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Oregon-Based LAIKA's Latest Film Nominated For 2 Academy Awards


Those interested in competing at the highest ranks of stop motion animation need to be concerned with “executing hair performance.”

That’s according to Steve Emerson, visual effects supervisor for LAIKA Productions, who came on “Think Out Loud” Tuesday with Head of Production Arianne Sutner to talk about the studio’s latest film, “Kubo and the Two Strings.”

“For the puppets on this movie, we actually used real human hair, though no humans were harmed in the making of this film,” Sutner said.

The movie tells the story of a quest taken by a one-eyed boy, flanked by his companions Monkey and Beetle, to unravel a family mystery. It took five years to produce — at a rate of about three to five seconds of animation a week.

“It’s really important to choose [the subject of the film] wisely,” Sutner said, “because you are going to dedicate every waking minute of your life to it, and it’s going to take a lot of love and labor over the course of five years.”

The Hillsboro-based studio has produced three previous films also nominated for the Academy Award for best animated feature. “Kubo and the Two Strings” is only the second animated film ever to be nominated for the best visual effects category; this year it’s competing against “Rogue One: A StarWars Story.”

From modifying human hair with silicone for the puppets, to building a 16-foot skeleton model, to incorporating Japanese woodblock designs, Sutner and Emerson agree that “Kubo and the Two Strings” is by far the most ambitious stop-motion film the studio has created.

“One of the things that we’re trying to do at the studio is to take an art form that is essentially old as film itself and to realize it to its full potential,” Emerson said, “to be able to innovate on that art form and to be able to tell stories that people were never crazy enough to try previously.”

Sutner said that with stop-motion animation, LAIKA hopes to bring back the sense of movie magic that she just doesn’t see in entirely computer-generated films. The studio’s new approach to an old art, she said, makes Portland the perfect home base. 

And “Kubo and the Two Strings,” too, has roots in traditional animation. Inspired by well-known animator Hayao Miyazaki’s films, it incorporates elements of Japanese arts like woodblock printing and origami. Sutner said producers reached out to Portland’s Japanese-American community to be sure they got the details right.

Emerson is looking forward to heading to Hollywood alongside Sutner and Director Travis Knight for the 89th Academy Awards on Feb. 26.

“Beyond just feeling completely honored to be able to go down there and be surrounded by heroes,” he said, “the bottom line of the whole thing is that I have been given the privilege of representing so many artists. I was a conductor but I wasn’t the one who made the music.”

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art movies entertainment animation laika portland kubo and the two strings

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