Concepts and Prototypes

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LAIKA is a Portland based animation studio with four Oscar nominated feature films under its belt: Coraline (2009), Paranorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014), and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016). No word yet on the subject of their fifth film, but they recently created a fascinating exhibit, which provides a behind-the-scenes look at their design process. I got to see it for the first time this week at the Portland Art Museum.

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Concept art for Coraline's house, the Pink Palace Apartments

I particularly enjoyed seeing how Laika uses 2d concept art and 3d prototypes to share ideas inside the production team and make decisions about how to proceed. The stop-motion animation technique used to create each scene is extremely labor intensive, so it’s important to have clarity on how things will look and feel in 3d before fabricating the physical models that will be used in filming.

On any given project, Fat Pencil Studio’s production budget is a few orders of magnitude below what Laika spends on a feature film, but our design process is similar. We sketch out concepts and create prototypes to share ideas internally and with clients. These visual tools help us develop and evaluate the story that will be told with final artwork. It's sometimes tempting to overlook these steps when deadlines are tight, but I believe so strongly in the importance of visual storytelling that I named the company after the traditional tool an architect uses to sketch early concepts. A "fat pencil" helps designers focus on big ideas without getting bogged down by complex details. Here's a snapshot of our design process applied to an air taxi concept dubbed "Bumblebee".

I’ve written about Fat Pencil Studio’s animation work before (moving pictures / moving objects), but after seeing the Laika exhibit, I’m thinking another article is needed, focusing specifically on how we use of stop-action animation. Stay tuned!

Animating Life: the Art, Science, and Wonder of LAIKA” runs through May 20, 2018 at the Portland Art Museum.

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Joshua Cohen is a principal at Fat Pencil Studio