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.
The current studio is a maze of black curtains, most of them 24 feet tall, and behind any one may be a shipwreck, a village market, a destroyed temple, a bamboo forest, or an 18-foot skeleton with swords sticking out of its head. Even though they’re tiny (with the exception of that skeleton), when the lights hit them, you feel like you’re walking not from room to room, but from one actual, distinct place to another: despite their size, the sets feel vivid and lived in, even without the puppets in them.
But before any of this can be realized, there has to be a script. Knight says, "The pace of things is glacial. The first 2 or 3 years are focused almost exclusively on figuring out the story, the characters, the world. Once you start feeling like you have a solid foundation there, then we start thinking about, 'What does this thing look like?'"
Because of the meticulous, practical nature of stop-motion animation, the story, tone, and most importantly the look of the picture have to be cemented before much actual physical work can begin. A lot of people all have to be on the same page. "We don't have the luxury of making it up as we go," says producer Arianne Sutner. "But we're lucky to have a team that's worked together for ten years now."
One of that team is Nelson Lowry, the production designer working to establish a "look" for each film. "I have to design a film that's buildable from the very beginning," he says. "You can't get better as you go. The first shoot (which comes much too early in the process for anyone's taste) has to be as good as the last." The last scene to be shot can't look better just because the crew had more time to work on it, or because new technology exists since the beginning of production. Research needs to be done very early in the process in order to make sure every department is prepared.
Naturally, the crew—made up largely of artists and engineers—relishes the research. Once a script is done and the voice artists have recorded performances, the team swings into action. A year before physical production even begins, costume design head Deborah Cook starts her process. "Ooh, I'm a hoarder," she says with a smile that seems, frankly, slightly afraid of itself. "I'm like a magpie, I just gather things." For Kubo, set in a world Laika refers to as "fantastical Japan," her research includes various fabric samples; photos, videos, and paintings of historical clothing; sketches, samples, proofs of concept. The trick here is that costume design for a production like this is not as simple as just making tiny versions of life-sized clothes. "You don't want viewers to see the scale when they watch the movie," says Cook. Her designs need to stay perfectly still for each of 24 frames in a second of action, and yet still look like they're large, flowing pieces of fabric. To achieve that, the backs and interiors of the "garments" look more like machines than clothes.
Some of Cook's costumes even include puppeteering armatures designed in collaboration with Georgina Hayns's puppet fabrication department. Hayns and Cook work together to achieve the look set out by the character designers, while also focusing on making performative puppets. Hayns describes the puppet as "a tool for the animator to live and breathe through." To that end, the lively and often adorable characters we see on screen are built around terrifying terminator-without-the-skin skeletons—steel armatures with dozens of joints and apendages.
With each of Laika's movies, Hayns and her crew are asked to create more and more complex puppets. Kubo's cast includes a little boy, a four-armed man-beetle, a monkey, a huge scaly eel monster called The Moon Beast, and an origami samurai, among many more. During the research phase, Hayns took some of her team to an origami expo that happened to be in Portland, even enrolling them in a workshop to learn paper folding techniques that could be replicated in a puppet.
Meanwhile, the rapid prototype department, spearheaded by Brian McLean, takes care of creating the facial performances. Facial animation at Laika is done with a technique called replacement animation: the eyeballs and eyelids move, while the actual face itself is replaced from frame to frame. In one of Laika's most impressive and award-winning innovations, those faces are animated in the computer, split into 24 frames per second, and then printed on a 3D printer. One character may have 20,000 different faces.
Facial animators base the animations on the voice talent's performances, from libraries of mouth shapes based not only on the sounds of words, but on emotional expressions as well. "We separate these things into kits, so we can say, well, he's making these sounds, but I can hear in the performance that he's kind of happy," says McLean. "So I can take a little bit from the smile kit and use that." The director of the film oversees these aspects of the performance as well as the voice actor's performances. By the time the movie makes it to theaters, Matthew McConaughey will be only one of over 60 people contributing the actual performance of his character, Beetle. McLean says that "typically, in stop-motion animation, as long as the lips sort of match up with the words being spoken, you'd call it good. But now, we can go to Travis [Knight] with the computer animations before we print and he can say, 'The emotional performance isn't right. Let's try it again.'"
Until recently, the 3D printers couldn't print in color, so every face had to be hand painted. McLean recalls the enormity of that project: "We literally had a spreadsheet about how many freckles Coraline could afford to have. We calculated out how much each freckle would cost in terms of thousands of dollars and years of a painter's life." Now, the 3D printers can print in colors—but only three.
"When Brian told us the printers could only print faces in three colors, we had to adapt to that," says Lowry. "We basically changed the whole look of Kubo—we built these limited palettes into our characters and then into our sets." That ended up playing into one of the other themes of the movie: the straightforward lines and colors of origami. But that's Lowry's—and Laika's—style: "We take these limitations and turn them into advantages."
As Deborah Cook says, "Stop frame is typically very low budget. We're used to having to cobble together creative solutions." Dan Pascall, a production manager, points out that the sand on one of the sets is crushed almond shells, the background dried and painted corn husks. He laughs, "It's part of the charm. I think sometimes they do it just because. I didn't even know you could buy dried corn husks."
Kubo involves a couple of different enormous puppets: a towering skeleton that the other characters actually climb on, making it both puppet and stage; and the Garden of Eyes—a giant eyeball plant controlled by a trackball mechanism that's literally a bowling ball. Dave Tapper and Oliver Jones, whose departments worked on both of these enormous contraptions, were clearly tickled by their ingenuity. But is it a bowling ball because only a bowling ball would do the trick, or because it's fun?
According to Jones, "The bowling ball was right for that. It has a weight to it, but also smooth motion. You can get really tight control . . . and," he adds with a smirk, "there's a punch line. It's a bowling ball!" And of course, now that this brand new invention exists, they'll probably use it on future productions as well.
Pascall explains that these innovations and inventions make the crew as a whole more efficient, but they don't necessarily make everything easier. "Pushing the boundaries with every new project sort of negates all those efficiencies. If it's been done before, we don't want to do it. I don't think we've ever said, 'No. We can't do that.'"
Knight describes an "inherent restlessness" at Laika. "Sometimes it's really low-fi solutions to problems, and sometimes it's incredibly high-tech technologies that people are inventing over the course of the show. I just love that combination of craft and science and art and technology. It's such an unusual chemistry, and I think when you have a futurist and a luddite working side-by-side, it really is fertile ground for innovation and creativity."
To hear Sutner talk about the studio's goals, you can tell that attitude extends from the tiniest physical solution to the overall scope of the company: "We want to do every kind of movie, every genre. We want to do a new genre that's never existed before! We're a bunch of nerds—we get antsy and bored and we want to rise to the occasion."
Every single person in the crew at Laika rises to that occasion. Sutner is genuinely amazed by what they can do. "No one else can do the things we can do, right here, together. These people are brilliant. I mean, you almost wish Ollie [Jones] would put his mind to solving bigger problems!" Yet all of them choose to be in Hillsboro, Oregon, creating the countless tiny pieces that come together over the course of years to achieve Travis Knight's goal: "tell new and original stories.”
And somehow, years down the line, you'll see it on the big screen in a dark theater and it won’t feel like a million different creations. At its most exciting a Laika movie doesn’t even feel like anybody’s idea: even though part of its charm is how clearly handcrafted it is—and by almost a thousand hands—it’s not a puppet show, it's not animated, it’s not even a story, it’s real: something happening not in front of you or for you but to you, and before you know it, you're laughing and crying right along with a bunch of puppets with familiar voices as they love and fight through their lives. And just like them, you're moved by a thousand unseen hands.