Tuesday 28 August 2012

The Art and Making of ParaNorman Review - A Spookily Different 'Art of' Book

Confession: I only watched Coraline fully a few days ago. I'm not often a fan of spooky films, but I am a fan of Henry Selick, and adored The Nightmare Before Christmas, so I wanted to see Coraline, I just never got round to it. A couple of days ago, though, I decided to finally do it, and am very glad I did. Coraline is a fantastic, nuanced and refreshingly original film, with stylish direction and gorgeous animation; I only wish I could've seen it on the big screen. I watched it in anticipation of the latest film from Laika, the studio behind it, ParaNorman.

Coraline's animation was amazing, but ParaNorman's is apparently even better. Factor in that I've heard nary a bad review about it, and you end up with a film I'm pretty damn excited for (it's not out over here until 14th September). So, I was very excited to check out the accompanying 'Art of' book, The Art and Making of ParaNorman, which Chronicle Books were kind enough to send me a review copy of.

Given how impressive the animation in the film looks, it's no surprise that the book has lots of gorgeous artwork. What is a surprise though, is what else's in the book. I guess with a name like The Art and Making of ParaNorman, I should've twigged it earlier on, but this isn't a traditional art book. The title is entirely apt, and if a traditional 'Art of' book pays homage to the artists, this book pays homage to everyone involved in the film's production!

I guess it is important, given that stop-motion is as much a craft exercise as an artistic one. That's what this book stresses above all else, that everyone is important. Equal reverence is given to editor, Christopher Murrie, as to character designer, Heidi Smith, as to the directors, Chris Butler and Sam Fell, and all the great story artists, sculptors, armaturists (a new word the book taught me - the internal skeleton of a stop-motion puppet) and everyone involved.

The writing of the book is also different to other 'Art of' books, where, normally the text is quite sparse - so as to direct more focus onto the art - here, due to the Making part of the title, the book is more text heavy. In fact, it reads more like a biography or a history of the film than a traditional art book; but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The manuscript of the book literally recounts the whole process of making the film, from Coraline storyboard supervisor Chris Butler's original idea, to taking it to Laika's CEO Travis Knight, getting it green-lit and then guiding the reader (with lots and lots of visual aides) through every stage of production. Several 'Art of' books have dabbled in this strategy, but few have thrown themselves in so fully as The Art and Making of ParaNorman, and it has paid off big time. It's an enthralling read, that gets you behind the team; you're rooting for the film, so it makes you fall in love with ParaNorman, and, by association, the book. Normally with these books I complain if it's too text heavy, but it's hard to argue with the results here.

So, kudos of the highest order should go to Jed Alger, the book's author, who managed to weave together the story of ParaNorman and pay reverent homage to its artists and craftsmen and women. There was also a great preface by Laika's CEO, Travis Knight, and forewords by directors, Chris Butler and Sam Fell; encompassing the importance of the film, to the studio and to them. Because that's another thing the book seems to stress, not to underplay the role of co-director Sam Fell (Flushed Away, Tales of Despereaux), but this is Chris Butler's film. It came from his original ideas, from matters close to him and has been imbued with, along with the spirits of the large crew, his essence. In much the same way that Brave, despite Mark Andrews' great co-direction and guidance, was Brenda Chapman's film, ParaNorman is Chris Butler's.

But, though this book is less art-focused than you might expect going in, there's still a bloody lot of art! Early on there's great original storyboards and character sketches, with environment and setting pieces scattered about later on; there may be less than, say, The Art of Brave or The Art of Madagascar 3, but, like them, it's all of the highest quality. Because, even if the focus of the book isn't entirely on the art, your focus likely will be - and there's a lot of great art to flick between. You really get a sense of the strong atmosphere and striking visuals of the film.

Among this wonderful artwork, I found myself particularly admiring the work of Ean McNamara, Dave Vandervoot, Pete Oswald, Trevor Dalmer and Ross Stewart (as well as the great character designs from Heidi Smith). You can see some of these talented artists' work in this review, but there really is so much more to see that you should definitely consider getting the book. Because that's one of the best things about these books, getting to know the names of these artists, whose work is vital to the film, but who you might never otherwise have heard of.

Two cleverly constructed parts of the film's finale. A large rigging (left) and a hand-constructed tornado (right)!

The art isn't the only impressive visuals the book has to offer though. The looks at the maquettes, puppets and the aforementioned armatures (AKA, weird looking skeleton things) are very impressive too. And there's also something oddly amusing about seeing these characters, who are project so much larger than life on screen, as a small little lump of clay being held by an animator. There's also some amazingly elaborate riggings and platforms shown, that were used in some of the film's more daring scenes, giving a sense of the immense effort stop-motion animation takes.

A huge range of subtly different 'replacement faces' made using Laika's Rapid Prototype technology.

I also greatly enjoyed reading about Laika's Rapid Prototype technology. Rapid Prototype (RP) technology, if you don't know, is Laika's edge, the thing that means they're subtly, yet rather impressively, changing stop-motion. In stop-motion, something called replacement faces are used, a broad range of expressions and looks that can be substituted onto the puppet when animating. Rapid Prototyping uses a 3D printer to mass-produce these quickly, efficiently and perfectly (seeing row upon row of plasticine faces is another great visual the book has to offer). It also explains how the new colour 3D printers, debuted on ParaNorman, allow for a level of translucency in the skin - leading to the striking glowing ears that Damien mentioned in his guest review of the film.

There were some great quotes from the directors and other key people too, adding an extra polish to a great book. That's worth mentioning as well: this is a beautiful book, the art is great, but I mean more the overall presentation; I particularly love the front cover with the shiny, striking title. The book is just great. Chronicle do absolutely phenomenal 'Art of' books, and this is just another. But then, I'm yet to read an 'Art of' book from any publisher that I didn't like; they're the perfect gift for an animation fan!

I would say, as a quibble, that I do definitely prefer these books with more artwork in them. It was a fascinating read, an enthralling one, and I love the book, it got me hooked on the film and Laika. But, I couldn't help thinking, during and after, that I wished there was some more artwork there. This is an Art and Making of ParaNorman, with lots of Making, that could've used a bit more Art.

Nonetheless, a great book and one you should definitely check out if you're a fan of these books, Laika, or stop-motion.



UK readers can purchase the book by clicking on our Amazon Associates link above.

Note, all images and artwork used here are property of Chronicle Books, Laika Entertainment and any other respective owners, and are used here for illustrative purposes only and in accordance with the fair use policy of copyright law.


  1. Oh, so that's why Norman's ears looked so good...

    ParaNorman might just be my favourite animated film this year (sorry Pixar) and I'm very tempted to buy that book.

    By the way William, did you read The Art of the Adventures of Tintin ? WETA did a wonderful job with it, and if you like 'Art of' books, you should definitely consider checking this one out. :)

    1. I really do have very high hopes for ParaNorman after hearing everyone's rave reviews! And I'd definitely suggest the book; not quite as good as The Art of Brave or Madagascar 3, but if you're interested in the film, a must-buy!

      And no, alas, I didn't realise there was one until recently. I've had a flick through in book shops and it looks great, will probably get it next month with birthday money! Haha. :)