Laika - Paranorman Handcrafted Visual Effects

Laika came to the Academy today to give a lecture, presented by Andrew Nawrot, CG and look developmen supervisor, about the visual effects done in Paranorman. While Laika is a stop motion animation house, they do also have a VFX team that includes roles such as modeling, texturing, lighting, and compositing. I had a few friends who said they weren't interested in going to the lecture since Laika is stop motion and thus not in their field. Shame on them. What is particularly interesting about Laika is how small their production team is. They only have 50 some on production and something like 16 on VFX. Considering how many shots were in Paranorman and things like rig removal needed to get done, it's amazing what they were able to accomplish in the film. Laika feels that instead of having a large production team but in reality to only have a number of people who actually shoulders the weight of the group, to instead just hire those people. With this Laika boasts of having the top stop motion animators in the world. They really do as after all the rigs, scenes, and lights are set up, the animators go into the room and just do what they do best. There tends to be only one animator per shot, even with multiple characters, and while the animator may cut back a few frames if he or she doesn't feel like it's going in the right direction, very few times is a shot scrapped and have to be re-done. This is due to using a lot of references and having gone through rehearsals with the director prior to animating.

The rigs for the characters are amazing. Even more astounding is how Laika did the facial animations. It was a process of replacement animation, and what this means is that every time a face moved it was a different face mask on the rig. Thousands upon thousands of faces were created. The faces were additionally split in half horizontally, thus giving the animators more flexibility in cases such as if they wanted to raise eyebrows sooner or later than the lower half of the face.

As the VFX team is small, they like people who are not only specialists but also able to do multiple roles. Modelers who can texture, lighters who can composite. There was a lot for the VFX team to do. Not only were there cleanup work to do of rig removal, seam paint out, and set reconstruction, but CG characters and sets were also used on top of visual effects for the sky and Aggie's lighting witch form. What Laika needed was visual effects but still look like it was hand crafted and not the perfection that CG would generate. For this the team looked at a lot of real world references and sought to incorporate them into the effect. One such that played a big role from the effect of the ghosts to the clouds in the sky was using photographs of a tulle material as a base. From that there was a lot of cloth simulation to work on. For crowds, the VFX team created CG versions for what would be too time consuming to create physically. Such cases are crowds such as in front of the schoolyard and the mob. Within the group of characters, there would be 7 or 8 practical puppets actually in the shot with green screen while the rest would be created with CG. The team worked heavily with the puppet department in order to ensure that the characters looked like they all existed in the same world space.

During the Q&A at the end of the lecture, there were quite a few questions about internships and reels. Once again they also mentioned that they look for passion from people. As 3D animation has become a big thing, many people may not have puppet work in the reel, Laika does recommend to first have stop motion experience first if applying as an animator. As they are a small team, the don't have the resources to train someone up, and, as they say, they employ the top stop motion animators in the world so you have to know your stuff. Laika is adamant that in all positions that they want to see a fine art background with drawings not just of poses but with faces and hands are largely important. Having, what they call, "The Eye" is very important, and that is a sensibility into art and film. Finally, love what you do.

Laika is currently in production of another film that is set to release in 2014. The title hasn't been announced yet but 90% of the team of Paranorman has been hired back to work on it so it will be just as amazing if not more. Look forward to it!