A few weeks ago, we were whisked away to the magical land of Portland, Oregon, for the sole purpose of visiting Laika, the animation studio whose dazzling new stop motion confection “The Boxtrolls,” opens later this month. As you can imagine, it was downright magical and while we were there, for a few short hours, we tried to soak up all we could from the place – the sets, the people, the vibe – so we relay that special feeling to you. It was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime treat, to the point that we had to actively wonder if we had come down with some incurable disease and they were whisking us there as a dying wish.
While we tried to cram as many anecdotes and notes as we could into our trip, but we were also working (see our adorable interview with Isaac Hempstead-Wright, who voices Eggs, a small child raised by the titular underground gremlins), but we will try to make it feel like you too have visited the wonderful realm of Laika. Hope you enjoy the tour, as we countdown the ten most amazing things about Laika.
1. The Location
The morning after we arrived in Portland (very, very, very late at night), we were picked up and driven to a small industrial park outside of the city. It’s the kind of place where you’d imagine a warehouse would sell plastic bags to local grocery stores, filled with dull buildings that could belong to anything from accounting offices to fireworks factories. And one of these buildings… holds Laika. Now the Pacific Northwest atmosphere is super cool and all, and clearly influences the goofy-gloomy sensibility of their films (one of their upcoming projects, which we confirmed with president and CEO Travis Knight is indeed still happening, is a fantasy film centered around Portland, based on a book by Decemberists lead singer Colin Meloy), but the literal location of the studio, in such an unassuming space, makes it even cooler. Other animation studios inundate you with coolness, as if to signal that something very special is happening here. Laika just is. And it is amazing.
2. The Atmosphere
Once you get inside the doors of Laika, you are transported. It’s not like the walls are lined with outrageous artwork or anything (and, to be honest, we were kind of disappointed that the studio never acknowledged its storied history as the Will Vinton Studios, the pioneering stop motion workshop that gave us the California Raisins and Michael Jackson’s “Speed Demon” music video) and everyone suddenly seems really quirky. In fact, it’s the opposite — the studio cultivates the air of concentrated creativity. You can tell that people are working, almost everywhere, on something that is undeniably cool. This is a continuation of the building’s unassuming awesomeness — everyone is working on things that you could never even imagine, cracking tough technical puzzles and finding practical work-arounds, in an effort to bring profound art to movie screens nationwide.
3. The Costumes
One of the coolest moments in the entire day was when Deborah Cook showed us all of the hand-stitched costumes that adorn the stop-motion characters that populate “The Boxtrolls.” The costumes, like everything else at Laika, are miniaturized masterpieces, but what made this infinitely cooler was the word that Cook had just joined the costume designer’s guild. That means that, this winter, “The Boxtrolls” could become the first animated movie to ever secure an Academy Award nomination for Costume Design. This still is sort of mind-blowing. Even more mind-blowing: that based on what we saw, she totally deserves it.
4. The Movies
Maybe it’s a good time to pause and point out what Laika has already contributed to the arena of animation. Their first film was “Coraline,” which was directed by Henry Selick (who was also responsible for “The Nightmare Before Christmas“) and based on the children’s book by noted fantasist Neil Gaiman. That was a genuine trailblazer of a film; a fully realized stop motion animated feature by a new American studio that wasn’t a one-off or proof-of-concept. It was also lyrically beautiful and thematically bold, the tale of a woman who falls down a fantastical rabbit hole and stands up to all of the ghouls on the other side. The studio’s follow-up, “ParaNorman,” might be an even better, more emotionally nuanced film. It’s about a young boy named Norman who has the ability to see ghosts and who has to save his small town from witches, zombies, and all manner of supernatural spook-’em. This was another amazing film and, like “Coraline,” seems like it could have only come from Laika.
5. The Filmmakers
At one point, our tour of the studio reached a lull, and we were served lunch and given the opportunity to informally chat with the filmmakers behind “The Boxtrolls.” It was, especially for an animation super-freak like ourselves, a total blast. Anthony Stacchi, the film’s co-director, who was with us that day, is a genuine animation legend, having worked on everything from Disney’s “Rocketeer” (he lovingly told us the process to get the rocket pack’s flames just right) to an aborted feature-length animated “Frankenstein” that was being developed by George Lucas‘s effects house Industrial Light & Magic. After many years working on computer-generated features (it was Stacchi’s idea to do “Hotel Transylvania,” back when he was at Sony Animation), he seemed genuinely relieved to be working in a world that is so tactile and rewarding as stop motion animation.
We also got to briefly speak to Knight, who is not only the president and CEO of Laika but also the studio’s chief animator (and, according to Selick, one of the greatest animators on the planet). We asked him about the financial particulars of the studio since it hasn’t had a “Toy Story“-sized hit yet and maybe never will (and its commercial division, which helped sure up the bottom line, was recently spun off into an independent, wholly separate company). Knight was honest and forthcoming — the movies are relatively inexpensive, the studio has a small core of animators (at most around 30) and there isn’t a ton of overhead. They’ll keep making their odd little movies as long as they can. And hopefully that will be a very long time indeed.
6. The Technology
It was fun to be at Laika and learn about the technology behind the films, since they’re so seamless that you kind of take them for granted. A whole section of our day was devoted to learning about the company’s cutting-edge use of 3D printers, like the kind Makerbot uses (Laika uses a different company). “ParaNorman” was the first film to use this technology, which saved time and a whole lot of money, by “rapid prototyping” the different heads for the puppets, which could then be switched out depending on the mouth movement/emotion required for that scene. What’s sort of interesting to learn is how those mouth movements are designed first in the computer and then transferred to the 3D printers (which get really, really hot). The damp Pacific Northwest air can sometimes wreak havoc on what the 3D printers end up producing (since they are “printed” layer by layer and emerge from a vat of sand-like shavings). At the end of the day we were handed our very own “Boxtroll” souvenir — printed by those same 3D printers. Innovations are always happening too; this film featured characters that were 3D printed and painted. Whoa.
7. The Animation
But even more impressive than the technology was the actual animation. One set, which featured an underground sewer pipe, was ingeniously rigged to simulate trickling water. In another set, a giant mechanical beast used to track down the boxtrolls (think a steam-punk version of the Sentinels from “X-Men: Days of Future Past“) had an iPad in its chest. The iPad was running footage of a crackling fire. This is the same version of the giant robot that appears in the final version of the movie, iPad and all. Call it the “Laika difference” — low cost ingenuity that looks truly remarkable on screen.
8. The Cast
In addition to Isaac Hempstead-Wright, the movie features a truly incredible cast — Elle Fanning plays a young human girl who befriends Eggs, the so-called “human boxtroll,” Toni Collette plays her mother, Jared Harris is an aristocratic weirdo, Ben Kingsley plays Archibald Snatcher, an exterminator hell-bent on destroying the boxtrolls (and Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, and Tracy Morgan play his henchmen). It’s almost an embarrassment of riches, and from what we understand everyone was just so thrilled to be involved in the production, it’s nearly beyond belief. There’s also a nifty bit of Laika lineage in the casting of Fanning, since her sister, Dakota, starred in the very first Laika feature, “Coraline.” At Laika, sometimes it really is a family affair.
9. The Sets
Maybe the most outwardly jaw-dropping aspect of our visit to the studio was walking around the giant sets. Most of the sets are elevated, so that the animators are either crouched down or standing on some kind of platform. Many of the sets have secret trap doors so they can pop up, manipulate a character, and then disappear once more. One set we saw was a grand ballroom, which, in the final version of the film, will be populated by at least a dozen individually animated characters and a dozen more that were added via the magic of computer animation. (Think of how many sore wrists that would equal.) The sets tower over the relatively small figures (think of them as about the size of an ornate Barbie doll) and the detail is absolutely incredible. One set was so vast that actual mushrooms and things started growing in it; another was full of lettuce that would rot and decay, adding to the film’s earthy visual hue. It’s really impossible to figure out how these characters are brought to life, painstakingly, moved 24 times for every second of screen time, but when you look and see how immersive and detailed the sets are, you think that maybe you could spend whole weeks of your life moving a little figurine inside these imaginative spaces.
10. ‘The Boxtrolls’
While we didn’t get to see the final version of the film (it was still being tweaked at the time of our visit), we saw about 20 minutes, and it really is another step forward for the company. There’s one sequence where Kingsley’s character eats a slice of cheese even though he’s allergic, and his lip balloons cartoonishly. It’s a brilliant comedic moment and evocative of the almost Gilliam-esque wackiness of the movie. (Don’t worry, it also has a strong emotional core, about the nature of identity, prosecution and how we construct our own understandings of family.) When the movie opens later this month it will be the very definition of a must-see.
“The Boxtrolls” opens nationwide September 26.
Follow Drew on Twitter at @DrewTailored.