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How 3D Printing Has Revolutionized Stop-Motion Animation for LAIKA

How 3D Printing Has Revolutionized Stop-Motion Animation for LAIKA

Stop-motion animation is among the most laborious and precise forms of artistry imaginable; the average animator produces only four seconds of footage per week. If they make a wrong movement, there is no hitting “undo”—instead, they have to start all over.  Twenty-four movements of a puppet result in only one second of film.

Animators are “a rare breed,” said LAIKA’s Creative Supervisor of Puppet Fabrication Georgina Hayns during “The Nuts and Bolts of Stop Motion: The Artistry and Ingenuity of LAIKA” on Friday, April 24 at The Academy Theater in New York. “They are actors, but in the form of manipulating these characters,” said Hayns.

Organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Friday’s presentation was the first of a series of events that are collectively being billed as “An Animation Showcase: From Celluloid to CGI.” The series, which runs through May 29, consists of discussions and screenings focused exclusively on highlighting the craft of animated filmmaking.

LAIKA is the Portland-based company behind Academy Award-nominated films such as “Coraline” (2009), “ParaNorman” (2012) and “The Boxtrolls” (2014). Hayns was also joined by Director of Rapid Prototype Brian McLean and VFX supervisor Steve Emerson. All three experts spoke about everything from the studio’s puppet designs to the pioneering 3D printing and visual effects technologies being used in their production flow.

READ MORE: How LAIKA is Revolutionizing Animation

Building animated characters through costume design

“Coraline” was the first stop-motion animated film to convey the passage of time through costume changes. Typically, animated characters don one, maybe two, outfits over the course of a film; but for “Coraline,” knitters were hired to sew miniature clothing for the female protagonist.

LAIKA’s third and most recent film, “The Boxtrolls,” went a step further with its use of costuming. For the first time, separate costume designer, Deborah Cook, was brought on by the production and tasked with crafting all the Edwardian period apparel necessary for the
story. These mini-outfits included aristocratic ball gowns and suits
with embroidery and devoré velvet.

Rapid prototyping in “Coraline” 

Besides incorporating costume design in production on “Coraline,” LAIKA also employed a brand new facial animation technique known as “rapid prototyping.” A single Coraline puppet is hand-sculpted, scanned into a computer and then a 3D printer prints multiple version of the original Coraline. Technology experts have long since predicted 3D printing to be the way of the future, and it’s a fascinating process to watch unfold on-screen in the LAIKA footage; printers appear to gradually build pieces out of thin air. LAIKA was the first company to use this technique specifically for animation. “Coraline” also makes use of largely practical effects, not computer generated ones; this means we see mostly physical, tangible objects on-screen.

The armatures of “ParaNorman”

For LAIKA’s second film “ParaNorman,” the company upped the ante with color 3D printing, resulting in characters with more complex hues and textures. The LAIKA experts discussed the “armature” these puppets had inside them, tiny metal skeletons allowing the puppets’ joints to move and pivot. The bodies of the characters in “ParaNorman” were especially strange and disproportioned, and LAIKA now had 1.5 million possible facial expressions to work with; by comparison, the charismatic Jack Skellington (from “The Nightmare Before Christmas”) had only 800. With the help of the armatures, “ParaNorman” animators even got the belly of a tubby little character named Neil to jiggle on its own whenever he moved. 

What’s next?

LAIKA’s much-anticipated next project, “Kubo and the Two Strings,” will be released in August 2016. The LAIKA employees wouldn’t reveal too much about their new film, aside from describing it as a mythical story set in ancient Japan. They promised the film to be the “most ambitious project yet.” We can’t wait to check it out and decide for ourselves.

READ MORE: LAIKA and Focus Re-Team For Three More Movies

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