Co-founder and longtime chief of Nike, Phil Knight, unveiled plans for the future of his Portland film studio Laika on Tuesday. Laika’s first production, Coraline, based on a novel by Neil Gaiman, due in theaters in February, will be followed by a trio of movies and the new production house has a total of 6 projects in the works.
While Laika plans to mix in an occasional traditional, family film, the company hopes to differentiate itself from the competition with offbeat pictures and oddball humor. “There’s a very Portland feel to the kinds of things that we are doing,” said Fiona Kenshole, Laika’s vice president of development and acquisitions, who moved to Northwest Portland from England this spring. “We have a slightly quirky take.”
Animation giants Pixar, Dreamworks and Sony engineered a revival in feature animation with clever, richly illustrated movies drawn largely by computer. Laika, by contrast, plans to film many of its movies in an old-fashioned, stop-motion style with stories devoid of the pop culture references that sustain hits such as “Shrek.” It’s a risky strategy, the Portland company acknowledges, but one Laika says provides the best chance of distinguishing the studio and providing commercial and creative success. “It’s very easy to get a joke out of a fart. But that’s not what we do,” Kenshole said. “We want the story to emerge from the situation in which the characters find themselves.”
Knight acquired the financially strapped Will Vinton Studios (Christmas With The California Raisins, The Adventures of Mark Twain) in 2003 and renamed it Laika two years later. His son Travis Knight, an animation industry veteran, is a Laika animator and executive.
Animated films cost upwards of $50 million to make and sometimes a great deal more. Knight is bankrolling Coraline himself but wants to partner with a major Hollywood studio to underwrite development of Laika’s next three movies. “We’re looking for somebody that is willing to take some risks, both creatively as well as from a standpoint of broadening the movie audience,” said Dale Wahl, a former Nike executive who runs Laika.
Coraline is in the late stages of filming at a Hillsboro warehouse. It’s being directed by Henry Selick, a veteran stop-motion director who developed a cult following among animation junkies after making such stop-motion films as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Knight’s son Travis is serving as lead animator.
For its next three movies, Laika plans to hand the reins to a pair of experienced Hollywood directors and make the third from an in-house concept nurtured by Selick and a member of his “Coraline” team. One movie will be a computer-generated family picture directed by Barry Cook, who made Mulan for Disney. The other two are about misunderstood boys with unusual backgrounds or powers.
Coraline tells the story of a girl who passes into a mirror world where she meets sinister, alternate versions of her parents with buttons for eyes. Based on a novel by children’s writer Neil Gaiman, it will be distributed by Focus Features with lead characters voiced by teen star Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher of Desperate Housewives. “It’s an unusual movie. It’s an unusual story,” said Wahl. “But from my own, personal perspective, I think it’s a fun story.”
Laika’s alternative approach to animation is a risk, said Maureen Selwood, co-director of the experimental animation at the California Institute of the Arts. “The real gamble is stop motion,” Selwood said. “As well as being alternative, stop motion can be hard to pull off in a feature.” On stop-motion productions, animators painstakingly arrange puppets on miniature sets and then film them, a single frame at a time, moving the puppets incrementally to simulate motion. If Laika’s stories and directors create a coherent, original vision, she said, there’s no doubt its films will find an audience. And she said Portland’s animation community, which dates back three decades to when Oscar-winner Will Vinton started Vinton Studios, is a natural place to try something fresh. “If there’s any city outside of Los Angeles that’s an animation town, it’s Portland,” Selwood said. “It’s just loaded with people who have been in animation for a long time.”
Knight, who’s worth about $8 billion, will start building a 30-acre studio campus in Tualitin, Oregon, later this year, around the same time he releases Coraline. Laika’s other projects include Here Be Monsters!, a 19th-century steampunk thriller set in London, and The Wall and the Wing, adapted by Lost co-creator Jeffrey Lieber from the Laura Ruby novel about a Manhattan girl who can make herself invisible.