Laika Studios At 15: A Love Letter To Stop-Motion Animation

Laika is, to those few who may not yet know, an Oregon-based film studio specialising in stop-motion animation. To date, they have produced five films – Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014), Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) and Missing Link (2019). Coraline is one that at a young age enamoured me with stop-motion and with the studio itself. I must’ve only been seven at the time, and it made a great impression on me – the colour schemes, in turn, drab and dreamlike depending on which of Coraline’s two alternate worlds she is in, gave a literal meaning to the term “eye candy.” As introductions to stop-motion go, it’s possibly one of the best ones. The combination of scary and psychedelic is an eye-opener when it comes to the genre, and its quality both for its format and as a film in itself is what drew my attention to why exactly stop-motion is anything but outdated.

In the studio’s anniversary video, visual effects supervisor Steve Emerson says, “In our 15 years as a studio, we’ve created unforgettable characters with enduring and distinctive stories, in five original films that pack an emotional punch. With every successive film, we’re looking to push the boundaries of family entertainment and animated movies, redefining what stories can and should be told through the art form. Each of our five films is much beloved modern classics in stop-motion animation, and are essential viewing for discerning fans of the art form.’ The studio was started up in 2005, so in fact, it’s 16 this year – however, Laika has organised several events to celebrate their milestone 15th anniversary likely due to being slightly less restricted by the pandemic in some countries. 

An amazing thing about stop-motion animation is that the things that make people think it’s dying out are the same things, sometimes, that make it as incredible as it is. It might be said that it’s clunky and fiddly and labour-intensive, taking a long time to produce, and although that’s absolutely correct it’s part of the charm. Let’s take another look at Coraline – shot over a year and a half after two years of pre-production, the level of detail the entire crew has incorporated into the film is painstaking. The fact that stop-motion is a rapid series of photographs of a (handmade!) set, with endless figures being made for each character for each scene and action (at one point Coraline shows 16 different facial expressions in thirty-five seconds, each of which would have to be made separately) adds to the organic feel and endears you to the amount of love the creators have to have for what they’re doing. 

Although all forms of animation have their merits, it’s easy – especially with CGI – to feel a disconnect of sorts between the world onscreen and oneself. What you’re looking at can feel like an unreachable realm created on a computer with no grounding in the real world, while live-action is sometimes too grounded in it, with less room for expression and suspension of disbelief than we would like. Stop-motion is the middle ground. A fictional, flexible world that is created very much in the real one. Some of the plants in Coraline’s garden scenes are made out of parts of dog toys, an idea that crew members such as Oliver Jones from the film’s rigging department formulated. Coraline’s jumpers and gloves are hand-knitted in perfect miniature form by Althea Crome from the costume department. (For those interested in these tiny details, I’d strongly recommend the Hand-Making Coraline featurette on LAIKA’s youtube channel.) 

With all of this to bear in mind, there is very little to dislike about stop-motion as a format. The recreation of human figures through clay or another material for animation may even have an uncanny valley effect (the unease of being confronted with something that appears very close to humanoid but isn’t) that makes it effective for spooky films – think Coraline, ParaNorman, Frankenweenie. Having acknowledged its strengths, the next question frequently asked is whether it is underrated, and if so, why? All five Laika stop-motion films have been nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature – and not a single one has won. In addition, though, all five have lost to a Disney film – Coraline to Up, Paranorman to Brave, Boxtrolls to Big Hero 6, Kubo to Zootopia and Missing Link to Toy Story 4. It’s worth noting in addition that the stop-motion film My Life As A Zucchini lost to Zootopia as well. Is the continued underappreciation of stop-motion partly due to its often being produced by smaller independent studios, rather than large corporations with an established history of dominating film awards?

It may also be overlooked in favour of the hyperrealism of today’s CGI animation – although the genre produces work high in detail and quality it would be difficult to fully mimic real-life through stop-motion, or at the very least not to the extent of films such as Disney’s 2019 remake of The Lion King. However, such films have also been slammed by critics for concentrating too much on realism and sacrificing emotional authenticity in the process, so the lack of attention lent to stop motion could simply be a combination of less exposure for smaller studios and different people wanting different things from films. 

Despite it having been over a decade since the cinematic release of Coraline, and close to one since that of ParaNorman, there’s still a chance to see them on the silver screen if you missed the chance back then – or if you want a refresher. On August 24th for Coraline and November 16th for ParaNorman, the films will have a special cinematic re-release for one day only for Laika’s anniversary, featuring exclusive bonus content that goes behind the scenes of each film. Anyone interested in tickets should see if they’re near a selected cinema at fathomevents.com. 

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