Inside the World of LAIKA

An exhibit at Seattle’s Museum Of Pop Culture reveals the time-intensive creation of modern-day animated fairytales


The stop-motion animated films of Portland, Oregon-based LAIKA studios create magical, surreal environments for the tales they tell. In Coraline (2009), a young girl discovers a hidden door in her apartment that leads to a parallel universe populated by creepy doppelgangers. In The Boxtrolls (2014), the intrepid boy Eggs fights to defend the titular trolls from being slandered as evil-doers. Missing Link(2019) takes a Sasquatch from his Pacific Northwest home to track down his Yeti relatives in the Himalayas. Now, a new exhibit at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (MoPop) takes you inside the creation of these modern-day fairytales.

“Hidden Worlds: The Films of LAIKA” is like taking a stroll through the animation company’s workshop, revealing the staggering amount of work that goes into making these movies. It’s the largest exhibit LAIKA has ever done, spanning 7500 square feet of the museum, taking you chronologically through their history of feature-length films, creating a different visual setting for each, “in order to get people into the action a bit more,” in the words of Jacob McMurray, MoPop’s Head of Curatorial, livening up the dry museum experience. After exploring the world of Coraline, you have to go through a tunnel emulating the same passage Coraline goes through to reach the “Other World” in order to access the other rooms in the exhibit. In The Boxtrolls room, you can watch film clips on a screen set atop a pile of Victorian-era faux wooden boxes with vintage labels for things like baking powder; in the Missing Link room,  faux blocks of ice surround the clips. It’s a family-friendly dreamscape.

Most of the puppets you’ve seen in the LAIKA films turn out to less than 12 inches tall (the exception being the giant skeleton from Kubo and the Two Strings [2016]; at 16 feet, it’s the largest stop motion puppet ever built). Seeing these characters, which looked so larger than life on the big screen, shifts your perspective. Coraline looks somewhat fragile standing alone in her display case, and even the fearsome Beetle warrior in Kubo gives off a friendlier, Buzz Lightyear kind of vibe.

LAIKA’s skeleton monster puppet from Kubo and the Two Strings. (all photos courtesy of MoPop).

And then you delve into their secrets. Underneath the costumes, the bodies are bare metallic skeletons called an armature (“They kind of look like the Terminator,” says Brian McLean, Director of Rapid Prototype). You see a few of the thousands of faces created for the puppets, which enable them to have a range of facial expressions and speak dialogue. There’s a row of such spooky faces from Coraline, the first feature-length film to use 3D printing for the process, with the face first printed out on white plastic, then layered with gray primer and paints for skin tone, and lips and eye color (McClean says 20,000 faces were printed for the film).

LAIKA made the costumes with equal care; study the intricacies of the patterns of the costumes worn in Kubo, inspired by the history Japanese fashion, and the art of origami. Note the numerous folds in the kimono worn by Kubo’s mother, which they fabricated from more than 2000 laser-cut pieces of weighted lining, so it would hang from the armature realistically. And LAIKA fashioned the feathery cloaks that Kubo’s evil sisters wear from 861 laser-etched 3D-printed “feathers” ; they patterned the sisters themselves after female samurai warrior Tomoe Gozen.

In a sense, the exhibit is a display of ingenious solutions, of how “so many clever people solve pretty challenging technical and creative problems,” says Nelson Lowry, LAIKA’s production Designer. “If you do nothing else, look at any sketches or drawings and try to imagine, ‘If I had to make that, how would I do it?’” Consider the Snatcher’s Truck from The Boxtrolls, a fantastic creation — essentially a malevolent tricycle — that perfectly embodies the film’s steampunk aesthetic. “I think it’s absolutely adorable,” says Oliver Jones, LAIKA’s Director of Practical Effects, admitting that it was also a huge undertaking to animate; making sure the umbrella placed precariously on top would bounce, the netting would swish, the tubes coming out of the furnace would burble. “So there’s a lot of energy that goes into making sure that these complicated machines look believable, and that they have their own life.”

The “Coraline Tunnel” at the Seattle Museum of Pop Culture’s LAIKA exhibition.

The exhibit drives home that point if you take the time to read the panels explaining stop-motion animation. They set up and photograph, puppets, props, and Snatcher’s Trucks; then move them, and take another photograph. With movies running at 24 frames per second, the process of making a stop motion film can understandably become laborious, so they generally “filmed on twos,” meaning they took a picture for every other frame (for a ratio of 12 frames per second). From Coraline on, LAIKA filmed its movies “on ones,” capturing a movement in every frame (24 frames/second). “The ultimate result was an amazing amount of expressions and personality and emotion coming through a stop motion animation character that had never really happened before in previous films,” says McClean.

There are some interactive elements to the exhibit; a camera allowing you to get a “puppet’s eye view” of a set, a “face match” game where you try to emulate the expression of a LAIKA character. At the end, there’s also a quick peek at LAIKA’s next film, Wildwood, based on the Colin Meloy/Carson Ellis fantasy novel of the same name. The story’s set in LAIKA’s own hometown of Portland, with an accompanying parallel world also based on regions in the Pacific Northwes. It will be company’s biggest production to date, with the largest crew, longest running time, and biggest cast (including Carey Mulligan, Angela Bassett, Tom Waits, and Richard E. Grant). Arianne Sutner, LAIKA’s Head of Production, sees it as a “return to the world of Coraline,” having both a youthful female lead (Prue) and female antagonist (Alexandra, the exiled Dowager Governess).

“Hidden Worlds” runs at MoPop until August 2024, after which it goes on tour. Seeing the effort that goes into the productions gives you a new appreciation for LAIKA’s seemingly boundless creativity and imaginative curiosity. “What were once inanimate objects are now living, breathing creatures; even though they are just assemblages of steel, silicone, and plastic,” says Travis Knight, LAIKA’s president and CEO. “LAIKA’s puppet characters have an inner life because of an artist’s talent. To me, that’s magic.” With such lifelike results, it wouldn’t be surprising if one of these puppets busted out of its display case and asked you to join them for a cup of tea.

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Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

2 thoughts on “Inside the World of LAIKA

  • April 20, 2023 at 4:46 pm

    Hi Gillian, Frank Coffey here from Maggie Begley Communications. We rep LAIKA and loved your piece. Thank you. A couple of small errors which we’d appreciate you correcting.

    In the 4th graph, Brian McLean’s last name is misspelled.

    And in graph on Wildwood, actress Carey Mulligan’s first name is misspelled.

    Thanks a bunch.


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