Laika's Brian McLean finds it funny he won an Academy Award this year for "Scientific and Engineering Achievement." Though he and colleague Martin Meunier helped drag stop-motion animation into the 21st century with their work on breakout hit Coraline, McLean spent most of his life actively opposing technological progress. As animation started to go CGI, jobs were tough for McLean to come by. He wanted to build old-school physical models.
"When I graduated college in '99, I didn't know how to write an email," McLean recalls. "I was basically a Luddite—revolting against anything computer-generated—and it meant that I didn't really know what I was going to do for a job because practical model-making had started to dry up."
He was forced to take a job as shop steward at California College of the Arts. But as chance would have it, while there he was tasked with mastering the intricacies of a $250,000 3-D printer.
"Seeing the 3-D printer, that sort of changed my life," he recalled. "It's the bridge between the digital world and the physical world. It allows you to pull something out of ones and zeros and turn it into a physical object. I could still work with my hands, but now I'd be using the computers as a tool to generate something three-dimensional that I could hold and work with."
He and Meunier presented the idea to current Laika president Travis Knight, and "rapid prototyping" was born. The process is especially good for making replacement faces: While a then-standard 800 heads were sculpted for Nightmare Before Christmas' main character, Coraline could have 200,000 separate expressions, all made by 3-D printer.
Of course, not everyone was eager to welcome the coming revolution of McLean's new Rapid Prototyping department. "A lot of people with careers in stop-motion had been really burned by computers in the '90s," he laughed. "I was one of them! People were nervous that 3-D printing was gonna come take their jobs away."
People calmed down—McLean says staffing went up rather than down for Laika's next feature, Paranorman. "It's a tool," says McLean. "No different than any other tool. You still are going to need artists to run it, you're still going to need experts to figure it out." And now? Laika's upcoming August feature, Kubo and the Two Strings, will now also include McLean's ancient enemy, computer animation. Except the CGI will be made to look like stop-motion models rather than the real world.
"The team had to find ways to make water look like water, but still feel like cheese cloth undulating around," McLean says, "or make snow feel like it has been cut out of paper with very stylized edges reminiscent of origami."