In the Studios
Director Sam Fell reflects, “Making ParaNorman was an enormous task. To stave off tunnel vision, every now and then I would go on a tour of the LAIKA Studios and just walk around.
“That would be what I needed to remind myself of how beautiful our way of making this movie was. You look around and see so many different disciplines connecting, individual talents fitting their work together.”
Creative supervisor of character fabrication Georgina Hayns remarks, “At LAIKA, we all work as a proper team together.” Whether recruiting from local talent, which Hayns notes is “easy to find in Portland, a city that’s known for its arts and culture,” or bringing over artisans from other cities or countries, LAIKA is adding to the Portland arts and culture portfolio.
Just outside Portland, at LAIKA’s Hillsboro studios, the fantastical is everywhere – yet also human-scaled, and within reach. Fell remarks, “Ordinary and extraordinary things alike are being studied and created in immense detail.”
Producer Arianne Sutner offers, “There are a lot of moving parts in the art of stop-motion – in all senses of the term.”
The dozens of different stages and their nearby offices, workshops, and storage areas span 2.5 acres within building space. After creating an in-house visual effects unit, the company added additional space – just across the road – for the department while also basing administrative and human resources staffers there.
At the original building, development and story work can be found percolating upstairs. On the ground floor, the more tangible efforts are taking shape – and, taking shapes.
To a child, the workshops would seem to be the largest arts-and-crafts class imaginable, making use of everything from butter knives to wing nuts. Yet, what looks like a tool kit instead holds an array of RP Color Printer-generated replacement faces that have been painted and finished by hand, with each upper or lower portion – generally speaking, “mouth” or “brow” –nestled in its own compartment and separated by character. “Frown kits” or “smile kits,” containing variations on those respective facial expressions, can be brought over to the stages for a close-up that an animator is working on. There are several hundred options for each.
Everyone is working at once mere steps away from each other, albeit sometimes traversing the length of a football field indoors. What someone is preparing at a given moment could be needed on a stage a few feet away, a few minutes later. Replacement parts and/or costumes are everywhere. Swatches for costumes are kept handy as well.
Elevated work stations find workers perched atop rolling chairs as they perfect, repair, or distress – sometimes more than one at a time – elements of a puppet or a prop. Whether it’s a “Double Ball Joint” or “Swivel Blocks & Pins” that are needed, boxes of those and more are close at hand – for use by hand.
One might be put in mind of a science lab, though assemblage is the priority rather than dissection. Great care is taken with what is being painted and crafted; powder-free latex gloves and hand sanitizer are always within easy reach.
Per LAIKA tradition, if someone drops an object and it makes a noise on the floor while landing intact, there is a round of applause; if the object breaks, then there is silence.
Even that silence can be broken by music playing; with all the activity going on, musical accompaniment is sometimes seen as necessary to maintain work momentum. Disagreements over musical selections have been known to occur, so the solution is often to alternate days.
Nearby, 8-feet tall color-coded scheduling boards – maintained by hand – line the heavily trafficked office hallways en route to and from the LAIKA stages, tracking progress of scenes in various stages of “Review,” “Rehearse,” or “Shooting;” and quantifying whether “Reframe Dress” or “Light Dress” are needed. Crew units are tracked as well, with assistant directors responsible for providing updates.
The stages themselves are clustered as a hive of activity. Heavy and yards-high curtains discreetly close off, and curtail outside light from, the entrances to dozens of sets of varying dimensions. Call sheets that have been producer-approved early in the morning are affixed to the curtains, indicating who is working on what, including directors.
A “Hot Set” sign signals for extra caution when proceeding through the curtains to the sets; a red light outside a stage indicates that it is currently in active use. Even after entering, the sets are recessed a few extra feet inside so that the animators can concentrate on the work at hand.
A set may be active for weeks at a time, depending on the challenges of a particular sequence, since directors and crew have to walk from set to set rather than settling in on just one. “Unfortunately, for safety reasons, scooters are banned,” laments Fell. “Not even wheelbarrows are allowed,” laughs Sutner.
Some of the “Hot Sets” do in fact need to be cooled off, with portable air conditioners. This is so the characters and/or sets will not melt under the hot lights – and so the animators themselves won’t get overheated while working.
Visual effects supervisor Brian Van’t Hul adds, “Since stop-motion is time-lapse photography, when a set heats up or cools down, elements of it can physically expand. If the set has shifted and it can’t get back to the way it should be, then our department has to help the animators get the best out of their image. We will paint out rigs that have to be brought in to guarantee a performance; the performance is what’s important, and not technical perfection.”
There is a constant hum of activity as workers are on the move from one set to another. Once through the curtains, they move among artwork and standing props that are of museum-display quality, so detailed are the characters and creations.
Using a rig comprised of a single 3D camera, the exact same frame is shot twice on a stage before the crew moves on to the next frame. The camera – on ParaNorman, a Canon 5D Mark II, which is in fact a stills camera – is programmed to shift left and right on a slider, shooting separate frames for each eye (the left and the right). The two images are taken by the same lens of the same camera. However, the cameras had to be replaced during the lengthy shoot, requiring multiples just like so much else in the production.
With recent advances in 3D into uniformly digital lensing, cameras are no longer unduly big and heavy, affording the moviemakers greater flexibility with the camera moves as well as the freedom to move three-dimensionally around their subjects. Director of photography Tristan Oliver comments, “It’s easy to control the camera, especially since you can now use the same one to take both shots. As stop-motion is a frame-by-frame shoot, the lightweight and compact Canon 5D worked very well.”
Crew members remain in contact through a communications system as camera moves are ordered up and acknowledged. “When there’s a shot being done and an animator is mid-performance, directors tend not to be on the set,” Fell reveals. “We leave them to it. But if something has been missed, we have to go in there and say so. Having been on stop-motion movies as an animator myself, I know how difficult it is to have to re-do something and regain that focus.”
Animation supervisor Brad Schiff says, “What’s rewarding is, at the end of a day where you’ve been on your feet and mentally fixating on a puppet, you can press ‘Play’ and you’re able to see the life that you’ve created that day – our own little species.
“The coolest, though, is on Fridays when you go to the theater [screening space on-site at LAIKA’s studios] with everybody, and you see all the finalized shots with people reacting. That’s goosebumps time.”
Van’t Hul says, “What stands out about LAIKA’s movies is the tactile quality. You can see little flaws, but that is part of the character and charm of the stories we tell.”
There are more of the latter to come; feature animation projects in development at LAIKA include the fantasy-with-bite Goblins, the young-adult-themed magical story Wildwood, and the adventure Here Be Monsters!
Whichever the story being told by the LAIKA artisans, Creative supervisor of replacement animation & engineering Brian McLean offers that “we want the sense, when you’re watching one of our movies, that there are physical objects and characters under real lighting and being photographed with a real camera lens.
“You can sit back, enjoy the movie – and maybe also wonder, ‘How the heck did they do that?’”
Cinematographer Tristan Oliver adds, “After the first five minutes of ParaNorman, you might even forget that it’s animated; we hope that you will be immersed!”