An Eden Prairie company made numerous contributions to one of the animated features competing for an Oscar on Sunday night — 106,000 of them, to be exact.
That’s how many “objects” were created on 3-D printing company Stratasys' machines for stop-motion comedy “Missing Link,” from Laika Studios, whose movies — including “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” and the Oscar-nominated “Kubo and the Two Strings” — all feature Stratasys’ work. Specifically, the faces in “Missing Link,” every single one of them, were created using Stratasys’ printers. Instead of having to model a substance such as clay into slightly different expressions which, when filmed in quick succession, create the illusion of a face emoting, Laika prints faces with slightly different expressions.
“We would animate a facial performance in the computer. Let’s say a two-second line of dialogue, which [animators] would turn into 48 unique faces, since we were often printing 24 faces for one second of footage,” said Brian McLean, director of rapid prototypes for Oregon-based Laika. “Once the director liked what the character was doing and the lip-sync, we would send those files to the printer and print out, let’s say, 40 faces, which were delivered to the set and shot.”
Watching Laika movies from the earliest, 2009’s “Coraline,” to the present, is a little like watching the history of 3-D printing, of which Stratasys co-founder Scott Crump was a pioneer. Early 3-D hardware, for instance, didn’t print in color, so Laika animators had to hand-paint each face in the company’s early movies. Now, Laika faces are more expressive and detailed because 3-D printers have become more sophisticated, including the ability to print in color. Laika purchased six new printers from Stratasys for the story of an explorer who believes he has discovered the title character.
“We would not have been able to do ‘Missing Link’ a few short years ago and that has a lot to do with, a few years ago, the 3-D printing technology did not exist,” said McLean, co-recipient of a 2016 Scientific and Technological Academy Award (a so-called “nerd Oscar”) for “Kubo” and a co-nominee for a visual effects Oscar for that film.
Laika’s McLean has become something of an international ambassador for Stratasys (which also has headquarters in Israel) since his firm is the company’s only feature-film customer and a great demonstrator of what its printers can do. The companies are so closely linked that on the morning of the Oscar nominations, they engaged in cross-country panic texting.
Jenna Schneider, key customer leader of consumer products for Stratasys, was tracking the early morning announcement Jan. 13 and texted that she was bummed “Missing Link” had missed out on a nomination. Which startled McLean, who thought it had made the cut.
“I had just seen the nomination come through and so I asked what she meant. She sent me a link to the Oscar website and I quickly realized they hadn’t updated their site yet, so she was looking at last year’s nominees,” McLean said.
Once Stratasys employees saw the correct nominee list, things got loud.
“Everybody was screaming,” said Schneider, who’ll find out if “Missing Link” wins when the awards are broadcast on ABC at 7 p.m. Sunday. “We have such a deep relationship with Laika that we feel like a small part of the Laika family. So everybody at Stratasys — not just locally, but globally — was very, very excited.”
After this year’s Golden Globe Awards, where “Missing Link” beat “Toy Story 4” and “Frozen II” to take the animation prize, the first text McLean received was from Crump.
McLean was the one who brought Stratasys to Laika’s attention. (He discovered the printers when he was an arts educator, before he joined Laika.) He gives the company “a tremendous amount” of the credit for the “nerd Oscar” Laika won and says it’s the company’s spirit of collaboration that has kept them close partners from the start.
“There was no guarantee of success [on ‘Coraline’]. Laika had no name for itself. ‘Coraline’ is now a cult film that people love, but then we had no reputation,” McLean said. “But Stratasys was right there to take the leap with us. They truly believed in the technology, and that is in contrast to the other 3-D printing companies we talked with at the time.”