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Employee Diversity Is Key to Success for ‘Kubo’ and All Laika Projects

From the beginning, stop-motion animation house Laika set itself apart from the rest. The company is based in Oregon. It focuses on a technique that gives its stories a deeply unique look, and uses pioneering technology like rapid prototyping to create its films. And, while many studios lag behind in putting together a diverse workforce, it turns out women hold significant creative roles in the organization.

Costume designer Deborah Cook; head of production Arianne Sutner; creative supervisor of puppet fabrication Georgina Hayns; and Alice Bird, art director on “Kubo and the Two Strings,” are four of the high-profile women creating, managing and collaborating on Laika’s films.

“With our boss, Travis Knight, he’s just looking for talent, for effective people,” says Sutner, who was a producer on “Kubo and the Two Strings” and “ParaNorman.” “The more diverse we can become, the richer the kinds of stories we can tell.”

Bird, art director on “Kubo and the Two Strings,” has been with the company for six years and found it easy to make a home at the stop-motion studio. With a steady flow of material that pushed boundaries and a supportive crew, it became the best of all worlds.

“It’s definitely true that there are some experienced women in more concentration at Laika than there are at other companies,” says Bird, who notes that having Sutner on staff is one of the things that drew her there. “[Sutner] is a really warm and engaging person who makes an effort to get to know her staff.”

Hayns, creative supervisor of puppet fabrication with credits on “The Boxtrolls,” “ParaNorman,” and “Coraline,” also believes the company attracts the kind of quirky talents who can find kindred spirits at Laika and feel comfortable in the eclectic Portland area. “Artists who come here often have highly specialized talents that work well in one of the few parts of animation that’s still truly hands-on,” she says.

There are special legal benefits for those working in the state that make the company even more appealing for some. Oregon offers 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid maternity or paternity leave, California doesn’t have job-protected leave. This makes the already family-friendly state even more attractive for residents.

“I never thought it was going to be the end of my career if I had a baby,” says Bird, who has two young children and feels supported by Laika on a personal level as well. “Some industries are not like that.”

Since animated films often take years to complete, Hayns has been able to coordinate and plan with fellow crew members to structure her leave so that it wouldn’t disrupt production.

Laika has been attracting strong female talents for a decade. Cook, the lauded costume designer who worked on “Kubo,” “The Boxtrolls,” “Corpse Bride,” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” arrived at the studio 10 years ago just as it was launching. Though she thought she’d just help out with a few projects, she quickly began to see the company as a great place to stay.

Cook saw that the studio developed material that brought her strong creative challenges and the company also attracted other talents who were solid collaborators. It was a combination that made the studio just right for her.

“Before I came to Laika, I’d worked in quite a few places where I was the only woman or one of two [women],” says Cook. “We’re a pretty strong bunch here and we’re drawn to each other, I think.”

Hayns agrees and also believes the company is focused on attracting talent more than anything.

“People from all walks of life, all countries come here to work on these movies,” she says. “What they’re really looking for is people with an enthusiasm to make things.”

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