From Coraline to Kubo: LAIKA is the Stop-Motion Studio that Never Stops

“…there’s an intrigue about puppets. They tell a different story.”

In the west end of Portland, Oregon lies the city of Hillsboro, home to the many tech companies that gave it its nickname “Silicon Forrest”. Hillsboro is also home to LAIKA, not technically a tech company, but a movie studio that fuses old movie magic with new technology to create some of the most engrossing and immersive animated films being made today. LAIKA grew out of what was originally Will Vinton Studios, starting with animating for commercials and music videos, the goal was always features films. In 2009 they released a film based on a Neil Gaiman book about a young girl who discovers a door to a secret world that mirrors her own. Coraline was a critical hit and a modest box office success while also earning the studio its first Academy Award nomination. Since Coraline, they’ve produced a feature film approximately every two years, with ParaNorman in 2012 and The Boxtrolls in 2014. They have yet to make a film that wasn’t well reviewed or nominated for Best Animated Feature. If there’s a LAIKA movie you haven’t seen yet, you should fix that.

Last week LAIKA celebrated their 10th anniversary by releasing the trailer for Kubo and the Two Strings, the fourth in a six picture deal the studio has with Focus Features. On the same day the trailer for Kubo was released, I had the opportunity to sit down with LAIKA’s Brand Ambassador, Mark Shapiro,  who was in Toronto to introduce a screening of The Boxtrolls at TIFF as part of their Magic Motion stop-motion animation retrospective.

Mark Shapiro_Laika
Mark Shapiro with actual puppets used in The Boxtrolls

No Wizard Behind the Curtain at LAIKA

I’ve always imagined brand managers to be like the wizard behind the curtains – or perhaps in this scenario puppet master would be a more apt analogy. Usually they’re the ones coming up with messages for the filmmakers and actors to relay on their PR trail, but in the case of LAIKA and Shapiro, you get the message straight from the horse’s mouth. Shapiro has been part of the LAIKA family since they were a little over halfway into the production of Coraline, and is as passionate about the work and the films as anyone.

Dork Shelf: I’ve never interviewed a brand manager before, but in my research I came across a lot of interviews with you. That’s not very common, you’ve almost become like the face of the company… 

Mark Shapiro: We like to be at different events, around the globe, and talk about what we do, show what we do, answer questions about what we do. As much as possible, we like to bring directors, heads of departments — or animators; I do a lot of tours, classroom visits and presentations of all sorts. I’ve been at LAIKA since 2007 — the time has gone fast — so I have a little bit a of background with the company.  

The Son of an Ad Man

DS: What kind of professional background were you coming from before you began at LAIKA? 

MS: I worked in marketing for Nike for several years, I worked for a magazine in New York in advertising. I grew up in an advertising family. My dad was a big advertising executive guy. I grew up watching a lot of TV and analyzing advertisements. Understanding the way things are displayed and understanding the idea behind a brand. So it’s kind of ingrained in my DNA I guess. 

DS: Were you always a film fan, specifically stop-motion? 

MS: Strangely enough, when we moved to Portland, I coincidentally lived across the street from Will Vinton — he’s often referred to as the godfather of Claymation. He was just the guy who lived across the street, and he had an Oscar. All the kids knew that, it was kind of a cool thing. He would say ‘hey you guys wanna come see the Oscar?’  I’ve always been a fan of English comics, anime — and animation in general. Charles Adams is first real great artist who was also a contemporary satirist that I really liked and I think that folds nicely into where I am now. 

Marketing Universal Stories 

DS: It’s a different kind of brand and I imagine it’s tough to market at times. Does appealing to both kids and adults make your job easier or harder? 

MS: I think it makes it more complicated to figure out, because I think the stories that we choose are universal. Kids like them, adults like them. I remember growing up like that, even seeing old school hand-drawn Disney animation, that is a compelling story and a reason to go to the movies. Neil Gaiman talks about the expectation of what’s going to happen next, and the excitement and involvement in the story, and I think that that’s key. Those universal stories are what we look for, it’s a really challenging thing to try to pull together. 

DS: Will you cut one trailer to appeal to kids and one that appeals more to adults? 

MS: We have an agency that works with us to help develop the right look and feel, depending on the country. Even if they’re bordering countries they can be completely different campaigns, and that’s in the hands of those marketers to figure out. 

DS: What makes a story better suited to stop-motion above live action or another type of animation? 

MS: When you think about puppets, they have a life of their own, even just looking at a puppet. If you go through the list of movies in stop motion from the beginning, from the early days, and into Harryhausen, there’s a love of story and also there’s an intrigue about puppets. They tell a different story. Maybe it’s quirkier, some have called it darker. When you’re making a film in the computer you have control of the entire environment, when it’s stop motion, you’re dealing with elements. Not only the creation of sets and props and puppets, but the world itself. Lighting and camera… you need experts in all those fields to make it click.

When you look at a stop motion film there’s layers of the film, because it’s made by hand, that feed into the story. When I look even at films that we didn’t do, like The Nightmare Before Christmas, when I see a scene from that movie I can see into the forrest and it doesn’t end with the computer screen. There’s depth to it because there is really depth to it. We shoot 24 frames per second, and if you think of the number of 5k images for an 85 or 90 minute movie, heart and soul and sweat goes into each frame, I think it resonates to the camera and you can see it. 

Keeping it Fresh

MS: When it’s a two and half year process for the film, there has to be excitement. I was talking about the tenacity and the excitement of the artists, that helps create the tension and the feel and the weight of the movie, if that makes sense. When you have a great idea, a great story, and you tell the story, whether it’s just a joke or something, over time it can lose its meaning, but if you continue to up your game with creative, with artistry, with visual effects, with stop-motion animators and puppets, it helps keeps the story fresh. It’s a long time to commit to a movie, and you can think of all the changes, when you’ve heard the story a million times, how do you keep it fresh? How do you keep animators engaged? How do you keep the creatives engaged? How do you keep the production team engaged? A big part of that is everybody’s putting so much into it and there’s so much creativity that it helps motivate the film. 

DS: In the eight years that you’ve been around stop-motion productions do you feel like the technology has streamlined the process at all? 

MS: Even though it’s changed a lot, the one thing that stays constant is time. Our 3D printers can do a lot more than they were capable of in the beginning, because they can do more we’re able to create more but it’s almost like how the smartphone doesn’t make our life easier. That’s the example I always use. Because we’re able to do more, there are more expectations. Technology has done some remarkable things, but we still try to do as much as we can in-camera. Almost all of  Coraline was in-camera. We did a lot of clean ups with visual effects, removing lines between faces and some of the external effects. As the movies have gone on, these incredible visual effects artists have been working harmoniously with stop-motion, have leant more to the films, explosions and things that we’re able to do with visual effects. When we talk about a LAIKA movie now, as opposed to just being a stop-motion film, it’s really a fusion of the stop-motion, the puppets, but then this fusion of CG artists to help. The collaboration makes it great. 

What’s next? 

DS: What can you tell us about Kubo and the Two Strings

MS: Kubo and the Two Strings is a story about this boy named Kubo who is a storyteller and he goes to different towns and talks about incredible adventures and things that happened and keeps people on the edge if their seat when he’s telling these epic adventures, and he himself is also embarking on an adventure of his own. What I would say about this movie is it’s a grand movie on a grand scale. It’s a sweeping adventure with so many different landscapes and water and snow and sun and ships… lots of amazing visual effects. You’ll see puppets moving but you’ll see this incredible fusion of visual effects into the movie, and the voice cast is led by Matthew McConaughey and Charlize Theron. 

What’s on Mark’s Dork Shelf

MS: I love my Dork Shelf because when I go to festivals or even a city, I’ll find something off the beaten path that fits. If I have a couple hours I don’t look for a souvenir, I look for something that is reminiscent of that city. 

Mark was kind enough to send a photo of his busy Dork Shelf along with breakdown of its contents:

  • -Light-up Manhattan skyline (a white elephant gift) on which I have displayed zombies and various handmade props I’ve received as gifts — including the pink pig from –Tatia Rosenthal’s amazing stop-motion film $9.99.
  • -Bendable Speed Racer figure, purchased in Tokyo
  • -Bendable Morph, purchased in Bradford, England
  • -La Bombonera, mini stadium-pen holder, purchased in Buenos Aires
  • -Figure from India — a gift from a co-worker’s visit to Mumbai
  • -Crew gifts (ParaNorman faces, Coraline mouse under glass)
  • -Handmade metal giraffe, purchased in a small village in South Africa
  •  -Soviet-era coins with cosmonauts; picked those up in Yerevan, Armenia

Mark Shapiro Dork_Shelf

TIFF’s Magic Motion retrospective runs until January 3, be sure to catch The Boxtrolls digital 3D presentation on Wednesday, December 23rd.