“I wanted to create things that were corrective; that were a restorative tonic to this sensory assault that so many kids are subjected to. When I think about what inspires me, it's to make those kinds of stories; to make movies that matter; to make films that have something meaningful to say that are resonant, that are thought-provoking, that are emotional, that speak to some kind of a deep truth and ultimately offer a hopeful, un-cynical view of the world.”
4.3 seconds. That’s how much of a scene a stop-motion animator completes on an average shooting week during a Laika movie production. Unless you're a speed reading champ, it probably took you that long to read this sentence.
And that’s just animation—a step that comes years into Laika’s process. Before an animator can come in to animate, puppets have to be fabricated and dressed, sets have to be built, every shot meticulously storyboarded—not to mention the character design, voice acting, and actual writing of the story—someone has to have an idea, one that will inspire thousands of other ideas, from character motivation to the invention of an engineering marvel.
Hundreds of people from all over the world, in dozens of departments, with skills honed in specific niches of any number of industries will generate hundreds of thousands of things: scraps of fabric testing patterns, dyes, construction techniques; 2D character sketches; printouts of research materials; a custom motion control setup built around a bowling ball; a boy's face with one eye open and one closed, a boy's face with one eye open and the other open just a sliver, a boy's face with one eye open and the other open slightly more and one corner of the mouth beginning to rise into a crooked smile . . .
It all happens in a town called Hillsboro, an unassuming suburb of Portland, Oregon, in a business park barely more than an errant foul ball away from the local Hillsboro Hops' minor league baseball stadium. Here, Laika's crew of over 400 art geeks, engineers, and producers busily turn out one hit stop-motion animated film after another: Coraline, ParaNorman, Boxtrolls, and now Kubo and the Two Strings.
Travis Knight, CEO and President of Laika, has built the company into a singularly independent animation powerhouse. Beholden to virtually no one but Knight, the crew at Laika operate with incredible freedom. “We’re not going through test screenings and marketing seminars," says producer Arianne Sutner. "We want people to enjoy the movies, but it’s really pure filmmaking.” The sky is the limit, and it's getting higher: last year, Laika broke ground on a new facility, which will provide 20 more feet of headroom above each set.
Long before Laika’s beloved characters have a world for their epic adventures to play out in, concept artists have worked endlessly to craft the perfect environment. Producer Arianne Sutner says Laika’s concept art, as beautiful and inspiring as it is, also serves as an almost technical blueprint for everyone working on the lm, from the production designer to the set construction team. “We spend a ton of time storyboarding in a very traditional sense. Really, we’re making the movie before we actually make the movie. We dial in everything as carefully as we can so that when we get to the more laborious and time consuming stages we can just go,” Sutner says.
Meticulous conceptualizing and storyboarding helps to maintain a consistent style throughout the movie even with hundreds of people working on diferent parts. The goal is to create a whole universe - Kubo’s universe - that is so unique and stylized that if a char- acter out of any other movie dropped down onto a set, they’d look sorely out of place. In Kubo’s case this uniqueness comes through in textures – mainly the Japanese woodblock texture – which is carried through the entire lm from the silk kimonos to the interior furniture to the natural environments. Here Arianne Sutner gives us a unique glimpse into the early stages of Kubo and the Two Strings through its beautiful concept art.
Every new film project by Laika begins with a challenge. “We never want to repeat ourselves,” says producer Arianne Sutner. “Our goal with every movie is to create a unique world and tell a brand new story.”
It’s a call to action that everyone within the company takes very much to heart, with each department pushing themselves to greater creative heights. And you’ll see that most readily in their modeling department. It’s there that each puppet and set is conceived, designed, and built, with each small, innovative step bringing them closer to another dazzling and exciting film.
For Kubo & The Two Strings, the scale and breadth of the story presented the crew with some pretty sizeable hurdles to try and clear. They had to construct everything from a welcoming Japanese marketplace to a lush bamboo forest and a frigid, snow-covered landscape. There were dozens of puppets to clothe and animate as well, each one requiring its own intricate wardrobe and facial expressions (including up 20,000 different microexpressions for young hero Kubo alone).
But nowhere is the sheer effort and brainpower required for such an endeavor better represented than with the creation of a giant skeleton puppet that lives in The Hall of Bones.
Built for one of three eye-popping battle sequences that mark Kubo’s quest to collect the three magical pieces of armor left behind by his samurai father, the character is based on a creature from Japanese folklore that is made up of the bones of people who have starved to death and goes out seeking revenge for its ill fate. True to those mythological tales claiming that it is 15 times larger than a normal human, the creepy orange beast dreamed up by Laika measures in at 16 feet tall and 400 pounds, making it the world’s largest properly articulate stop-motion character ever made.
“We said that on The Boxtrolls with our five-foot-tall Mecha-drill,” says motion control engineer Steve Switaj, one of the men responsible for the creation of the giant skeleton. “We got a lot of pushback from people saying the AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back were taller or the Jaguar Shark from The Life Aquatic was bigger. They can all bite me because this was this biggest one by far.”
To understand Laika and the labor-intensive stop-motion animated films it makes, you have to first clear a lot of space in your head. The production details melt your brain. The puppet engineering is both hyper technical and mad-scientist-dream-machine-esque. The research is so thorough that the costume designer is as much a historian as an artist. And the art is precise down to a single hair on the head of a single character in one single frame that only equals 1/24th of a second, which, in an average movie length of 95 minutes, makes up approximately .000007% of the film. Do they actually scrutinize over that one hair in that one frame? Yes, they do. Perfection is not a goal, it is required.
The glacial speed at which Laika makes movies hurts to try to comprehend. A live-action film can be shot in 10 weeks. At Laika, one animator might only shoot 30 seconds of footage in that time. In the real world we’re impressed by speed, but you can’t speed up stop-motion perfection. At Laika, it is patience, endurance, and thoroughness that are revered.
To fully understand a creation, you must spend time with the creator and for Laika that man is Travis Knight – former animator, now president and CEO of Laika, and the director of their most recent release Kubo and the Two Strings. His journey to the top started a long, long time ago.
Picture a youngish kid, living out in the sticks halfway up a mountain with a ton of time to kill and no one chasing his whereabouts. A voracious reader with a wild imagination, he spent entire days as a kid exploring the depths of the woods surrounding his home, reading, making up stories, drawing, writing and generally living with one foot in this reality and one in the world he’s made up.
In the early 2000s as sneaker culture begin to rise to its then zenith, Nike was at the forefront catapulting the movement by way of collaboration. In a genius stroke that brought both excitement and exclusivity to an exponentially expanding genre, Nike utilized working relationships with premiere stockists in a way no others before them had thought to do. Partnering with Supreme and Stussy to breathe life into shared stories, the chosen voice was suede, leather, and rubber soles.
Nike first partnered with California-based Stussy in 2000, producing two limited edition variations of the Air Huarache LE. The European-only release littered the shelves of Stussy’s London shop, spawning annual releases thereafter. In the years that would follow, Nike x Stussy would strengthen the collaborative movement with expressive iterations of the Nike Blazer, Dunk High, and the Air Huarache Light.
We're fortunate enough to live in an era where animation studios focused on family entertainment are churning out hit after hit full of imaginative worlds and memorable characters. Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios, DreamWorks Animation, Illumination Entertainment, Blue Sky Studios, Warner Animation Group — these names are synonymous with quality, yet all are rather innocuous in their approach. Their heroes are triumphant, a lesson is always learned, there are a few tears shed and even more laughs along the way, and everything works out in the end. There's nothing wrong with that sort of predictability; it's comfort food on film.
But there was a time when movies for children weren't so comfortable. Perhaps it was a sign of the times or maybe it was that PG-13 wasn't instituted until midway through the decade, but throughout the 1980s, kids' movies weren't so concerned with being palatable. Back then, both the animated and live-action adventures of kids in movies were rife with grotesque imagery, curse words, and nightmarish landscapes that we somehow couldn't get enough of. Most importantly, these movies used their imaginative worlds to entertain us while teaching us something about the society we live in.
Despite the ubiquity of bright and shiny characters plastered on the backpacks and lunch boxes of kindergarteners across the world, there is one animation studio that has picked up the mantle of these movies. Laika is the modern-day animation equivalent to what Amblin Entertainment was in the 1980s, marrying wildly entertaining stories and characters with important, heartfelt messages and a touch of danger. Laika has its roots in Will Vinton Studios, a company that helped pioneer claymation in feature films and on television — in fact, it was Vinton that coined the term — and eventually morphed into the company behind four feature films to date: Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and this summer's upcoming Kubo and the Two Strings.