The producer of LAIKA’s latest feature discusses the challenges of pushing every imaginable stop-motion animation boundary.
As LAIKA’s much anticipated stop-motion follow-up to 2009’s Coraline hits the theatres tomorrow, much discussion surrounding the film has centered on technological innovations in 3D printer rapid prototyping used to create huge numbers of replacement faces for each of the characters. However, if you focus solely on the size, scope and complexity of the production, the intricate details of hand-crafted sets, armatures and props, you’ll miss the most truly unique part of the story – how 300+ artists, working in a small, independently financed studio, spent several years filming a zombie action-comedy with little hand-built puppets, using untested techniques never used before, actually managing to pull off a stunningly beautiful, funny and poignant film.
Earlier this week I had a chance to speak to one of the film’s producers, Arianne Sutner, about the genesis of the film, the struggles to harness new technology while staying true to the story, and the inherent risk and fear taking on such a unique and different film.
Dan Sarto: This production has a lot of moving pieces, no pun intended. You were pushing the envelope with regards to integrating new stop-motion techniques with CG elements. As a producer, trying new things never done before, when do you say, “Ok, let’s give it more time, let’s give it more bodies, let’s give it more whatever…” as opposed to, “Maybe we need to drop this and move on.”
Arianne Sutner: Each problem is unique and each answer would be different depending on what the schedule was and where we were in production. Then, certain things became a priority. For example, what’s the most important thing to me? Character animation, making sure animation is supporting the story. So what supports that? Ok, we thought, I really really wanted that color printer and we weren’t sure yet how to make it work for our needs, in terms of reproducing the faces in a way that was consistent enough without a lot of chatter, without making them look terrible. But I wanted it for our movie. We would be the first to use it. The results we were seeing, when they were good, were so beautiful that it really made a difference. So we just aggressively charged ahead. The backup plan would be that we still knew how to do it the previous way even though we would be a little bit behind schedule. But that was just something we wanted to push forward with and take a risk on. I’m glad we did it. I think on this movie we definitely did some of those things, like we are building the plane as we are flying it. That’s true. But sometimes you end up having happy accidents. Part of stop-motion is the perfection in its beauty as well as the imperfections too. So not everything in this movie is absolutely perfect in terms of the use of technology. But, that’s what I love about it.
It’s always something different, it’s always a case by case thing. We will always try to juggle that schedule to support doing the best we can for anything artistically. So out on the shooting floor, what can we do? You know there is only so much we can do. But, say we don’t have a certain character ready, what other shots can we juggle? Can we start our movie with all extreme close ups even if that’s the worst way to do it, so we have a little more time to perfect some other things to give us the flexibility to shoot larger shots later? Bigger shots. We always want to push ourselves.
DS: It sounds like that is the studio’s mantra, boldly push ahead and we’ll deal with problems as they present themselves.
AS: Right. We had characters that posed new problems. We call them fat neck characters. They have really big necks. Traditionally, you have seen lots of stop-motion where the characters lend themselves to armatures and animating them one frame at a time. They are tall, thin and scarecrow-like. You see in our movie that we have these fat necked characters, big and bulky characters with tons of heft and weight. We knew that would be a challenge and we didn’t know exactly how to solve it. I was here from the beginning. We just decided to make our characters look that way and we just figured it out along the way. We did that all the time. For example, we wanted to make the camera move as much as possible. We did a lot of things antithetical to traditional stop-motion. We just insisted on it. We have so many great people here who know what they are doing. They have a lot of skills and experience. So, the question becomes how to bring those capabilities into experimenting and figuring out new things.
DS: Explain your role as producer? What was the dynamic like working with Travis [Knight], the directors and other senior people on the film?
AS: There aren’t very many senior people here. I have Travis, who is a producing partner and also the head of the entire company, and two directors. We don’t have to take decisions creatively to a board or to our distributors because we are independently financed. If we choose not to, we don’t have to go to focus groups. There are no executives at the company that look at the script or challenge you on your creative decisions. At LAIKA, there is really an unusual amount of creative control, supported by someone who wants to push boundaries. So I think a lot of it is that we can push our creative boundaries because we don’t have to go through that other [big studio] stuff.
How do I work with Travis? On this movie, I came in working on development with Chris Butler, who had a script. We started working together, just focusing our energies on making that script better, developing it not in a huge way, not spending tons of money. Then we moved into story and character designs to try to get it green lit. We believed in it and just aggressively went after that, to get it into a position where we could start, where we believed we had a movie with three acts and could really shoot it.
DS: I’m sure there were a number of projects in development. Why this film? Why do you think this film was chosen as LAIKA’s next film?
AS: I think it had a great script. The pacing was all there. We had a third act that worked, almost from the beginning, which is fairly unusual. We had a great hook, a really fun contemporary film, a nice fit to follow Coraline. I think also it just jived with Travis’ taste, kind of a contemporary Scooby-Doo movie. It could push the animation boundaries a little bit more. We could make a bigger stop-motion movie. That was something on our list that we really wanted to do. Pushing those boundaries, creating a feeling of real chase scenes. Besides the character development and all those givens, we absolutely wanted a great chase scene, showing background extensions and crowds, really feeling like the movie’s not sparse but populated like a real town. I think he [Travis] felt connected to the warmth at the core of it and I think that really appealed to him. It appealed to me and I hope it appeals to others.
We were in good shape. We really buckled down and put that script together. Our story beats were solid and we had a character line up that was essentially pretty much what you see now. We really kind of had our ducks in a row.
DS: Much has been made of the new rapid prototyping technology you’ve developed. To me the technology is a means to an end, to serve the story and the creative vision. Ultimately what you guys built and how you used it, the net result is that it shows up in the film.
AS: With the rapid prototyping, people are so interested in the technology, and sure, it’s really interesting. But, what is also really interesting is how we have adapted it to make it work for us creatively. It’s doesn’t make things easier, that’s the popular misconception. It makes the animation better and then hopefully, you’re able to enjoy the animation more and get those subtle nuances. That’s what we are doing it for.
Yeah, we do it for better performances, more subtle and beautiful performances that you can notice. It sounds corny, but it’s true. Travis is an animator on the film, he is producing as well, and he pushes us to do better and better. I’m not working for a boss or another producer, but with fantastic collaborators. We get to push our supervisors and experiment. We still have to get it done, but we are always trying to come up with something new.
DS: How do you think this film will impact the animated feature film business?
AS: Well I don’t know as far as a business model. This place is pretty extraordinary. It’s takes a lot to get something like this going. It’s an extraordinary challenge. But I think what it does is offer something really different than what other studios are producing for family movies. It’s something for the audience. There is something different that they can choose to go see and I hope that audiences respond. But as far as setting this up as a business, I think we have a unique situation here in that we have a distributor, but we are not creatively beholden to that distributor.
Also I have a boss who my tastes are aligned with, so that really helps. Of course, I think he has the best taste in the world. There are a lot of things that people can do independently in terms of putting productions together, but not quite the way this company has done it.
DS: Would you consider this a more risky feature to make than DreamWorks’ latest Madagascar film?
AS: Yeah, of course, definitely. I mean, I liked the latest Madagascar movie and I think production design-wise there is a lot of beauty in it. Companies are always looking for a franchise, something that has come before, or something that is based on a book, something that is known already. So for us to take a chance, for LAIKA to take a chance on a story artist, working from original material, I think is a huge risk. Original material is risky these days, in this kind of culture. Yet original content is the kind of thing I want to see.
DS: Was there a time in the production when you walked into your office, sat down at your desk and thought, “My goodness, did we bite off more than we can chew?” Conversely was there a point during the production when you said to yourself, “We’re going to be OK. We got it.”
AS: From the get go, I thought, “Oh my god!” From development, I thought, “Oh my god, we should not be doing this, we have too many characters.” I knew we had too many characters, that we were really going crazy with the third act. But I would say, usually, when you start to shoot, about half way through you start to pick up speed and you start to do the impossible. You notice how we set the bar for animation? We shoot on ones, it’s very detail oriented. It’s fluid, it’s a naturalistic style. To do that well, you really need the best animators in the world. I don’t think there has been animation done as good as this in terms of the style we achieved. In order to get there, every shot is really hard. Not only do we have this incredibly hard animation style, but the animators have to learn how to do this style maybe never having done it before. They have incredibly challenging shots with a lot of rigs, a lot of moving parts and a lot of CG elements with lots of characters. So if you were to look at shot complexity, almost all the shots are the highest complexity all the time. It has all those things working against it.
When you are half way though the movie and the numbers are not supporting your schedule, it’s always terrifying. Then you start to knuckle down and people start to get this rhythm, to figure out how to do this. You start to pick up speed about half way through and you feel like, “Wow, anything is possible, we are doing it!” We had all this beautiful footage, and we knew the script was good, and everything was being put together well, so it gave me a lot of confidence. I knew the material was good and that there weren’t any surprises like, “Ok, we don’t know what we are doing in the last act so we are just going to have to wing it.”
So it was really just a matter of knuckling down every day, just trying to support these exceptional, hard-working people. Once we got through our shoot, there were always these little challenges, but we had all these fantastic people working with us and directors who had a vision, who knew what they wanted. That’s how we got through it. We have great people here.
DS: It sounds like you had a good time making this film.
AS: It’s a fun place to work. We work incredibly hard and we don’t see the light of day. You are working on stages that are curtained off, roped off with you and the team. It’s kind of like a sound stage. We have about 50 of these units, three-dimensional, hand built, beautifully detailed and painted, lit with real lights, and these incredibly sophisticated puppets. It’s a very magical and creative environment to work in.
You are doing all this impossible stuff, but you are working in an environment with three hundred plus artists, who all love all the same things that you do - problem solving this funny, archaic way of filmmaking. If you have the right momentum, and everyone believes in that project, you have this group feeling that we can do anything. We just get it done.
Dan Sarto is publisher and editor-in-chief of Animation World Network.