Laika’s Award-Winning Design Thrives on ‘Ugly Mistakes’

Imperfections lend beauty to sets, says designer

From the start, one of Laika’s strengths has been its world-building. “Coraline” and “The Boxtrolls” won Annie Awards for production design.

For supervising production designer Nelson Lowry — who is also the production designer on Laika’s next release, “Kubo and the Two Strings” — the ability to create richly imagined worlds is one of the attractions of the stop-motion medium.

“We get ultimate control,” Lowry says. “We do everything from scratch, so we get to imbue the films with a personal style, or something that supports the story that’s original and fresh.”

Lowry says that Laika’s design is vastly improved from when he arrived for “ParaNorman” and still getting better, in part because most of the team has worked together before. “All the time you might spend figuring out who the hell your co-workers are, you are now able to put into the show and the uniqueness of the show and the beauty of the show,” he says.

Nonetheless, they deliberately shake things up, trying out new materials or new combinations of artists. “We’ll often have what I call ‘ugly mistakes,’” he says. “We’ll do something very odd and strange and think ‘How can we turn that into a plus? How can we make that into a beautiful thing?’ (The ugly mistakes) are counterintuitive, yet they bring a tactile, human-error quality — or in “Kubo’s” case, a ‘wabi-sabi’” (the Japanese term for imperfections that make things more beautiful).

Laika’s design team uses high-tech techniques as well as hand-craftsmanship, blurring the boundaries between disciplines. Lowry notes that 3D printing allows them to create characters and scenes that would have been too labor-intensive to craft by hand. Besides, even Laika’s digital set extensions use scans of hand-made objects and scanned textures from the art department.

“It’s not necessarily that we are coming up with cool ways to solve problems,” Lowry says. “It’s that we can’t help but solve them in those unusual ways, because the asks of each show are stranger and more interesting.”

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