Learning with Movies the LAIKA Way

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This post is sponsored by LAIKA.

Living in Southern California, we're big movie buffs. I used to teach the children of movie stars when I worked at elementary schools in Los Angeles. My own kids have been immersed in Hollywood through numerous trips and even had a couple cameos in commercials. As viewers, we absolutely love film, so learning with movies is just one of the many ways we use our kids' passions to broaden their horizons.

Coraaline’s couch

Lately, we've been on a LAIKA kick. If you're not familiar with this studio's stop-motion animation style, you soon will be. The Oscar-nominated, Portland-based group got their start with the renowned Coraline just ten years ago and continued to make their presence known with Paranorman, The Boxtrolls and the wildly-successful BAFTA winner Kubo and the Two Strings. They're not done yet, though. Coming in 2019, the Hugh Jackman and Emma Stone-led Missing Link promises even more dazzling visual effects.

The boys watching Kubo

The boys and I recently ventured back through the LAIKA repertoire as part of our homeschool adventures. We were looking for insightful movies to help the big kids step up from cheery animation into more advanced learning opportunities. The themes and art infused into LAIKA films easily lend to discussion questions and hands-on activities. We've challenged the kids to recreate their favorite characters with clay, to journal about the deeper topics presented on screen, and to even make some of their own attempts at stop-motion with flip books.

We've had mixed results. This is clearly a challenging art.

Pink Palace Apartments-2

When I heard that the LAIKA team was coming to San Diego for a pop-up exhibit called LAIKA LIVE during Comic-Con, I had to investigate. I wasn't exactly sure how kid-friendly the space would be, so I dropped the kids off with friends and went to check things out for myself. I was a little surprised to walk in and encounter Coraline's Pink Palace Apartments in real, amazing, miniaturized version right in front of me. It reminded me a bit of my Wizard of Oz House costume, except five zillion times more amazing with functional shutters, shingles and latticed steps. The intricacy was astonishing.


I found myself momentarily challenged in terms of how to capture the space. Every photo I took kind of looked like…well, like a screenshot of a movie. It was weird to see how these little puppet guys translate from clay and resin to life with a dash of lighting and imagination. So I did what any good investigator would do. I got hands-on.

Behind the scenes of Boxtrolls

There were lots of staff members who helped create the movies on-site, so I started asking questions. What does their day look like? How does one train for a career like this? I chatted with someone from the “Puppet Hospital” who explained that his duty was to crawl into the scene setups and fix the characters if (err, when) a hand or an arm or a finger fell off. He explained that his biggest challenge is to address the broken parts without moving the character out of place. Continuity is king around here, with any given scene taking months to complete in split-second increments.

LAIKA hair expert

I discovered that there are countless ways that people from all walks of life can contribute to a film like this. Art majors, clothing designers, metallurgists, engineers and scientists and historical researchers…the mind boggles at how many people it takes to make these films come to life.

There is a job title out there with one person deemed the “Hair and Fur Expert.” This guy's primary task – I kid you not – is to know exactly how to source and place various fur and fur-like substances for each character's hair. Paranorman, for example, has dyed goat fur fused with tiny wires so that each individual strand can move naturally. That's multiplied times dozens of puppets, since there are many duplicates for each one to allow ongoing shooting of various scenes at once. If a cast member accidentally bumps one of those hairs out of place mid-shoot in any given set, it can destroy months worth of shooting progress.

No pressure.

Tiny Paranorman TV

As you can see, no detail is too small to be considered. In one Paranorman scene where the characters are watching TV, crew members actually made a tiny television with a real cell phone screen commissioned to fit into the back. They played a movie on that itty-bitty screen, frame-by-frame, to sync up with the stop-motion action going on with the characters.

Intricate details on LAIKA puppets

The whole crew has a sense of humor, too. I noted one of the director's names on a character's set of boxers hanging out of his low-slung pants. And as far as technology? Woah. LAIKA serves as beta testers for the latest-and-greatest 3D printers on the market. They put it to the test, transforming the way colors have been printed over the years. Back when Coraline was made, there was no color imprinting. Every one of her ten freckles had to be hand-painted on, along with her pink lips. The company eventually moved from that to a 3-color printing system with Paranorman, 5-color with Boxtrolls, and a mixture of 7 different colors in any given 3D printer used on Kubo characters.

Learning with movies

My favorite part of the entire experience was this, hands-down. I crawled up into one of the hot sets and got to play around with Kubo on a live-action rig! I discovered that his bangs come off (pictured up above) so that his facial expression can be swapped out. YOU GUYS. They have a different face printed up for every single motion he made throughout the entire film. That's thousands upon thousands of tiny little faces. The mind boggles.

It should be noted that this is not a typical experience for people touring the LAIKA Live space. It pays to be the curious person who asks a zillion questions. I try to remind myself of this when my 3-year-old crawls into bed at 1am wanting to know what clouds taste like.

Coraline couch

Also fun: a life-sized Coraline living room recreation placed adjacent to the original set. So us humans can step into the characters' world for a change, instead of vice versa.

Engineer of puppets

As far as the kid-friendliness of the exhibit, we're definitely coming back with the kids. I'm excited to show them the diversity of jobs that are available to them. As they say: if you can dream it, you can do it! I'll be strapping the squirrely preschooler and baby into a stroller to make sure they don't inadvertently break stuff. The big boys will be left to carefully wander. Most of the sets are thankfully encased behind glass displays so that the public can't wreak too much havoc, but they do have some spare bendable limbs and legs laying around for people to touch. The skin on this zombie hand is definitely something that has to be felt up-close and in-person.

If you're looking for a way to get your kids learning with movies, check out all of the LAIKA films. And if you're in San Diego for Comic-Con this week, swing by LAIKA LIVE for a tour. It's free, and totally worth a wait in line!


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