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Laika Animation Studio, at 10, Is a Model of Innovation

Laika’s signature blend of high-tech and handmade has other toon studios watching its next step

The real-life Laika — a Russian street dog who became the first animal launched into orbit — lasted mere hours in space, but paved the way for humans to eventually follow in her tracks. Today, the Laika name has become synonymous with another pioneer: the Oregon-based animation studio responsible for creating “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” and “The Boxtrolls,” and which turns 10 this year.

Though the stop-motion technique of animation traces to the earliest days of cinema, no company has done more than Laika over the course of a single decade to innovate the medium. It’s core principle remains the art of crafting physical puppets and moving them one frame at a time. The studio’s contributions can be seen in everything from the complexity of the stories it tells to the subtlety of the performances within them, from the minutest level of artistic detail to their staggering big-picture ambition. (Execs are virtually doubling their Hillsboro, Ore., studio space in order to move to one feature release per year).

“God knows, everything about their productions is amazing. That exquisite animation they do is brilliant, and obviously all the crafts skills — model-making, lighting, sets, costumes — are fantastic,” says Aardman director Peter Lord.

Driven by the vision of CEO Travis Knight (pictured), Laika has applied as much high-tech innovation to its films as any filmmakers working today, including “Avatar” auteur James Cameron. Laika’s innovations aren’t primarily in digital imagery, but in the physical realm. The animators meticulously craft objects — puppets, sets, costumes and props — that are tiny works of art in themselves, photograph them beautifully and combine them with digital tech to tell bigger stories, with more nuance than has ever been possible with stop motion.

The company’s most obvious innovation is the expressiveness of its puppet faces. No other company has poured so many resources into making its puppets perform. The result is a Laika look that doesn’t quite resemble anything else.

Laika began as Will Vinton Studios, the “claymation” outfit where future Laika CEO Travis Knight started as an animation intern, working on the crude — and relatively crude-looking — Eddie Murphy sitcom “The PJs,” among other projects.

Knight recalls that when Laika was starting up in its current form, stop-motion — like Will Vinton’s most recognizable creation, the California Raisins — was “withering on the vine.” Digital effects and animation threatened to render the art form obsolete. But he settled on the hybrid solution that has since defined the company, melding myriad forms of high-tech with old-fashioned hand-craftsmanship. “It was embracing the author of our demise sort of like a Luddite embracing a loom,” he says.

Before Laika began work on “Coraline,” stop-motion filmmaking was typically divided into two camps. One approach was face replacement, in which animators substitute different face appliances from shot to shot. Aardman uses this technique, as did Henry Selick and Tim Burton on “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” The other approach was the mechanical technique innovated on Burton’s “Corpse Bride,” where tiny hinges and gears hidden behind silicone surfaces allow animators to make the puppets emote.

Knight felt neither approach delivered the level of nuance he sought. “We were trying to find and innovate a new way that we could get emotion and expression out of characters’ faces,” he says. Enter Brian McLean, who had the bright idea of applying a rapid-prototyping machine — a 3D printer — to the task of making replacement faces. (McLean is still at Laika with the title director of rapid prototyping.) No one had previously considered the devices for that purpose, but with them, artists could now design characters’ expressions on a computer, then print them. Since 3D printing allowed face parts to be mass produced, animators could create more face shapes with more varied, subtle expressions.

According to Georgina Hayns, a “Corpse Bride” veteran who has overseen puppet fabrication at Laika since “Coraline,” “It was probably one of the sort of most sophisticated stop-motion puppet animated movies of its time, (and yet) looking back, it was actually Neanderthal.”

OPENING A DOORWAY: “Coraline” introduced Laika and established the company as a creative force.
Courtesy of Focus Features

On “Coraline,” 3D-printed faces still had to be individually hand painted, limiting both the number of faces that could be made and the detail that could go into them. In later Laika features, such as “The Boxtrolls,” McLean’s RP team used 3D color printers. That liberated the team to make many more facial expressions and to give characters fine detail like freckles. (Although Knight adds, “It was really only through sheer force of will we were able to kind of trick these printers into doing something they didn’t want to do.”)

Still, their innovations have effectively changed the game. Aardman’s 2012 stop-motion feature “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” incorporated 3D printing technology pioneered by Laika for smoother, more versatile face replacements. “Anomalisa,” from directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman, also used a rudimentary version of the Laika rapid-prototyping system, but without the digital cleanup Laika uses to hide seams.

“Anomalisa’s” Johnson was able to recruit some Laika vets for his film. “They’re the greatest stop-motion fabricators and animators,” he says. But his admiration for their craft is tempered by a purist’s skepticism for the ways Laika combines puppets with computer graphics to deliver photo-real effects (encompassing everything from digital set extensions to complex water systems), as well as the potentially controversial addition of computer-generated extras (allowing for crowd scenes that might otherwise be too unwieldy to animate).

“I think it’s a little unfair to say that they’re really stop-motion. It’s a different thing,” Johnson says.

Knight’s determination to make stop-motion as polished and smooth as any other form of filmmaking may seem perfectionistic, but no one understands the in-the-trenches role of an animator better. As the company’s leading stop-motion samurai, he tackled many of the trickiest and most action-oriented shots on past productions himself. “Now that he’s a director, I have lost my fastest animator on the show,” jokes Laika head of production Arianne Sutner.

While rendering software allows Knight to predetermine exactly how the faces will look in each frame (on “Kubo and the Two Strings” he reviews and tweaks nuanced facial “playblasts” well in advance), he deliberately gives the animators plenty of room to add artistic touches on the set, leaving them to focus on the full-body performances and ambient details that bring the scenes to life.

“Our style is built on Travis’ animation,” notes “Kubo” animation supervisor Brad Schiff, summarizing Knight’s naturalistic philosophy: No need for big gestures. “We animate our characters as if they’re acting for the camera as opposed to acting for the stage,” he says. Meanwhile, something’s always moving in every frame, often imperceptibly, even if it’s as subtle as a character breathing.

“Very few people view stop motion the way we do,” Knight says. “We really try to use it — and animation generally — as a powerful visual medium by which you can tell virtually any kind of story in any genre. We do it with this very strange hybrid of techniques. And it’s over the evolution of these 10 years that we’ve found that the combination of all those different things evoke a certain mood. But we have to force it. It doesn’t happen on its own.”

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