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Neil Gaiman Walked Us Through the Magic of LAIKA at SDCC Live Experience

Earlier today, Dan Casey held our hand and walked us through LAIKA’s display of its extraordinary work that will be at San Diego Comic-Con through Sunday. Frankly, the exhibit should come with a paper bag to hyperventilate into. Dan was joined by Coraline author and ethereal prince Neil Gaiman as well as LAIKA CEO Travis Knight and a smattering of LAIKA wizards who all offered up interesting tidbits and jaw-dropping gems.

“The weirdness for me is that this is my home in the Midwest,” Gaiman said, standing outside a model of Coraline‘s country home the size of a Smartcar. No one knew that he modeled her home after his, but when director Henry Selick showed him the house, he was astonished at the likeness. “It’s the same shape and everything.”

The tour moved on to a small, traveling version of LAIKA’s puppet hospital. (Totally not creepy!) “Just like when people break down, when puppets break down, we take them to the puppet hospital,” Knight said. “It takes an army to put these things together.”

Machinist Austin Richards explained the painstaking process that goes into designing and building the puppets, displaying the rubber face of a zombie that fits on a metal skull with movable elements around the lips, chin, and eyes for maximum expression. He also described the process of pouring silicone into the mold around the figure’s skeleton to add “skin” to the character, and explained that even the character’s clothing sometimes has wires inside for animators to manipulate because, if a zombie is chasing Norman, the wind would affect its clothing.

“They’re incredibly engineered machines, but they have to endure,” Knight said, discussing the balance between durability and delicateness of these precision watch-like machines. Fingers take the most abuse and break the most, so Knight says, “We’ve got people who do nothing but create hands.”

At a set that shows off how LAIKA animators brought Kubo and the Two Strings to life, animation supervisor Brad Schiff explained the challenge of giving the figures a full range of motion. “There’s no simulation,” he said. “So everything has to be done meticulously by hand. Puppets can’t levitate, so if the animator needs to make the puppet run or jump, we have this elaborate rig,” which gets digitally painted out later.

When asked what the hardest shot on Kubo was, Knight laughed. “They’re all hard,” he said. “Doing a subtle emotional performance where the character is breathing is as challenging as a big action sequence. It’s all very, very hard.” According to Knight, some animators are better at emotion, and some are better at action, so they cast animators the same way a production would cast actors, finding the right role for them while attempting to give all of them a chance to stretch their skills.

One of the most impressive elements of the live event is a wall of character faces. Dozens and dozens of Coralines and Kubos and Snatchers.

“In the old days, you’d make something out of clay or carve it out of wood,” Knight explained. LAIKA uses a computer, so all the faces were designed in a computer and 3D printed with a “hard, resin material.” Coraline had a simple design because her face was painted by hand, but advancements in the technology have allowed for more and more complex facial designs. “Heroes have to have the greatest amount of expressivity,” Knight said. Kubo has something in the neighborhood of 60 million expressions. Dan Casey only has four.

“Animation is something of a distallation of an idea,” Knight said while scoping out some of the intricate costumes from The Boxtrolls ballroom scene. “These are marvelous feats of engineering as well as gorgeous achievements in costuming. It’s a mind-boggling, staggering amount of work that goes into crafting these costumes.”

Deborah Cook, who has made costumes for every LAIKA film, was the first person to get a nomination from the Costume Designers Guild for an animated film (a nod she earned for Kubo and the Two Strings).

The tour circled back to find Gaiman sitting on a human-sized version of the bug sofa from Coraline.

Explaining why stop-motion was the right fit for his story, he said, “If you made a live-action Coraline, at least if you made it back then, you’d make something that was much too scary for adults. Kids might be okay with it, but adults would be absolutely terrified. There’s a remove that stop-motion gives you. You’re aware on some level that they’re dolls. They’re kind of safe. That little extra magic might stop Coraline from plunging fully into nightmare territory.”

And what about the author’s favorite part of the adaptation of his story?

“My favorite moment is the very, very, very end when you pull back and you see Coraline’s face, and there’s a wonderful blurring between the two worlds,” Gaiman said. “What was real? What really happened? It’s a glorious moment that wasn’t in the book. A special piece of film magic.”

Gaiman went on to praise fan dedication to the adventurous, eerie girl, lauding the cosplay, the tattoos, and the Coraline-themed crafts people make before explaining that every stop on his last book tour had at least a few people with ratty copies who took him aside to explain how the book at gotten them through tough times. He also promised “so many surprises in store” for the movie’s 10th anniversary.

Last on the tour, Knight showed off a blue moon-lit set of their upcoming film, Missing Link, which stars Zach Galifianakis, Hugh Jackman, and Zoe Saldana, and is directed by Chris Butler. Jackman voices Sir Lionel Frost, an aristocratic adventure who’s an “energetic mix of Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones,” looking in the Pacific Northwest for proof of Bigfoot.

Knight calls it “the most dynamic, eye-popping thing we’ve ever done.”

Also, Dan is super awkward around Sasquatches.

Images: LAIKA

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