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An Interview with LAIKA: Telling Bold and Innovative Stories

// Interviews

LAIKA is the creative Stop-motion force behind 2009’s Coraline and this year’s ParaNorman. Resting in the American Suburbs they hand-craft sets and ‘print’ their characters, blending the traditional with the future of Animation. Providing us with innovative ideas, creative publicity and stop-motion family films, LAIKA maintain a steady release of stop-motion animation feature films, which is not an easy feat.
Mark Shapiro, Head of Marketing and Brand management at LAIKA entertainment, graciously sat down with us at the Bradford Animation Festival for an honest discussion, as he explains the principles, background and ethos that drives LAIKA forward.

Thanks for talking o Skwigly, can we start with a quick introduction to yourself and your role at LAIKA?

I’m Mark Shapiro, I’m head of Marketing and Brand management at LAIKA, which means managing the look and feel of the company and the productions. This involves working close with Focus and Universal, I make sure things are appropriately messaged and that the information and visuals are disseminated correctly, so we’re all running in concert for when we promote the film.

LAIKA is a very close nit family, isn’t it?

It’s a small group, we think of ourselves as an independent studio and therefore entrepreneurial, I think we all wear a lot of different hats. That said, we also have the standard ‘producers’ and ‘directors’ who very much do what they should be doing, like in any other studio.

Does that make your job easier? Having that working environment?

Yeah! I like it, the entrepreneurial environment, we are all involved. Hearing what’s happening within the roles of the company, where it’s going, the design and the direction of our productions, it’s great to be a part of that.

There are two sides of LAIKA, LAIKA Entertainment which deals with your feature films (Coraline and ParaNorman) and LAIKA house, which makes commercials for TV and so forth. Do you have much of a role in both?

No, I focus on LAIKA Entertainment. LAIKA house has really grown separately, a separate division. We are actually in different locations, 15 miles apart LAIKA house is on the original location of Vinton Studios, which is closer to Downtown Portland.  We are 15 miles west in Hillsboro… in a warehouse.

So you are very much removed from any kind of commercialism, even in the divisions of the company not only that but from Hollywood itself, Is that easier for you?

Yes, I think it is, because we are not Hollywood. We really embrace the City as maybe Aardman embraces Bristol. Oregon is a Quirky City, a very different city, a very unique American city, and I think the cast of characters that work on these films, embody that spirit.

I think that really shows in ParaNorman actually, with the town and the characters, does Oragon import itself into a lot of the work? Actually, Even Coraline has that quirky feel.

Yes, that’s a really good question, ‘Blithe Hollow’ was invented for ParaNorman, it’s factious town based in Massachusetts. Even though both directors are from England and they bring their own style into the production, there is a quirkiness to Coraline and ParaNorman that comes through from LAIKA as a whole.

LAIKA is synonymous with Stop-motion, was that always the intention of LAIKA? Or have you fallen into that style?

The roots of LAIKA are in Will Vinton studios from over 30 years ago, when Claymation was at the heart and soul of everything.  Even though we are very much different now, that dedication to Stop-motion is something we are all very committed too. LAIKA is dedicated to Bold, distinctive and Innovative stories, and they tend to be stop-motion stories. There was more CG in ParaNorman, but it IS a stop-motion movie. It’s really about the Synthesis of both the mediums. but LAIKA will always be about the handmade, hand moved stop-motion of objects.

Stop-motion is our direction; our next production which is coming out in 2014, un-announced, is going to be stop-motion.

That film expected in 2014, is that Goblins by chance?

We haven’t announced it. I think you will all know in the next few weeks, so keep an eye on the LAIKA website. We have several stories in development.

Are there any plans for more short animated films?

I really enjoy the studios that have their short films too, but we are focused on the features. Never say never I guess, but at this point, no.

LAIKA is a private company, does that help the whole creative process, cementing your values and ethos?

It’s a part of who we are. What we all love is that entrepreneurial spirit that LAIKA has; that dedication to being unique, independent and that gives us a lot of creativity. Then, being able to work with a distributor that works, and works in concert with those dreams, makes it a great marriage, because we can work with the distributor and they can understand what we are doing and we just work really well together.

It is creative, there is an eye on creativity which is there in its entirety.

What kind of Age and Generation do you think LAIKA appeals to?

Anyone who appreciates Bold, distinctive, innovative stories. People ask that all the time, “what age group is this appropriate for?” When you look back at Coraline, you have, Neil Gaiman fans, Henry Selick fans, you had fans of Stop-motion. Fans of Scary movies, interesting stories or journeys that appeal to a broad base of people. It’s not a film for four year olds; but a six or seven year old could go and get something out of these movies?

It’s hard to pigeonhole, it appeals to a lot of different people.

As LAIKA creates more movies, are you worried about the scrutiny and comparisons that will be drawn from each of your work as you continue to grow?

It’s on us to create things that appeal to people that appreciate those stories. Hopefully you don’t worry, hopefully you continue to innovate, you continue to tell great stories. Hopefully you continue to challenge. When you go to a movie, you want to be moved, and I’m sure it’s happened to you, it doesn’t have to be an animated film, but a film you see and you walk out of the theatre and you want to talk about it. You want to talk about the Characters, the writing, the design, the production design, the voices all those things coming together. Hopefully your moving people. Again, anyone that appreciates art, appreciates a beautiful painting, a great band or something. You want to appeal to those people but it’s a challenge, for you to create this/those great stories.

It’s like with anything. If People see an artist and they come to love that artists work, whether it’s a painter or a musician, you begin to really appreciate the art which continues to come out of that artist. As a company we want to continue to make bold and distinctive stories and people to continue to appreciate that.

What I love about LAIKA, are the risks you take to achieve great stories.

The company, the word LAIKA, is a Russian word for Little Barker, like a dog, like a sled dog, a unique. We are trying to tell bold stories from a unique place. It’s a dog, it’s a barker, it’s a dog that makes a lot of noise from an unexpected place. That is LAIKA; we are a different company, a unique company. I think you can see the creativity from the whole company. That’s what ties us together, our dedication to break through animation and our abilities to tell great stories, with Coraline, with ParaNorman with Moongirl with the advertising.

Bold and Distinctive, I keep coming back to that. Innovation, uniqueness, the quirkiness all those come into it. Then when you talk about Stop-motion, generally movies that are made in stop-frame, tend to be… different. Tend to be stylised.

So… What is Travis knight like to work with?

It’s great to work with somebody who loves the art as much as everybody else does in the company. He is an Animator, he’s the lead animator, he leads by example and he’s somebody who just wants to work hard. And you want to work hard for him, because we believe that he embodies that, innovation and dedication to the Bold stories that we keep talking about.

I’ll walk by one of the stages and he’s animating, what’s not to respect about that? He’s making the movies, his finger prints are on these movies and on significant scenes, the most challenging animated scenes, and he’s the CEO of the company. So when you have someone like that at the top, there is a culture that is born from that dedication to just making the film. He’s a perfectionist, he wants things to be right and that filters throughout the company.

So, Does LAIKA consider themselves to be students? – Travis is hands on, taking part in all levels of production like a ‘Student film’, his own money and sweat, leaving at 2 in the morning…

I think so, yeah.

When I come to animation Festivals and look at independent films, that’s great, I love that, I think that is who we are. LAIKA is born from that, we love those stories, independent stories, independent vision. In that way, I guess you can say that we are like students.

And each film is a graduation film and you present it?

Yeah, and as you said your finger prints are on that.

So are the critical successes just as important as commercial successes? In other words, if you had a choice between Awards or Cash? 

I think going back to that idea that we all want to move people and create great innovative films. But in order for LAIKA to sustain itself, there needs to be a financial return from your movie. But we do it because we love it.

So you are teetering on the edge of Acclaim and commercial success?

You know, it’s like when I think of Athletes. In the end of the day, even athletes are out there, competing for acclaim and putting their lives on the line for the sport that they love. I think in those moments they are not thinking about the money… but along with that comes the money and the need to finance their training, their success . I like to think, we come from a place of artistic ingenuity and love, but there is always a financial side.

Was ParaNormans Twitter hastag  #weirdwins your idea? I thought it was really cleaver.

It was from the marketing side, it was really good, and it was part of the contents that we put together on Twitter, using social marketing, social networking, social.. .word of mouth. 3rd party endorsements are critical to our success. So coming up with Unique ways of marketing, like with the vignettes on our Website, is good for us.

That also makes production quite fun as well? like with the Olympic adverts, that must have been hysterical to make and market.

It’s like animating an additional part of the movie, the challenge hopefully is to deliver a little piece of the movie in the marketing. It sounds simple, but a lot of other companies will hand over their marketing and let someone else do it, it’s getting a third party involved and that loses a little of your visual integrity. But by having the agency that creates these ads, and working with Focus and Universal, we are able to create things that are funny and impactful, Artistic in their own right.

Every piece of marketing we do, whether it’s a viral, videos, or advertisements or the presentations. Hopefully it’s like a little, piece of the movie we created. That is what we are trying to communicate, so it becomes relevant in their eyes.

It also shows a piece of LAIKA really, because it shows what the studio is about.

Yes, It shows that we embrace creativity.

What is important is that dedication to Breakthrough animation, it’s what ties our company together. To communicate things in a way that, again in our advertising of the movie, or on the Advertising side of the company, we are telling Unique stories. Hopefully they are resonating, that they make sense.

Well I think it shows, in the way that you talk about it, LAIKA seems so welcoming, it’s like a giant hug.

Well, we are little bit more informal in some ways, less corporate, hopefully embracing creativity and well, we love what we do.

It’s such a creative industry and it’s such a great thing to be a part of that bigger picture.  

Thank you for talking with us, Mark Shapiro of LAIKA. 

Special thanks to The Bradford Animation Festival

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