Portland is a city of ingenuity, innovation and maker spirit. From artisan coffee roasters to custom bicycle designers, creatives of all mediums excel here. Cafés and studios offer glimpses into the maker scene, but it’s harder to get access to the local animation community. Animating Life: The Art, Science, and Wonder of LAIKA at the Portland Art Museum, which ran from Oct. 14, 2017–May 20, 2018, granted visitors a backstage pass. At the exhibit, visitors delved into the world of renowned Hillsboro-based animation agency LAIKA and the Oscar-nominated creators behind Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls and Kubo and The Two Strings. The interactive exhibit (a partnership with the Northwest Film Center) included workshops, Sunday film screenings and meet-and-greets with artists.
LAIKA Animation Studio
LAIKA was launched in 2005 by Nike co-founder Phil Knight and his animator son, Travis Knight. (Its name is an homage to the dog that was sent to space by the Soviet Union in 1957.) Now a global leader in stop-motion animation, the company attributes its success in part to the creative culture of the Northwest. “Portland is a city rooted in artisan spirit. The maker movement here continues to have an increasingly significant impact globally,” said LAIKA’s Brad Wald. “We’re proud to be a part of it; it’s this outside-the-mold artistry that fuels our work.”
Dating back to the late 1800s, stop-motion relies on photographing scenes with microscopic adjustments for every shot. Later, these photos are played in quick succession to create the illusion of action and movement.
The creative team at LAIKA constructs elaborate sets and props, and works laboriously to bring their intricate puppets to life, quite literally moment by moment. To create adequately fluid motions, 24 frames (or photographs) must be shot for every second of footage in the films. This means that even when working at maximum capacity, LAIKA’s production peaks at 90 seconds worth of footage per week!
Although the studio is dedicated to honoring this animation technique, LAIKA has intently focused on pushing the boundaries of stop-motion beyond what has been traditionally possible. “Science and technology are very much intertwined with our maker artistry,” Wald assures. “Each informs the other from the very beginning stages of LAIKA’s filmmaking process, and we don’t consider our work confined to existing technology.”
One example of LAIKA’s ability to seamlessly blend old and new technologies is the development of their vivid facial animation. Powder printers are used to manufacture 3-D face plates which are also swapped out frame by frame. Thousands of facial expressions must be created for each puppet. “The exhibition explores a few examples of this — particularly with our visual effects process and development of rapid prototyping,” said Wald. “[It’s] a system that’s really modernized facial animation in the genre and for which the studio has been awarded a Scientific & Technology Oscar.”
LAIKA at the Portland Art Museum
The seven-month exhibit at downtown’s Portland Art Museum guided visitors through LAIKA’s extensive creative process at every stage. Puppets, props, artwork and sets from each of the studio’s films were on display, and the Northwest Film Center is also curating extensive programming for all ages.
As LAIKA’s legacy continues to grow, Portland continues to serve as inspiration for the studio. Beyond the city, Wald said, “We are truly defined by our people — a collective of local and global talent — that uphold this principle of being, first and foremost, a group of artists and storytellers.”