Another Rainy Wordstock Weekend: Laika Studios and Making Time for Art at the Portland Art Museum


It was another rainy Wordstock weekend in Portland. (Okay, I know this is the third post I’ve started that way, but I promise I’m going somewhere different with this one.) But it was – Wordstock weekend, I mean... and raining. And even though I got to hear a handful of fantastic authors discuss their work – namely Jeffrey Eugenides, Danzy Senna, and Ta-Nehisi Coates – there was another element of the day that stood out the most.

Wordstock has been hosted at the Portland Art Museum for the last three years, and I’ve attended all three. But during the previous two I was busy running from venue to venue, or working the Backwords booth, and never had the time to visit the museum itself. This year the main exhibit had already caught my eye, and I was excited to finally take advantage of the museum access that came with my ticket.

Laika – the Hillsboro, Oregon based animation studio – was showcasing models, props, and behind-the-scenes footage from their stop-motion films. I knew about Laika. Pretty much everyone who lives in Portland does. Their first full-length feature, “Coraline,” was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, which was pretty significant for a small studio in a small suburb of a small city. But until their most recent film, “Kubo and the Two Strings,” I hadn’t actually seen anything they’d produced in its entirety. "Kubo" was outstanding. The story, the visuals, the animation, everything. So when I saw the exhibit advertised from ground-to-roof on the side of the museum, I had made a mental note.

I was never a big fan of animation as a kid, I much preferred TV shows and movies with real people. But an episode of Reading Rainbow called “The Piggy in the Puddle” set in motion a fascination with claymation (not to mention a craft box full of clay and a short lived attempt at my own claymation). While stop-motion can be traced all the way back to the turn of the 20th century, Laika takes the art fully into the 21st – combining it with 3D printing and modern tech to open creative doors and enhance certain elements without losing the charms of imperfection.

Laika itself came to life in 2005, with takeover of Will Vinton studios by another ubiquitous Portlander – Nike co-founder, Phil Knight. Knight’s son Travis became, and still is, the CEO. He’s also an animator and made his directorial debut with “Kubo.” In a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone, (Travis) Knight discusses the relationship between physical art and technology at the studio:

The computer could do anything that we could do but better, and with greater flexibility and precision. We figured that the only way to bring this medium into a new era was to embrace the author of our demise. We had to take the infernal machine and find a way to make peace with it. That's the foundation of our production methodology: to bind art and technology together to tell stories.

Laika’s art of storytelling has received its own share of notoriety. Each of their four feature films (“Box Trolls” and “ParaNorman” not yet mentioned here) have received critical acclaim and award recognition. And sure, you could leave this all to the amazing animation and effects, but the awards are for the films as a whole – story included.

As film editor and critic Dominick Suzanne-Mayer points out, the films aren’t just created as diversions, they’re produced for kids with the complexity of being a kid in mind:

These are kids’ movies for a different kind of kid, one able to handle more than sassy anthropomorphic animals running around in brightly colored universes. Like Pixar, Laika understands the intelligence of its audience regardless of age. But Laika trusts it with even more difficult material at times.

On top of theme and story, it’s the artistic elements in the stop-motion form that bring universality to the films. Story aside, watching a Laika film is like watching a piece of art on the screen.

At the front of the museum, I was greeted by a 16-foot skeleton puppet, the enemy of Kubo and his companions in the film. Maybe it goes all the way back to that Reading Rainbow episode, but I always think of stop-motion as small things being made to look large. The other puppets on display matched that idea – all of them less than a foot tall. So to learn the skeleton monster was the real puppet, not an enlarged version for the exhibit, was a shocking revelation of scale.

The wall to the left of the giant skeleton was covered top to bottom with floating faces. Different characters were on display in columns with each face representing a minute change in expression. The overall effect was a little weird if taken out of context – hundreds of bodiless faces – but it shed light on the sheer amount of work that goes into creating a full-length stop-motion film.

A short behind the scenes documentary was on repeat in a side room, and I stopped to take in some of the staggering production facts. Okay, I’ll be honest here. I didn’t retain much of the information I learned that day. I was tired and mainly stuck to admiring the details and pretty colors of the puppets and sets themselves. But for the sake of providing similar information, I did a bit of digging and found some staggering production facts to include. Like this little nugget from The Hollywood Reporter: “Kubo himself, a mere 9-inch puppet, has 11,007 unique mouth positions, 4,429 brow motions and a total of 23,187 difference faces with more than 48 million possible expressions.”

Or this fun fact about “Coraline” from Animation World Network:

The costume department, headed up by Deborah Cook, is chock full of tiny clothes all made by hand to exacting standards. Because of wear and tear, each costume is made in multiples. Cook shows a pair of tiny pajamas worn by Coraline in the film, of which 30 identical pairs were made. Each copy had to be identical down to the way the pattern broke at the seams.

Aside from the giant skeleton monster, the highlight deeper in the museum was a garden set from “Coraline.” Each small leaf, stem, and stone was expertly crafted, I learned that much in the video. Up close it looked like nothing more than a collage of color and shape, but take a step back and a whole world was on display. There were lights embedded somewhere underneath that gave it a fairytale glow. I was, quite simply, amazed.