The Case of Stop-Motion Part 2: What I LAIKA ‘Bout You

LAIKA

Welcome back to yet another week about animation! Last week, we covered the history of the stop-motion from The Humpty Dumpty Circus all the way to Wallace and Gromit. This week, we’re taking a look at a studio that stands on its own as the leader in stop-motion animation. 

Since its founding in 2005, Laika has been making a name for itself among the animation elite. Though stop-motion is not the most popular or cost-effective form of animation, they continue to stun audiences with their technical mastery with each new film they produce. 

Last week we talked about Will Vinton, the father of “Clay-mation.” This week we are picking up with the end of his story and the beginning of Laika. We will touch on each of their five movies, and what we “Laika” about them. 

  • Will Vinton

    • As you might remember from last week, Will Vinton was the Oscar-winning animator that created the singing California Raisins and “The Adventures of Mark Twain” in his signature Clay-mation style. Vinton helped popularize claymation in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, and without his influence we likely wouldn’t have films such as “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” 
    • When his short “Closed Mondays” won an oscar, it proved the credibility of animation as an art form for adults as well as the viability of claymation
      • He was only 26 at the time, and it was the first time a stop-motion film won an oscar for best animated short.
        • Vinton was quoted saying, “After being completely rejected at a local level, we were validated. It’s exactly what I had set out to do — prove that clay animation was still viable. Back then, 99% of animation was for children and families, or two-dimensional; this was neither — it was for adults, it wasn’t a kiddie film. So many people told us it wasn’t going to happen, just forget it. We validated the medium, and it opened doors.”
          • It’s important to remember how Vinton sought to make animation that was different from mainstream studios.
      • When Vinton brought on more people to his business, they made it their mission to push claymation as far as they could. They didn’t even want to pursue a project if it seemed too easy, and this led to some strange and beautiful animation.
    • Vinton spent 30 years building his studio and creating memorable characters. At one point, it was worth almost 30 million dollars
      • In the mid-1980’s, his studio was hired by California Raisins to animate their new commercial campaign. Vinton’s commercials were so successful, the company saw a 20% increase in sales, and suddenly ad agencies were contacting the studio left and right to produce more ads like it.
      • The studio grew to handle the volume of projects for M&Ms, Domino’s Pizza, KFC and more. They were also hired to animate two TV series, one produced by Eddie Murphy called, “The PJs.” 
        • As their project list lengthened, the studio incorporated CGI to keep up with the popular trends and also to quicken some processes. Vinton didn’t enjoy CGI as much, since computers weren’t as hands-on and he felt more like a programmer than an animator.
        • Vinton noticed that his veteran claymation animators were taking to CGI, since it also operated in a 3D space. Together they created a groundbreaking Chips Ahoy commercial that combined the techniques; It was CG that LOOKED like clay.
        • While Vinton worked on “The PJs,” he started to use foam and latex over ball-in-socket joints to make the characters move more freely; He called this technique foam-ation.
    • After all this success, the studio was forced to expand into a full company to take on the many projects coming their way. The only problem was that Vinton was more of an animator than a businessman, so they hired a new CEO named Tom Turpin.
      • Turpin sought outside funding, and Vinton’s legal counsel pointed them in the direction of Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike. Knight invested 5 million dollars into Vinton’s studio.
      • Now owning 15% of the company, Knight approached Turpin and requested that they give his son a job as an intern. Knight’s son, Travis had been trying to make a career as a rapper named Chilly T. 
        • Even with his own record studio and his dad’s connections, Chilly just didn’t seem to find footing as a rap artist. 
        • Vinton Studios welcomed Knight’s son, even though he had no experience with animation. They started him off in the CGI department, teaching him how to render details on characters.
    • In 2001, the company took a few financial hits. First, the two shows that they were working on both were cancelled. Then, events of 9/11 caused a downturn in advertising. The company was in trouble and they hired a new CEO. This came with massive layoffs and a cultural shift in the company. The new CEO asked Phil Knight for more money, and Knight agreed. This time, though, he bought the company and brought in Nike coworkers as board members.
    • Phil Knight’s son, Travis had grown into an incredible animator after only a few years of production experience. Knight appointed him to the board. Six months later, Will Vinton stepped down and was fired from his office position. 
    • In his severance, Vinton lost the rights to his entire body of work including the trademark for Claymation. Later he sued Phil Knight. Vinton felt that he got pushed out of his studio solely because Knight wanted to give his son a company. The case was thrown out, even though Knight admitted that he bought the company with his son in mind. 
    • Will Vinton spent the last few years of his life working on independent projects and teaching at the Art Institute of Portland. He is still revered by animators today for breathing life into clay and stop-motion animation. 
    • His New York Times obituary quoted a 1987 People magazine interview, “There is a point in Claymation, where you can almost fool yourself into thinking that these things are manipulating themselves — that they’re alive.” Vinton passed away in October of 2018. 
  • Founding of Laika

    • In the years after Phil Knight acquired Vinton’s studio, he poured 180 million dollars into it. He used his influence to bring in animators from other successful studios like Walt Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks. The company was rebranded to Laika. 
    • On July 20th, 2005, Laika was officially founded. 
      • In the beginning, there were two divisions. Laika House for commercial work, and Laika Entertainment to focus on feature films.
      • Both of these divisions existed until 2014, when Laika House broke off and created “House Special.”
        • They are an independent studio focused on creating art for any medium (according to their website.) 
      • In 2008, Laika ran into trouble when a planned animation feature fell through and they had to scale back their staff. Luckily though, their next planned feature did not fall through and Laika broke onto the scene with a major hit in 2009. 
    • On their website, they quote Travis Knight: “We’re an outlier. We work in an industry that is dominated by franchises and sequels and prequels and remakes and reboots, but we’re devoted to telling new and original stories. We live in a modern, glossy, high-tech digital world. But we make movies in the most moth-eaten, anachronistic way possible. By using our hands.”
        • It’s amazing that even though Vinton lost the studio, Laika still seems to hold onto the values that he placed in his works. Remember how he wanted to make films different from the mainstream? 
  • The Movies

    • Coraline

      • When Travis Knight was asked to reflect on Laika’s beginning, he chose to speak about their first film Coraline. He recalled how excited he and the team were because; 1. it was a solid team (they brought in Henry Selick, an acclaimed producer and director of Nightmare Before Christmas to direct), 2. an imaginative idea (best selling book by Neil Gaiman), and 3. a process that had room to grow in the future. 
        • His optimism was well placed but in the practical sense was difficult to portray as a winner to film studios. They all had their doubts and Travis Knight heard them all.
          • ‘Stop-motion is not a viable filmmaking medium.’
          • ‘Everyone knows you can’t have an animated film with a female protagonist, unless she’s a princess or a fairy, of course.’
          • ‘No boy’s gonna go see a film with a girl’s name in the title. No girls will see it either. The damn thing’s too scary.’
          • ‘Teens aren’t interested in animation.’
          • ‘Adults see animation as a babysitter. They don’t want their kids to be challenged.’
        • After hearing all of these sentiments on what stop-motion can and cannot be they finally found Focus Features and Universal to produce and distribute the movie.  
      • Coraline follows the story of an eleven-year-old girl  who discovers a door in her new house that leads to an alternate world. This world is much like the one she comes from, but the differences are fantastical. Coraline finds herself enjoying this new world, and returns often until the alternate version of her mother “The other mother” tries to get her to stay there forever. She must find a way to escape back through the door, and save the souls of other children who have been trapped there as well. 
          • It stars: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey Jr, and Ian McShane.
      • Each character within the film had multiple puppets which were 3-D printed. Coraline’s character had 28 copies.  The facial features alone added up to 200,000 possible expressions. 
      • Coraline was shot in 3-D which typically calls for two cameras. One to shoot for the left eye and one for the right.  Since the scale in films such as Coraline are much smaller scale than that of Spy Kids 3-D or Avatar the team had to come up with a way to get two shots.  To resolve this they created an automatic slide mount for the camera that would allow them to take the shot for one eye, slide to take for the other eye, and then slide back to the original position.
      • Althea Crome
        • Althea hand knitted each of Coraline’s sweaters. She is a knitter that specializes in tiny knitted clothing, in this case to fit a doll that was not even ten inches tall. Each sweater took about two weeks to create 
      • This film took almost 4 years to create from script to screen with 150 stages/sets.
      • With a budget of 60 million, Coraline brought in a whopping 124.6 million dollars at the box office. In that respect, it is still Laika’s most successful film to date. 
        • The combination of Gaiman’s strong storytelling and the medium’s complex realism worked incredibly well for the film. The dark subject matter is perfect for clay, a material that can cover every range of emotion. The stranger moments of the film hearken back to Will Vinton’s “Adventures of Mark Twain” and we can see how the studios are related.
      • After the success of Coraline, the studio scaled back once again and decided to solely focus on stop-motion. With the next four major releases, Laika has continued to prove that it is an innovating leader in stop-motion. 
      • That same year, Travis (the artist formerly known as Chilly T) was promoted to CEO of Laika and has remained in the position ever since.
    • ParaNorman

      • Laika followed up Coraline with another hit, ParaNorman in 2012
        • It was Laika’s first original film, which was brought to life by co-director and writer Chris Butler. It follows a young, compassionate boy with the ability to talk to the dead. Norman learns that his town is under a curse, and that the dead will rise from their graves and wreak havoc on the town. Because of his unique ability, he is the only one that can stop it and he must summon his courage and save his friends and neighbors. 
          • It stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, and Elaine Stritch.
        • This was the first film where a color 3D printer was used in order to reduce human error and the amount of time it would take to hand paint facial expressions. Laika continued to use this technology with all their later films.
        • It took 3 years from script to screen.
        • There were 60 cameras that captured 400,000 frames of animation.
        • 178 puppets were used, and compared to Coraline’s 200,000 expressions Norman had 1.5 million different expressions.
      • Grossing 107 million, it made less than Coraline, but earned an Oscar nomination.   
    • BoxTrolls

      • Boxtrolls is based on “Here be Monsters!” by Alan Snow which is an adventure book about magic, trolls, and various creatures. 
        • An orphan boy named Eggs lives with The Boxtrolls, a group of mischievous and unique creatures that live beneath the city. When an evil man devises a plan to exterminate the creatures, Eggs heads above ground where he meets a girl named Winnefred and they team up to save the trolls.
        • It stars Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Dee Bradley Baker, and Steve Blum.
      • 20,000 props were hand made along with 70 sets. 
      • The main characters had just over 1 million facial expressions.
      • The 2 minute dance sequence took 18 months to animate. 
      • This movie contained 185 handmade puppets with interchangeable faces.
    • Technology Increased yet again
      • In an article by Dave Trumbore he states that, “the meeting point between practical stop-motion animation and computer-aided effects came ever nearer in The Boxtrolls. For example, one of Laika’s texture painters, Tory Bryant, used her traditional painting techniques to tweak the painting software into layering the available colors in order to produce blended finished pieces that were far beyond what the printer designers thought the software and their machines could do.”
      • The 1:5 scale puppet was 3D scanned and the expressions tweaked using a Computer Aided Design (CAD) Software before the new face is printed using a modified 3D systems printer.
    • A little tension rose when it was one of the films nominated for the Oscar for best animated feature over The Lego Movie.
    • Boxtrolls made just a little more than ParaNorman worldwide, grossing 109 Million.
    • Kubo and the Two Strings

      • It seems there is a pattern here, because with Kubo and the Two Strings we return to an original story idea by their character designer Shannon Tindle.  It was strengthened and enriched with the help of screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler.
        • Kubo is a young boy who loves to play his magical instrument and tell stories to the people in his town, while looking after his mother. After accidentally summoning a vengeful spirit, he must go on the run and join forces with Monkey and Beetle to help him unlock a secret legacy and battle The Moon King to save his family and discover the truth about what happened to his father, a great samurai warrior. 
        • It stars: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Brenda Vaccaro, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Matthew McConaughey, George Takei, Rooney Mara, and Ralph Fiennes.
      • This is the first movie that Travis Knight makes his directorial debut.
      • Kubo and the Two Strings contains the largest creation that Laika has made, a skeleton character that stands 16 feet tall, wingspan of 23 feet, and weighs 400 lbs.
      • It took 5 years from script to screen.
      • Despite its critical acclaim, masterful storytelling, and stunning visuals, Kubo and the Two Strings grossed only 70 million dollars worldwide. 
        • RogerEbert.com lauded the film for giving its young audience credit and gave the film 3.5 out of four stars saying, Above all else, ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ is fittingly about storytelling and its capacity to transform and connect us. The timelessness of the film gives it an overall feeling of cinematic grace, with obvious nods to greats ranging from Kurosawa and Miyazaki to Spielberg and Lucas. The resonance of the performances from its excellent voice cast gives it an immediate emotional punch.”
    • Missing Link

      • Mr. Link is an 8 foot tall friendly fur covered mammal who enlists the help of Sir Lionel Frost to escort him safely to his rumored relatives. He pursues the journey to the mystical Shangri-La trying to combat the loneliness of being the only one of his kind in the Pacific Northwest.  Joined by Adelina Fortnight the three travel together and find family where it is least expected. 
        • It stars: Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Zach Galifianakis, Timothy Olyphant, Emma Thompson, and Stephen Fry.
      • Often with stop motion animation the direction taken is dark because of art aspects like the rigid movements of puppets. Missing Link is the first film where Laika truly deviates from this formula, opting for a more colorful film and Sherlock Holmes meets Indiana Jones feel using the advances in technology, skill, and expertise picked up since Coraline.
      • There were 110 sets and the VFX team supervised by Steve Emerson used CG to increase believability in scenes.
        • When Chris Butler was asked about CG and its combination with stop motion for Missing link he said  “The innovations that we’ve come up with on the last four movies have enabled us to come up with solutions for the challenge of making a much bigger movie here. Everything comes from a physical asset and I think that’s how we maintain a believable co-existence of digital and practical.”
      • From script to screen this film took about 5 years.

Sources:

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