Coraline’s button eyes, Kubo’s dancing origami, Mr. Link’s cheeky grin. Film by film, American animation studio LAIKA pushes the parameters of stop motion, crafting beautiful fantasy worlds where stories unravel in unexpected ways. LAIKA producer and animator Arianne Sutner lets us in on a life in animation and the studio’s creative process.
Where did it start for you and stop motion?
I drove to San Francisco the summer after graduating from college, and that very first night I saw the midnight showing of Tim Burton’s first Batman. It made a real impression. I started working freelance as a production assistant, and when I heard he was putting together a stop motion project in the city, I really hustled to get an interview. That was The Nightmare Before Christmas. I don’t think any of us expected to be making stop motion films 25 years later, but here I am, and I love it.
Having been at Laika for Coraline, ParaNorman, Kubo and the Two Strings and now Missing Link, you’ve really been part of LAIKA’s evolution. How have things changed in the way you make feature films and what’s stayed the same?
So much of what we do remains the same, while at the same time we are constantly inventing and using new cutting-edge tools to get us there. Our story process has essentially stayed the same. We’re committed to working on the script until we feel we have a movie, then our story artists adapt the script into animatic form. That continues to be at the core of what we do.
We still work with traditional sculptors who bring our 2D character designs into three dimensions, using their hands and clay. The principles of stop motion haven’t changed – animators breathing life into inanimate objects by moving them one frame at a time and taking a picture of those incremental movements, giving the illusion of life-like motion.
The biggest change in stop motion, although it was before my time at LAIKA, might be the switch from 35mm film to digital cameras. We used to work with enormous, heavy cameras and have nightly lab runs and morning dailies. Now we have no lab runs and dailies all day long.
Here at the studio, the switch from black and white 3D printers to 3D color printers at the start of ParaNorman was a big one. It opened up endless possibilities in terms of character design. In general, as our ambition to tackle every kind of story continues to grow, the way we go about ‘world building’ continues to evolve. Within the stop motion industry – which is a tiny fraction of the film industry – LAIKA is breaking new ground every day; we march to the beat of our own drummer.
What are the challenges to consider as the medium evolves?
At its core, stop motion as a method to make movies is still about constructing physical objects and moving them through physical space with ‘real’ lighting. But the ways we can accomplish that have expanded enormously, we can do so much more than we could 20 or 30 years ago. We are able to tackle any kind of subject matter and environment. We’re not limited to a space with three walls and a handful of characters.
A challenge we face with every show is determining which shots we do in stop motion physically and which we tackle in CG. There’s an art to that. It has to do with knowing and accepting your limits and identifying which limitations you may want to wilfully ignore. We’re getting pretty good at it!
We never ‘dumb down’ our films in order to make them more stop motion friendly. We give strong consideration to things we think would be fun and inspiring to do in stop motion but never shy away from big expansive story ideas.
Is there ever a risk of the physical craft of making and moving the puppets being usurped by computers (be that 3D printing or rendering)? Does it matter?
If that were true, I suppose it would have happened a long time ago. But our fan base continues to grow with each new film. I think it has to do with a yearning for things that are special and handcrafted. Websites like Etsy and the resurgence of vinyl records are just a couple of examples, but one of the biggest testaments for us was the recent LAIKA exhibit at the Portland Art Museum. We had a huge display of puppets and sets from our first four films that ran for eight months and drew over 300,000 visitors. It was the biggest exhibit they’ve ever had. We couldn’t have been more proud, and I think it speaks to people’s appetite for physical craft.
What does stop motion enable you to do that live action doesn’t?
Shoot for two years? Besides that … LAIKA’s version of a hybrid stop motion approach is unique. We’re able to work hand in hand with a VFX group from the start of every project. We don’t get a single thing for free – every aspect from characters, to props, to weather, is meticulously designed so it awards the filmmakers a very specific amount of creative control.
As a producer (and head of production at LAIKA) what are you looking out for on a film, from ideation to post and beyond?
I look for the same things any filmmaker does. I look for the spark in the story that convinces me we will one day have an engaged and excited audience. I look for something that I can love and be inspired by because I’ll have to live everyday with the movie for about five years. As we head into post production and I start to see the film finally come together, I really love the experience of feeling that I’m in the loop on the most amazing secret and I’m about to share it with the entire world. That’s probably about as good as it gets.
What makes a great stop motion film?
First and foremost, a good story. I’ve seen fantastic stop motion films that were filmed in someone’s garage. It really comes down to having a vision and expressing it to the best of your ability. That pretty much covers any artistic endeavor. I guess you could also reduce it to some undefinable magic, that something extra special, something that makes the movie endure, in the way that a movie like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer endures.
Recent films like Anomalisa and Isle of Dogs show that stop motion needn’t be aimed solely at families. Are you excited about the future of the form, and how does LAIKA fit into this landscape?
It’s a big enough tent for all comers. We like to push the boundaries of “family fun” entertainment occasionally, and hopefully expand people’s perception of what it is. But mostly we tend to follow our own muse. I think any filmmaker who participates in this art form usually seems to be cut from similarly independent cloth. We believe that our medium can and should tell every kind of story.
At LAIKA we want to tackle every genre and subject matter, and it gives me chills to see how much we’ve grown in a decade. I’m excited by the possibilities of continuing work with our characters in other ways and offshoots as well as continuing to share our behind-the-scenes exhibitions around the world.
Why do you think more filmmakers are being drawn to stop motion?
Probably because of the old-world attention to craft that it demands. It’s incredibly detailed work, you get nothing for free. Everything has to be considered, designed, built, and performed. That’s an amazing amount of control to have over a movie, and I think that is part of its appeal.
Laika’s Missing Link premiered in April 2019. Watch the trailer: