3-D printing animation's latest leap

Faces from the upcoming animated film Paranorman. (LAIKA/Handout)

Faces from the upcoming animated film Paranorman. (LAIKA/Handout)

JIM SLOTEK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:03 PM ET

PORTLAND, ORE. - I wondered what Brian McLean meant when he called me "fresh meat." Soon he was blowing my mind with technology akin to Star Trek's replicator come to life.

Imagine something on a computer screen, press a button, and it exists as an actual object.

For my benefit, McLean "printed" a working crescent wrench made of acrylic (which I still have).

McLean has the fancy title of director of rapid prototype at Portland's Laika Films, a stop-motion animation house whose most famous film, Coraline, was nominated for an Oscar.

Their new film, Paranorman - about a boy who sees dead people and struggles to overturn a witch's curse and prevent a zombie apocalypse - takes the stop-motion "revolution" Laika began with Coraline even further.

I don't know what it is about stop-motion, but the most famous of these features are all pretty grim - The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, and now zombies. But the thing to know is that every character is a doll of sorts, with built-in armatures to replicate movement one frame at a time. Inside mouths, one will find often teeth, tongues and even uvulae.

It seems like old-school animation's last battleground against the CGI juggernaut of Pixar and Dreamworks. And in many ways, it is. Some 300 craftspeople work in this rainy city on real objects, toiling meticulously in fine artistry, painting, applying various sorts of chemistry, making bushes out of popcorn, etc. There's wardrobe and hairstyling and set designing.

And then there are the faces. Some expressions can be controlled by skull mechanisms. But the go-to practice of stop-motion has always been to paint up plates of variations of facial expressions, to be removed and replaced a frame at a time (for the traditional 24 frames per second).

Using this old-school method, The Nightmare Before Christmas's Jack Skellington achieved some 800 facial expressions.

Coraline, by contrast, had 200,000 possible expressions. And ParaNorman's Norman (voiced by Let Me In's Kodi Smit-McPhee) has even more - courtesy of what's known as "3-D Printing" or "Prototype Printing."

In a dark room (the better to reduce glare) at Laika, transplanted Canadian Peg Serena is the facial orientation supervisor. On her screen, she's making Norman's sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) chew gum. Hundreds of partial faceplates will be "printed" to replicate the motions of gum-chewing.

The faceplates are eventually catalogued and given to animator/directors who each shepherd their own scenes on miniature sets (a half-dozen or more may be worked on at a time). But Serena keeps track of them phonetically. "A-E-I-O-U... one, two, three, four. That's the kind of thing an animator would understand, but a librarian wants a number."

She also works with the actors' voicetracks. "Anna Kendricks' voice was amazing," she says. "Her personality really comes out in the gum-chewing."

But then we're off to the Printer Room, and my mind is off in a hundred directions pondering the possibilities - most of which, it turns out, are already realities.

The prototype for almost everything you have, from your smartphone to your sunglasses to your running shoes, was 3-D printed before being approved (and then presumably sent to China to be mass-produced).

Automakers use them, and so do auto aficionados who can afford a $100,000 printer. Jay Leno reportedly has one so that he can make his own parts for his collection of vintage cars and motorcycles. In medicine, they're used to make replacement heart valves.

They can "print" in plastics, rubber, titanium, stainless steel. McLean foresees a day, "when you can, say, order up a basketball on Amazon and get it instantly by 'printing' it at home."

The beneficiaries of these catalogued objects, the animator/directors are jokingly described by animation supervisor Brad Schiff as "divas without trailers." But they seem to me to be among the loneliest people in the building. One of them, Florian Perinelle, had been spending most of an entire week manipulating armatures, rigging and facial expressions to produce a few seconds of Norman riding his bike to a ghost-home (where the recently-deceased Mr. Prenderghast - voiced by John Goodman - held the key to breaking the witch's curse).

"I'll admit at times I dream about animating myself," Perinelle says, describing the monotony.

At other times, these tiny "sets" are the scene of frenetic prep activity. "Nobody yells 'Action!' But they yell a lot of other things," quips set dresser Rob DeSue.

"We work in unorthodox ways with unusual people," producer Arianne Sutner says. "As a result, what you get from us is very different from what you get at Pixar and Dreamworks."

Key moments in animation history

1914 - Gertie, The Trained Dinosaur is produced, a drawn animation piece which was composed of an impressive 10,000 drawings.

1923 - Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work the animators go. Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio is founded by Roy and Walt Disney.

1928 - Steam Boat Willy is released by Disney, famous as the introduction of the character who'd become Mickey Mouse, it was also the first "talkie" cartoon (a year after The Jazz Singer).

1933 - Willis O'Brien's stop motion techniques (used earlier in the silent era on The Lost World) turn heads in King Kong

1937 - The first full-length Disney animated feature, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs is released.

1957 - Wilmaaa! Hanna-Barbara begins producing cheap-enough-for-TV animation using repetition and still backgrounds.

1963 - Ray Harryhausen's Jason And The Argonauts is released, featuring the stop-motion master's most famous scene - a battle against living skeletons.

1979 - Underground artist Ralph Bakshi uses "rotoscoping" (tracing over live action to create ostensibly realistic-looking animation), for his otherwise not-so-good Lord Of The Rings feature.

1995 - Toy Story, the first full-length "3D" CGI feature is released by Pixar.

2006 - With the CG-intensive film 300, Zack Snyder recreated the Battle of Thermopylae with buff hairless Greeks, and created the spectacle that Bakshi had failed to create with the same principle.

2009 - Avatar. Not content as King of the World, Jim Cameron uses a gazillion terrabytes of computer-crunching to create Pandora.

- Jim Slotek

 


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