Heidi Smith Helps Raise the Dead in ParaNorman – Exclusive Interview
This Friday all of us strange kids, weirdos, freaks and (yes) even geeks have something to look forward to – it’s the release of Laika’s sophomore film, ParaNorman. Laika – formerly known as Will Vinton Studios – first made their mark in 2009 with Coraline, a film that boasted great storytelling, beautiful art direction and (most importantly) stop motion animation. Now the studio is looking to outdo themselves with its most ambitious project to date.
ParaNorman, while being a film that advocates the creative dreamer in us all, features the work of some of the most talented artists, directors, designers and writers in the industry. Among them is today’s guest, Heidi Smith, who is responsible for creating the signature look of each character that populates the town of Blithe Hollow (especially the undead ones)!
ParaNorman is your first major film credit as a Character Designer – that’s quite a debut! How did you become involved with the film?
Laika Entertainment approached me at a CalArts job fair right before I graduated. The recruiter I spoke with told me there were directors who were interested in my work. I sent my portfolio to the studio, and a few weeks later I received an email from the same recruiter telling me that director Chris Butler was interested in having me do character design for his project ParaNorman. The recruiter told me I would be drawing zombies, obviously, I was pretty excited!
Who wouldn’t!? (laughs) Tell us about your time at CalArts, what were some of the most important lessons you learned there?
I loved CalArts, but, at times it could be a bit difficult dealing with the unspoken pressure to conform to a certain industry style. My life drawing instructor, and mentor E. Michael Mitchell was my savior! He would tell me, “Follow your own instincts, because you want a director to want you for you.” He also said, “You have to wear an imaginary football helmet to protect yourself from what everyone else is doing.” I gained more confidence in myself because of E. Michael Mitchell. I don’t think I would be doing the kind of work I’m doing today without his influence.
Is it true that your design for Norman were partially inspired by your professor at CalArts, Norman Klein?
I totally based the design of Norman Babcock from my instructor Norman Klein!! I have a few interesting stories about that, before I graduated from CalArts, before I knew anything about ParaNorman, I told Norman Klein that I wanted to someday make an animated film about him when he was a boy, so, he actually brought in an old photo of himself when he was at his sister’s wedding, he was about 12 years old, I made a copy of the photo for
myself. Also, during that time, Norman Klein mentioned to me that he was thinking about writing a story about communicating with ghosts, and how the ghosts try to give good advice, but it just always turns out to be bad advice! Coincidentally, a few weeks after graduation I began working on a project called ParaNorman that happens to be about a young strange boy named Norman who communicates with the dead! Spooky coincidence don’t you think?!
Spooky definitely seems to be the theme here. So, where did the inspiration for Norman’s hair come from, was that from Klein as well?
[Yeah] the hair was based off of Norman Klein’s gravity-defying Albert Einstein hair, and Chris Butler wanting Norman Babcock to appear as though “he had seen a ghost”.
Georgina Hayns described you as an “organic” designer whose drawing style lends itself well to stop motion. Would you agree with this statement?
I do agree with the statement by Georgina Hayns. I think that working by hand with a pencil and paper lends itself to stop motion since stop motion is done by hand, the puppet has textures, it is tangible, and I love that.
To that point, you’ve described your process for creating characters as “an intense experience.” Can you elaborate on this?
Creating a character is like a performance for me, as though I’m acting, I have to become that character I’m drawing. It’s about trying to capture the spirit of a character, and putting it on paper. I ask myself, “What makes that person who they really are??” I think it goes beyond something that is merely skin deep.
Were there any specific characters that you connected with from the cast?
I identify with Norman the most! I was picked on a lot when I was a kid for being a terminally shy tomboy outcast who did not have any friends! I have always felt that my drawing ability came from the fact that I had nothing else to do, it was my only form of entertainment! When all the cool kids at school were going to parties, football games, and the prom, I was sitting in my house by myself drawing stuff.
How do avoid over-thinking a design?
I have a certain obsessive method on how to not over think, or over work a design: I have to constantly look away, walk away from what I’m doing. I might draw for a bit, then distract myself with something else, it’s a way to rejuvenate my brain, I stay energized, and inspired that way. If I’m too focused on what I’m doing everything just grows stale, and stagnant. Generally, when I draw I will have one of my favorite movies playing, I can listen while I work and occasionally I can watch for a bit, it’s the perfect distraction!
How much collaboration was there between you, Hayns, Kent Melton and the rest of the team?
I collaborated quite a bit with Kent Melton, Georgina Hayns, and costume designer Deborah Cook. Basically, if they wanted a drawing of something: a shoe, a sweater, a rotten zombie nose, a hand, a certain body type, I would try to provide them with that. I also felt that my designs became stronger when I was working with them just because it was inspiring to work with such cool artists!
Have you ever had any paranormal experiences yourself?
Yes, I have had paranormal experiences! Quite a few actually! They always happen in dreams though, so I don’t know if that counts!
Okay, before we officially induct you into the Strange Kids Club, there’s one last question… what’s the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?
I think one of the strangest things I did when I was a kid was tell my grandmother that her beef stew tasted like suitcases. She was not very happy about that comment.
ParaNorman starts his adventure in theaters on August 17, 2012. Have you ever had any paranormal experiences of your own? Leave a comment below and let us know!