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6 Filmmaking Tips From Laika Animation

Secrets of the studio behind Kubo and the Two Strings.
By  · Published on August 17th, 2016

Secrets of the studio behind Kubo and the Two Strings.

Laika Entertainment makes movies like no other studio, animation or otherwise. Yet there are universal elements to their storytelling and filmmaking approaches. There’s a lot of specialized work behind a stop-motion feature like their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, but at the core of every project is a unified passion and drive to entertain and challenge audiences of all ages.

Whether you want to work specifically at Laika yourself or you want to be or are an animator or filmmaker in general and look to them as an inspiration, the following six tips may seem simple or obvious but are nonetheless essential.

Draw, Draw, and Keep Drawing Some More

It might seem like a given for drawing to be a part of any animator’s path, but there are a lot of animators who aren’t great artists, and there are a lot of other kinds of filmmakers who are. The key to this piece of advice has nothing to do with talent, though. It’s about creativity. And drawing is the easiest sort of outlet for pouring out the creative juices flowing inside you.

Below, from a 2014 interview for IEEE Spark, is advice from veteran animator Sean Burns, who has worked on James and the Giant Peach, Disney’s The Wild, and Laika’s The Boxtrolls and Kubo and the Two Strings.

Draw, draw, and keep drawing some more. It doesn’t matter if you work on paper, clay, or on the computer, or you are even a producer or director, animation is a visual art-form, and drawing is a great way to communicate. I have found most, if not all animation studios when hiring new artists, look for drawing ability and skill, not that drawing is required or essential, but it certainly helps. Many students, especially computer focused students might not like to draw, or think they can’t draw, and I say draw anyway. It doesn’t matter if you can’t draw like Rembrandt, or think your drawing ability is embarrassing, keep a sketchbook, draw 30 minutes, or an hour or so a day, and you will get better, guaranteed. Take some life drawing classes, or do some online tutorials in your free time, but nurture your drawing ability. If you like only drawing stick figures, that is okay, and sometimes very effective. Even if you love drawing in Photoshop, don’t stop drawing with pencil and paper. Drawing consistently will improve your storytelling, sculpting, modeling and computer animation, etc… and will better communicate your artistic intentions.

If you are stubborn and REALLY don’t like to draw, then writing is a very good alternative. Like the drawing, do it every day and don’t stop.

Animation requires effective communication, so finding your “voice”, to communicate your art, either in drawing or writing, goes a long way.

Mark Shapiro, who as head of marketing is a major voice for the company, agrees with that advice, especially for those who want to work at Laika. He offers the tip below in a recent interview with Animation SA.

Always Be Observing

Shapiro also stresses the drawing advice in a message to future animators that was part of a TIFF Kids screening of The Boxtrolls earlier this year. But he expands on that to speak more to the importance of observing, not just doing, and that may include watching other people draw.

Be Artistically Well-Rounded

Whether you’re interested in being a central part of the filmmaking process or work on a specialized craft, for Laika it appears that it’s best to be interested in many things, good at many things, and experienced in many things. There are multiple examples supporting this tip in different ways (it’s a well-rounded tip), but here’s one from an April 2016 interview with Laika puppet makers Georgina Hayns and Jeremy Spake for Capital City Weekly where the duo are discussing how they got into their careers and how the studio is filled with people of all backgrounds:

Hayns: So it was luck but before all of that I knew I wanted to do art. My problem was I didn’t know what to specialize in because I love drawing, I love painting, I collected dolls and made clothes for them, I designed my own clothes for them, and then did a bit of smithing and loved that. What you find is a lot of people who end up as puppet makers are like myself: They’re kind of all-around craftspeople rather than just designers. I would say we’re highly skilled craftspeople who can sort of think three dimensionally as well as artistically. You find you’re just drifting along not knowing what you want to specialize in for a long time and then suddenly stop-motion pops up, and it’s like ‘Oh, that’s it. That uses all my skills.’ Because you do really have to think about many different elements of arts and crafts, when you’re building a puppet.

Spake: I have a BFA in graphic design. I did that obviously for more than four years of schools and I was doing stop-motion as just a hobby to scratch an itch mad that led to a career sort of in a roundabout way. But (at Laika) we’ve got philosophy majors, more traditional jewelry makers, some people who studied silver-smithing and everything in between. It really is like (Hayns) was saying: It’s about a mindset, an approach to problem solving. Some people are just really good at learning skills and applying them. And I think that’s something that lends itself very well to puppet making because every character has its own set of problems and having a new way to look at old problems is very helpful.

Most of the tips shared here apply to animators in particular, but each can be adapted to fit all filmmakers. For instance, the below idea that Laika employs people with live-action movie experience could be reversed because it’s also worthwhile for live-action filmmakers to have animation experience. This quote, part of a 2014 interview for Animation Mentor, comes from effects artist Austin Eddy, whose credits include Avatar and The Boxtrolls:

“We treated The Boxtrolls like a live-action film,” Eddy says. “In live-action, they shoot actors in front of a greenscreen and your CG characters and creatures interact with them. On Boxtrolls, instead of actors we had stop-motion animated characters shot against greenscreen. When we start on a shot, we get the plates with the stop-motion characters in the scene and a match-moved camera. We can see the stop-motion characters, so we can make sure our characters are in the same world and move the same. Stop-frame animation is such a difficult and time-consuming art form, it would be nearly impossible for those animators to do as many characters as are in these scenes. The main characters are stop motion, but most of the background characters and a lot of backgrounds are CG. We pretty much touched every scene in the film.”

Trust Your Creative Instinct

To be unique and to be challenging and to be innovative, as Laika’s films are, requires a confidence in ideas that aren’t conventional or safe. In a 2014 piece for Shuttershock, Alexander Huls shares seven secrets of Laika’s success he learned while interviewing art director Curt Enderle, who worked on the studio’s films ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls. Here’s one of them:

Finding the right balance between scary and charming is all about instinct, says Enderle. In the case of The Boxtrolls, it was the instincts of Laika’s hands-on CEO, Travis Knight, that proved to be most invaluable. No guiding formula or cheat sheet was needed – just Knight’s savviness. “It helped the designers tread that line between being too scary and still being interesting and sweet at the same time,” Enderle says. “He was very good at looking at sketches and knowing whether something feels right or needs to be pushed one way or another.” For example, the Boxtrolls’ underground home was originally conceptualized as being darker and scarier, but they went with what Enderle calls a “junk version of Coney Island, and a lighter and brighter version of some of the earlier sketches that we had for that environment.” The lesson? Trust your creative instincts to guide your work’s tone.

Make Things To Last

You’d think any filmmaker would want their movies to stand the test of time and be enjoyed generation after generation, but these days a lot of animated features don’t seem to be created with that desire in mind. Laika is one of the exceptional studios that does consciously aim to make classics, and so far they’ve been successful at that. One of the secrets Enderle shares touches upon the thinking behind that aim and achievement:

“The broad philosophy that we’re going for is that we don’t want to pander to the audience, and we don’t want to talk down to the people,” Enderle says. “I think it’s assuming a little bit of intelligence in the audience, as opposed to assuming a broad, lower-level denominator.”

Laika CEO and lead animator Travis Knight, who makes his directorial debut with Kubo and the Two Strings, adds to that explanation in a 2014 interview with Den of Geek:

Then getting into it, it’s like, is this a story that has potential to be thought provoking, that can be emotionally resonant, that’s bold, that can be distinctive, that has a long lifespan, that can be enduring. It isn’t like a little pop culture confection, a little bit of ephemera. And then, you know, I think back to the kinds of films that I loved and that have kind of changed the way I looked at things when I was a kid. And all those films had an artful blend, a balance of darkness and light, intensity and warmth. And that is kind of the core approach. That is our philosophy in how we approach our films.

It’s really about dynamic storytelling. I don’t think you can have the elation and the joy that comes at the end of a film without having the pain that needs to accompany with it. It won’t mean anything. And so when I talk about dynamic storytelling that’s it. It’s the up and the downs. It’s making sure that you take the audience through all those experiences so that the meaning of the story lands or resonates.

Look Back But Go Forward

As much as they make films that recall the golden years of animation, such as the old Disney features, with their dark and light elements that last through generations and through our individual lives, Laika combines tradition with progress. Storytelling can’t be improved upon much at this point in time, but the medium can be, and the studio is advancing the art of animation and cinema all the time. Here’s more from Knight from the same interview:

A lot of what we do is unchanged from what they were doing back when George Melies was sending rockets to the moon. It’s the same kind of stuff. You still have an animator on set with physical objects being bathed in real light and taking a picture frame by frame, coaxing a performance out of this thing on a frame by frame basis for a camera. That’s not changed. That’s still kind of the core of what we do.

What we do that’s different is that we integrate and embrace technology in a way that’s never been done in the medium before. We’re trying to take the medium into a new place, to not just say, “Oh yeah, stop-motion is that quaint little herky jerky crap.” No, no. Stop-motion can be so much more vital, so much more interesting, so much more sophisticated. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what you can do within this medium. And as old as it is, 100 years old, I still feel like there’s so much more this thing can do than people can even think of. It’s not about just settling and being complacent. It’s about trying to actively push on the edges of what can be done within the medium.

And so we integrate technology in a way that’s never been done before. We bring in laser cutting and digital photography and stereoscopic photography and all these different things. In every single department we push on and innovate to try to come up with the best way to bring the thing to life.

What We Learned

Basically, Laika cares. It makes sense when you’re a studio that works on such meticulously detailed, time-consuming projects that they’d put a lot of care into their work, but it’s still not something we can always depend on from filmmakers and producers these days. It helps that Laika has a CEO who is also a core creative force with a passion and a philosophy to make movies that he’d want to see as a child or as an adult and that he hopes will be the same for kids and grown-ups of today and tomorrow.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.