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Feature FilmInterviews

Meet “ParaNorman” Character Designer Heidi Smith

On August 17th, ParaNorman, the second feature film from Oregon-based animation studio Laika (Coraline), will hit movie screens nationwide. The film’s veteran co-directors, Sam Fell (The Tale of Despereaux) and Chris Butler (The Corpse Bride), decided to bring in some exciting new blood (no ghoulish pun intended) to make it happen. One of the new stand-outs has been the film’s character/conceptual designer, Heidi Smith.

Smith came to Laika for ParaNorman back in 2008, just three months out of CalArts and beating out several notable contenders to develop the characters and aesthetic of this stop-motion feature. At CalArts she studied under greats like Mike Mitchell, and her years as a student were a big influence on this, her first major professional project. In fact, it went so far as having ParaNorman‘s lead character, Norman, based visually on a childhood photo of one of  her professors.

With influences as varied as Yuri Norstein, Richard Williams and Stanley Kubrick, Smith had a lot to pull from to give ParaNorman its unique look. Cartoon Brew spoke with Smith earlier this month by phone about her experiences working at Laika, working with co-director Chris Butler and seeing her drawings be transformed into maquettes, set pieces and clothing.

Chris: The ParaNorman crew said they hired you because your work looked “scrappy and unhinged,” and had a bit of “nervous quality.” How would you compare the portfolio you got this job based on with the kind of work you ended up creating for ParaNorman?

Heidi: Because I worked on ParaNorman for so long, I think the style I used changed a bit as the project developed. My style changes, and I think that’s natural for an artist. You change and you grow, and I think that you get stronger. Your observational skills get stronger; your inspirations change.

Maybe in the beginning with that portfolio and my first bit of work for ParaNorman my work was kind of more boxy; it seemed a little more rectangular and boxy. As time went on and I worked on it with the others, my style became more organic, especially in the line-work.

Chris: Seeing as how this was your first major project after graduating college and you worked on ParaNorman for two years, I’d imagine this is the most detailed and length project you’ve ever done — professionally, personally or for college. What was it like having that amount of time to grow into it?

Heidi: I think it allowed me to really explore as an artist. ParaNorman’s co-director Chris Butler was really great to work with; his passion made me passionate. It was hard to run out of creative energy working at Laika, as there was always a passion there. I really became a stronger artist for working on this film.

Chris: I’ve read that some of the characters, like Neil, pretty much stayed on track from the original designs to your finished versions, while others had quite an evolution — I’m talking specifically about Mr. Prenderghast (pictured above). Can you think back and tell us how you came up with your rendition of Mr. Prenderghast, which was reportedly far different than the original version before you came on board?

Heidi: When I read the script, I would just go with what I felt the story needed. Chris Butler didn’t give me any kind of guidelines or art; he just told me to read the script and have a go at drawing the characters.

So what I went with was my gut reaction. I would do a bunch of drawings, and then Chris and the others would tell me which ones they gravitated towards and we’d go from there. I found out later that Mr. Prenderghast was originally drawn to be a skinny person, but my rendition they went with was as a fat, hairy guy.

Chris: I heard a story that the lead character in ParaNorman, Norman Babock, is based on one of your professors at CalArts. Is that true?

Heidi: [laughs] Yes, it’s absolutely true. Norman Babcock from ParaNorman was completely inspired by one of my favorite instructors from CalArts, Norman Klein.

During my final year at CalArts, before I knew anything about ParaNorman, I told Norman Klein that I wanted to make an animated film about him when he was a kid, so Norman actually brought me an old photo of himself at his sister’s wedding. He was probably 12 years old at the time. I made a photocopy of it for reference. Oddly, after graduation, a recruiter from Laika contacts me about working on a project called ParaNorman! I thought,”Now, this is my opportunity to make my animated Norman Klein idea happen!” It was too perfect!

Chris: How would you describe the aesthetic in your work on ParaNorman?

Heidi: It has a lot of asymmetry. That’s one of the things they told me they liked about my portfolio coming into this project; they liked the asymmetry and “nervous line” of my work, as you said. It had a scratchy looseness they were looking for. One of the things they pointed out that they liked was that, for instance, in a character’s eyes one pupil might be bigger than the other. They liked it being different.

Chris: Overall, was there a specific moment in the two years you spent on ParaNorman where you feel you got on the right “wavelength” for the design aesthetic for ParaNorman? Was it a specific character piece, or a conversation?

Heidi: Well, for the longest time I spent all this time developing characters; you know, just churning them out. Around the fall of 2009 —

Chris: About one year into your work there.

Heidi: Right, around the fall of 2009 Chris Butler pulled me aside and asked me to take a pass at the props and the overall look of the town. He said he was going to eventually hire someone else to do the finished product, but he wanted me to give it a shot at giving the setting the same look as the characters. That’s when I think I felt like I was standing on solid ground.

Chris: As you said in the beginning of our conversation, this is your first major professional project out of college. What’s it like entering into such a massive production?

Heidi: I was so excited to be brought onto the project. When I was first hired, I thought I’d be joining a group of a gazillion other character designers working in tandem. When I arrived and saw I was pretty much it, it really invigorated me. I never dreamt I would be designing hundreds of characters for one movie. I was surprised at first, but it quickly became kind of a natural thing, if that makes any sense. When you think about it, it’s not that unusual; you want the movie to look like the characters, and you want the characters to look like they all come from the same world.

Chris: Although ParaNorman features hordes of zombies, this isn’t your typical zombie movie. One of the interesting things about it from a character design standpoint is how the movie shows what the zombies were like when they were human beings. As the character designer, how did you go about creating the human and zombie versions of some characters?

Heidi: That was really fun. [laughs]

Once we really got into it, I thought of it as this horrible “before and after” type think like you have on those television commercials or newspaper ads where you have someone boring on the left then they’re made up to look wonderful on the right, except for ParaNorman they’re made to look like zombies in a “before and after” kind of thing.

Chris: What’s it like seeing your drawings come to life — not drawn animation but as maquettes and puppets for this kind of stop-motion production?

Heidi: I thought it was amazing. It’s been amazing to work with Kent Melton, who sculpted all the maquettes. He was just as passionate as Chris Butler, and his work inspired my own work. He wasn’t afraid to take risks, which pushed me to do the same with my drawn work. I felt like he not only captured the spirit of the characters I designed, but he made them look better in his own way.

Chris: How did the process work between you two?

Heidi: Well, he would take a drawing and work from that. Sometimes he’d come to me and ask me to do a turnaround of a character to help him, usually of a specific feature like a nose or a helmet. He and I went back and forth to figure out what he needed, and for me to see what was possible with his work. We developed a really good communicative relationship.

Chris: I’ve been told that for the puppets, Laika went so far as to study the textures in your drawings for the clothing. Can you talk about the detail you put into those drawings and it being translated to actual fabric and puppets?

Heidi: One of the more memorable parts of this project for me was when Chris Butler asked me to do these sketches of textures. They would take those drawings and print them out and use them as fabric and what not in the costumes and sets.

Deborah Cook, ParaNorman’s costume designer, was amazing to work with. She would sometimes bring in interesting reference material she had found and bounce it off me to see how I could use it in my designs.  One instance that I distinctly remember was her bringing me this classical painting and she asked me to study the tree bark in the piece and develop a texture based on that. She really encouraged me to do really weird and interesting textures, and not anything I would’ve thought of on my own. It was really exciting to work with everyone at Laika.

NOTE: Heidi Smith will appear in person with fellow ParaNorman artists Kevin Dart, Pete Oswald and other Laika designers to sign The Art Of ParaNorman book and do a Q&A; Sunday August 19th at noon, at Gallery Nucleus in Alhambra, California. Admission is free. See the movie, then go meet the artists themselves.

  • James Madison

    Good to hear about, and see the work of the women in animation!

  • Mike

    Well, I suppose they’ve only had two of them but the care Laika’s artists are putting into these films is totally evident. ParaNorman was easily my most anticipated animated film this year–can’t wait!

  • Bud

    [Comment removed by editors. Hearsay isn’t allowed. Back up statements with facts.]

    • Bud

      Ross Stewart, Pete OSwald, Kent Melton, Chris Butler, Kevin Dart,Deanna Marsigliese, Dave Vandervoort, among other ALSO designed and/or contributed to the design of the characters, and made most of what’s there work. No disrespect to Heidi, but she was only one of many.

      Just the facts.

      • Incidentals add ons and contributions are just part of the entire animation system and especially when you have masses and crowds They were meant to be styled like Heidi’s , not to be styled like a single one of the people you named. Chris was the director and contributed to absolutely everything in the film , EVERYTHING! So what are you trying tom say ? Designs storyboards , set design on and on and on were not done by the artists because Chris was the director and contributed ? Heidi was the designer and everything was based on her , its why the credit. If you have a problem with that I suggest you take it up with Chris himself. You can find him on facebook. Just the facts, uhuh.

  • yeah! glad to see Heidi getting praise somewhere other than ‘the making of’ books that only stopmo nerds see!

    • Mike

      ….on a website that only animation nerds will see? :P

  • G. Cliff

    I have to say those sketches are really crude and not in a charming kind of way. I know I’m going against the current buzz but I just don’t find this movie appealing in the least. I hope I’m wrong I really do but based on this movie’s trailers and the poor response to Aardman’s latest offering I really don’t see this stop-motion movie doing well. I feel that we’ve seen this movie several times before in only slightly different form. It’s very Beetlejuice/Sixth Sense/Corpse Bride.

    • Yup…BEETLEJUICE and SIXTH SENSE could practically be the same movie.
      Congrats, Heidi! That’s good stuff!

      • Joe

        I think G. Cliff was saying it was a mixture of the three, and I agree. I’d add “Monster House” to that as well.

      • abooboo

        It’ll be nothing like Sixth Sense and you can already tell it has more heart than the Corpse Bride.

        Beetlejuice maybe but that was a classic from over 20 years ago, come one. Monster House was very under-rated, however Paranorman seems to offer more production value.

        I loved the sketches, glad to see character designs not imitating other styles (usually Tim Burton)

    • Stephen

      @ G Cliff.

      I’ve had directors who react like you to this style of work before. The over polished/over thought out work I did for them is left out of my portfolio. There’s no spirit after the 6th pass.

      Heidi Smith’s work I see above is fresh, specific, and committal. Congrats to the Laika staff for recognizing that.

    • I was an outsider from LA brought in to work on it ,I’ve seen the film and it has nothing to do with any of those films. Its actually a pretty eccentric film that has a few serious things you will never see in regular commercial films EVER! . I asked Chris Butler was “Are you sure all these things are staying in the film?” He explained they had their own distribution so they didn’t have to gut it to satisfy anyone else . That on its own is unique.

      You mentioned a couple Tim Burton films and while we are at it Tims designs are modified by other people as well to be adapted into live and 3D puppet films so let me add that to my Mary Blair response. Anyway they are far from crude on any level Cliff. And they are terribly charming. It will not fit in your Hollywood “this combined with this , combined with this ” mode. I thought that kind of description went out with “The Player”. Laika is the last place trying to be anyone else. No one moves to Portland to be like LA . Laika is different.

    • G. Cliff


      You are of course entitled to your obviously biased opinions. You clearly have a vested interest in the success of this movie based on your other comments and you have a rather belligerent way of trying to talk other opinions down.

      I don’t care what you say or how you try to spin it, those drawings could be done by just about anyone with a ball point pen and 10 minutes to kill. And based on the trailers this movie is aping Hollywood in so many ways it’s ridiculous.

      • The Brewmasters

        Ok, everybody’s had their say. Time to move on.

      • I dont work at Laika any more nor will I probably ever again , I have no “vested interest” in whether this 3D film does well. I’m a 2D animator who did 2D facial design because I liked the film.

        If you feel its so easy G.Cliff, just link us to your ballpoint pen drawings. That simple.

      • Here is my impression of all the haters who looked at Heidi’s stuff and didn’t understand it:


      • G. Cliff

        That is undeniably hilarious and pretty bang on with one minor exception – the sparks generally come out the other end.


  • Marvelous work! I can’t wait for this movie; I’m pleasantly surprised that they went with a recent grad and not one of the three guys that are all over character design these days.

  • Bobby Ushiro

    Heidi Smith truly represents the raw talent of emerging women animators on the scene today. Good job Heidi!

  • Mel

    As long as Laika avoids the story problems in “Coraline,” this should be a decent film. The studio has a brief track record but their work has more than held its own visually.

    • G. Cliff

      [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, “Defamatory, rude, or unnecessarily antagonistic comments will be deleted.”]

  • Heidi’s drawings have a quirky, sketchy, unfinished quality, but they sure translate well to the final puppets! In fact the refreshing character design is one of the things that makes Paranorman stand out from the generic look of many current animated films. The “committee decision” mentality of most major studios tend to suck the soul out of the character design, as well as the story and animation. Looks like Paranorman is a more of an artist driven project, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.

  • Norman Klein!!!!! Norman KleeeeiiiiinnnnN!!!!!!!!

  • Oscar Grillo

    Love those drawings!…Finally someone who draws differently to the style of the feature films designers of the last twenty years!…Sadly, they haven’t translated the energy of these drawing into the final film, which looks exactly the same as all the others!….Oh, well..Mustn’t grumble…plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

  • Mac

    Great post! I was admiring some photos of the puppets for this film in a cinema magazine article only yesterday. This film definitely has it’s own look and I love the asymmetrical character designs. It’s great to see some of the sketches for these characters and learn that this gifted character designer is still a young and emerging talent. Heidi Smith has a lot to be proud of.

  • Amanda Merryman (Flynn)

    Heidi has always been unbelievably talented. Getting to see her art change and grow from Jr. High and beyond has been truly amazing. We always knew she would end up doing something super cool for her career!! GO HEIDI!! We were going to go see ParaNorman anyway (because we love the producers), and now we are going to stay through the credits to see your name roll through :)

  • Ed

    Heidi! You bitch! Stop looking so sassy. But seriously, I’m glad you are getting some publicity. This girl is an amazing artist and she deserves tons of credit on Paranorman.

  • Abu

    I actually came here looking for info on this film. I knew about their previous work and I knew it was stop motion. Now I keep seeing ads for this new film and every time I look and say “Is that stop motion or cg?” It looks like a combination of the two.

    I don’t know why but to me it doesn’t look stop motion to me, at least not 100%. My feelings may change when I see the entire film. Also, I’m not saying any of this in a negative way, I’m just curious about the technique they are using.

    • The main characters are done using stop motion, but the character animation was probably digitally enhanced in order to make the animation look smoother, which might give the appearance of a more CG look. You can see in the trailer there’s CG visual effects elements, so I’d wager the movie is most likely going to be 80% stop motion and 20% CG.

  • Rezz

    There’s something incredibly charming about a drawing that isn’t tied down to strict rigid anatomy, which always makes a design feel more sterile and lifeless.

    simply wonderful designs. We need more design explorations like these.

  • Hi cartoonbrew! and Congratulations to Heidi and everyone who worked in ParaNorman!!!
    I don’t know why, but it was first released in Mexico august 3rd so I’m very grateful!!!
    I loved it, and the people at the theatre seemed to enjoy it too. Would’ve liked to hear the original language, but animated movies get dubbed here. Loved it anyway, hope you see it soon too. ¡Viva el stop-motion!

  • bird mccargar

    Heidi has an amazing talent for bringing the psychology of the character right into the lines of the drawing! Her work is all about the feel and the line. I think she is super talented!

  • I was one of the of the 2D facial animators who followed up on Heidi working under Peg Serena. Before I even started I as sent to her blog and I was amazed . Her work is in the same vein as all the great designers like Mary Blair. It is unique, eccentric and holds its own world. She is a joy to know as well. This is just the start of an amazing career.

  • I, too, was floored by Heidi’s designs when I first started at Laika. I was also terrified because I was the guy who would be tasked with drawing them from other angles in order to provide turnarounds to the great Kent Melton to sculpt from. Talk about challenging! If I had a dollar for every time Chris Butler slapped the stylus out of my hand, shouting, “Too classical!” I’d be a very rich man. Heidi’s work was a beacon to every artist on ParaNorman. Her bold, unhinged style and brutally accurate eye for character made the cast of ParaNorman stand out from any other. I can’t wait to see what she does next! Go Heidi!

  • Don Adams

    Heidi didn’t do the model packs? Since when are character designers not tasked with doing the turnarounds and expressions of their own characters? It’s easy to come up with a one shot appealing drawing. Making that sketch functional from all angles and still retain the charm of the original drawing as a puppet…now there’s the real magic. Congrats to Dave and Kent!!

    • Mary Blair didn’t, nor did a lot of other Disney designers. Kent, Dave and all of us worked from her designs. Troll somewhere else.

      • Daniel

        Mary Blair ain’t a character designer! If your talking about Disney, then the only character designer they had was Milt Kahl~ He set the tone from Pinnochio to Rescuers.. the rest were just inspirational artist!

      • Let me disagree Daniel . Its an easy mistake to make .

        Kahl , it wasn’t until later that he became a dominant motivator in look in the design and style. Pinocchio ? I guess if you completely ignore Thomas, Johnson , Kimball , Clark, Fred Moore, Blair , Tytla all the other lead animators, he was the “sole” designer, not. . He did contribute to the some final designs but the films were not based on Milts style at all till way later. Yeah, there were other artists at Disney before Dalmatians.

        I said in the same vein as “designers ” like Blair ( who did design characters by the way ) but lets be clear here, Heidi’s work was what the final designs were based on. It wasn’t “inspirational ” , it wasn’t “kinda” or “something like” , her design were what they are based on, got it ? Kent , Daves and my entire job was to realize Heidi’s designs in 3D . I’m not sure what part of that you aren’t grasping but I think that should settle it.

        Anything else you missed ?

  • Hello Don,
    I did do turnarounds and expressions for my own
    characters, but since I had to design so many characters
    for the film, Dave helped out with the turnaround process.

  • Cartoon brew, this was a great article! It’s awesome to see young artists in the large production, and it’s great that unconventional aesthetics find it’s way into feature animated films, so, congratulation to Heidi and the rest of the crew! Coraline was remarkable, I expect the same from little Norman!

  • Looking at Heidi’s drawings — I’ll bet she’s a fan of Edward Koren — makes me yearn for a 2D feature animated in her wriggly, crawly, scratchy style. But even if CG might eliminate some of that vibe, it’s great to know that PARANORMAN’s characters all come from a single POV, and a tremendously appealing one as Heidi’s.

  • tom

    When I saw your work at Cal Arts and then met you, I knew you would be a good fit for ParaNorman. Glad it all worked out. Congratulations. – tom

  • sDixon

    I’m sorry, but I got to agree that I’m not into her stuff all that much. The stuff she did for Paranorman (for the most part) looks great, but when you head over to her blog it’s all hit or miss for me. You could say that its me “Not Getting” her and that her work is “Way to Advanced” for me or “Goes over My Head”, but that is just being inconsiderate of other people’s feelings, tastes, and opinions.

    • Heidi draws amazingly like Heidi. Most the time she draws exactly like Heidi. Sometimes she draws very much like Heidi. She has a personal vision. Others don’t. I can’t wait to see more.

  • daniela urista

    I didn’t know their was an interview/book signing at nucleus.It’s funny cause that’s were I bought the book at around in Alhambra.