Speaking Parts

Bringing PARANORMAN's characters to life depends on giving them a voice, and for the filmmakers that meant casting real humans to speak for them, including Kodi Smit-McPhee, the voice of Norman.

A character's portrayal in animation involves several elements of performance. Voice work is one of them. Contrary to popular perception, the vocal performances are recorded first and a character's animator(s) then meld their own performances with the voice work. For ParaNorman, the voice work would be done largely in 2010, midway through the first year of production.

As on a live-action feature, the production team began brainstorming casting ideas and the directors made final selections. Character designs would be up while actors' voices were listened to as potential casting choices. Producer Arianne Sutner comments, "We were casting based not on what actors looked like, but on what they sounded like. Unlike the average movie production, we tried not to look at head shots."

Director Chris Butler notes, "For the ensemble, we needed to get distinct voices that jelled together. There had to be a musicality..."

"...or, a matrix of voices," adds director Sam Fell. "It was important that we find actors who could play the full range of the story; the funny and sassy bits, but also the sensitive and emotional parts. The whole of the movie had to sound right, so it took a while to pick out who we wanted - and then we got pretty much everyone we asked for."

Sutner says, "Well before actors were cast, we did table reads - some of which led to the comedy getting punched up by Chris - so that by the time the actors came in, we knew exactly what we wanted from their voice work.

"Among the kid actors, we were looking for ones who could be natural and unaffected - like in the 1960s and 1970s Charlie Brown television specials, kids being kids. A more recent show that was on our minds was Freaks and Geeks. Allison Jones was the casting director on that, and so I wrote her letters asking her to work with us. We were lucky to get her."

The ensemble had to be anchored by Norman, and Fell notes that "it's difficult to find someone young who has range and sensitivity.

"But we'd seen Kodi Smit-McPhee's astonishing performance in The Road, and we felt that he could carry this movie so that audiences would invest in this boy's journey."

When approached for ParaNorman, Smit-McPhee was struck by the movie's inclusive message that decries bullying. He observes, "Here's a kid who is teased by all the other kids - even his sister, really - but he's the one who works to save his town and bring everyone together. Very cool!

"Zombies have their own genre, which ParaNorman recognizes; I liked the overall eerie feel of the story."

Tempestt Bledsoe, who has been acting since she was a kid, wanted to be part of the voice cast because she "is a huge fan of horror films, and I've always had a taste for spooky things ever since I was a kid. I even experienced a ghost story myself, in an Albuquerque hotel for a film shoot...

"As a kid, I was what people would call an old soul and my name was different; if you're not in step with everybody else, you're going to get teased a lot. But I do feel that everyone's been in a position where they feel different and awkward, so in this story you identify immediately with Norman."

The actress has more empathy for Norman than for her own character, noting, "My character Sheriff Hooper is a little full of herself with her authority.

"I'm just happy to be a part of the amazing world made with the creativity of stop-motion for this engaging story."

Bledsoe and the other actors were more a part of the world than they anticipated; when actors recorded their dialogue for ParaNorman, their sessions were also digitally photographed. These portrayals became part of the sculptors and animators' toolbox for work on the puppets, as cues and inspiration were taken not only from line readings but also physical interpretations.

Sutner notes, "It was a rich cast of characters, not only for the actors but also for the animators. There was so much comedic and emotional potential."

Animation supervisor Brad Schiff comments, "How it works for animators is, you sit and listen to the tracks over and over and over. We want to hear the subtlety of the voiceover, the inflections of the voices. It helps us to figure out who the characters are.

"Then there's 'reference,' which is live-action footage recorded of animators interpreting the characters. Sometimes you watch and it's, 'How come that doesn't look the way that I thought it would?' and so you have to alter your approach to the performance. Some stuff we did was so helpful but was awkward enough that you just hoped it didn't make it into the behind-the-scenes videos..."

Butler says, "When you feel the weight of the movements, you also feel the weight of the emotions. If a character is in jeopardy, you believe that they are really in danger."

Fell muses, "Doing 'reference,' they find a lot of what's relatable. There is also magic - like when you look at a puppet performance and see nuance that you recognize as being from the animator. So that's transferring oneself into an inanimate object - spooky! As addressed in our movie, people used to be hanged for that sort of thing..."

Among Schiff's favorite "reference" inspirations on ParaNorman was "one animator's strapping a broomstick to his leg so he could get the feel for how a zombie walks - or, limps - with a crunching heaviness. For one action that Mitch does, I looked at footage of football punting and how the punters' legs go up for strong kicks. The way [animator] Jason Stalman performed [Norman's sister] Courtney standing in a doorway looking at [her crush] Mitch was so beautiful - you could see so much in her eyes."

Stalman, who acted out the scene opposite another animator standing in for Mitch, affirms, "You have to get what's in the eyes; there is so much emotion in even a glance. As an animator, you're a character actor in a way. I found the process of 'reference,' which I first encountered while working on a Swiss movie a few years ago, to be good for my work. It gets animators into the physicality of the scene. We're accessing our imaginations already, and this process furthers that. It goes back to being a child and playing 'pretend.'

"On ParaNorman, I think every animator went deep into performance. For the shot of Courtney dangling her legs over the edge of a sofa and chatting on the phone while painting her toenails, I needed to see how I would emphasize different parts of the dialogue with her leg movements because we hear her voice [already recorded by actress Anna Kendrick] but see no head and no face - just her legs. So, my own hairy legs went on video at LAIKA's studios. I listened to Anna's voiceover again and again; she did it so well that I had to be sure to do it so well 'back.' It's like a collaboration, even though I never met Anna. The way I moved my toes and feet went quite well with the dialogue; I still had to be mindful of Courtney's legs being longer, the lighting varying and so forth, but the editorial staff produced a piece matching my movements with the voiceover and I used it to guide my animation of the shot."

The editorial staff and the directors also make sure to look at "reference" footage cut together and accompanied by voiceover, since these are opportunities to go beyond storyboards and comfortably precede a final take - and make and anticipate necessary adjustments with each other and the animators. As on any movie, the intent and staging of a shot, as well as the motivation of characters, are discussed. The sequence can then further progress through its production phases, while the directors continue to work on other sequences, returning as and where needed.

The increase in the animation world of "reference" complements the time-honored animation tradition of the voiceover actors providing entr'ee into the characters, with their performances preceding the animators' own. Producer and lead animator Travis Knight remarks, "For the animators, the prerecorded vocal performances are something that we listen - and watch - carefully for little nuances that can give the character more of a personality. We then try to infuse the vocal performance into our physical performances of the character.

"On this movie, the idea was to get performances that have more of a natural feeling. We call our animation style a 'skewed naturalism,' informed by well-observed and true-to-life details. We all were working to bring out Chris' characters as people you care about, making ParaNorman that much more thrilling and consequential."

Accordingly, Butler reports that he "loved the voice sessions with our actors; they brought so much to the process, making my jokes funnier. What their inflections would do to lines astounded me.

"We learned not to give Tucker Albrizzi [who voices Norman's friend Neil] too much to prepare with; instead, we would surprise him with the lines. This kept his readings and responses fresh."

Fell remembers, "Tucker was a real discovery for us. When we heard his voice, we said, 'That's Neil.' Recording together, he and Kodi shared a good dynamic because Tucker is younger." Albrizzi, who is not yet into his teen years, describes his character as "loyal to his friends, and upbeat with lots of energy. To play him, I had to be very energetic and try to make normal lines turn out really funny. It's cool seeing my voice coming out of the character!

"I think I'm like Neil, because we're both a little weird and have freckles and red hair - but mine isn't curly. My brother is like Norman, because he's shy and has the same hair."

Anna Kendrick and Elaine Stritch perform the voices of Norman's older sister and grandmother, respectively. Although Grandma has passed on, Norman remains in close contact with her. Sutner enthuses, "Through Elaine's incredible and warmly textured voice, you can hear the life lived, and that was so important for her scenes. With her impeccable timing, she makes her character sympathetic but never saccharine."

With their two characters not occupying the same astral plane, Kendrick and Stritch's voices were not recorded together. Yet the two actresses are already forever linked by shared voice work. For, in 1970, Stritch sang Stephen Sondheim's classic "The Ladies Who Lunch," from the original Broadway staging of his show Company, and has been associated with the song ever since; Kendrick's breakthrough performance in the 2003 movie Camp included stopping the show-within-the-film with her own rendition of the same song. Alternating between working solo and with other actors was Christopher Mintz-Plasse. The role of Alvin, who intimidates Norman at school, was one he wanted to play because of being "picked on in school. Doing this role, I thought of the kids I knew.

"Acting-wise, my inspiration for Alvin was Andy Samberg's voiceover performance in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs - talk about your hilarious bullies."

Fell notes that "casting Chris was unusual in that people think of him for nerdish roles. But having him placed a more vulnerable comic voice into this school bully, showing how Alvin thinks of himself as a tough guy yet is still a scared kid."

Similarly, Leslie Mann, courted to play Norman's mother, responded to the depiction of her character's son "because, as a kid, I always felt like an outsider and felt left out. In the fourth grade, though, I said I wanted to be an actress, and now it's fun to be able to use the thing that everyone made fun of me for - my high voice.

"I had seen and loved Coraline, and LAIKA sent over pictures of the ParaNorman characters so I knew I would get to be part of the creative process with all these animators. Also, I enjoyed being able to come in to work looking like a slob..."

Approached to play opposite Mann as Norman's father, Jeff Garlin, whose voiceover work already included two Oscar-winning animated features, "said yes to doing this movie because I'm completely intrigued by ghosts and because when I was a kid, horror movies were a favorite of mine.

"But when people say, 'Oh, doing animated movies is easy,' I tell them, 'No, it's intense.' Because in live-action movies between takes you go to the craft service table, while they reset this and that, and it's relaxing. On an animated movie, you've always got to be using your imagination - and you might be doing a scene over and over again."

Kendrick expressed reservations about signing on for an against-type turn as Courtney, since "doing voiceover both excited and terrified me. I was flattered to be asked, although I thought, 'What if I'm bad at this?' But Courtney is silly, volatile, and fascinating to me so I wanted to play her."

Fell observes, "Anna has such a wonderful sense of humor that we knew she could play Courtney's character arc, showing how there is more to this cheerleader-in-a-track-suit and so bringing forth the movie's theme of how people are not necessarily as you would have them."

The Academy Award nominee reflects, "It turned out to be a pure acting exercise. Going into it, I worried I would feel restricted having to stand in front of the microphone. It was just the opposite - I felt as if I had no limitations; I didn't worry about my face or my body or hitting my mark. I'd be given direction and then say the lines without overthinking them.

"However, since we were being taped, they had to reassure me that the footage would never be released because sometimes I felt I was making a big idiot out of myself. One day, Casey Affleck [who voices Mitch, Courtney's crush] and I were doing scenes together and he said, 'Put the [video] camera on Anna's feet.' Well, I was doing all this weird stuff with my feet. But I was completely not self-conscious, so hopefully I have carried that into making non-animated movies..."

The idea of casting Kendrick opposite another Oscar nominee, Affleck, came about by way of having matched their voices up by the production, before either actor had been signed. "Their method seems very scientific," marvels Kendrick.

Like his costar, Affleck initially had some trepidation before finding the voiceover process "liberating, especially not having to worry about what I looked like. I had never done an animated movie before. Usually, when people hear my voice, they fire me; so, this was a first!

"Turns out that it's a lot of fun. Everyone put me at ease. It was helpful to be able to work with Anna and other actors in the same room at the same time. I concentrated on getting Mitch's voice right, and having it come together with what I was hearing from the others."

Fell remembers, "Casey has a wry, sly sense of humor so he gave us a few unexpected ad-libs - but, always in-character."

"We tried to get the actors together as much as possible," says Sutner. "Not just for recording, but to better create the characters' pre-existing relationships. With Jeff and Leslie teaming up to play parents, we expected some improv and were not disappointed."

Whether individually or in tandem, voiceover performances were recorded in England, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and New York City. Some of the actors did visit LAIKA Studios to see firsthand the creativity going into the production process. By the time Affleck arrived with his children for a peek, the shooting schedule was nearing its close and just about all the voice work had wrapped up over a year before the physical production did.

Although that scheduling is part of the production process on many an animated feature, there was a further reason it was necessary for ParaNorman; "My voice was changing," reveals Smit-McPhee. "At the last session, I couldn't really do Norman's [younger-sounding] voice any more."

Fell notes, "We were just in time, after going back to Kodi for more and more. The script was always in shape and we weren't fishing for the story, but Norman's performance did evolve and we did change scenes and move things around. For the movie, it works that Kodi's voice got stronger - since Norman does."

Butler says the risk was worth taking because "that voice in particular had to feel genuine; this is a story about a kid's journey, written and made with kids in mind."