(cont’d) On a base level, I want to ask you what it’s like to see the puppets on a miniature set versus what the camera sees, and how the ParaNorman world looked through the lens?

Susanna:  It’s profoundly different somehow. Since I come from traditional animation, I am used to everything I do existing only in two dimensional space, or now, in digital space.  Which is to say, it doesn’t really exist at all.  But seeing the puppets and sets  – things that you could touch (if you were allowed to), or walk into – things that were crafted by hand and exist in three-dimensional space – that had a real wow-factor for me.  I never get tired of it.


VFX/PDX:  One of the special things about a LAIKA film is not only the physical sets, stages, and puppets being crafted by the bees in the vast expanse of the main building, but it’s the sheer scale of the production.  And for once I’m not talking about the miniature scale – in this case I mean the hugeness!  It takes an army.  There was an email that went out to the whole company towards the end of ParaNorman that had a lot of fun data.  Some you would expect – tens of thousands of frames snapped for the film.  Thousands of little puppet faces.  Hundreds of employees.  Then other obscurities like how many gallons of ‘Hair Bender’ coffee we drank?  Anyway, my point is when you put it all together, it’s impressive to say the least.  Such an energy to it!

Do you have any recollection of the first time you were walked through the main building, where all of the stop-motion sets and the workshop areas are housed?  Perhaps some part of the process that you thought was especially amazing or stuck out as you made your way around?

Susanna:  Yep. My first impression was “My god, this place is HUGE!”  I mean, I’ve been to Notre Dame and felt a similar sense of the space there.  My second thought was “Oh god, I’m lost.”  Which happened frequently. That place is like a labyrinth.


Brad Schiff animates on-set


Also the very first time I went over there, someone was giving me a tour and mistakenly took me into a hot set.  We got two steps into the area and a disembodied voice said “I’M WORKING HERE!”  So I also was subsequently terrified every time I went over there that I’d go into the wrong area and get yelled at.


VFX/PDX:  Definitely no place for a klutz like me.  I think I belong in the VFX building where I can’t bump a camera and ruin two weeks worth of work, thanks.

Speaking of, let’s get back to our side of things – I’m curious what your approach is when getting launched on a new shot or getting fresh notes from a director?  This is something I like to ask of those in a root level creative position within the film pipeline.


Chris Butler, ParaNorman Writer/Co-Director

I remember sitting next to Chris Butler and his team when he was the Head of Story on Coraline, right as they were moving onto ParaNormanI couldn’t help but notice (as it was blatantly obvious) that he is a tremendous artist and an extremely good visual storyteller.

Much in the same way, I remember getting goosebumps when a group of us were starting pre-vis for Avatar and looking at the early artwork and script.  It was fascinating how much of the concept artwork had the initials JC in the lower corner.  Like Butler, James Cameron is another incredibly visual artistic talent.  Sometimes his team of concept artists would be assigned to develop a character that he had done some ‘rough’ artwork for (which sometimes resembled fully realized blueprints for lack of a better word) and they would have little to do but paint the character into an environment, because the groundwork blueprint was already done! 

But there would be certain characters or scenes that he hadn’t done any previous artwork for and they only existed as words on a page.  It seemed those situations really excited some of the concept artists like Yuri Bartoli and Ben Procter – where they were free to create and cut loose.


When you’re not given much to go on other than a line from a script, what’s your approach for trying to extract what the production is wanting for a specific assignment like that?  And which situation, generally speaking, do find more satisfying or prefer as an artist – a blank slate or more firm direction?

Susanna:  It depends on the director.  After a little while you get a pretty good feel for what they’ll tend to want to see, or not see. I like to just listen to whatever they want to say at first – I usually don’t take notes, I just try and hear what it is they’re getting at.  Sometimes there’s a lot of art to go with that, and it illustrates what they’re asking for – and it becomes almost just a case of making it move, more or less.  Other times it’s also a design job that requires you to come up with shapes and movement that works for the movie and the scene.

I think Chris, Sam [Fell, Co-Director of ParaNorman] and I had quite a good rapport fairly early on and I do think part of that is that we’re all English and just sort of understand one another on a slightly different level than you do with someone from another country – even when you nominally all speak the same language.  So I was more comfortable with a more vague description, because I knew they knew what they ultimately wanted. The nightmare is with a director who really doesn’t know what he/she wants, but just wants to see something else, continually.   The “I’ll know it when I see it” syndrome.  Makes you crazy after a while.

VFX/PDX:  Oh yeah – I think it’s safe to say that one is a universal truth.

And now that it’s out in the open, I’ll just remind everyone that you have to imagine Susanna’s answers being read back with an English accent.  🙂

LAIKA employs a fair amount of international talent.  But unlike many of the French, etc. – and your British compatriots – who are flown across the pond (being the animation rock stars that they are), you were here in Portland of your own volition all along, well before any LAIKA production. A local! What initially attracted you to come here?

Susanna:  I had been in Los Angeles for eight years and I was really tired of it.  My ex-husband and I decided we wanted to live somewhere that was more about community and where people’s priorities were very different. We thought about a number of different places but once we’d visited Portland, it was clearly the place we needed to be – it just resonated with both of us.  I’ve been here seven years now and I’ve never looked back.  It was a great decision.

VFX/PDX:  Was it tough to figure out the animation scene here in Portland initially, or did you have good luck finding work when you first arrived?

Susanna:  When I first moved to Portland I thought I was done with animation.  I was kind of burned out at that point and I wanted to do something else.  I (rather foolishly) thought maybe I could make a living from my paintings.  I tried some other things for a while – one or two of them rather disastrously.  And then a friend called from LA and asked me if I wanted to go back down there for a few weeks to work on the animated portion of Enchanted.  I did and it was a blast.  I realized that I was really missing it;  the craft and the collaboration.  So I came back to Portland and looked into the animation business here, made a concerted effort to put myself out there.   I taught myself Flash and got a job at a small studio working on some simple computer games.  That led to some contacts and other small jobs around town.  It took about two years, but eventually I was fairly well connected and had pretty steady freelance work here.

VFX/PDX:  Yes!  Two years is actually a repeating number for me as well.  Seems each time I’ve moved, that’s about how long it’s taken me to figure out the scene, and where I want to fit into it.  So much of what we do depends on getting a lay of the land and networking.  It can take quite a bit of groundwork.

I’m reminded now that you broke out some Flash skills for a couple of ParaNorman shots.  And you’ve got a few fun Flash pieces on your reel from those days, which we’ll see later.  Anything that was especially fun?

Susanna:  My favorite piece of Flash was the opening credits for a webisode series that my friend Jeff Ventimilia wrote and produced a few years back.  It was called Overkill and featured lots of different ways to kill someone in about 30 seconds.  They wanted it done to look like a chalk outline dying over and over again.  It was gruesome but a lot of fun.

Episode 1 of Overkill: A Love Story

VFX/PDX:  Ha!  Yes, I love the irreverent vibe on that one!