Autodesk industrial digital tools help LAIKA realize the magic of stop-motion


Lately, I’ve been exploring the world of Autodesk, which is self-described as “making software for people who do things”. They’ve been on a roll lately. Just this week, they made two big announcements: that they are acquiring Innovyze, Inc., a provider of water infrastructure software, for $ 1 billion; and that they exceeded earnings expectations for their fiscal fourth quarter, generating adjusted earnings of $ 1.18 per share for the period, against analysts’ expectations of $ 1.07. Their revenue for the quarter, at $ 1.04 billion, increased 15.6% from the same period last year.

I knew from personal experience that many of their customers are manufacturers. My own career dates back to the early days of their flagship product, AutoCAD, which I used for project design in the chemical industry. I was also aware of their involvement in building and product development, through a few previous articles I wrote about them. But when I saw on their website that their work included design applications involving 3D printing for LAIKA Studios, the modern masters of stop-motion animation, and fan favorite creators such as Coraline and Paranormand, I knew I had to learn more.

Because isn’t it cool that a Hollywood movie studio specializing in the most amazing animation you’ve ever seen uses industrial tools to make their art come true? Well, so cool that my son John (who turned 16 today; happy birthday, John!), After hearing that I had been chatting with the folks at LAIKA, looked up from his phone and said : “I just texted my friend Robert. He said he wanted your autograph, and he’s only half kidding. It’s pretty cool there. For teenagers like my two sons, LAIKA has always is part of their entertainment experience, and it had a big impact.

Like most studios, however, they face the challenge of an increasingly competitive market, and of course, the impact of the pandemic on filmmaking has only added to the difficulties. As they ramp up their efforts on their next stop-motion offering, they need to be more focused on their game than ever before. But it turns out that Autodesk’s tools play an important role in both their day-to-day work and in their constant efforts to improve at what they do, while helping them stay true to their passion for stop-motion.

For the uninitiated, the genre that LAIKA specializes in is an incredible challenge. “Stop-motion animation is incredibly laborious and time consuming,” said Ben Fischler, head of industry strategy at Autodesk. “They shoot on a stage with puppets and miniature sets, and that is — take a picture, move things around, take another picture, and so on. The animation plays at 24 frames per second and you only get a few seconds of completed animation per week from the animators. But it is part of the core values ​​and culture of LAIKA. It’s a stop-motion studio, and they take it to a whole new level by combining technology and art. Because of all of this, their films take an incredible amount of time and talent. Their first movie, 2009’s Coralin, for example, involved 500 people and took four years to make.

“A big part of what we do is realizing the full potential of stop-motion animation and telling stories that no one else can,” said Steve Emerson, VFX Supervisor at LAIKA. “People want to go to the movies and be moved. It requires building empathy, and since the faces of the characters are their primary focus, our use of 3D printing becomes so important. “

Because of this need to create “lively” and likeable characters, they have used 3D printing for puppet faces in all of their films.. Using Autodesk’s animation, modeling, simulation and 3D rendering software, Maya, they design thousands of different facial expressions and print them out. “For Coraline, with the Stratasys polyjet printers we had at the time, we could only print in one color, so the sides were all hand painted, ”said Jeff Stringer, Production Technology Manager at LAIKA. Rapid technological advancements have made a big difference since then. “For Missing link [LAIKA’s Golden Globe-winning film from 2019], we used Stratasys J750 color printers. We had eight printers running around the clock, producing 2,000 faces per week. In the end, we printed 106,000 custom faces.

Maya is also used for digital visual effects, so it is essential for all elements of the production. “When you make an animated film, thousands of problems arise,” Emerson said. “Maya has been around since 1998, so we can count on her, and there are tons of talent out there who know how to use her. “

The movement of the puppets relies on another Autodesk tool, Inventor, which is used for 3D mechanical design. “LAIKA uses Inventor to design the frames that allow animators to pose the puppets,” Stringer explained. “All the frames are manufactured in-house in our machine shop. We have Haas and Mazak CNC machines, as well as laser cutting machine and water jet cutting machine.

The construction of the reinforcements is critical. “You have to have very tight tolerances because any slope in the movement will show up on the screen,” Fischler said. Inventor allows designers to assess what is needed for a given puppet, and whether the modular components (balls, bushings, gaskets, etc.) from LAIKA’s standard catalog will suffice, or whether custom items will need to be designed and manufactured.

Perhaps the most important Autodesk tool for LAIKA, however, is Shotgun, their project management software. “Our films are constantly increasing in the scope of storytelling,” said Emerson. “It means budgets are always a challenge, so we attack the time. “

Stringer agreed. “Our films have so much complexity that I have never seen before,” he said. “But we don’t want to have to work fast, we want to take our time every step of the way and deliver everything we need just in time for the scene.”

“Shotgun gives everyone – the producer, production managers, production coordinators – a primary control view of the merging of digital and physical processes,” added Fischler. “It’s become a fundamental part of the way they do things. “

A particularly useful element of Shotgun for LAIKA is its generative planning feature. “It’s AI for planning,” Fischler explained. “They enter all of their parameters for production, and that gives the top five or six options in terms of schedule and budget.”

“It’s about finding a solution in a really complex space,” said Mike Haley, vice president of research at Autodesk. “Humans can consider two, three, maybe four variables. When we get to five, our heads start to spin. Generative planning can run on hundreds of thousands of these variables. It enables more than humans can do.

“Their work has many moving parts, literally! If we can fix LAIKA’s schedule, we can fix anything, ”added Fischler.

As LAIKA moves forward with ongoing work on its next magical stop-motion cinematic offering, a central part of their efforts will be to further leverage the digital tools that have worked so well for them on their previous films. “We couldn’t do what we do without the expertise of companies like Autodesk,” said Emerson. “They know the DNA of LAIKA. There is a sense of the impossible at the start of these films. It depends on experience to be successful, and they have been around since Coraline days.”

“Creativity is our raison d’être,” Haley suggested. “It’s about creativity and convergence: combining the digital and the physical. We can take information from the physical world, feed it back to the model, and have the digital then improve the physical. We bring together the best of everything. Kudos to LAIKA for seeing this.

It was fascinating to me that tools so commonly used in my manufacturing world could apply so well in the filmmaking environment. “It was a trip for our group,” Stringer explained. “Steve and I both come from the world of animation and digital effects. We are faced with a lot of problems like the manufacturers. At the end of the day, we have to make a product that also satisfies our customers. Autodesk is unique among our partners. We end up helping each other a lot. “

So hopefully LAIKA will be able to derive ever greater value from its suite of amazing industrial applications from Autodesk, and that they will be able to continue making their simply amazing – and yes, very cool – art for a long time to come. to come.

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