Coraline’s Laika, Inc.: Rise Of A Prominent Animation Studio In Portland, OR

With the renaissance in both CGI and stop-motion animation studios, it’s a real coup for animation company Laika, Inc. to get to the top of the heap with their production stamp on the instant classic “Coraline.” The fact that this company is in my home state makes it all the better to remind people of how much of a player Portland, Oregon is in the arts world along with the film industry. That came to the fore when “Coraline” had its official premiere at Portland’s classy Arlene Schnitzer Hall in early February where Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher walked the red carpet as if attending a premiere in L.A. or NYC. But the ringmaster behind this Portland premiere was Laika owner (and Nike founder) Phil Knight.

As celebrated as Knight’s company is at this point and the prospects of becoming one of the top five animation studios in the world, there is controversy behind the formation of the company that might mar the charm of the studio for some. Particularly, it might rattle those who remember the brilliance of Will Vinton and his Claymation Studio back in the 1980’s and 90’s.

If you think back to the most prominent animation studios in Portland 20-25 years ago, there isn’t a doubt that Will Vinton Studios would be at the top of the list and foremost in the United States. When you see the credits of Will Vinton’s work, it boggles the mind and reaches the highest peaks of animation during the 1980’s when he not only created effects for Disney and Michael Jackson, but also created the…yes, Motown-crooning California Raisins. The legend of the studio made it appear that it couldn’t possibly fail. But as big as they were by the beginning of the 21st century, Vinton had to look for outside investors in order to stay competitive in using his studio for major feature films. But just like animation companies in Singapore, studios in Portland also create amazing animation videos both in films and in games.

Nobody would have thought Nike founder Phil Knight would get into the world of animation, even though he was an astute enough billionaire to know to invest in other properties in order to have additional security. Once Knight joined as an investor, things looked bright for Vinton’s company until attempts to garner money from other studios for work in feature films didn’t happen. The reason is likely the rise of Pixar and Dreamworks who took animation to a whole new level and pretty much obliterated the art of Claymation Vinton pioneered.

Why would Claymation be passed over in favor of CGI? Well, the reasons were because Claymation became such a long process in pulling off effectively–sometimes taking months just to construct one short scene. Due to Hollywood wanting product out there sooner rather than later, utilizing CGI was the immediate answer in getting certain effects quickly through a computer and obtaining more believable results. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t have discounted Claymation as an art form and its painstaking process that showed a lot of heart in final form.

Once Phil Knight was voted in to control the studio, it wasn’t long until failed business resulted in Vinton being thrown out by Knight and the Vinton name being used against the studio’s creator’s will. Lest you think Vinton went into the good night as a special effects magician after all that, you should know he’s since started a marginally successful animation/special effects company in Portland. That doesn’t take away his harsh feelings about being removed from his prior company and his name being used to sell the studio after leaving.

After Vinton went through litigation to restore the rights to his name, Knight decided to rename the studio Laika to avoid any further problems. Despite this, the bad feelings have persisted between Vinton and Knight’s decisions without much coverage about it in the press. And Laika had to go it alone with their new name a few years ago until deciding to work on the adaptation of “Coraline.” Since some of the same animators were working at the studio Vinton founded, no doubt there was a sense they could fail utilizing stop-motion effects during a time of CGI dominance.

Back in the 90’s, you certainly couldn’t have expected stop-motion animation to have a renaissance outside of Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas.” Some might even confuse the stop-motion in “Coraline” with that of Burton–mainly because “Coraline” has the same director, animation legend Henry Selick, who really single-handedly (or dual-handedly) brought back stop-motion animation back into prominence with a unique and mesmerizing style. Laika, Inc. couldn’t have asked for a better connection to place their new name on the map when Selick joined the company five years ago.

Now with “Coraline” likely to become as much of a cult classic as “Nightmare Before Christmas” became, expect stop-motion animation to be soon competing strongly right alongside all the CGI masterpieces from Pixar and Dreamworks. If Vinton’s Claymation is a relic of forgotten animation technique, then at least we still can get heart and soul in animated movie characters through the painstaking art of Selick’s unique brand of stop-motion.

Considering Laika will also likely be one of the top five animation studios in the world once they expand their offices around the Portland area next year, we’ll have to be reminded that it only got that way through some tumultuous business moves that shouldn’t necessarily be tucked under the rug. A tip of the hat to Will Vinton probably won’t happen on a wide scale as it should, but it shouldn’t be denied even on a smaller scale. As with many studios that eventually climbed to the top, it was usually the result of someone else either forgotten or shut out who paved the road to get them there.

When Laika’s inevitably rich history is written decades from now, we’ll hope it isn’t bathed in myth just because Phil Knight is a business legend in his own right…