How ‘Coraline’ Paved The Way For A New Age Of Stop-Motion Animation 

Coraline (2009) © Laika Studios

This much revered—and sometimes feared—film was the first of its kind, using 3D printing technology alongside classic stop motion techniques. Using new animation techniques was a challenge from the start.

According to Coraline’s lead animator Travis Knight, Laika initially struggled with pitching Coraline at the beginning due to its stop-motion nature, which was deemed ‘non-commercial’ due to the increasing popularity of computer-animated films.

Coraline’s producer, Bill Mechanic, originally wanted the film to be either live-action or done through CGI; however, Selick managed to persuade him of stop-motion’s potential.

Knight added that on top of the style, Hollywood studios would also not go near Coraline as “it’s got a female protagonist, so clearly boys will not go see a movie like this. But it’s really scary, so girls are not gonna be into it either.”

For those who haven’t seen the 2009 film, produced by Laika Studios and directed by Henry Selick, follows Coraline Jones, an inquisitive and feisty 11-year-old girl who moves with her parents to The Pink Palace Apartments. While exploring this new home, Coraline discovers a small door that leads to a world that appears perfect at face value; the food is better, and the people are friendlier. She meets her ‘Other Mother,’ who has a strange psychical attribute: buttons for eyes. As Coraline becomes enchanted with this other world, she learns that everything is not quite as it seems as the film takes a dark twist.

Despite its early challenges, Focus Features eventually picked up Coraline. It was a profitable risk to take; the film  became the third highest-grossing stop-motion film of all time, after classics such as Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

A New Method

Stop-motion animation gives off a unique charm and quality, as audiences can see the level of care that went into making the project. This appeal is why many studios, such as Laika and Aardman Animations, hold onto the form despite its time-consuming and tedious nature.

Before Coraline, one popular stop-motion method was replacement animation. This involved making a few different facial expressions for each character, then swapping them out as needed while animating and photographing each figure separately.

In a 2016 interview, Laika’s director of rapid prototype Brian McLean recalled that “Henry really wanted Coraline to be able to be very subtle at times but also have broad expressions. We wondered if we could harness emerging 3D printing technology to take replacement animation and allow it to do both with more facial options.”

Laika Studios went on to create rapid prototyping for facial expressions, which enabled Coraline to have 6,333 printed faces with the potential of 207,000 different facial expressions.

Coraline won the Movie of the Year AFI Award and secured the title of 2010 Best Feature Film in the BAFTA Children’s Award category, as well as being nominated for numerous other awards.

In 2016, McLean and Martin Meunier, Laika facial animation designer, were recognised at the 2016 Oscars for pioneering the use of rapid prototyping for character animation in stop-motion film production. The academy recognised the capabilities of 3D printing to significantly enhance stop-motion animated feature films, including colour uniformity, mechanical repeatability and scalability.

After Coraline

While no other stop-motion film has come close to reaching Coraline’s success, Laika Studios went on to produce films such as ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, Kubo and the Two Strings and Missing Link.

In 2021, the studio announced that they were working on a new stop-motion film, directed by Travis Knight. Wildwood, expected to hit cinema screens in 2025, has been described as a tale about love, loss, and sacrifice with a pinch of magic.

Selick’s big return to stop-motion was made in partnership with Monkeypaw Productions and Netflix, with the 2022 children’s horror film Wendell & Wild. The film follows two demon brothers, Wendell and Wild, who ask 13-year-old Kat Elliot to help summon them to the Land of the Living.

During Coraline, Selick fought to include seam lines in the 3D-printed faces to keep some stop-motion authenticity, but ultimately lost the battle. In Wendell & Wild these seams are visible.

On this decision, Selick said: “Since Coraline, a lot of stop motion has gotten a little too perfect, too CG-like. We wanted to pull it back to feel more handmade, to make it very clear that this was touched by human hands directly.”

Wendell & Wild (2022) © Netflix

In a 2023 interview, Wendell & Wild’s digital supervisor Heather Abels explained how The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline inspired her generation to go into the stop-motion industry.

In an era where animation has become more and more digital, Abels expressed how it was refreshing to immerse herself in the craft of stop-motion where “you can feel the artist’s touch in every shot.”

Although Wendell & Wild aimed to incorporate more traditional techniques, such as replacement animation, it also embraced rapid prototyping to achieve the final vision.

A Lasting Impact

Ultimately, the integration of 3D printing and cutting-edge techniques like rapid prototyping for character animation revolutionised stop-motion filmmaking, making it more efficient without sacrificing its inherent charm.

Films like Coraline and Wendell & Wild demonstrate the enduring appeal and potential for stop-motion animation to thrive in an industry dominated by CGI and other digital techniques. 

With the anticipation surrounding upcoming releases such as Wildwood, I believe this beloved medium will continue to thrive and inspire future filmmakers for years to come.

Laika Studios recently announced the highly anticipated release of a remastered 3D version of Coraline, set to captivate audiences once again this August.

Words by Libby Jennings

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