HILLSBORO, Ore. — Movie buffs probably have some idea of what goes into designing a costume for film.
But what about when the star is a 9-inch-tall puppet named Norman?
As I learned a few months ago during a visit to the Laika Studios set of “ParaNorman,"the 3-D stop-motion animation film that opened Friday, it was all about sweating the small stuff.
There were pint-sized patterns, scalpels for cutting fabric and tiny needles roughly the thickness of a human hair for sewing it. These tools of the trade helped create the 120 miniature costumes for the film’s silicone puppets.
There is technical precision to designing at this scale. But there’s also a lot of artistry involved.
On the workroom walls, bulletin boards plastered with photos — a donkey with matted dreadlocks, outsider art by Jean-Michel Basquiat, runway looks from Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto — provided visual inspiration for costuming the world of Blithe Hollow, a small New England town cursed with “eternal damnation” after a witch trial 300 years ago, making it a prime target for a zombie attack.
In the film, Norman, a misunderstood 11-year-old boy, is called upon to help fight the invasion because he has special powers: He can see and speak to the dead.
Films and TV shows popular in the 1980s — including"The Goonies,""Stand by Me,""Poltergeist” and “Scooby-Doo” — inspired screenwriter Chris Butler, who directed along with Sam Fell. The family-friendly comedy-thriller features a cast of John Hughes-like archetypes, each with a distinctive style and physique.
Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is your average skinny kid in jeans and a hoodie, with a green backpack dangling talisman-like key fobs and charms. His cheerleader sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) is a Paris Hilton-type in a midriff-baring pink velour track suit and blond ponytail. Chubby kid Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) bares his belly in a too-tight T-shirt, athletic shorts and baseball jacket.
Mitch (Casey Affleck), the jock, is all muscle on top with spindly legs in cropped jeans and wearing a wristband for a cause on his arm. Schoolyard bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is a skater punk in a T-shirt and shorts, his ears pierced with plugs. And Norman’s eccentric outcast uncle Mr. Prenderghast (voiced by John Goodman) wears a doodled-on puffer vest (this is where the Basquiat inspiration came into play) and a whimsical trucker hat emblazoned with a beaver wielding a wrench.
Then there are the Puritans in black cloaks and buckle shoes and the zombies in tattered versions of the same clothing.
In stop-motion features like “ParaNorman,” animators work with puppets that have metal joints, manipulating them frame by frame — 24 movements for every second of film. Costumes must be durable enough to withstand constant handling. And, as is the case with any movie, multiples have to be made.
“We started with images of regular-sized clothing to see how we might want them to look. Then we did color and fabric tests,” said the creative supervisor for costume design Deborah Cook, an animation costume specialist who also worked on"Coraline,""Corpse Bride” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
What works in the studio doesn’t necessarily work on the big screen. “Some fabrics will have a weave or grain that would be too distracting to the eye,” she said.
Norman’s costume seems simple enough — jeans and a T-shirt. But when shot on a 9-inch puppet, real denim doesn’t look like denim at all. It looks bulky. So Cook used a lightweight cotton chambray instead, applying an aluminum foil lining to get the creasing and bunching to look just right. His backpack, made from green fabric, was stitched to match the scale of his jeans. And the tiny zipper tags were hand-cast from silver.
“It’s a lot of OCD types,” the film’s producer Arianne Sutner said of the staff, which included people with backgrounds in jewelry and fine art, among other disciplines. Indeed, it was scalp-tingling to hear the person in charge of hair fabrication mention mapping out the 275 individual goat hair spikes glued onto Norman’s head.
The wonky look of the film, including costumes, hairstyles, sets and props, reflects the scratchy, nervous quality of the original character drawings by L.A.-based illustrator Heidi Smith, a recent California Institute of the Arts graduate. The production staff created its own rules about line and color. They included “no straight lines.” As a result, the stitching on the bottom of Norman’s T-shirt (made from a fine nylon stocking material) is intentionally irregular.
“It’s all the detail you’d have in a regular film,” said Fell, the director, “but on a much smaller scale and slightly off kilter, to follow the parameters we’ve set out for the movie.”
Cook did her own research, then sent it to Smith to draw. For the Puritans, Cook started in the library at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and also looked to edgier fashion runways. For Norman’s sister Courtney, clad in her pink velour tracksuit, Cook looked at celebrities such as Miley Cyrus. Every detail is perfect, right down to the fit of the track pants (tight across the rear end) and the pink glitter shoelaces in her sneakers.
The sneakers in “ParaNorman” are something to behold, which makes sense when you consider that Laika, the animation studio that produced the film along with Focus Features, is owned by Nike co-founder and chairman Phil Knight and run by his son Travis Knight.
In the film, there are high-tops, Velcro-strap and skater-boy styles — all made of the thinnest antique Victorian glove leather, so that they register properly on-screen. “Travis looks over all the stuff ... and he knows shoes,” Cook said.
There aren’t any Swooshes on screen, but Nike has made 1,000 pairs of Nike Air Foamposite One “ParaNorman” sneakers as part of the marketing campaign for the film. You can’t buy them in stores, but some of them are being given away to winners who enter a contest on Twitter. See information at foamposite.paranorman.com.