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).

Popular on Variety

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.”

More Artisans

  • Marvel Studios' AVENGERS: ENDGAME..Tony Stark/Iron Man

    How 'Avengers: Endgame' Publicity Team Made Headlines By Saying Nothing At All

    Secrecy and strategy were fundamental when it comes to marketing the MCU films. After 14 years and 22 films, those two factors were crucial when it came to planning the rollout for the final installment,  “Avengers: Endgame.” Earlier this week, the publicity team behind the film’s campaign was nominated for the ICG Publicist Awards. Union [...]

  • The Farewell Movie BTS

    Academy Falls Short on Diversity, but Foreign Films Crash ACE Eddies Party

    The American Cinema Editors Eddie Awards, which will be handed out Jan. 17, will for the first time give voters a choice of selecting a foreign-language film in each of the three categories. The trio in contention are: “The Farewell” (comedy), “Parasite” (dramatic) and “I Lost My Body” (animated). “This is the first time in our [...]

  • Best Documentary Scenes from 2019

    Directors Describe Their Key Scenes in the Past Year’s Top Documentary Films

    The directors of this awards season’s documentary hopefuls explain the ticking hearts at the center of their shortlisted films. Apollo 11, Director: Todd Douglas Miller  Setting the Scene: The pre-launch sequence for the first mission in which humans landed on the moon, featuring NASA workers and regular citizens alike. “It encapsulates everything and highlights a lost [...]

  • Paris Recreated for Movie Productions on

    TSF Recreates Paris on Former Air Base for Movie and TV Shoots

    As French outfits move to expand their studio offerings, industry eyes have turned to a 20-hectare stretch of land 20 miles south of Paris. There, in the commune Plessis-Pâté, sits the TSF Backlot 217, a converted air base that has become one the Gallic industry’s banner initiatives. One of France’s leading production suppliers, TSF scoped [...]

  • DSC07163.ARW

    Streamers Urge French Production Sector to Go Green

    For the French industry, the drive to open up additional studio spaces has gone hand-in-hand with the push for green production, because for the most part, they share the same root cause: The international streamers that are causing a surge in audiovisual production tend to have strict criteria when it comes to sustainable development. “Companies [...]

  • CNC Chief Outlines Plan to Update

    CNC Chief Outlines Plan to Update French Production Infrastructure

    Speaking at an industry round-table at the Paris-based Production Forum on Thursday, Dominique Boutonnat, president of France’s National Film Board (CNC), announced a new plan to update local production studios in order to make them more internationally competitive. The modest plan, which involves new funding, training sessions and additional research, follows a March 2019 report, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content