In the world of gastronomy, it’s known that the land imparts distinctive flavors. Wines from each region are in some way unique and meld well with food grown in the same place.
So it is for Portland, Ore., and Laika, say the company’s leaders. Far removed from Hollywood and other filmmaking capitals, Laika has developed a culture all its own that seeps into every film it makes.
Laika’s head of production Arianne Sutner, says she feels there’s “a flavor, this Northwest terroir” in their films. She points to the studio’s upcoming “Kubo and the Two Strings,” which is set in mythical ancient Japan. “We clearly looked at the flora and fauna of Japan to make sure we were sourcing it correctly,” she says, “but I’m pretty sure I see a little bit of an Oregon in the forest there. And the same thing for ‘ParaNorman.’ (pictured) When we’re doing an East Coast world, there’s a little bit of Oregon that gets in there too.”
Laika has made some sacrifices to get that “terroir.” Most studios — even quality-obsessed Pixar — chase government subsidies across borders. Laika uses digital effects, but never sends them to Vancouver or London (both capitals of CG production). Stop-motion animation is labor-intensive, but the company hasn’t opened a branch in Louisiana or Australia. High-tech fabrication for its meticulously crafted sets and costumes is done in its own Hillsboro, Ore., HQ, not in some subcontractor’s shop in China or Malaysia.
As it prepares to double its pace of production, moving to a release a year, Laika could have opened a branch office; and Hollywood bean counters would have nodded approvingly. Instead Laika is doubling down on Oregon, adding another 105,000 sq.-ft. to its existing 150,000-sq. ft. production facility.
The company’s CEO, Travis Knight, has Oregon roots, being the son of Nike billionaire Phil Knight. Keeping Laika solely in the Portland area suits his vision. “People come from all over the world to do this work here in this one place, that’s removed from L.A., that’s kind of this weird armpit of the Pacific Northwest,” Knight says. “Where we are, who we are, the fact that we are all under one roof — it creates a culture.
“We continue to push each other,” he says. “We are a part of each other’s lives and I think because of that, the films have a certain kind of spirit. It’s the community that makes the film.”
Like many “Laikans,” the studio’s head of business affairs, Rosemary Colliver, is a Portland transplant. She was an entertainment lawyer in Hollywood, and doesn’t miss her long commutes on Southern California’s freeways. “I can get home 16 miles in 16 minutes; people wave at me on the street; everyone says hi to me in the grocery store,” she says.
For the sort of artists drawn to Laika, that’s an important incentive in its own right, says human resources chief Suzanne Johnson. “Artists can come and collaborate with other artists who care as much about what they’re doing,” she says, “We’ve established a place where they can come and stay. We’ve had many people meet here. We’ve had people start families.”
That’s not to say that Laika is oblivious to incentive programs. According to Johnson, Laika has been working closely with the Oregon governor’s office on the state’s incentive programs. “Not necessarily for us directly, but in order to continue to support a wealth of talent in this town,” she says. “And that’s been going quite well.”
So far, staying in Portland has worked for Laika; its leaders say it is profitable. “The moment we start farming things out and not caring about all the details,” says Sutner, “we won’t have these exceptionally beautiful, perfect little gems of movies that look different than anybody else’s.”