The Faces of ParaNorman

The Out of Hand: Materialising the Digital Exhibition at the Museum of Applied Arts and Science explores new technologies that disrupt traditional manufacturing practices. It allows the audience an experience into the future of design through the showcase of over 90 artworks and installations. These pieces are materialised through new age digital technologies including 3D printing, digital knitting and CNC machining. This exhibition has been curated by both the Museum of Applied Arts and Science, Sydney (MAAS) and the Museum of Art and Design, New York (MAD). MAAS Director, Dolla Merrillees believes the exhibition has resonance across many industries and explores technologies and techniques that have once been considered futuristic but are now becoming an available reality (CAMD, 2016). The exhibition holds great significance as it also discovers how these applications will shape tomorrow’s world and impact people’s lives. An example of this is the showing of the world’s very first 3D printed jet engine created in Australia by Monash Advanced Manufacturing. This piece pushes 3D printing technologies to new heights and demonstrates the capacity for a vastly superior performance to weight ratio compared to existing jet engines (Green Magazine, 2016). Other works examine how digital technologies can record and reinterpret ancient artworks, unrealised designs and fossils without tampering with them. The artwork Perfect Forms by American artist Barry X Ball reimagines Umberto Boccioni’s 1913 piece Unique Forms of Continuity of Space and is a great example of this concept. The Out of Hand exhibition explores many other ideas that come with the introduction of these new digital technologies. It is now currently running at the Museum of Applied Arts and Science in Ultimo and will continue until June 2017.


The use of 3D printing was a main technology used throughout the exhibition and was applied to a number of different areas. One that particularly stood out was the exploration of the ever-changing technologies within the filmmaking industry. The work Faces of ParaNorman was created by the company Laika and considers the new techniques used in replacement animation. Laika Entertainment is an American stop-motion animation studio founded in 2005 that specialises in feature films, commercial content, music videos and short films. Examples of their work include the films Coraline, The Boxtrolls, Corpse Bride and Kubo and the Two Strings. The film ParaNorman was the first ever stop-motion movie to utilise a 3D colour printer (Laika, 2012). The CEO of Laika, Travis Knight believes the use of 3D printing re-designed the way we experience stop-motion animation and essentially brought it back to life. “Stop-motion animation was basically taking its last, dying breath. We had to come up with a way, if we wanted to continue to make a living in this medium that we loved, to bring it into a new era, to invigorate it.” (Travis Knight, 2016)


Replacement animation was used to create the 2012 film, ParaNorman. This is a technique of stop-motion animation, where instead of using a single puppet throughout the scenes, a number of different pieces of a puppet are used for each frame in which a character moves or changes expression. These pieces are most commonly faces or limbs used to achieve the illusion of movement. In the making of ParaNorman approximately 40 000 face parts were created. The artwork Faces of ParaNorman displayed 40 of these. It was found that using 24 different mouth shapes would only make a mere second of vocabulary emotion. The idea behind using a 3D printer would better allow the creators to maintain the shape and colour of each puppet so that it would always work perfectly. The printer itself was called a powder printer where the machine would lay down a thin layer of powder in each motion until a three dimensional object was made based upon data sent by the computer. The produced product would then be dipped into a superglue allowing them to set. The materials included 8 000 pounds of printing powder, 77 gallons of super glue, 5 000 x-acto blades, 66 400 rare earth magnets, 729 sheets of sandpaper, 2 gallons of white resin, 25 000 purple gloves, 50 stages, 300 puppets and 40 000 faces all used to make a single stop-motion animation film. Visiting the exhibition in person allows one to experience the artwork up close and personal. The effort and extreme detail that went into making each face can be seen, including freckles, teeth, tongues, nostrils and even the puppet’s uvula.
This work is extremely relevant and significant to the exhibition as Laika was the first company to take the traditional technique of replacement animation and combine it with the 21st century technology that is 3D printing and essentially change the future of filmmaking altogether.

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The process behind creating the artwork Faces of ParaNorman, and the film itself, is an extremely specific and well-thought out step by step process. Firstly, it starts with a pen and paper sketch. After the characters are drawn out the images are then sculptured in clay making a mould to create a model. The animators then place a small metal skeleton armature inside the body of the model which allows then to manipulate the puppet’s movements. They then scan the puppet into a computer and use a 3D animating program called MAYA. They use this application to design and engineer the inner components of each puppet’s head.  There are two types of puppets that are made throughout the process the first is mechanical and the second is replacement. The main character Norman’s head was made up of 78 individually engineered and designed mechanical pieces including functioning eyeballs and eyelids. Replacement puppets have their faces held on by magnets so they can be removed easily and replaced to create a great variety of facial expressions. According to CEO Travis Knight hand-made puppets allow limited iterations. When creating Norman digitally there were an enormous 1.5 million facial expressions to be chosen from (Erin McCarthy, 2012). The decided 40 000 were created with a colour Z-core 3D printer producing a puppet’s head that was just 3 inches big. Throughout the creation process animators were faced with a lot of trial and error however not all the mistakes made were bad. “Sometimes the printer would print two faces on one, and that got us thinking, ‘Hey, we can use this to do the standard smears that they use to do in hand-drawn animation to simulate motion blur’ this gave us the impression of fast motion,” says Travis Knight, “With each technological advance, it makes things easier, but then it gives us a more expansive vision.” The introduction of the 3D printer to stop-motion animation has allowed the industry to open new creative doors and push further, shaping the future of film.


Stop-motion animation has been a technique used in filmmaking throughout centuries. The introduction of 3D printing into the film industry has certainly made stop-motion easier but there was a long journey before reaching the new technology. The first example ever recorded of stop-motion animation dates back to 1898 in the short film titled The Humpty Dumpty Circus by Albert E. Smith. The video footage has been considered lost but was said to consist of photographed circus toys moving around frame by frame. From this, there are now several different categories that fall into stop-motion animation. These include persistence of vision, object animation, direct manipulation animation, puppet animation, pixilation and Claymation (Kevin Kelly, 2009). Individually, the methods used within these categories have come so far technologically. The film ParaNorman is an example of puppet animation and so we will focus more solely on this category’s progression. The concept of puppet animation is very simple being that filmmakers use puppets, dolls and dummies to give form to fantasy characters and then proceed to use stop motion animation to bring them to life. One of the most important and crucial role in this type of animation is of course building the puppets. Before using 3D powder printers, such as the one used to create the many faces of ParaNorman, materials that can potentially be used includes wood, metal and latex. According to Ken A. Priebe, the author of The Advanced Art of Stop-motion Animation, Chapter 3: Building Puppets, the type of material used is dependent on the figurine’s requirements. When we look at the history, more specifically of replacement animation, more commonly a series of hand carved wooden puppets are used. The book also goes on to state a number of challenges and difficulties that come with making puppets. However, majority of these issues can be eliminated by the introduction and the use of 3D printers. A big issue mentioned was the fact that materials never behave the same way twice, using a printer allows an animator to achieve multiple puppets with a knowledge that it will be produced with the exact dimensions, colour and size that is required whereas a hand made puppet is not guaranteed this. Another downfall from not using 3D printers or even replacement animation is the complications in a puppet’s facial expressions. An example given in the book by Ken Priebe uses wires to control a figure’s movements. If we were to take the photos provided and compare them to the method used in the artwork Faces of ParaNorman we can see the major difference.

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It is clear from these images that the introduction of 3D printers in the filmmaking industry has allowed great development and quality improvement in stop motion animation.

The use of 3D printers is not just used within stop motion animation but is currently being used throughout the entire film industry. The practice of making models, props and costumes by hand is now being replaced with the new technology. An example is the popular feature film Iron Man where its main actor Robert Downey Jr. can be seen wearing a suit that was produced piece by piece on a 3D printer. This technique takes a move away from the more common approach of using CGI (computer-generated imagery). It is said that 3D printing is increasingly being adopted in order to make movies quicker and more efficiently than ever before (Daniel Terdiman, 2012). The machines used within the industry can cost tens of thousands of dollars where quality and detail is much higher. Each layer of the printout is so fine that it’s nearly impossible to see any of the layer lines that are often a tell-tale of the fact it has been 3D printed. The printer used for the film ParaNorman shared such detail. The company Laika and its animators shared that the technology allowed them to create the characters with more complex hues and textures than the ones used in any of their other films. With this great technology, animators were even able to give the character Neil a belly that jiggled every time it moved (The Wire, 2015).

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The artwork Faces of ParaNorman represents the introduction of 3D printing into the film industry sharing with the audience an insight into the future of filmmaking. This new technology resonates throughout many industries and the exhibition Out of Hand: Materialising the Digital shown at the Museum of Applied Arts and Science explores this. 3D printing was once considered a technology of the future but is now a very real and available reality.


CAMD, 2016, ‘New curated exhibition explores the future of design and manufacturing technologies’, Out of hand, viewed 24th April 2017

Green, 2016, ‘Out of hand: materialising the digital’, Green magazine, viewed 24th April 2017

Laika, 2017, ‘Normal: at 24 frames per second’, Laika films, webpage, viewed 24th April 2017

Robinson, T, 2016, ‘Inside Laika studios where stop motion animation goes high tech’, The Verge, viewed 24th April 2017
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McCarthy, E, 2012, ‘ParaNorman, powered by 3D printing’, Popular mechanics, viewed 24th April

Kelly, K, 2009, ‘GeekBomb: a brief history of stop-motion animation’, Slash film, viewed 26th April 2017

Priebe, K, 2011, ‘Building puppets’, The advanced art of stop motion animation, Cengage language, pp. 75-150.

Priebe, K, 2011, ‘The advanced art of stop motion animation: building puppets’, Animation world network, viewed 26th April 2017

Terdiman, D, 2012, ‘Why Hollywood loves 3D printing’, CNET, viewed 26th April 2017
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Greenwold, A, 2015, ‘How 3D printing has revolutionised stop motion animation for Laika’, Indie Wire, viewed 27th April 2017
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