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February 4th, 2009 AARON MESH | Featured Stories
 

Suspended Animation

Laika launches Coraline, and its creators wonder: What now?

     
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IMAGE: Darryl James

Check out WW’s take on the Portland International Film Festival here!

Suzanne Twining is out of work. But her fortunes have less to do with Barack Obama’s stimulus plan than with whether Phil Knight thinks her 8-inch puppets are good business.

In the fall of 2005, Baltimore native Twining bought a house in Portland and was soon hired by Knight’s animation studio, Laika, which had begun producing its first feature film: Coraline.

For two years, Twining worked inside miniature sets in Laika’s Hillsboro warehouse, bringing life to characters named Miss Forcible and Miss Spink. A 35-year-old woman with rosy cheeks that somewhat resemble those of her handiwork, Twining is especially adept at facial expressions, adjusting the 8-inch-tall silicone puppets less than a millimeter for each shot—24 movements for one second of footage. “It’s like acting in slow motion—in your brain,” she says.

On Thursday, Feb. 5, Coraline will have its world premiere at the opening night of the 32nd annual Portland International Film Festival. It will be a glamorous affair. A red carpet will be rolled out in front of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall for Phil Knight to walk down alongside stars Teri Hatcher and Dakota Fanning (they voiced the characters). Technicians have been flown in from Los Angeles to juryrig the Schnitz to project the movie in 3-D. The next morning, Feb. 6, Coraline will open nationwide on 2,100 movie screens.

And Twining? She is in the same situation as 8.1 percent of Portlanders—she’s looking for a job.

Twining, who finished her contract with Laika in December, doesn’t feel angry or betrayed. She just hoped for more. “A lot of people came onto Coraline thinking it would just roll on to the next movie,” she says.

But it hasn’t. Laika’s second project has been scratched—65 employees were laid off in December—and the announcement of a next movie is on hold while Knight watches to see how Coraline fares at the box office and in the eyes of Hollywood players.

“People bought homes and they moved here,” says Coraline sculptor Robb Kramer, “because they really thought Laika was going to build a building, we were going to start rolling out movies, and this was going to be a new mini animator’s mecca.”

These people are now waiting on Phil Knight. For them, Laika exists in a state of suspended animation.

There are fewer than 1,000 people in the world who specialize in stop-motion animation—the art of shifting tiny models by infinitesimal degrees, and taking a photograph for each position. These artists tend to be a nomadic bunch, migrating wherever the latest project is being developed. But many of the 30 animators who worked on Coraline, as well as the more than 250 technicians and designers who labored alongside them, came to Portland with the hope that Laika represented something more stable.

They did so because of the bankroll and reputation of Phil Knight. One of the world’s wealthiest men (his current net worth is $9.8 billion), Knight is also one of the planet’s smartest businessmen. And when the Nike founder took over the floundering Will Vinton Studios in 2003, giving his animator son, Travis, a shot at turning what was basically an advertising house into an artist’s haven, animators all over the world took notice. That’s why Travis Knight was able to convince Henry Selick, one of the world’s great stop-motion directors, into leaving L.A. and moving to Portland, where his twisted imagination would be harnessed to the first stop-motion movie to be filmed in stereoscopic 3-D.

“Certainly there’s pressure,” says Selick, who now lives in the Pearl District. “The future of this company and what sort of films we make, definitely there’s pressure on this project to deliver. It’s a riskier sort of story. It’s more like early Disney—scarier, more inventive, it doesn’t follow a formula. We’ll just have to see if taking a chance like this was the best way to go.”

What sets Coraline apart from the gaggle of children’s movies in the current marketplace is also what makes it such an expensive gamble: Unlike computer-generated movies like Shrek or Ratatouille, everything on screen exists, tangible and handmade, in models one-sixth the scale of the real world.

In a Hillsboro warehouse longer than a city block (so vast that crew members used skateboards to get from one set to the next), Robb Kramer, Coraline’s lead sculptor, created pint-sized worlds out of foam, hemp and even popcorn kernels. For 2 1/2 years Kramer supervised construction of three Victorian mansions, a 42-foot apple orchard, and even a model of Ashland, complete with tiny Shakespeare Festival banners—every bit of it flexible.

“In some cases, we were actually making every blade of grass,” he recalls. “I remember once Henry said, ‘Well, I think it would be great if all this grass would animate.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, man, how are we going to do that? That set’s carved out of two feet of foam.’ And sure enough, we found out how to do it. And it’s amazing.”

Selick was a stickler for such details. The director was an intimidating and sometimes abrasive figure on set, his long frame loping into view to deliver blunt assessments of the work. “He’s not afraid to tell you, ‘That idea sucks,’” Kramer says. “‘You just wasted that chunk of foam.’”

Selick remains haunted by his box-office flops after his 1993 cult hit The Nightmare Before Christmas—including James and the Giant Peach and the dismal 2001 dud Monkeybone. Acknowledges Kramer: “He’s got a lot riding on this.”

So does the man who lured Selick to Portland: Travis Knight. If Kramer ever thought Travis Knight became a lead animator on Coraline via nepotism, he quickly learned otherwise.

“Oh, Travis is fantastic,” Kramer says. “He’s not just pretty good. He’s a prodigy. He was animating three characters at once—and the wind, and the trees, and the grass. He’s like an alchemist.

“In a world where computer graphics seem to be blowing everyone’s mind and WALL-E is flying around in outer space with a fire hydrant,” Kramer says, “the fact that we just put a little piece of foam on a wire, and you push it one way and you pull it the other way and it looks like it’s bending…it’s the realness—like we just built the Millennium Falcon.”

This week, as much of the country’s multiplexes will be filled with showings of Coraline and reviews of the film will roll out across newspapers (see WW’s review on page 20), Robb Kramer spends his workdays in a miniature ghost town. The warehouse’s sets are deserted, and uncertainty surrounds the company.

The 30 acres in Tualatin purchased by Knight for a permanent Laika campus remain untouched, though construction was scheduled to begin last year. In December, Laika shelved its second feature film, Jack and Ben’s Animated Adventure—Travis Knight’s pet project, a computer-animated story about migratory bluebird best friends—and laid off 65 of its nearly 350 employees. And while Laika is considering as many as 10 other films, nothing has yet been given the green light. Insiders at the company say Laika won’t break ground or announce a new movie until Knight sees if Coraline’s success prompts Hollywood studios to want to distribute the next film.

Nobody seriously thinks Phil Knight is about to pull the plug on his cartoon factory. For a man whose net value is estimated at $9.8 billion, spending $100 million on a movie is the equivalent of this reporter springing for a Starbucks latte—hey, it’s a little fancy, but who’s counting?

Knight is a businessman, however, and he wants to see a return on his venture. Says one Laika insider: “Phil would be the kind of guy that just doesn’t want to have a company that fails.”

Laika is banking on the box-office success of an eccentric, expensive movie in a perilous market. The still unproven technology of 3-D—many theaters have refused to upgrade their projection systems—doesn’t help, nor does the film’s gothic sensibility that will disturb most 6-year-olds.

Coraline doesn’t have to be a blockbuster like WALL-E to make good on Laika’s gamble, says Paul Dergarabedian, a movie-biz analyst who tracks box-office receipts with his firm Media by Numbers. Instead, it needs to reach the more modest plateau of Aardman Animations’ 2005 stop-motion cartoon Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which grossed $16 million its opening weekend and used that solid start to collect more than $192 million worldwide.

Dergarabedian says he thinks Coraline can reach the same per-theater numbers, but it’s opening on half as many screens. “This is a very difficult film to track, because it’s not your typical family film,” he says. “If they open at close to $10 million, I think they should be really pleased with that result.”

But one Laika animator, speaking on condition of anonymity, says Coraline may only need to impress one viewer.

“What does Phil Knight really want? Is he really trying to jump into the Hollywood world, or is this just really a nice way to showcase his son’s talent?”

Many of the Coraline contributors aren’t lingering to find out what Knight wants. At least half of the 30 animators have already left town to work on other stop-motion projects like Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie.

Some didn’t have much choice. “A lot of the animators were British,” Kramer says. “Their visa ran out, they left, and that’s that. Hopefully, we’ll get everybody back.”

Laika CEO Dale Wahl insists the work will arrive soon. “That’s what we’re shooting for,” Wahl says, “is to be able to provide a home for animators.”

Suzanne Twining remains cautious. “Nobody was promised anything,” she says. “You want to believe it’s more than what it is, sometimes.”

Meanwhile, the woman who shapes fantasy ghouls is like everybody else in this economy—looking for a job. “I might end up going down to L.A. in the spring if nothing turns up,” Twining says. “I’m here. But I’ve gotta pay my mortgage.”

The House That Mms Built

Coraline isn’t just being bankrolled by shoe money. From the days when it was still Will Vinton Studios, Laika has drawn its lifeblood from an advertising wing that continues to be profitable.

Laika/house is the animation company that produces some of the nation’s most widely recognized cartoon spokes-characters: the talking MMs, Buzz the Honey Nut Cheerios bee, the stop-motion Mac and PC in Apple’s Christmas ads. Laika/house creates about 30 television commercials a year, as well as 12 to 15 branded online spots and several for-hire projects in movies. The company won’t release its earnings, or what percentage of Laika’s bottom line it represents: “We’ve had several good years,” acknowledges marketing director Alise Munson.

“I don’t want us to be known as just the MM people,” says Kirk Kelley, Laika/house’s creative director. But the studio has been crafting computer-generated talking candies for MM/Mars since 1995. “People tell me that I know Red and Yellow better than I know my family,” Kelley says.

Laika/house, which employs about 40 full-time artists in its Northwest Quimby Street headquarters, completes its 30-second hand-drawn, CGI and stop-motion productions in four to six weeks—a sharp contrast with the entertainment wing, where Coraline had a five-year gestation. “This is the history from which Laika sprung,” Kelley says.

Producer Jan Johnson offers her own insider secret: “We have a margarita machine,” she says. “It’s the key to our success.” —Aaron Mesh


MORE: Filming of Coraline was delayed by stereoscopic 3-D cameras, which took two shots per frame: The double images, shot at “inter-ocular distance” (the space between human eyes) are layered over each other so that audiences wearing 3-D glasses see each image at the proper depth.

Phil Knight was a rare presence on the Coraline set—10 visits in 30 months, by Robb Kramer’s estimate. “He would usually bring the Hollywood producer,” Kramer says. “It was always kind of the entourage of suits.”

Coraline’s chief competition at the box office this weekend? Steve Martin in The Pink Panther 2, the romantic comedy He’s Just Not That Into You and the action flick Push—which, coincidentally, also stars Dakota Fanning.

Laika’s laid-off employees have each been mailed a making-of-Coraline book and a $50 gift certificate to Regal Cinemas.

The most-discussed Laika follow-up to Coraline is Paranorman, an original stop-motion idea from Henry Selick protégé Chris Butler. Kramer confirms that work on Paranorman has begun and that the studio is courting investors. Selick describes it as “a sweet comedy about a boy who communes with his dead grandmother and who must take on a small army of misguided zombies.”

 
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