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On Set with "Coraline": A Tour Through Laika Animation

Shooting 'Coraline'The building that housed upwards of 57 active sets in tandem for a stop-motion animated film (a new record, by the way) is an inconspicuous-looking building several miles outside of Portland, Oregon. There’s nothing so ostentatious as the kind of studios you’d find in Hollywood, be it a Warner Bros water tower or a massive gate with the studio name. It’s rather appropriate to the project and the artists behind it, because there’s a crucial need for privacy and focus in stop-motion animation, which has so many elements that need to be controlled and monitored to prevent mistakes or amateurish effect. So it was an undeniable privilege to be able to tour Coraline‘s sets and departments at Laika Animation, seeing the remarkable amount of skills and supplies necessary to pull a film like this off.

The atmosphere at Laika was much more relaxed than one might have expected, but that can be explained by the fact that they’re ramping down to the end of their production schedule. There’s far less work to do at this point than there was at the apex of the shoot’s activity. Ergo, we were free to more fully examine the areas we got to see and ask our questions without too much worry of wasting the artists’ time.

What most amazed me, in my chance to look up close and personal at every aspect of Coraline‘s artistic elements, is the remarkable amount of specialized detail that every bit of the film required. The metal framework skeletons within each of the puppets is a good example of this. The head of puppets, Georgina Haynes, explained that the parts for these skeletons are so small that they literally cannot be purchased anywhere, and have to be special ordered from engineers. It’s fantastic to consider the requirements of such microscopic construction, especially given how many of these stop-motion puppets have to be made. Some of the puppets are made at 200% and 300% size, to serve for close-up shots. However, the nature of Henry Selick’s filming choices made it necessary to make even the normal 100% size puppets as perfectly detailed as the bigger models, as the camera might start from far back but then eventually move in for the close-up without ever breaking the shot. That means that everything has to be camera-ready to every degree, and capable of all the necessary amount of movement and manipulation.

Painting replacement headsAnother fascinating thing that you fans of the technical side of animation might want to know is that Coraline is a combination of two different stop-motion techniques: replacement and mechanical. The former is the hallmark of films like The Nightmare Before Christmas, where replacement heads are used for all the characters to simulate their shifting emotions and different mouth shapes, allowing the characters to both act and talk. Mechanical animation was used in Corpse Bride, where the puppets themselves were very complicated technical achievements with a series of joints and gears within the bodies and faces of the characters, allowing the animators to simply push the body parts and facial expressions into whatever form they wanted without a lot of replacement supplies to keep track of. Mechanical puppetry allows for greater detail and complexity in the puppet’s design, but replacement puppetry allows for a far greater range of possible emotion from the puppet in performance. Coraline‘s crew has artists that worked on either or both films, and so Coraline is using both techniques. The main characters are replacement-based, as they do the bulk of the acting; the more colorful and curious side characters are mechanical, allowing their standalone features to be especially interesting.

At the costuming department, most of the costumes are actually made of real cloth and textured material. My question to them was, doesn’t that make for an automatic danger in stop-motion? After all, cloth doesn’t automatically stand still for the frame-by-frame process; not to mention, they have to make multiple versions of the same costume for the multiple versions of the puppets. For my first proposed problem, the costumes get wired so that they will hold their basic form as they animate the puppets; for my second, they use computers to analyze the pattern on the costumes and make sure that the cut of the fabric matches every single other version of that cut.

Carefully setting up the shotNext, we were able to visit some of the live sets still animating in this last leg of production. These ranged from things as simple as sets where Coraline is just skipping down the steps of her house, to a complicated horizontal tableau where an animator has spent several weeks chipping slowly away at a clay horizon-like environment so that it looks like it’s dissipating upwards (the camera sits above it, shooting down). One curious thing I learned was what stop-motion animation uses for its “pencil tests”: rehearsal. The animator rehearses the animation at a simpler pace, posing the characters for every fourth frame or so. This allows the animators, and Selick, to monitor the way the animation works so that they can be sure that the animation works for the shot, and then they graph it out frame by frame. After that, they’ll actually get to the real animation shooting, knowing for certain which poses and alterations they need to make to the puppet for each frame.

One truly amazing setup involves a floor that has turned into a spider web, and so the shot is of Coraline falling down through the center of the web as the camera moves around her. Because the web actually exists and is nearly as delicate as real webbing itself, the crew has set up a complicated two-story set that uses computer-controlled winches to make the web properly collapse in the right (and asymmetrical) pattern. When we had a chance to see them on-set testing the web, the animators were debating on the best way to be able to access the Coraline puppet in the center of the web without ever touching the fragile set.

Working on one of Coraline's intricate setsI close with a description of the sets themselves. We all had a chance to wander through the “graveyard”, which is where previously used and no-longer-needed sets are being stored. Both the active sets and the graveyard sets have utterly remarkable level of detail to them, in construction and in painting. Granted, as I mentioned earlier, Selick is fond of taking the camera straight in to the characters and the world, which requires that everything be detailed enough to be perfect for the camera. But while that may make sense from an intellectual perspective, it means something entirely different to be standing right up against the set, your nose a centimeter away from the surface. The house itself, a significant environment/character of the story in Coraline, has a stippled paint pattern all over its tiny brick surface, mimicking to perfection the kind of texture you find on any brick surface you’d see in reality. Is this something you’d notice on the big screen? Of course not. But you’d notice it if it wasn’t there. It’s part of animation’s great contradiction, the need to create convincing reality out of material that is unrealistic to be moving on its own. What Laika Animation has done, under the peerless guidance of Henry Selick, is a heck of a lot of work that is bound to convince all who view it.

Read Toon Zone News’ Interview Session with Coraline director Henry Selick.

Many thanks to Yannina Diaz and Deette Kearns at Focus Features for all their generosity and passion in getting this press event together, and for my fellow press guys Joe Fordham from Cinefex and Jeff Lester from Newsarama for being good company. And, of course, to Henry Selick and everyone at Laika Animation for their willingness to share their amazing artistry with us, both behind-the-scenes and on the screen.

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