This weekend at Wizard World Portland, homegrown LAIKA Studios, the folks tbehind recent hits like CORALINE, PARANORMAN and the Academy Award Nominated THE BOXTROLLS, brought us an inside look into how their movies come to life.
Steven Emerson, who served as a Visual Effects Supervisor on THE BOXTROLLS, walked a rapt audience through the evolution of the studio and how CGI and the studio’s signature puppets work together to create each film.
Things began with an unveiling of three of the actual production puppets from THE BOXTROLLS, including Eggs, Specs and Knickers, each of which are valued at between $25-30,000! He also included a case that had many of the facial models that clipped on an off of each puppet to express an ever increasing range of emotion.
To highlight this increase of emotion in the models, Steven used examples from THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, CORALINE, and THE BOXTROLLS. While on NIGHTMARE, each head had to be replaced, so Jack had approcimately 800 expressions. CORALINE was a revolutionary film in the way that it incorporated 3D models, so her expressions increased to nearly 200,000, and further advancements in technology lead to Eggs in THE BOXTROLLS to have nearly 1 million distinct expressions!
From there, Steve introduced a handful of Special Features from the recently released BOXTROLLS blu-ray release, including “Allergic to Easy”, about the LAIKA way of doing things, “Allergy Snatcher”, highlighting the complexity of one of the film’s gross out sequences, “The Nature of Creation”, in which the film’s art directors talked about how they used real life reference material to create natural elements and the versatility of cheese cloth, and “Deconstructing the Dance”, about the various elements at work that went into the dynamic ballroom sequence.
Afterward, Emerson outlined the particulars of his department’s role on a film, which he said was sort of thankless in a way because good VFX are not something you should notice.
Visual Effects work at LAIKA is broken into three basic components: Cosmetic Work, Rig Removal, and Plate Repair. Cosmetic Work involves removal of the seams that run along the top and bottom half of the character’s face and “texture and color chatter” or variation, that comes from the Rapid Prototyping 3D printing process that LAIKA uses to create its puppets. Whenever characters in a LAIKA film move around on a set, they literally have to be nailed down for each frame. When they involve more complicated actions like running, jumping, or anything that would be in an action sequences, they’re attached to rigging, which must also be removed for the final film. Lastly, the plates of each film must be analyzed for continuity, so any discrepancies have to be corrected so you don’t end up with elements broken or missing for a frame.
Toward the end of the panel, Emerson brought up some more exciting news about the future of LAIKA studios, saying that the WILDWOOD series of books by Colin Meloy is currently in development at the studio and to not “put 2D beyond what they want to do” for future projects, saying that they want each film to have a “unique perspective”.
Lastly there was a new to me but not actually that revelatory announcement of LAIKA’s next film KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, which will mark the directorial feature debut of LAIKA CEO Travis Knight. Based in Japanese mythology, KUBO will tell a story of spirits, ancient vendettas, fathers, magical armor and more. It will feature the voices of Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes, Brenda Vaccaro, and Art Parkinson, who plays Rickon Stark on Game of Thrones, will voice the title character.