Animation Elite 2012: Brian McLean

As director of rapid prototyping at Portland, Ore.-based Laika, McLean is literally changing the face of stop-motion animation. Whereas the pain-staking process previously relied on hand-sculpting different expressions for every frame of the film, McLean — working at the behest of Laika topper Travis Knight — innovated a way to design character faces in the computer and produce them in plastic using a 3D printer.

“We were the first company taking this technology and utilizing it for something that had never been intended before,” says McLean, whose two big challenges were counting on the jerry-rigged machines for accuracy and surface quality. “You’re asking it to be repeatable over thousands of parts to unbelievable tolerances.”

Together with his team of 45 artists and technicians, McLean created all the interchangeable character faces seen in “Coraline,” though the pieces still had to be individually painted. On “ParaNorman,” the company upgraded to color 3D printers, which posed a fresh set of challenges — and breakthroughs, including the ability to add freckles and complex color patterns impossible to repeat by hand.

“In hindsight, it’s easy to look back and say, ‘We figured it out,’ but there were times when we just didn’t know if it was going to work,” McLean says.

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