Norman confronts a zombie on the loose in "ParaNorman." (LAIKA / Focus Features )
HILLSBORO, Ore. — The small New England town of Blithe Hollow is more than a little odd; it's a wonderfully wonky world of Gremlin-like cars, wavy plaid shirts and irregular picket fences. It has also been cursed with "eternal damnation" after a witch trial 300 years ago, making it a prime target for a zombie attack.
Such is life for Norman, a misunderstood boy called upon to help fight the invasion of walking dead because he has the ability to talk with them in "ParaNorman," a 3-D stop-motion animation feature opening Aug. 17 from the team behind 2009's "Coraline."
Screenwriter Chris Butler, who directed along with Sam Fell, and the entire production staff created a universe with its own rules about style, line and color, right down to the buttons (never in perfect circles) and blades of grass (made from garbage bag twist ties, for a stylized look).
"We wanted it to feel like it's set in a real place, and that the real place is actually kind of crappy," says Butler. "We wanted to show the peeling paint and the wire fences, and still make it handcrafted and beautiful, but not all pastel perfect. The photographer William Eggleston always found beauty in the mundane and that was an influence."
In Norman's world, buildings sag and lean, trash piles up, orange traffic cones mark unsafe stairs and dead branches stick out from the trees. Inside the tumbledown homes, there are tchotchkes galore, lopsided Barcaloungers, dirty switch plates and artfully arranged messes.
But there is also a warmth and whimsy to Norman's zombie-shaped electric toothbrush and fuzzy zombie slippers, and eccentric Mr. Prendergast's (voiced by John Goodman) doodled-on puffer vest and trucker hat emblazoned with a beaver wielding a wrench.
"There is a certain slickness and symmetry to a lot of traditional animated and contemporary CG movies," says Butler. "But we wanted to find the coarseness, the asymmetry, the broken edges. And everyone we roped in along the way in some way added to that."
Butler was inspired by 1980s-era films and TV shows "The Goonies,""Stand By Me," "Poltergeist" and "Scooby Doo" to make the family-friendly thriller, which features a cast of John Hughes-like archetypes, with Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), his cheerleader sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), jock Mitch (Casey Affleck), schoolyard bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and chubby kid Neil (Tucker Albrizzi).
All aesthetic decisions were informed by the scratchy, textural nature of the original character drawings. Butler and Fell tapped L.A.-based illustrator Heidi Smith, a recent California Institute of the Arts graduate, to draw their characters.
"We looked at portfolios of a lot of college kids, and there was definitely a retro, 1950s look to a lot of them," says Butler. Smith's drawings on the other hand, were "scrappy and unhinged." Although her pencil sketches had a two-dimensional quality that did not necessarily lend itself to puppets, Butler liked that her work was based on the real world observed. "The line itself had what we came to call a nervous quality."
Sculptor Kent Melton and costume designer Deborah Cook worked with Smith, trading sketches back and forth, until the drawings came to life as physical maquettes, or models for the puppets. Getting the right look for the film's sets, props and costumes was up to production designer Nelson Lowry ("Corpse Bride,""Fantastic Mr. Fox"), who grew up in Canton, Mass., near Salem. He organized a research trip to New England in summer 2010.
"Being British, Sam and Chris had a certain idea of what New England was like that was very British-centric," Lowry says. "I thought it was best to bring them to the East Coast to the area they were writing about."
The group took more than 4,000 photos of town halls, town squares, high schools, small businesses and rustic woods throughout the region to get the real-world details right.
"In animation you can get locked in your ivory tower designing fantastical things," says Fell. "But we wanted to hold a mirror up to the contemporary world. And when you go out into that world, it's really quite chaotic."