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Rigger Ollie Jones and MOCO David Trappe program movements into the animatronic
Garden of Eyes puppet. KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS ©2016, TWO STRINGS, LLC

Animating Life: The Art, Science, and Wonder of LAIKA

Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR – To May 20, 2018

The Portland-area stop-animation house LAIKA has put together an engrossing account of how it makes its cartoons.

Each of LAIKA’s four hit feature-length movies so far has a different look and feel: Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls and Kubo and the Two Strings. The exhibition uses different methods to show us what LAIKA employees do in the warehouses in Hillsboro.

First you get a sense of scale. The lobby museum’s antechamber is dominated by an 18-foot-tall skeleton from Kubo, one of the largest stop-motion puppets ever made. Next to it are hundreds of tiny faces sticking out from the wall, each with a slightly different expression. LAIKA developed the art of 3-D printing face components, which adhere to the puppets with tiny rare earth magnets and can be easily swapped out frame by frame.

LAIKA runs dozens of hot sets at once, often with the same puppet appearing in multiple scenes. Even with this parallel production-line technique, each feature film takes about five years to make from script to premiere.   

The exhibition is a wonderland of vitrines filled with meticulously styled, hand-stitched doll clothes, as well as miniature props. The lake monster from Kubo is shown alongside the giant track ball that controls it, made from a bowling ball.

A half-hour video (with couches) goes a long way to explaining the methods and mad attention to detail of LAIKA’s huge creative teams. One scene shows the making from scratch of a tiny, retro desk lamp, complete with glass-blowing and soldering.

LAIKA (named for the first animal to orbit the Earth) is owned and run by Travis Knight, son of billionaire Nike founder Phil Knight. The company’s ethos is that the futurist should be encouraged to work alongside the Luddite to spark creativity. It’s impossible to come away from this show without an appreciation for the old analog crafts, and a sense of wonder at the depths of LAIKA’s imagination.

Joseph Gallivan

portlandartmuseum.org