‘Coraline’ as a test of patience
Stop-motion animator Travis Knight, the son of Nike co-founder and billionaire Phil Knight, hasn’t exactly followed in his father’s sneaker prints. “I was athletic growing up and that was, of course, a big part of my household, but it wasn’t something that I was necessarily passionate about,” Knight says. “I understand the passion that [my father] feels for sports and athletics because I feel the same way about animation and film.”
Knight first discovered stop-motion through classic Rankin/Bass holiday specials like 1964’s “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” After college, he worked his way up to an animator job at Will Vinton Studios (now Laika), which was gearing up to produce the clay-animated TV series “The P.J.s” and “Gary & Mike.” After those shows went off the air, Knight spent the next six years using a combination of stop-motion and CGI to animate short films, music videos and commercials for “all kinds of crazy products like teriyaki sauce and toilet bowl cleaners,” he says.
When writer-director Henry Selick joined Laika in 2004, he brought “Coraline,” an adaptation of fantasy author Neil Gaiman’s children’s story, with him. Knight has spent the last 2 1/2 years as one of the lead stop-motion animators on the project.
“It kind of hurts my stomach when I think about it but, on a good day, you’ll maybe get two or three seconds of finished animation,” he says. “Every little bit of life that you see on screen is life that’s been sucked out of an animator. And you can guarantee that if a shot is really great, if it really sings, that underneath a desk somewhere is an animator huddled in a fetal position, weeping.”
Strike a pose: In the early stages of pre-production, Knight was responsible for putting the armatures -- the puppets’ underlying ball-and-socket frameworks -- through a rigorous testing process. “As soon as a new puppet would come online, we would test those things out and make sure they could do what they need to do, because the armatures need to be durable, sturdy,” he says. “They need to be strong because they have to hold these extreme positions over hours and even days, and they have to be stable. But at the same time, they’ve got to be flexible and pliable enough so you can actually get a performance out of them. So it’s a really crucial part, making sure the armatures work properly.”
The way she wears her hat: The animators endow each character with its own array of unique personality tics. “While you’re testing out armatures of puppets, you’re also trying to find the proper visual vocabulary for the character and to come up with a guidebook of sorts for how a character will move and act,” Knight says. “Sometimes it’s simple things. It can be things like, for Coraline, how she moves her hand when she brushes her hair back behind her head, or how she grabs her arm to the side or rubs her arm when she’s nervous, or how many frames it takes for her to take a step. All those little things, when you add them all together, start to help define this character and how she moves.”
Measure for measure: Size matters in stop-motion. “If you go too small, you can’t get the performance you need out of the small little parts,” Knight says. “And if you go too big, the puppet gets difficult to move, because it’s too heavy, and there’s too much material, and it becomes this exercise in just moving these massive parts around. So there is a natural scale that makes sense for stop-motion. We defined Coraline’s scale first, and she’s about 9 1/2 inches tall. And then everything else was built around that. So the adults obviously are bigger. But things like the dogs and the cat, they’re considerably smaller. The cat, when it’s standing, is not even the length of my fingers. So it’s very hard to get these tiny little microscopic movements out of a tiny little puppet. We did have multiple scales of things like that cat. So when you would go in for close-ups, we typically have a 200% version of specific puppets.”
Puzzled expressions: When it came to the puppets’ faces, “Coraline” employed a sophisticated technique called replacement animation. “We had a head core, which had the basic shape of the head and all the hair and the eyes,” explains Knight. “The faces were split right along the eye line, so we had a brow section and then a lower face section, which included the cheeks, the nose, the mouth, the chin, all of that. And so when it was time to change a mouth, for instance, we would remove the whole lower part of the face, grab another face from the face kit and then put that on. They were held together by magnets. And then for the brows, it would be the same sort of thing. It was like Mr. Potato Head but more complicated.”