How Laika, the Tiny Studio Behind Coraline, Became a Powerhouse
Ten years ago, Laika could have just as easily named itself “Longshot.” Sure, it was backed by Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who had bought a controlling interest in the animation studio back when it was Will Vinton Studios, but in order to really get your movies recognized by Hollywood you need more than cash. And studios aren’t always keen to partner with the new kids, no matter how well-heeled well they are.
“We’re an outlier. We work in an industry that is dominated by franchises and sequels and prequels and remakes and reboots, but we’re devoted to telling new and original stories,” says Travis Knight, Phil’s son, who runs Laika. “We live in a modern, glossy, high-tech digital world. But we make movies in the most moth-eaten, anachronistic way possible. By using our hands.”
The Portland-area studio didn’t release its first stop-motion feature, Coraline (based on the Neil Gaiman book), until 2009, some four years after its founding. Then came ParaNorman in 2012, followed by Boxtrolls in 2014. Now Laika is taking the rare break from the famously laborious stop-motion process to celebrate its 10-year anniversary. (The studio is deep in production on their next feature, Kubo and the Two Strings.)
To commemorate the anniversary, WIRED asked Knight to reflect on the last decade and share how Laika survived in Hollywood—even while being based in Oregon.
The Most Important Thing: Perseverance
“Ten years ago, when we started working on our first film Coraline, we approached virtually every major film studio, every mini-major, every independent distributor of note. I pitched headlong into the process with unbridled optimism. I thought we had all the vital ingredients for a truly exceptional film: a beautiful, best-selling novel written by a master [Neil Gaiman]; a brilliant, visionary director at the helm [Nightmare Before Christmas’ Henry Selick]; an army of passionate, world-class artists; and a groundbreaking production process that honored tradition while looking toward the future. My optimism was misplaced. Nobody was interested in us. Nobody was interested the weird little movie we were making. The reasons and criticisms were legion:
‘Stop-motion is not a viable filmmaking medium.’
‘Everyone knows you can’t have an animated film with a female protagonist, unless she’s a princess or a fairy, of course.’
‘No boy’s gonna go see a film with a girl’s name in the title. No girls will see it either. The damn thing’s too scary.’
‘Teens aren’t interested in animation.’
‘Adults see animation as a babysitter. They don’t want their kids to be challenged.’
It was all pretty heartbreaking. My hopes for artistic validation were dashed—at least they validated parking. But we soldiered on. And eventually we found an excellent partner in Focus Features and Universal, who remain our collaborators to this day.”
A promotional image for Kubo and the Two Strings.
Always Have a Message … And Get Creative
“When Laika began we had a simple goal: to make movies that matter. To craft classic films with something meaningful to say. Films that are bold, distinctive, and enduring. To tell stories that are thematically challenging, aesthetically beautiful, thought-provoking, emotionally resonant, progressive, and a wee bit subversive. Ten years on, we’ve doggedly stuck with that original mission. We invented new systems and technologies for liberating the camera, to make our films more cinematic. We created new techniques for building and animating our puppets, to make our characters more lifelike and to connect more immediately and intimately with audiences. We discovered new processes for integrating practical and digital visual effects, to make our worlds more authentic. All those innovations directly led to the blown out scale and spectacle of Kubo and the Two Strings. It’s cumulative. We build on everything. And we’re never satisfied.”
Set New Goals
“We aim to connect with audiences around the world, to have our stories insinuate themselves into people’s lives, into the culture. In order to do that more effectively, more meaningfully, we’re moving toward a long-held objective to increase our output, to ultimately produce a film a year. Of course, that’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, particularly for a small independent animation house. Because while it’s important for us to release more films more frequently, it’s just as important to maintain the creative and artistic integrity of our work—to shelter the art from the obligatory and unavoidable assaults of commerce. That’s one of our biggest challenges: increasing our productivity while nurturing and preserving our unique culture. Laika is an odd assemblage, a remarkable ragtag band of misfits, mole people, and brilliant, beautiful freaks. They deserve a company and platform that honors their exceptional talents. That’s what I try to do.”
Keep It Old School
“At Laika we’re a fusion of old and new. We hold reverence for tradition mixed with fervor for innovation. We work in a medium that’s over a century old, but we bring a passion for cutting-edge technology and avant-garde creative approaches. We are cavemen and astronauts. Luddites who have embraced the loom.”
Look for Inspiration at Home
“[There is a] sequence from the first act of Coraline, where our heroine is looking for a little attention from her father. She walks into her dad’s office, trying to engage him while he’s busy working. The emotional core of that scene was drawn directly from my life. For Coraline, I was channeling my daughter. For Coraline’s dad, I was channeling me. That moment in the film explores a daughter desperate for the attention of her mom and dad. It also highlights the struggles we face as parents: the desire to devote as much time and energy to our children as we possibly can and the antithetical gravitational pull of our work, our careers that demand as much attention as our families. So little things … the pained expression on dad’s face, Coraline’s overly dramatic reactions, imitating her mom, yelling at her doll, playfully swinging on a door, those are things I’ve witnessed, things I’ve experienced. And I brought those experiences to the performance of the puppets. This allowed me to channel the physicality of my elder son when I was developing the way Norman moved in Paranorman. It’s why Winnie in The Boxtrolls runs exactly like my wife. And it’s why Kubo and the Two Strings is essentially a heightened, fantastical version of my childhood. By making things deeply personal, we hope they become more universal.”
Check out some photos from Laika’s 10 years of filmmaking in the gallery above.