Animating Life: LAIKA invades the Portland Art Museum

(Originally published 10/25/2017)

I talk about LAIKA a lot.

But every time I mention the studio to someone who isn’t an animation nerd, the conversation is exactly the same.

“Laika?” they say. “Yeah, I’ve heard of Laika. She was a Russian space dog.”

“No,” I say. “Well, yes, but I’m talking about the animation studio.”

“She died in space, you know. Overheated and cooked to death. Did you bring her up just to bum me out? Major party foul, dude.”

“I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT THE SPACE DOG,” I say in all caps. “I’m talking about the stop-motion animation studio where they make impossibly beautiful films because they are FREAKING WIZARDS or maybe VERY TALENTED DEMONS. I mean, Kubo and the Two Strings won a Scientific and Technical Oscar. Did you see it?”

They look at me blankly. “Uh, no, but I think I saw… what was that other one they did before that?”

The Boxtrolls?”

“Uh… maybe? It had this kid and it was like all spooky and stuff…”

“Oh! You mean ParaNorman,” I say, drooling like a fanboy. “I LOVE ParaNorman! It’s not just one of my favorite animated movies, but it’s one of my favorite movies, period. It’s charming and hilarious! Everyone loves funny zombies.”

“No no, there were no zombies. There were like, button eyes.”

I take a deep breath, sigh, and say. “You’re thinking of Coraline.”

Their eyes light up. “Yeah! Caroline! That’s the one! Man, that movie is so awesome. I’ve seen it ten times. I love Tim Burton!”

And this, in a nutshell, is why my mother told me to never speak to strangers.

LAIKA Coraline

Don’t get me wrong. Coraline is a great movie. It’s a delightful story, superbly animated. But it came out in 2009. It was LAIKA’s first shot at a feature. It was the practice swing. The technical leaps and bounds they’ve achieved in each subsequent film are staggeringly mind-blowing. And nobody I talk to seems to even know. Or care.

Luckily for my sanity, from now until May 2018, the Portland Art Museum presents Animating Life: The Art, Science, and Wonder of LAIKA. This thrilling exhibition of behind-the-scenes witchcraft grabs you by the atrophied lobes of your CG-animation-addled mind and forces you to open your eyes, suck a surprised gasp, and say, “Holy crap, it’s real. All of it is really actually real.”

The Art of Making Weird Stuff Real

LAIKA Skeleton

The exhibit’s shock-and-awe campaign begins with the giant skeleton from Kubo. This looming giant is an actual stop-motion puppet used in production. A completely insane system of wires and pulleys was used to allow a single animator to move this ginormous puppet, frame-by-frame, during the animation process. At eighteen-feet tall, this skeleton is the largest stop-motion puppet in the world.

(Full disclosure: The puppet was only built from the waist up for production. The legs were added later to keep the title of “largest stop-motion puppet in the world” after a bigger skeleton puppet was built in Dubai.*)

As you move further into the gallery, the exhibition throws John Q. Stoppedwatchingafterthefirstfilm a bone with a majestic display of the Fantastic Garden from Coraline. In the movie, Creepy Dad takes Coraline up in his weirdo bug helicopter thing to reveal the entire garden has grown in the shape of Coraline’s face, blue hair and all. If you know it’s there you can see her face from this perspective, but it’s all squashed and derpy looking.

LAIKA Coraline Garden
Try to pretend a Garden of Eyes monster isn’t creeping on you from across the gallery.

Here’s a little display from my favorite LAIKA jam, ParaNorman. Bully Alvin is hassling Norman in the hallway of Blithe Middle School. This is an excellent spot to point out one of the hundreds of things that blows my mind about LAIKA films.

LAIKA Norman Hall

If you were making this movie in live action, you’d probably location scout an actual school. Then your set decorators would work their magic, acquiring all of the school-like dressings and adding them to the set. And then you’d have your CW-hot twenty-something high-school actors do their scene.

In this film there was no actual school. There was no acquiring of dressings. There were no actors. Every single thing in every single shot of every single LAIKA movie is meticulously designed and hand-crafted to fit the style of the film.

LAIKA Norman Projector

I mean, look at this overhead projector! Somebody made that. The cart. The roll of paper towels. The power strip. The post-it pad. The pen on the floor. Nothing is off-the-shelf. Nothing is accidental. Somebody designed and built and placed every single little piece of crap littering this scene.

Wait, nothing off the shelf… somebody designed and built every… sorry, I feel like I’ve launched this monologue before. Oh right, it was after I saw The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas.

Flintstones Viva Rock Vegas

Man, that is some awesome modern-stone-age production design. No wonder that movie won four Academy Awards for art and design.*

For me, the best part of the exhibition was getting to see props and costumes from every LAIKA film up close in jam-packed displays like these.

LAIKA Norman Costumes

LAIKA Norman Toys

LOOK AT NORMAN’S TOYS! Every one is unique, awesome, and approximately the size of a red blood cell. How do they make art that small? Have they kidnapped Wayne Szalinski? Did someone reverse the polarity on the Zoltar machine? Some other gratuitous 1980s reference?

LAIKA Norman Stuff

Is your mind blown yet? Well buckle up, because after this exhibition kicks your brain’s ass with art, it piledrives it with technology.

Get All Up in LAIKA’s Faces

Behold the Wall of Faces.

LAIKA Wall of Faces

To achieve the amazing fluidity of facial movement seen in their films, LAIKA uses puppet faces animated by computer and made real using groundbreaking 3D printing technology.

(And I don’t mean “groundbreaking” as in “I’m your grandmother and I’ve never heard of a 3D printer before, and isn’t that neat?” I mean it as in, “They are at the forefront of 3D printing technology, working directly with an industrial printer manufacturer to refine crazy bleeding-edge stuff you ain’t never even HEARD OF, bro!”)

LAIKA Wall of Faces

Stretching the full length of the gallery, each pin on this wall holds a single face used on a single frame of an animated sequence. These faces were animated using computers, then each frame of motion was 3D printed and painstakingly processed to become a real-world object to be attached to a real-world puppet during a real-world stop-motion animation shoot.  Thousands of them are created for each movie, each subtly different.

After a face is used, it is given to Arya Stark so that she may become that character and more easily murder its friends.*

Physics Are a Pain in the Puppet Butt

As a culture inundated with computer-generated animation, all of us have seen some featurette on some DVD at some point about how that process works. There’s a digital model in a virtual world that an animator moves around in a fakey fake-ass Lawnmower Man cyber world. In computer animation, it’s easy to do a lot of big moves because real-world physics don’t apply.

In LAIKA’s world, not so much.

LAIKA Kubo Jump

Here’s a display showing Kubo leaping from one platform to another. Look at the leftmost Kubo. See that screw thing under the block attached to his foot? That’s there because, despite his dynamic pose, Kubo isn’t really running. He’s standing still, mid-stride, with his weight all off balance. Every single time Kubo takes a step like this, his animator has to screw and unscrew his feet to the floor to keep him from falling over.

And it gets crazier.

Kubo can’t jump. Not like a CG character can jump. Because Kubo is cursed by actual gravity. So for every single frame he’s in the air he has to be attached to one of these crazy arm rig thingies that will later be digitally painted out in post.

And then he lands. You may be like, “Okay, and they screw his feet down again. I get it.” But look at his sleeve. It’s still trailing behind him as he hits the ground. But it’s not a computer cloth simulation. It’s not even real cloth acting like real cloth acts. It’s a costume designed and rigged so the animator can manipulate this completely still pose to look like it’s in the middle of a fluid motion.

And they do that for everything that moves on every frame of every film.

The deeper you go down the LAIKA rabbit hole, the harder it is to keep your jaw off the floor. Which is why, upon entering the exhibit, they give you a special helmet with a chin strap.*

LAIKA Norman Helmet

See It For Yourself

This post contains only a tiny Norman-toy-sized sample of all the eyeball-widening wonder on display at Animating Life: The Art, Science, and Wonder of LAIKA. There’s really no point in showing you a thousand photographs, because the real thrill of this exhibit is seeing these things outside the context of a screen. To appreciate the real-life scale and texture and craftsmanship of every little bit of it with your own eyes.

If you’re in the Portland area, this is a must-see. If you’re not, well, at least watch the films. I’m tired of talking about space dogs.

Animating Life: The Art, Science, and Wonder of LAIKA
at the Portland Art Museum
October 14, 2017 – May 20, 2018
Plan your visit here.

* Not an actual fact.

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