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Laika Studios: Creative Arts Meets Traditional Media

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Laika Studios, producer of Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, was formerly Will Vinton Studios, a computer animation and advertising studio. It was acquired by an outside financial contributor, Phil Knight, and under his leadership became Laika Studios. Since 2009, they began to animate exclusively in stop motion. The medium first appeared in 1898, in the film The Humpty Dumpty Circus. Since then, it has become more popular in the film industry, yet Laika is one of few companies whose focus is solely on producing feature-length films in stop motion.

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Culture and demand

Moviegoers are becoming a younger and more diverse audience, which is more suitable for the variety in stop motion, specifically Laika’s more diverse characters, such as Coraline, a female protagonist, and Kubo, a Japanese protagonist. A younger demographic would generally embrace unconventional stories (and storytelling) that caters to the young and imaginative, which stop motion is able to capture effectively. As for the appeal of stop motion itself, a filmmaker states, “Stop-motion animators re-imagine ordinary things and transform them, very much like the way kids do when they play.” In the age of technological revolution, the nostalgia of the generations that predominantly witnessed this change (ages 18-39), make up the most overrepresented age group in movie ticket sales. This creates a demand for this unique niche in the film industry market, for young children and adults alike.

Socioeconomic factors

The rise of technology has allowed animation in general as an industry to flourish; but more specifically, allowed stop motion to be more productive and viable as an art form. Laika Studios now uses 3D printing technology for their physical props to print out different facial expressions, rather than manipulating the material on the doll’s frame, as well as CGI to enhance their films. Thus, Laika partners with organizations such as Stratasys for this purpose. Additionally, technology allows for effective marketing, a gateway to their partnerships with companies such as Focus Features to distribute their films. This combination of benefits contributed to their success, as Laika’s films have received nominations in the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, and a BAFTA award for Best Animated Film.

Funding

When Laika narrowed their focus from advertising to the film industry, they partnered with studios such as Tim Burton Productions for Corpse Bride, which would have allowed them to share the financial burden for an ambitious movie. Aside from these partnerships used to spur the growth and distribution of their art, however, Laika remains self-sufficient, due to the success of owner Phil Knight with his company Nike and his continuous financial support as the owner of Laika, even utilizing Nike to advertise their 3 main movies as shoe designs.

Strengths and challenges

An interesting aspect pointed out by critic Dave Trumbore is the fact that Laika does not generally participate in total merchandising, in terms of licensing outside their studio. They also produce exclusively standalone movies; Phil Knight’s philosophy is very much against sequels and TV series based off of Laika’s films. While this appears to be a reflection of the studio’s integrity to their stories and their company, it may also be a lost opportunity to sustain Laika Studios in the long-term. Their integrity to their craft, however, remains their greatest strength. Operating in a medium as arduous as stop motion may seem unintelligent, but the innovation Laika brings by finding different ways to be productive, yet remain true to stop motion, has truly set them apart. Economically, this is a strength, as Laika can branch out from within their studio and acquire a variety of mutually benefitting partners that increase their own efficiency.

Conclusion

Laika Studios has taken one of the oldest forms of animation, and continues to embrace the general risk of operating with such a tedious art form. In doing so, they push technological and storytelling innovation. Since stop motion is inherently family-oriented, they can and have appealed to a wide audience, with moviegoer demographics to their advantage. Their strong financial foundation with Phil Knight as the owner also gives them room to take creative leaps, however looking to their own rather than outside prospects, such as licensing, may prove risky. Nonetheless, Laika’s perseverance has built up an excellent reputation, although stop motion is said to consistently make less in the box office than CGI animation. But instead of allowing technology to render their craft irrelevant, they continue to discover the marriage between innovation and their art.

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