Adding more go to LAIKA’s stop-motion workflow

Martin Pelham

September 1, 2015

LAIKA logoLAIKA is a stop-motion animation studio that has produced several Oscar-nominated feature films, including Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls.

After using FTP to share video files during production of the studio’s first two movies, Manager of Media Services, Martin Pelham, decided to find a less complex and more reliable file sharing solution.

He tells us why LAIKA needed a new way of working and how Hightail has helped make the studio’s creative workflow more effective.

We are LAIKA company photo

I joined LAIKA in 2006, as the studio was getting ready to make its first movie, Coraline. Throughout the production on this and our second movie, ParaNorman, our main tool for sharing media externally was FTP. We had all of the standard issues that you can have with FTP: people grabbing the files before they had finished uploading; people opening them before they had downloaded; slow or dropped connection issues.

Lots of different people working in a largely unmanaged shared space meant we had no consistent data management style. Different artists would name things however they felt at the time and the folder structure could be incoming/outgoing, from/to, dated folders or a combination of all three. Finding what you needed after the initial send was problematic.

It was the Wild West in there. Often people would drop content in an FTP folder just because they happened to know the username and password. This meant that anyone else with access to that folder could view the files and we had a number of close calls on sensitive material almost getting sent to the wrong people. When our next movie, The Boxtrolls, was green-lit internally, we decided it was time to find an alternative to FTP that would streamline our creative process.

Our key criterion was a solution that was both simple to use and secure. Unlike most other animation studios, LAIKA remains a particularly tactile company. We handcraft our characters, stitch their clothes, build sets and bring the whole thing to life through the physical process of stop-motion animation. This means that a lot of our employees are novices when it comes to technology. And when we’re dealing with external partners, they tend to be executives that may have a range of technical competence, but share the same low tolerance for problems.

LAIKA crafting a movie

We chose Hightail because it was easy to use, fast and secure. We liked that no one, not even recipients of a file, had to install something in order to use it, as we’d experienced frustrations with other services because they required apps or plugins. Finally, it didn’t cost the earth to use. Because most of the process on our movies is handled in-house, we felt our initial use would be as small as a few times each month. This meant our choice needed to be cost-effective.

The Boxtrolls posterThe first significant use of Hightail came when we sent our Directors and Producers out to the first voice recordings for The Boxtrolls. During the session with actor Simon Pegg, who voiced Herbert, the team was discussing a part of the movie that Simon wasn’t in and wanted to show him that footage. Previously, this type of request was just not possible, but a quick Hightail delivery later and Simon was watching the clip in the recording booth.

My own initial use of Hightail was to share videos with our executives. It was simple and all of the execs were quick to adopt it. As I explored Hightail’s features further, I started to see more potential. For example, the Get a return receipt option became of great use when dealing with high priority, timely deliveries.

One such project was our partnership on The Boxtrolls with McDonalds. To recreate the movie’s main characters as Happy Meal toys, we had to share a lot of reference material with McDonalds, who in turn were working with a company in China. The amount of content – like photographic turnarounds of all of the characters – was far greater than any of us anticipated. Despite the large amounts of data being sent back and forth, I knew that, with Hightail, the files would expire once a specified date or maximum number of downloads had been reached. I wasn’t concerned about old data hanging around confusing people. Each communication became a clean delivery and the data was stored just once within the movie project file structure.

The Boxtrolls Happy Meal toy by LAIKA

After the success of the McDonalds’ project, we adopted Hightail for the rest of the promotional material we created for The Boxtrolls. By the end of production, we had sent more than 1,500 individual Hightail download links to more than 4,000 recipients. This average of about four links a day was a lot more than our original anticipated use of the service. Hightail has been such a success that we used it for our end of production portfolio delivery. Previously, we’d send each crewmember a DVD of sequences they worked on for their portfolios, but on The Boxtrolls we sent Hightail links.

Kubo and the Two Strings by LAIKAOne of the more surprising outcomes was how we removed “FTP” from the company vernacular. Now, whenever content is sent outside of the studio, my department is asked for “a Hightail link”. On our new production, Kubo and the Two Strings, we are expanding our use of Hightail.

We have started training more of the coordinators and PAs to use Hightail without needing to come through my department. They do a lot of work with independent contractors who need to send early artwork to the studio for review. With Hightail, we get a notification when content is ready for us to access. Then the files are downloaded, published into the project and logged in our production database. With this step, we are now close to completely eliminating FTP use.

Hightail recently launched a new beta product called Hightail Spaces that is focused on solving one of the biggest challenges we face: creative collaboration. LAIKA has been testing the service since its early days and providing feedback that the product team uses to craft their roadmap.

Hightail Spaces lets us stream videos and comment inline so all the feedback is contextual. If our director is out of the studio on a voice recording session and we need him to review animation shots and provide feedback to production, Spaces will help them convey the direction they want to give.

I also like visual versioning, which lets you replace a video with the latest version so stakeholders always see the most up-to-date file. Previous versions and associated comments remain available, so you can track changes and follow the progress of a scene easily.

LAIKA uses Hightail Spaces

With Hightail developing this tool that seems tailor-made for the production process, I’m confident that LAIKA will continue to rely on its file sharing and creative collaboration services for many movies to come.

To find out more, visit the LAIKA website.

About LAIKA:
Founded in 2005, Oregon-based LAIKA is an animation studio specializing in feature films. Travis Knight serves as President and CEO of the company, which is owned by Nike co-founder and Chairman Philip H. Knight. Highlighting the artistry of award-winning filmmakers, designers and animators, LAIKA has produced three Oscar-nominated stop-motion movies: Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012) and The Boxtrolls (2014) as well as the all-CG short Moongirl (2005). The studio’s fourth feature, Kubo and the Two Strings, will premiere in theaters worldwide on August 19, 2016.