Hands-on fantasy


Inside most animated movie studios, the workplace background noise is little more than gentle mouse clicks and the dull drone of computers. The sounds within Laika, the maker of the new stop-motion animated film “Coraline,” are often distinctly different: the buzz of electric drills, the whir from sewing machines and the occasional wallop of a hammer.

Animation has grown into not only a billion-dollar business but also a high-tech hotbed of visual effects. But Henry Selick, the writer and director of Laika’s “Coraline,” wants to make movies the old-fashioned way: with hands, not computer workstations.

“I still think it’s viable,” Selick said more than two years ago, just as production on “Coraline” was set to begin in a converted, yet poorly heated warehouse just outside Portland. Selick, Laika (the new animation studio founded by Nike’s Phil Knight) and Focus Features, the film’s distributor, are about to find out how viable the film truly is: “Coraline,” a visually stunning look at a young girl’s imaginary world, opens Friday and will have just three weeks to prove itself because it will lose its 3-D theaters to “Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience.”


Although Disney is working on the two-dimensional animated film “The Princess and the Frog” and the Sundance Film Festival’s opening night film was the stop-motion “Mary and Max,” animated movies made without the constant assistance of rendering mainframes are becoming an endangered species.

Two years ago, DreamWorks Animation severed its relationship with Britain’s “Chicken Run” studio Aardman Animations, one of the most accomplished purveyors of stop-motion animation, in which painstakingly minute adjustments are made to small, three-dimensional characters who inhabit real environments; because each movement is recorded on just a few frames of film, the characters move fluidly when the movie is completed.

Aardman (like modern stop-motion legend Will Vinton of California Raisins fame) usually employs clay rather than Selick’s choice of movable metal-and-silicone-and-fabric puppets that populated his previous films, “Monkeybone,” “James and the Giant Peach” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

In some ways, “Coraline,” adapted by Selick with several new twists from Neil Gaiman’s middle-reader novel, evokes 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas”: Both films unfold in fantasy worlds that can be as unsettling as they are exotic; the journeys the characters undertake may be utterly fantastic, but they also remain emotionally allegorical -- Aesop’s Fables populated with skeletons and talking animals.

“Coraline” follows an impressionable young girl’s (voiced by Dakota Fanning) magic passage to a parallel world where her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) are not the indifferent real mom and dad she has in her new home. But like the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel,” fresh-baked treats unfortunately come with strings attached. Or in the case of “Coraline,” it’s buttons and thread, which are used to replace the eyes of those who choose to enter the fantasy world.


Fancy digs can wait

It’s an occasionally scary tale -- “I say it’s for brave children of all ages,” Selick said -- and the stakes are as high for “Coraline’s” titular character as they are for Selick and Laika. Nike co-founder Knight launched the studio in 2005 (when it absorbed Vinton’s company), with ambitious plans for making an animated feature a year, with its creative hub a gleaming new campus in the Portland suburb of Tualatin.


But the ground has yet to be broken on Laika’s new headquarters, and the promised stream of new films is far from reality. While Laika has nine movies in various states of development -- including an adaptation of the book “Here Be Monsters” and a Selick-produced original idea called “Paranorman” among the projects -- it abandoned “Jack and Ben,” from “Lion King” and “Cars” writer Jorgen Klubien. Knight (whose son, Travis, is the lead “Coraline” animator) has said he will announce Laika’s next movie later this year, but given how long it takes to make animated movies, it’s unlikely Laika will have a new feature before 2011.

“I’m in favor of no campus -- let’s use our resources to put the movies on the screen,” said Selick, who also serves as Laika’s supervising director, a post similar to John Lasseter’s role within Pixar. “You build a campus after you’ve had five hit movies. And without a doubt, ‘Coraline’ will have an impact on the number of films put into production. If we do a little business, it will be a good first film -- because then it will have proven its worth.”

Unlike March 27’s “Monsters vs. Aliens,” which DreamWorks invested $165 million in, stop-motion animation is not wildly expensive, with “Coraline” taking about $60 million and 20-months of filming to produce. But Laika is sharing in Focus’ marketing and distribution costs, meaning that its risk (and potential reward) is greater.

Like everything the 56-year-old Selick does, “Coraline’s” look is certainly distinctive. As a visit to the Hillsboro warehouse dramatized, it’s the result of more than two years of precise craftsmanship, including tasks as delicate as sewing tiny costumes and assembling complex, miniature metal armatures that permit a full range of movement. In addition to using electrically powered tools, designers also worked with surgical equipment, including tiny curettes and forceps.

“In a 4-inch cat, you will have about 100 parts,” said Georgina Hayns, the head of puppet fabrication, a department that made nearly 200 different puppets, many of which are one-ninth scale, or about 7 inches tall.

Bo Henry, a longtime Selick collaborator and Laika’s construction head, said that in a world narrowly focused on computer animation, “Coraline” had to search around the world for film artists proficient in physical animation and scenic design, rather than computer animation.


“There is still a pretty good stable, but 10 years from now, that will be a very valid question,” Henry said.

Which raises another question: Does stop-motion animation occupy an increasingly shrinking niche?

“We like stop-motion,” Selick said after he completed work on his film, “but we’ll have to see how ‘Coraline’ does.”

Selick has been encouraged that directors Wes Anderson (“The Fantastic Mr. Fox”), Nick Park (an untitled “Wallace and Gromit” movie) and Tim Burton (“Frankenweenie”) are making or developing new stop-motion movies.


3-D vision

“Coraline” was shot in 3-D, using small medical cameras to navigate the diminutive sets, which is both a sales hook and a challenge. Because theater owners have been slow to convert cinemas to the digital projectors needed for the immersive presentation, there are scarcely more than 1,000 domestic screens booked to show “Coraline” in 3-D. And most of those theaters are committed to play Disney’s Jonas Brothers concert movie starting Feb. 27.

“We are suffering from a glut,” Selick said, “of too many 3-D movies and not enough screens.”


James Schamus, whose Focus Features is distributing “Coraline,” said he was confident audiences would respond to Selick’s singular vision.

“It’s crazy -- it stretches things to a level you can’t imagine,” Schamus said. “What’s amazing about ‘Coraline’ is that it’s a family movie that is also on the cutting edge.”

Like many parents, though, Schamus is unsure how appropriate the film might be for young children, particularly those younger than 8 years old.

“You have to remember that Henry is a kid in a way,” Schamus said of Selick. “He’s an adult person who maintains an open window into what it’s like to live in the mind of a child.”