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How LAIKA, The Minds Behind Coraline, Help Keep The Classic Art Of Stop-Motion Fresh

Updated: Jul 2, 2023

Edited by Marian Mohamed

“The Pink Palace” miniature house as seen in Coraline (2009). (Photo/Antonio Nevarez)

The characters of popular stop-motion animated movies are coming to the real world. LAIKA, the movie studio behind films such as Coraline and the upcoming movie Wildwood, stops by Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture for their new exhibit, “Hidden Worlds: the films of LAIKA.”

For many movie-goers, the fantasy worlds on screen may feel like something outside of the realm of possibility. From J.R.R Tolkien’s “Middle Earth” to James Cameron’s “Pandora,” these fictional worlds are detailed and engaging, but ultimately nonexistent. However, some movie studios work to create fantasy worlds in the real world. LAIKA uses stop-motion animation to bring their films to life, ultimately creating physical environments and characters to tell their stories.

Brian McLean, Director of Rapid Prototype at LAIKA, explains some of the traditional ways stop-motion animation has been applied to classic movies.

Brian McLean, Director of Rapid Prototype, presenting the different stages of Coraline’s 3D printed face. (Photo/Antonio Nevarez)

“There's a couple of ways that you can animate facial expressions and facial performance in stop motion. One is having a head be clay that an animator is squishing around and getting different expressions. Another way is called replacement animation where you have individual hand-sculpted faces that you can put on to take a picture and replace them with a different expression,” McLean explained. “For those of you who've seen The Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington was probably the pinnacle of replacement animation at the time, where he had 800 hand-sculpted heads that an animator would pop on and pop off.”

Although stop-motion animation has been around for over 100 years, LAIKA’s wanted to combine 21st-century technology with classic stop-motion to improve replacement facial animation. This resulted in LAIKA becoming one of the first animation studios to prioritize 3D printing to create their characters’ faces. Mclean recalls the thought process behind the production of Coraline, LAIKA’s first feature-length film.

“So the idea was we basically would animate faces in the computer, and then we would send them to these fancy 3D printers. We printed her [Coraline ] in three different pieces. We had the eyebrows, the mouth, and then the teeth. At the time, this was very revolutionary. We were figuring out how we were doing this,” McLean said. “But the end result was we suddenly tapped into this amazing performance of being able to harness the power and subtlety of computer animation. And by printing these things out, we could have a stop motion character have [an] unprecedented performance.”

This technique made it so that characters, including Coraline herself, could have swappable facial features to create different emotions without making an entirely new face.

“We printed her eyebrows and her mouth as separate pieces, you could interchange them. So you could have an up brow with a smile, or a down brow with the same smile face and you're gonna get two completely different emotional ranges. So Coraline, when you add up all the combinations of her eyebrows and mouth, she had something like 200,000 different possible facial expressions,” McLean said.

Close-up of the 3D printed Coraline faces. (Photo/Lily Rodriguez).

Even the smallest of details can really impact how a character’s performance plays on screen, even when it comes to the clothes a puppet wears. Deborah Cook is a costume designer at LAIKA. Cook explains the decisions made when designing certain clothes for the characters of Kubo and the Two String

“There's some really big drapey sleeves going on in this movie, which we find really quite new territory for stop frame animation to approach,” Cook said. “If they move their arm, the sleeve moves in our scale with our movement and it's really telling, it looks really weird and takes you out of the story. So we built in engineering underneath it so that there would be another way of animating the sleeve to give it that gravity and weight.”

In addition to making the costumes themselves appear as if real people were wearing them, LAIKA wanted to make sure the costumes they made were accurate to the cultures they were inspired by. Kubo and the Two Strings, in particular, were inspired by Japanese culture.

“I worked with the cultural specialist, Taro Goto, who just worked with me on everything and just double-checked everything,” Cook said. “Just being conscious of being authentic in the way that I was representing. [I] just wanted to make sure that [the clothing] was more accurate and would resonate appropriately, and not take any creative license.”

Deborah Cook, Costume Designer, explaining the detail that went into the puppet called “Mother” from Kubo and the Two Strings (2016). (Photo/Lily Rodriguez)

Representing different cultures pays off for many people. It helps viewers resonate with the characters that help represent their backgrounds. Actor George Takei, who portrayed the character Kosato in Kubo and the Two Strings, was given a puppet of his character during a ceremony. That’s where Cook was able to see responses from viewers first-hand.

“There [were] a lot of older people there from the Japanese community. And it was just so fantastic to hear their responses to the costumes and what they felt was authentic about the costumes,” said Cook. “Some of them were really overwhelmed at just how much detail had gone into them, and recognized it from some of their older ancestors or grandparents [as] what they might [have been] wearing at the time.”

While LAIKA is well known for its stop-motion films, they are not the only movie studio that continues to make them. Movies such as Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio, Wendell and Wild, and Frankenweenie (2012) were all produced by other studios. However, LAIKA does not see them as competitors in the field. In fact, they are seen as friends and are open to sharing stop-motion techniques to keep the art form going.

“So one of the amazing things about stop motion, in general, is it's a very small, tight-knit community. There's a similarity between animation styles because it's such a small group of people that are sort of moving from production to production,” McLean said. “We're not pioneering this use of 3D printing technology for stop motion animation. We didn't patent that technique… Pinocchio, which just won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, has people who worked on LAIKA films who went on and made the Pinocchio puppet with 3D printed faces.”

“It's amazing to see what they did with that style and that story to see how they took this idea and evolved it in a new direction. So it's a neat thing to be a part of, where there's no real ownership of it, but you just get to see how the work is different or improved upon as other people play around with it,” McLean added.

Both children and adults often enjoy LAIKA’S movies, typically containing elements that both audiences may enjoy. This can be a difficult goal to meet for some animated films. LAIKA’s Head of Production, Arianne Sutner, explains some of the goals that LAIKA incorporates in their movies to connect with a range of people.

Arianne Sutner, Head of Production at LAIKA. (Photo/Lily Rodriguez).

“We're looking at kids with the utmost of respect. We all were kids, I have kids, we all know kids. And we just want to make a story that can push [something] for them to think about. Maybe they can explore those scary ideas like Coraline and the kind of scary fairy tale with [their] family,” Sutner said. “We're looking at movies that we think everyone can enjoy. We're not afraid to explore things that are dark, we like to balance it to show love and light.”

As of 2023, LAIKA is working on its next movie, Wildwood, inspired by a series of books by Colin Meloy. According to Sutner, LAIKA plans to cover the story of the first book, but there are no plans to cover the rest of the book series at the moment. The story centers on a little girl and her quest to find her brother after he is kidnapped by a murder of crows. The movie is set to star Peyton Elizabeth Lee, and Jacob Tremblay as the two children, with additional voices including Carey Mulligan and Mahershala Ali.


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