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Siggraph: Laika Talks 3D Printing Advancements, Shows ‘Boxtrolls’ Teaser

The stop-motion studio previously used 3D printers to make the parts needed for the replacement animation on "Coraline" and "ParaNorman."

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- 3D printing is now a household name in various industries, but Laika -- the Portland, Ore.-based stop-motion animation studio behind the Oscar-nominated Coraline and ParaNorman -- has been pioneering the use of the technology to create inventive stop-motion work.

Brian McLean, Laika’s director of rapid prototyping, described on Wednesday how the company pushed the envelope in the use of 3D printing on the aforementioned films, and said this same technology is giving the company an opportunity to further advance the facial performances its in 2014 release The Boxtrolls. During Laika's session at CG conference Siggraph, the company also showed the recently released Boxtrolls teaser trailer, receiving enthusiastic applause.

To make its expressive faces, Laika creates thousands of parts of each character's face digitally -- such as different eye or mouth positions -- and those designs then are printed out using a 3D printer. There were, for example, a whopping 9,121 parts printed for ParaNorman’s Norman face alone. Once the face library is ready for production, parts are then swapped out on each puppet's face, frame by frame, to create different expressions.

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Laika used a 3D plastic printer for the first time on 2009’s Coraline, but it wasn’t a color printer, which meant each piece had to be hand painted. “We negotiated with [Coraline director] Henry Selick on the number of freckles that Coraline would have on her face, since someone would have to paint them,” McLean recalled.

To make 2012’s ParaNorman, Laika shifted to a color printer that used powder. But along the way they encountered some unexpected obstacles. For instance, 3D printers are designed to create a prototype, not for mass production. McLean related that at that time, their printer was a relatively new model, and while it printed a large amount of parts, the colors weren’t consistent from piece to piece, particularly the skin tones. “To improve the color accuracy, we took a color Pantone book, went through it one by one, and printed each color. The swatches became our color palette,” he explained.

“To keep up with modern cinema, facial animation [in stop motion] is incredibly challenging,” said Georgina Hayns, Laika's creative supervisor of puppet fabrication, who during the session described the creation of the puppets including their costumes.

E-mail: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com

Twitter: @CGinLA