Construct3D: Making animations with real-life puppets

I saw a really cool talk the other day. It was the keynote on the opening night of the Construct3D conference. The speaker was Brian McLean from a movie company called Laika. They are in Portland, Oregon.

Now, I’d never heard of that company before, but they’ve won some Oscars, and been nominated for more. So I got to meet and talk to a person who has an Oscar. Pretty cool.

This company makes stop-motion animation. I didn’t know what this was until when I saw “Chicken Run”, the movie. Actually, I watched the movie a few times, and later on someone told me it was made through stop-motion animation, and explained what that meant. That you’re not creating characters on a computer program. But instead you have actual little clay figures. And you can move and bend them. And every time in the movie when anything moves at all, it means that they stopped the camera, had someone lean into the hand-made scenery where all the characters are perched, and move the characters’ hand or eyebrow or a tree branch by hand.

This process sounded so spine-chillingly and nerve-upendingly time-consuming and long that at first I was sure I had misheard, but that’s exactly how it works!

Any case, I have never watched any of the 5 films that Laika has made, but I’ve heard of some of them at least. The one I had heard of was Coraline. Now that I’ve met one of the people involved in making them, I’m going to try to watch it.

With Laika, they don’t make their little character puppets using clay or ceramics. Instead, they 3D print their characters — at least, they 3D print their characters’ faces. And since at every moment in a movie when a character is on camera they want the character’s face to have an expression perfectly suited for that moment, they end up printing tens of thousands of faces. And then these faces can be snapped onto the character’s head.

Indeed, this takes a long time! The speaker told us it takes them 4 to 5 years to make a movie. But, it’s apparently not as expensive as 3D computer animation. He said that it cost Pixar something like $150 million to make Toy Story, while LAIKA spent $60 million on their last movie, The Missing Link. I’d like to watch that one, too.

But, then when it comes time to release the movies in the theatre, not a lot of people go watch them. I know the feeling! So they don’t actually make all their money back. Instead, they are bankrolled by the son of the founder or head of Nike!

The speaker had brought some of the actual movie puppets with him … and some of the snappable, 3D printed faces. It was super cool.

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Real puppets and 3D-printed faces from LAIKA
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Brian McLean from LAIKA and his puppets

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