Studio LAIKA and the Ghosts of Invisible Labor
Stop-motion animation studio LAIKA’s features share a preoccupation with what lies beyond the visible world. The eponymous protagonist of Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009) can access a fantastical Other World, while the titular hero of ParaNorman (Chris Butler and Sam Fell, 2012) communicates with the undead. In The Boxtrolls (Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, 2014), Eggs is the only human inhabitant of a subterranean troll dwelling. Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight, 2016) features a character guided by spirits. Enigmatic and dangerous, the concealed spaces in these films are a source of fascination for characters and viewers alike. Drawing on J. D. Connor’s approach to industrial allegory, which reads Hollywood films as self-representations negotiating industrial politics and ideologies, my essay argues that this narrative focus on uncovering awe-inspiring secret worlds reflects LAIKA’s self-aware fascination with the technology and process of stop-motion production.
This video aims to highlight the explicit link that LAIKA draws between the unseen spaces its characters explore and the invisible labor involved in making puppets move. Unlike traditionally drawn or computer-generated animation, the stop-motion frame maps onto an actual physical area – the edge between the miniature set and the animators’ workspace – allowing LAIKA’s films to articulate and interrogate the creative process as a spatial relationship. Videographic criticism lends itself perfectly to the comparative close visual analysis required in order to unpack the ways in which the studio has repeatedly cast stop-motion labor as an invisible, yet omnipresent force that shapes and haunts every shot from beyond the edges of the frame. Side-by-side comparisons of representational strategies and narrative motifs reveal visual rhymes and parallels, both within the individual films and between them.
In her groundbreaking analysis of cel animation labor, Hannah Frank writes that ‘the viewer of animated cartoons must work […] if she wishes to see the labor that went into their making. […] Ultimately, the labor that shapes our aesthetic experience of animated cartoons is our own’. Following in Frank’s footsteps, I look at LAIKA’s films as archives of their own production ‘in order to recuperate the dynamic interplay between art and labor.' But what this methodology reveals about the studio’s output is not simply a pattern or a question of house style; it is a production ethos and a branding strategy, as I’ve argued in greater detail elsewhere. LAIKA’s features include both scenes of creation contained within the narrative universe of the film and scenes showcasing the work of the animators themselves. The studio’s over-arching project – to demystify the stop-motion process while effectively laying claim to a vanguard role in its contemporary development – has generated ‘official’ paratextual and publicity materials (in the shape of promos, behind-the-scenes clips, mid- and post-credits sequences, etc.) ripe for repurposing, remixing and recontextualization. Taking this as an invitation, my essay intercuts these self-reflexive glimpses into the studio’s process with their corresponding allegorical manifestations in the diegesis, revealing how these two levels of labor discourse have explicitly – and repeatedly – mirrored each other in LAIKA’s body of work.
Commercial, mainstream stop-motion animation remains a rarity in the twenty-first century. Intricate, time-consuming, deeply labor-intensive, and requiring a set of extremely specialized production skills (knitting tiny, puppet-sized sweaters comes to mind), the technique is often seen as challenging or downright prohibitive to pull off. It is hardly a surprise, then, that stop-motion studios such as LAIKA and famed British outfit Aardman Animation remain invested in (over-)emphasizing their commitment to traditional craftsmanship as a mark of their enduring creative excellence. Even a live-action auteur like Wes Anderson couldn’t seem to resist leaving visible traces of the animators’ labor in his stop-motion feature Fantastic Mr. Fox (released the same year as LAIKA’s debut Coraline). As Joel Burges has noted, the puppets’ fur in this film noticeably “boils” (exhibits unwanted random movements as a result of the manual frame-by-frame adjustment involved in the process), “disrupting the self-generating enclosure of story and storyworld.” It is such deliberate disruptions – and their generative, revelatory potential – that my close reading interrogates.
This video essay, too, is the imperfect product of its own complex labor history. Its content is based on a twenty-minute talk I delivered at the 2017 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. It is researched, written, and directed by me, but its production was executed in a collaborative framework. My animation studies colleague Alla Gadassik worked with me as producer, securing funding from her academic institution, as well as hiring and supervising our production assistant Gil Goletski (her former student). The voice-over narration belongs to Vancouver-based poet and lecturer Jacqueline Turner, and editing credit goes to Goletski. There were delays and derailments during every stage of the process – initially due to scheduling discrepancies and my formerly precarious employment status, and eventually, during the peer-review process, due to the covid-19 pandemic.
To borrow Comiskey’s apt term, the particular circumstances of this essay’s labor history have transformed it into a time capsule of the moment of its production. The final edit was completed in the spring of 2019. No further production work could be carried out beyond this point, as funding had been depleted, and key participants had moved on to different projects. Complicating matters further, the voice over was recorded even earlier, before the release of LAIKA’s latest feature-length film Missing Link (2019). As a result, a line in the finished product now sounds out of date, and cannot be easily redubbed. Additionally, my analysis of LAIKA’s films remains incomplete, as it does not account for this feature.
In that sense, this essay, like the films it unpacks, retains visible, disruptive traces of its creative labor. In mirroring my analytical concerns in (all too) practical terms, it has served as an opportunity to think more deeply about collaborative videographic work as both intellectually invigorating and disproportionately vulnerable to institutional and economic obstacles.
Mihaela Mihailova is Assistant Professor in the School of Cinema at San Francisco State University. She is the editor of Coraline: A Closer Look at Studio LAIKA’s Stop-Motion Witchcraft (Bloomsbury, 2021). She has published in Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Feminist Media Studies, animation: an interdisciplinary journal, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema, Flow, and Kino Kultura. She has also contributed chapters to Animating Film Theory (with John MacKay), Animated Landscapes: History, Form, and Function, The Animation Studies Reader, and Drawn from Life: Issues and Themes in Animated Documentary Cinema. Dr. Mihailova is the co-editor of Animation Studies (https://journal.animationstudies.org/) and currently serves as Secretary of the Society for Animation Studies.
 J. D. Connor, The Studios after the Studios: Neoclassical Hollywood (1970-2010) (Stanford University Press, 2015).
 Hannah Frank, Frame by Frame: A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019), 153-55.
 Ibid., 16.
 Mihaela Mihailova, ed., Coraline: A Closer Look at Studio LAIKA’s Stop-Motion Witchcraft (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).
 For an in-depth discussion of the ways in which contemporary American stop-motion features emphasize their handmade status while downplaying the importance of digital effects and technologies to their production process, see Andrea Comiskey, ‘(Stop)Motion Control: Special Effects in Contemporary Puppet Animation’, in Special Effects: New Histories/Theories/Contexts, Dan North, Bob Rehak and Michael S. Duffy, eds (London: Palgrave, 2015), 45-61.
 For more on the subject of Aardman Animations’ self-reflexive engagement with their own workflow, see Annabelle Honess Roe, ed., Aardman Animations: Beyond Stop Motion (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).
 Joel Burges, Out of Sync & Out of Work: History and the Obsolescence of Labor in Contemporary Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2018), 115.