Laika Studios – Making Visual and Practical Effects Coexist for Stop-Motion Features

See how LAIKA Studios combine visual and practical effects thanks to Substance.

LAIKA Studios is famous for its high-quality stop-motion movies. From the groundbreaking Coraline to their latest feature Missing Link, how do they manage to combine visual and practical effects so fluidly? Find out in today’s user story.

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Hi Micah, thanks for taking the time for this interview! Could you introduce yourself to the community?

I have been doing visual effects since 2003 and have been at LAIKA Studios for 12 years now. My formal training is in Illustration but I have always found myself gravitating to technical roles on the job. I am currently a Lookdev technical director but have had roles in texture painting, matte painting, lighting, and pipeline development. Currently, my main responsibility is to make CG puppets, props, and sets look as good as their practical counterparts and come up with tools to help the team in this goal. I enjoy being at a smaller studio like LAIKA where I am able to wear multiple hats.

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LAIKA is famous for its stop-motion features. For those who aren’t familiar, could you tell more about the studio?

LAIKA’s first film was Coraline back in 2009, but the roots of the studio go as far back as Will Vinton and The California Raisins of 1976. I have credits on all of LAIKA’s films to date, each of which has been Oscar Nominated. Missing Link is our latest masterpiece, which was released in April 2019. (It’s now on DVD/streaming so no more excuses if you have not seen it!)

We are a hybrid animation studio, grounded in a practical stop-motion aesthetic, yet unafraid to push the visuals and the story forward with any means (including VFX) at our disposal.

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What was the main visual art direction you pushed for in this movie?

The production design was done by the amazing Nelson Lowry. The art direction was heavy on color mixing and pattern. Strong, vibrant color, shape stylization, and strict use of the rule of thirds made its way into all aspects of design. In Look Development, we made heavy use of approved show patterns in order to keep the look on-style.

Concept painting by Santiago Montiel

Could you describe the physical and CG pipelines of the production, how these two worked together, and how Substance was part of it?

We are sort of masochists of film making, and our process is not exactly efficient or straightforward but does result in some beautiful and unique imagery. We employ all sorts of methods in producing final frames. We make practical puppets and sets, we use and abuse rapid prototyping for facial animation, and also make extensive use of visual effects to extend the scope and scale of the miniature worlds.

Could you go into more detail and give us a breakdown of your use of Substance?

We used Substance Painter and Substance Designer in a number of different ways. The main areas where we used the software were:

One of my largest tasks for Missing Link was a long, wide shot of London. The 490-frame shot began with a view looking into the horizon of the city then slowly panning down to reveal Sir Lionel’s apartment. I was tasked with doing all the building textures, shot lighting, and comp setup(!).

We made heavy use of instances, and created London using 14 unique building types including spires, lamp posts, characters, horses, buggies, etc. I made heavy use of Smart Materials and came up with some stylized materials for roof tiles, brick, wood, iron, cobblestone, etc., which I could use and re-use while making individual tweaks for variety.

For the tile roofs, I ended up creating a custom tile generator in Substance Designer as the roof tiles had to stack up next to each other rather than being based on a grid pattern. Here is a practical section of the roof provided by the art department that I was to match. Notice that the pattern is more row- rather than grid-based. I started with a built-in tile generator and heavily modified the FxMap node to get what I wanted.

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I was then able to bring this Substance into Painter and use it as anchor layer. I used red, green, and blue as individual channels for driving different parts of the look (displacement, tile color A, tile color B).

Working this way I was able to generate an infinite amount of variety with a small number of controls.

In addition to the roof tiles, Smart Materials were made for brick, wood, iron, etc. This made it possible to quickly generate textures for a number of buildings.

I also used Substance Painter for the main building, Sir Lionel’s Apartment, as well as the wet and worn cobblestone streets. Throughout the process, I made heavy use of show patterns in order to keep the look on style.

The height maps from Substance Painter were fed into displacement in order to generate the geometry detail we needed.

The shot was then rendered using RenderMan and Katana and composited in Nuke or the final look.

What are the particularities in doing CG for stop-motion as to traditional VFX and animation?

There are many similarities to traditional VFX although there are some advantages/disadvantages we face. One obvious advantage is reference. The stages and shootings are done on-site so it is possible to look and hold the physical puppets/props that were used in the plate.

Shooting frame by frame with motion-controlled cameras also allows us to leverage multiple camera passes that would not be possible in live-action. We will sometimes shoot individual lights in their own pass, backlit, or green screen elements as well.

Things that are more difficult are mostly time and scale related. We are never able to just fog a set or film dust hit elements. All effects have to be handcrafted and need to work at the small scale. We are never matching reality, but a stylized miniature reality made of resin, paint, silicon, RP plastic, and cloth, which presents a fun challenge.

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What are the recommendations you can give to aspiring CG artists who wish to work in stop-motion productions?

Most advice would be the same for any VFX artist: Focus on building up a reel that shows attention to detail, craftsmanship, and creativity. Quality over quantity of work, and don’t be afraid to iterate on something … a lot … until it looks awesome.

How do you see your use of Substance evolve on future projects?

Substance Designer and Substance Painter have proven to be very effective tools and are a lot of fun, and easy to pick up. We will be looking into using more automation and further integrate the tools into our pipe so it is even easier for us to leverage the procedural nature of Smart Materials at a large scale.

Laika’s latest release Missing Link is available for home viewing now. Visit www.laika.com for more details.

All images courtesy of LAIKA Studios.