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In conversation with Laika’s Mark Shapiro – Part Two

// Featured, Interviews

Mark Shapiro is a passionate and driven individual who is willing to give honest and insightful answers to anyone – especially to students – about the industry, making his presence at last year’s BAF one of the many highlights. From his talk, Laika – the studio behind The Boxtrolls and at which he is Head of Brand Management – comes across like a family and an ideal place to work. Following on from part one, here is more inspirational insight from our recent interview.

How has your job role developed in the seven years you’ve worked at Laika?

It’s changed a little bit – obviously when I first started there was no movie – we were working on Coraline but it was still in production and would be two years until it was finished. Now we are three movies in, it’s a little bit different! I think we’ve learned and grown from these experiences. I think with stop frame there’s always something new, different and unexpected. So you’re always expecting that, which means you have to be amenable to change – and there has been a bit of change, in a good way that makes it more challenging to come to work and also encourages a healthy environment in the studio because it’s not just my role that has developed.

There is a lot of British flavour in the film. Is this a specific angle you went for or is it something that has just happened through having so many Brits working at Laika?

I think you can tell from the vignettes I brought [to BAF], a lot of the British accents and a lot of the puppets are headed up by Brits, and a lot of influence from all over England, with Mackinnon & Saunders and Cosgrove Hall. It’s inundated through our culture. The reference materials themselves, looking at Coraline with Neil Gaiman’s book and then the head of Story for Coraline, Chris Butler who is originally from Liverpool and Sam Fell, from London, who directed ParaNorman. For The Boxtrolls, Alan Snow’s book has a British flavour throughout that has inspired it mostly. Coming here, not only are a lot of my colleagues excited for me and telling me what to do in Bradford and places to go and restaurants to try, but there’s also that same feeling of how you can see a lot of inspiration. The quality of student films here and the quality of the questions I’m being asked just from the people at this festival is on another level.

One of the problems you brought up in your talk is the way students struggle to marketthemselves – what top tips do you have for them?

It’s a great question, so many students often have so much talent and they are putting together their entire production. They are building sets, storyboards, building the puppets, voice overs, music and so on. They are dedicated and they spend hours and hours on everything. There is the part once the production is done, to get it out there for people to see it, and I think in some cases there is a shyness. Whether it is that they are not sure that they are ready – it’s maybe showing something very personal. The thing you need to realise is, it does need to get out there, it needs to be seen by people. When things are great they get appreciated and circulated. There are ways you can do this, you can do background sketches of what you are doing, making-of’s, and things like that. And maybe show a little piece of your production to the rest of the world and maybe behind the scenes of it. That lets people understand how things are made, because students are doing exactly what we are doing, just on a smaller scale.

We are doing a huge film obviously, but from a bunch of creative individuals (and there’s no one more creative than students) just think of interesting ways to market, especially when you have social media. You know Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube, you can circulate your content and get people to watch it. Get creative with the ways people can see it. It also depends on the nature of the film itself; How and what you are making, so you can take the style of the film and push the marketing to tell the story. It’s something that just gets it out there – you made it to be seen, let people see it! In turn, the word-of-mouth will circulate and then people will get really excited about your work, you get into festivals and then you win festivals and become a famous film maker!

Following on with festivals then – you have obviously been to a lot, speaking on behalf of Laika and The Boxtrolls. What are the most inspiring films you’ve seen this season?

We are putting together a program for an animation festival right now, in Portland, and I’ve selected about seven films, and four of them came from the Royal College of Art and National Film and Television School – incredible work from incredible schools. I love the style of some of the British films I’ve seen this year; The witty and poignant dialogue coupled with an animation style that fits the story they are trying to tell, it’s just very professionally done. I really love the British style of storytelling, it’s something that has pride and a real focus on telling a full story, in sort of a Shakespearian style – beginning, middle and end with conflict, a climax and a deep resolution. There’s a film called The Shirley Temple (Daniela Sherer, RCA) which was shown at BAF. The Bigger Picture (Daisy Jacobs, NFTS – Best Student Film winner at BAF). Through the Hawthorn (Anna Benner, Pia Borg and Gemma Burditt – Best Professional Film winner at BAF) is another one that’s here, it’s a fantastic movie with three directors. I love that story, three different viewpoints telling the story of mental illness, they’ve beautifully merged the different perspectives. I think what’s happened is they have taken it to the next level, having it in three parts draws on a connection back to the original way of storytelling that comes from Europe. I was actually on five juries this year; When you’re on a jury you fall in love with different films, and they don’t always win because there’s a democracy involved, but those have been my favourites.

What do you look for when you’re on a jury?

For me it’s pretty simple: Why is a film animated? You can do a movie in live action, you can do CG, different types of animation, but there should be a reason why it is animated. I like to look and see that there’s a theme to the story, like I mentioned before – a clear beginning, middle and end, that’s concise like a poem. I’m talking about shorts, they should be like a poem and not a novel. In my opinion they should just be five to six minutes of concise work. That takes a lot. In some ways it’s more difficult to write a poem than it is to write a novel, because you’re really restricted. And then you know I look for great storytelling, dialogue is critical. When looking at dialogue you don’t want your characters to sound like one person in three different people. That happens a lot where all the characters have the same trait, where for example they are all ironic. There needs to be interplay.

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes – even rectangles…

Me and Mark Shap-ma-hero!

Me and Mark Shap-ma-hero!

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