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Laika takes small steps toward spotlight

PORTLAND — None of Laika's films takes place in Portland, but the animation studio says the city is in every scene you see on screen.

Portland's quirky, do-it-yourself vibe informs Laika's style of handcrafted animation, its filmmakers say, and inspires the offbeat stories the studio tells.

"There's a corps of brilliant artistry here, and we were able to set up a studio here and find a lot of local talent as well as the international talent that were brought in," said Georgina Hayns, who left England to work on Laika's first film 11 years ago —  "Coraline," an adaptation of an English novel, which was set in Ashland for the film version.

Hayns stayed, supervising the puppets in every Laika film since, because the city had a sensibility that encouraged creativity and artistry.

"Portland was the place that Laika could grow in, it was made for it," she told an audience last summer.The Portland Art Museum's Laika exhibit — which opened last week and runs through May 20 — showcases the puppets and sets that appear in the studio's four films, all Oscar nominees: "Coraline," ''ParaNorman," ''The Boxtrolls" and "Kubo and the Two Strings." Its stop-motion films use actual puppets for its characters, with animators manipulating them on elaborate sound stages to simulate motion.

For movie fans, the exhibit is an opportunity to examine the raw materials from those films up close. But it's also a chance for Laika to raise its profile in its hometown as it seeks to build a brand around its growing stable of movies.

"People know of our films, our mission is to turn Laika into a household name representing the quality films and products that it has, and we're going to do that in different ways," said Brad Wald, Laika's chief financial officer and head of business operations.

While Laika is the Northwest's biggest filmmaker, it has a relatively low profile regionally. Part of the reason is that it makes its films in a nondescript warehouse in Hillsboro, 20 miles outside of Portland just south of U.S. 26.

The studio vigilantly guards what takes place on the darkened sets inside, where the animators work. Laika wants to preserve surprises about its upcoming films — including its fifth feature, due sometime next year — and control how and when the news gets out.

And while hundreds of people work on each film, many of them come from other animation hubs near London, San Francisco or Hollywood. They move to Oregon for the duration of filming, then leave when production is complete.

Altogether, that helps explain why Laika might not be more prominent in the Portland area — even as its footprint grows in the animation world.

"I'm not a native Oregonian, but I have lived here 11 years and have noticed that people are pretty down to earth, reserved," said Rosemary Colliver, Laika's chief legal counsel. "Similarly, it's not like Laika takes up a megaphone and shouts out its accolades for all to hear."

The museum exhibit opens at a key moment for Laika. Chief executive Travis Knight is in California directing "Bumblebee," the latest film in the Transformers franchise. It's his first work outside the Oregon studio owned by his father, Nike co-founder Phil Knight.

Though Laika's films have won plaudits for their artistry and distinctive look, Laika is still seeking to break out into the broader popular culture.

Its most recent film, last year's "Kubo and the Two Strings," generated less than $70 million in worldwide box-office receipts, according to the industry site Box Office Mojo, the lowest total of any of its four films by more than $30 million. That's despite two Oscar nominations and a remarkable 97 percent rating from review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

The Portland Art Museum showcase marks the third time Laika has exhibited its puppets and sets, and Wald says there will be more in other cities."We will expose that so that people can see how we're different than Pixar or Disney or DreamWorks, all of those wonderful competitors, and show the world how our process and magic is different," Wald said. Eventually, Laika hopes to have some kind of permanent exhibit in Portland, he added.Working in Portland, outside the traditional confines of the film industry, creates a different look for Laika's films and a distinctive brand of storytelling, according to Chris Butler, who directed "ParaNorman," released in 2012."I think we've made movies that the major Hollywood studios would not make," Butler told a gathering at the art museum last summer. "And I think, I can't help but think, that part of that is that we are perhaps somewhat artistically removed from certain mainstream sensibilities, but we are also geographically removed from there."

Kiera Highsmith, left, and Stephanie Schock admire the Other Mother puppet from 'Coraline,' a Laika animated film set in Ashland. [Stephanie Yao Long/The Oregonian via AP]
Sixteen-feet tall Giant Skeleton from 'Kubo and the Two Strings. This is the first time the top and bottom of the puppet have been together. 'Animating Life: The Art, Science and Wonder of Laika' is open at the Portland Art Museum. [Stephanie Yao Long/The Oregonian via AP]