Why “art career” isn’t a contradiction in terms: my behind the scenes look at “The Boxtrolls”

Portland isn’t known for its show-biz glamour. We’ve got Portlandia and Grimm, but there’s not much celebrity glitz here in the Land of Clogs.

So you might be surprised to know that just outside of town, housed in a generic set of suburban office buildings, is LAIKA Studios — premier creator of feature-length stop-motion animation films. Movies you’ve seen such as Coraline and ParaNorman came out of LAIKA, and a new feature is set to release on 9/26/14: The Boxtrolls.

Last Spring I was invited to LAIKA for a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how The Boxtrolls was made. “Behind-the-scenes” anything is fascinating. But I was especially excited to learn about (and share with you) an example of a vital workplace filled with artists and technicians. Especially because my daughter is a budding artist herself.

LAIKA’s particular brand of stop-motion is physical. In other words, the animators manipulate physical puppets which they snapshot then animate by stringing the snapshots together.

This isn’t claymation or CGI, it’s a painstakingly slow process of nudging eyebrows, fingers, and head angles of little figurines, and then taking pictures. An animator typically takes a week to complete 3.7 seconds worth of footage, which is just under 90 individual frames.

This is mind-blowing.

photo credit: LAIKA Studios

I’m getting ahead of myself, because the puppets and props themselves — the stuff getting animated — is all made by hand. More than 20,000 props were handmade for the movie including 55 different sculpts just of cheese.

The sets were a remarkable study in detail…it was like standing in front miniature worlds. And the movie’s main characters, a boy, a girl, and the Boxtrolls themselves…they took on personalities simply because an animator knew just the right angle and tempo to cock their heads.

photo credit: LAIKA Studios

I was able to meet the animators, talk to the directors, and even meet LAIKA founder Travis Knight. I didn’t say much because I was dumbfounded by the sheer inventiveness of everything I was seeing. I found myself wondering how I could arrange an internship for my daughter in about, oh, seven years.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing about the visit was that I was watching extremely skilled, creative people engaged in intense, paying work. I imagined their parents a few years earlier worrying about their kids’ plans for a "career in art." Several of the blindingly talented people I met talked about how they only hit their strides after the tight structures of school were behind them, and they could think, learn and work in ways that were right for them.

Music to the ears of a parent of unconventional kids.

So mark your calendars and take the family to see The Boxtrolls next weekend. The kids will laugh and cheer along with the movie, and you’ll marvel at the workmanship and skill it took to create it.

My visit to LAIKA Studios was arranged as part of a local press event. I was not paid to attend, nor was I paid or obligated to write this wrapup.