an FX animator I'm always fascinated by the way clouds move, the way smoke forms and dissipates, the way water flows and I'm always paying attention to that too.
Inspiration is everywhere.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Susanna, and thank you for your amazing work!

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