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.”