LAIKA studio helps film find its place in the art world
When LAIKA creatives gathered for the world premiere of their first film, "Coraline," on Feb. 5, 2009, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, little did they know that a mere eight years later they'd have their work shown in a major art exhibition at the nearby Portland Art Museum.
Fittingly the new exhibit, titled "Animating Life: The Art, Science and Wonder of LAIKA," starts during the Halloween season on Oct. 14. LAIKA's films, though animated and focused on child characters, are curiously dark, often depicting darker themes of death and spirits. The exhibit is on display through May.
And it's more than just a display of movie set objects.
"It's really taking a historical perspective, and how it fits into the history of film production — and stop motion in particular," said Brian Ferriso, The Marilyn H. and Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr. director and chief curator of the Portland Art Museum. "But also attention on how Oregon, in particular, has been part of that story and history."
The LAIKA studio is based in Hillsboro and is owned by Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike, another staple brand of Oregon. His son, Travis Knight, is the CEO and president of LAIKA.
So far, the studio has created four films, taking about two to three years between each: "Coraline" (2009), "ParaNorman" (2012), "The Boxtrolls" (2014), and "Kubo and the Two Strings" (2016). Knight made his directoral debut with "Kubo."
And all features have been successful, not just critically — all four have been nominated for Oscars — but also financially. The films have made much more than their $60 million budgets, including "Coraline" which brought in a gross $124 million. ("Kubo" has taken in the least with a gross $74 million.)
But the exhibit isn't about dollar figures — it's about seeing behind the scenes of the complex world of handmade stop-motion filmmaking.
"What the guest will experience is kind of an evolutionary journey," said Brad Wald, the chief financial officer and vice president of business operations at LAIKA.
People will journey into the museum and first be greeted with Coraline's house in the main lobby. Then, they'll immediately see the massive, 16-foot tall skeleton puppet used in "Kubo and the Two Strings."
The exhibit is broken up into three major "stages" including: "Intrigue," toward the entrance, hooking in audiences; then "Immerse," where patrons will see the scales LAIKA works in, including the "Kubo" skeleton and a "wall of faces"; and "Inform," where people will see and understand the techniques that drive LAIKA films, including technology used.
Visitors also will see the dark, neon-lit garden from "Coraline" — straight set pieces from the films and also some of the puppets that do everything short of breathing on their own.
"There's some very interesting, big reveals, bringing to life some of the scenes. It's an evolutionary journey of the process," Wald said of the exhibit. "So you'll be absorbed into the puppet themselves, the technology we use, and the rapid prototyping to replace the faces."
Each LAIKA film is a massive creative feat, since they take the route of stop-motion animation, a style that requires much time and effort, and a large team. There are 24 frames per second, so LAIKA artists are changing a puppet's face 24 times per second to create whatever expression the character has.
"A puppet is a static asset. Those puppets and their environment, and their world, we bring them to life," Wald said. "It's so different from other animation and (computer-generated) animation, where in our world, it's real light hitting real objects in real spaces."
"Kubo and the Two Strings" was nominated in two categories for the 2017 Oscars, including Best Animated Feature and Best Visual Effects. Though it didn't take home the awards, it was rare to be nominated in the visual effects category. An animated film hadn't been nominated since 1993's "The Nightmare Before Christmas," directed by Henry Selick, who also directed "Coraline."
"Coraline" tells the tale of a little girl who moves into a new house with her parents. Feeling neglected by her busy mom and dad, she finds a doorway to a parallel world where she's treated nicely and everyone has buttons for eyes — though everything is not as it seems. At one point, Coraline's other-world mother evolves into a terrifying spider creature. Rated PG for "scary images" and some language, it even frightened Ferriso's daughter.
But, Wald thinks it's important to tell stories that provoke discussion, including about death, or other topics not often touched on in traditional youth films
"We market our films to families actually. We don't shy away from important messages, and we feel that a venue for bringing those messages out to families — where better than in animation, when a family is together?" Wald said.
"Kubo," for its part, dissects loss and bullying, while "Coraline" ventures into topics of loneliness, isolation and escapism.
Some art connoisseurs might consider film in a major museum setting as "low brow," meaning it takes a little less of an intellectual knack to interpret, than other art forms.
Ferriso doesn't buy it, though. He said "Nosferatu," the 1922 silent film and the first-ever vampire flick, helped inspire some of the great artwork produced in Germany around that era, including film, dance, visual arts and printmaking.
"The film noir movement pulls in art deco and photography, so there's a history to the intersection of these art forms that is strong and very prevalent, so it makes a lot of sense," he said. "I think there was enough material and success for us to say that this is an art form, an artist production and creative team that's worthy of a museum show."
LAIKA is hard at work now on its fifth feature film, which they expect to be their biggest yet, as well as considering venturing into the television market. They'll be making an anouncement in coming months on their next move.
The museum will host plenty of accompanying events, including showings of the movies on the third Sunday of each month through January and opportunities to meet some of LAIKA's creative minds. An opening conversation with Rose Bond, a LAIKA animator, will take place at 2 p.m. Oct. 15 at the museum to kick off events.
Find out more here.
Reporter, Portland Tribune
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This story has been updated from its original version. Brad Wald's name was written incorrectly. The Tribune regrets the error.