'Coraline' Makers Reveal How They Sculpted 6,333 Faces Fast

Playbook Faces Fast -H 2016
Courtesy of Art Gallegos; Steve Wong/Laika Inc/Focus Features; Focus Features

This story first appeared in the Feb. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Stop-motion animation — the process of animating characters created out of puppets or clay by moving and photographing them one frame at a time — is a painstaking century-old art form. But the analog, handmade process has taken a notable leap forward into the digital world thanks to some folks at the Portland, Ore.-based animation house Laika, who were first to combine the classic technique with 3D printing technology for the purpose of creating more expressive characters.

Their clever use of so-called rapid prototyping for stop-motion character animation is one of 11 achievements set to be honored at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Scientific and Technical Awards, hosted by Jason Segel and Olivia Munn, who will dole out trophies to 33 recipients.

Laika director of rapid prototype Brian McLean, who along with former Laika facial animation designer Martin Meunier will accept a Scientific and Engineering Award, says the process was developed while they were working on 2009's Coraline, directed by Henry Selick. "Henry really wanted [the character] Coraline to be able to be very subtle at times but also have broad expressions," says McLean, but no existing options allowed the filmmakers to do both.

At the time, one method of stop-motion was replacement animation, which required creating a handful of sculpted facial expressions. Those prefab expressions were applied to the figures being animated and photographed individually. Says McLean, "We wondered if we could harness the power of the computer and this new, emerging 3D printing technology to take replacement animation and allow it to do both with more facial options."

That's exactly want they did. Previous stop-motion films like Selick's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) used a few hundred hand-sculpted faces. But with a 3D printer now turning them out, Coraline used 6,333 printed faces, which could be combined to make 207,000 possible facial expressions. The key, adds Meunier, was maintaining focus on the design to "keep that authentic, handmade look — not make it look too 'computery.' That was a big deal."

The Academy’s Sci-Tech Awards will be held at the Beverly Wilshire on Feb. 13.