I'm Adam Fisher, stop-motion animator, film-maker, and educator. I've worked on a bunch of stop-motion feature films including "Coraline", "Kubo and the Two Strings", and Laika's upcoming "Missing Link"— AMA!
Hi everyone! I'm Adam Fisher. I'm a stop-motion animator, filmmaker and, most recently, an educator. I've been lucky to work on some amazing projects over the years ("Coraline", "Paranorman", "The Boxtrolls", "Anomalisa", "Tumble Leaf", "Kubo and the Two Strings"), and am very excited to join the Animation and Game Art faculty this year at Maine College of Art! Prior to making the move home to Maine, I spent roughly 2 years animating on Laika's latest film, "Missing Link". Look for it this Spring! https://www.missinglink.movie/
My Proof: https://imgur.com/a/mFli1WS
Thank you all for your comments and questions! I had a great time doing this, but I have to go do an animation demo for my stop-motion class. Thanks you again, I had a blast! Here's a link to my vimeo page if you want to see some of my personal work: https://vimeo.com/mainefish
Its definitely advanced enough. When working on a big feature, there are typically a lot of BG elements that are handled by the computer... at Laika we tried to do as much as possible practically, but we definitely supplemented that with some CG.
How much time does this save you over traditional filming techniques.
Often its a question of scale... large crowd scenes for example require a lot of time to animate. Stage space is at a premium during the heat of production. We always animate the hero puppets and even a few key background puppets with stop-motion. Once they are shot, that stage space is usually needed for other hero shots. Letting the computer animators handle the backgrounds frees up the space.
Have you seen any of the Lego movies? They’re entirely digital (except live action bookends) and look pretty convincingly tactile. They even do a frame skipping effect to help it “look” stop-motion.
They are all CG, but they did make an effort to get a sort of stop-mo look... I think they hired stop-motion people from Robot Chicken to supervise the animation? I not totally sure about that, but I seem to remember hearing something of that nature...
Thanks for doing this AMA! I go to MECA and I'm probably going to take your puppet making class next semester. My question is, how did you get your foot in the door of this industry? What were some of your early jobs that led to your career at Laika?
I got really lucky... my first job out of Graduate school was as a Production Assistant on Coraline. What really helped me to get that gig was making my own films in school, and then getting those films out on the festival circuit. Many animation studios send representatives to festivals... I met a Laika recruiter at the Ottawa animation festival who liked my work. One of my professors also had contacts with the studio and I was able to send my film to them directly. After that first job, I suddenly found I knew people at pretty much every stop-mo studio out there! Its a very small community...
What has been the toughest scene you had to animate?
The Moonbeast from "Kubo and the Two Strings" was a nightmare! I mean, it was an awesome challenge, and super rewarding, but that thing was difficult to control. Each segment of the body had its own joint, and the whole thing was suspended from a crane rig... often moving one joint would cause something else to move farther up the chain. Eventually I figured out a good enough routine and order of operations that I could shoot maybe 20 frames a day...
Kudos for that, amazing scene. I was trying to figure out how it was made all the time. Was suspecting it had heavy help from vfx, nice surprise it wasn't lazy way :-)
Definietly going to see Missing Link after I watched Coraline, ParaNorman and Kubo (my personal favourite) on small screen. I was really pissed to miss opportunity of watching it on a big screen. Keep up the good job.
Thanks! Another animator, Kevin Parry, and I basically split the moonbeast stuff...
I'm assuming that's 20 frames per day when working with this specific puppet. What was your estimated average over the course of the whole film?
It really depends on the scene, what is happening, how many puppets, etc. For a simple drift I could crank out 100 frames in a day... for full body acting shots it would be more like 35-45 frames... there are always good days and bad days too, so it really can fluctuate.
Did you see that Cactus stop motion movie that reddit went crazy for a few days ago? Apparently took the guy 10 years to finish by himself. Hi Five The Cactus.
I haven't seen it yet, but thanks for the link!
How's your day been? Anything fun?
Just baring my soul to world! PRetty standard...
Thanks for the AMA Adam. Can let us know how does stop motion film making differ from normal animation that a lot of people don't seem to understand?
I really liked coraline and kubo and two strings. Looking forward for the missing link.
No matter how many "behind the scenes" videos that get released, people still always seemed surprised when I would show them a set or a puppet that can be physically held in their hand... There really aren't any big shortcuts that are being taken by stop-motion animators... we move those puppets one frame at a time, 24 frames per second... shots can take days/weeks/months to complete!
What aspect of the job didn't you expect?
I had to remind myself to take breaks regularly... you can easily get lost in your own head when working alone behind black curtains all day long! Often I would get fixated on a frame or two... walking away for a snack would help me sort of reset... usually when I returned to set I would find that whatever was bugging me was either totally working, or something that no one else was every going to see!
And you do it completely alone? Do you also write the scenario? Who's modeling the characters and the decor?
In all those feature films, I was one of 30+ animators. There is also a whole team of puppet makers, riggers, set-builders, story artists, camera and stage crew, not to mention the director and other supervisors. Its a major team effort. That said, once its time to animate, I would be alone on set behind the curtains to carry out my work.
I saw and really enjoyed the Laika exhibit at Portland at museum.
You familiar with this? Playing at same place.
Very famous Czech puppeteer.
Trnka is a great stop-mo animator! I haven't seen this, but it looks really interesting
Did you intentionally design Coraline to look like an older ex girlfriend of mine so my more recent ex would furiously unplug the TV halfway through, and leave? Just wondering.
Nope. (I just animated her faces)
Coraline has a special place in my heart. I just wanna ask: did you always want to work in stop motion/anination/film? if you aren't working in animation right now, what would you do?
This fall I joined Maine College of Art in Portland, Maine as a full-time faculty member in their new animation and game art major. I now have the pleasure of TEACHING stop-motion (as well as other animation styles) to the next generation. I'm finding it incredibly satisfying and am impressed every day by the work the students generate here. I do still want to work in stop-motion on personal projects, though I typically mix mediums a bit. I usually let my ideas percolate a bit and let them decide what the best medium is for bringing them to life. Growing up, I had no clue that a career in film/animation was at all possible. It wasn't on my radar at all. I sort of stumbled across it during my college years and never looked back!
What was it like working on the giant skeleton in Kubo? It's one of the most impressive movie sets I've ever seen.
I got to do a little test animation with the skeleton... it was awesome. It was super slow going, but so much fun to work with a puppet of that scale. I'm so used to working small... with a 16 foot tall skeleton all your increments get much much bigger. The challenge really becomes how to control things at that size... and WEIGHT! They had a crazy system of cables and counterweights to make that move... Charles Greenfield handled most of the skeleton animation in the film... he really did a fantastic job.
I absolutely love all of these films! I still remember watching Coraline for the first time when I was about 13 and being extremely disturbed by it!
I'm just going to go with the standard, why get into stop motion? I studied film for ~3 years at University and often considered trying to submit stop motion films for some of my assessments though I never ended up giving it a shot. I'm just wondering how you ended up working with such a... Complex? Animation technique?
The first time touched animation at all was in an undergraduate class called virtual filmmaking... it was taught using 3D studio max. I was totally hooked and spent way too much time each week on the projects. However, after finishing school, I didn't have access to the software... I still had the animation bug though. I got some clay and went to work on a cardboard set in my bedroom. The experience of working with my hands and creating puppets that EXIST physically was even more compelling to me than using the computer. In Grad school I took a lot of computer classes, but I could never quite shake the stop-motion bug. It is complex in its own way... but you can also think of it as more simple... all you really need is a camera and some clay to get started!
Hi Adam! Im a big fan and an animator myself. I was wondering what your favorite sequence to animate was and on which movie? Most challenging? I can't wait to see Missing Link, thank you for all your beautiful work.
I have a few favorites... I got to do some really fun stuff on "Missing Link"... I mentioned earlier that the Moonbeast was the most challenging... one scene I'm very proud of is from "Anomalisa"... I had the chance to animate the scene where Lisa sings "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" in the hotel room. That was fun because there was such strong emotion tied to the scene, and it felt like I key moment in the film. Probably the most enjoyment I've had simply working away on a stage would be during my time on Tumble Leaf. I did all the crab animation for season 1. Each episode had a 10-20 second scene where the crab finds something in his trap and does something silly with it. The direction was super loose and I could generally make it into whatever I wanted. Typically the only constraint was to "make it fun!" It was incredible to have that much freedom and just work fast and loose!
I am an art teacher in an elementary school and our “career day” is tomorrow. In my presentation to students I am including a feature for stop-motion and claymation. Do you have any advice for young people considering careers in this field? What kind of skills are needed to do your specific job? Any advice or info would be great!
There are so many people with extremely different backgrounds that go into stop-motion. The skills needed to build puppets is very different from the skills needed to create storyboards, or visual effects. For animation itself, one thing that I find so satisfying is that it requires me to use my whole brain. There is the creative/performance part of it, but there is also the mathematical half that sorts out the physics and timing... my advice would be to be observant of reality... be patient... don't rush your work. Try to get a solid set of foundation skills (drawing/sculpting/etc). Study reference for the movements you want to animate... but really it comes down to doing it again and again. Animate a lot and try to improve every time. Start with something simple until you grasp the concepts.
What was the most interesting thing that ever happened working on Kubo and the Two Strings? And what was the worst thing that happened?
One awful thing that happened comes to mind... I was animating the moonbeast and suddenly one of the rig points gave way and the whole puppet fell and swung like pendulum from its other rig point. My pose was completely lost and I thought I'd broken the rig! Somehow, after an hour or two of fiddling, I managed to get it working well enough to repose the puppet and finish my shot! Luckily it wasn't a particularly subtle shot, so I didn't have to get things exactly back where they had been...
How do you do "see through" stuff, like Normans ghost uncle in Paranorman? Ive alway been curious about that one
If you shoot a background plate of the set before or after your position your puppet, you can just play with the visibility of the hero layer in something like after effects. You could also shoot your hero puppet in front of a green screen so it is on its own layer and you can do whatever you want!
Do you Laika your job?
No, I lova my job.
What's the secret to animating people naturally?
Use reference. At laika we always act out our shots before animating them. This gives you a chance to work out the nuances of the performance, analyze the timing of gestures, find the key poses (which you will often exaggerate), and also discover little motions or gestures that you would never think of, but that bring a whole extra layer of "human-ness" to the acting.
What advice do you have for kids? What gear/software should they aspire to master if they want to get a career in the field? What gear/software would you recommend 12 year olds making stop-action films at home use?
You can get started pretty simply. Ideally you want to work with frame-grabbing software such as dragon-frame or stopmotionpro... these allow you to playback your animation as you work and see what you are doing. That said, its more important to just get out there and shoot. There are plenty of free animation apps and cheap phone mounts that would allow someone to get started for under 20 bucks. Try something simple. Working fast and loose can be very rewarding early on. If they get hooked, then think about investing in a D-SLR and some of the software I mentioned. Couple all this with a thorough combing of stopmotionanimation.com... it really is a bible of information.
Congratulations on your faculty position! What are you most excited for in your new role?
I'm really excited to work with students. Since I've been here I've been constantly inspired by them. They are just figuring out who they are and what they want to make and are bubbling with creativity and drive. Its infectious!
Who is the Walt Disney of stop-action?
With a nod to Willis O'Brien.
I wouldn't dispute that.
I run youth programs on a military installation. We have a youth center with elementary aged youth and a teen center with high schoolers. Can you recommend any materials (hardware/software/curriculum, etc.) for starting up a program? Thanks!
If you're talking stop-motion, it can be pretty easy to get a shooting station set up. You'll need a sturdy table, a camera that is compatible with frame-grabbing software (dragonframe is fantastic... a used Canon DSLR would work for you... there is a whole list of compatible cameras on the Dragonframe site), a sturdy tripod, and something to animate! Clay is great for getting started. Really everything you ever would need to know about stop-motion can be found on stopmotionanimation.com. Its a great site run by Anthony Scott... basically a message board full of pros and enthusiasts complete with tutorials and a getting started section.
I've always been amazed with stop motion animation and all the work that goes into it. What's the most satisfying part of the job?
Having your art be something that so many people are eager to see is very satisfying. When the work you've been plugging away at for 2 years suddenly has billboards and trailers and people talk about it... that's pretty cool.
From an artistic vs practical point of view, how does the team decide what should be pure CGI and what should be the physical stop motion?
At Laika, typically if its something we expect you to look at for long, they will try to do it practically. Sometimes there are limitations that can't be overcome, or solved fast enough to keep production moving... at that point CG just makes sense.
Do you like George Pal's Puppetoons?
I do! Great stuff!
I was real lucky to see LAIKA's exhibit at the Portland Art Museum in April - thanks for all the great work! How would you rank MISSING LINK in terms of story and character in context of the company's canon? The teaser trailer made it seem akin to BOXTROLLS - that is more of a focus on 'fun', as opposed to a focus on character - like CORALINE or KUBO.
Its a great movie. Its got less of a creepy edge than some of the other Laika films... probably more family friendly, but the characters are very fun. I think you'll like it!
Are you still working on movies even though you are a teacher now?
I hope to focus on my own short films for a while. That said, I'm not opposed to spending a summer working on a feature film!
Hi Adam! This AMA was an unexpected bright spot in my day, so thank you :)
I immensely enjoy your work (particularly fond of Coraline). My question: How is stop-motion evolving as a medium? What kind of progression have you seen over the span of your career, and what do you think the future holds?
Thank you again for taking the time to do this, I've really loved going through some of these comments. Have a lovely day!
Stop-motion seems to be exploding in all directions (in a good way!)... it never seems to go away despite the popularity of CG... I would love to see more permanent stop-mo studios creating feature films, and I think it could happen. With the streaming services jumping in to fund a few projects, we'll have a handful all shooting over the next few years. It would be great if that ball just keeps on rolling!
Hello there! I'm a big fan of Kubo and the Two Strings, I'm looking forward to watching some other movies you worked with.
How are you today?
Good, though its been a while since I've done this much typing!
What do you think of puppetry? What does it offer viewers that is better than stop action, what is worse?
thats interesting... puppetry has a spontaneity to it that is just plain fun... I'm thinking about stuff like the muppets. There's an energy and life to it that is infectious. It also will be a bit different each time, and depends on the energy/enthusiasm of the puppeteer. What is nice about stop-motion is being able to carefully plan and execute a performance... and cut back if you don't like where its going... its not that unlike the theater vs. film discussion...
Animator here... When I was working at DreamWorks we went over to Stupid Buddies Studio (robot chicken) for a tour and I fell in love with the place and the process. So my question is have you seen many 3D animators make the transition from 3D to stop motion? Also if I wanted to teach myself stop motion, what’s my best bet?
Thanks for your time!
We had a few at Laika over the years, and there's also a history of stop-motion animators being trained for CG. If you have the eye and talent for animating, then its just a question of getting familiar with a new toolset. You should get a copy of DragonFrame, a camera, and make yourself a puppet. There was a kickstarter a little while back for a pretty good stop-motion test puppet sort of thing called Stickybones. I have one... they work pretty well and aren't terribly expensive. You could grab one and easily get into the animating without having to learn fabrication.
Just from the trailers, "Missing Link" seems to be less visually breathtaking compared with Kubo or Coraline. Am I missing something? Did you like it? Are you bullish on the film? Should I be excited?
You should be excited! I can't even count how many unique locations are in the film... each setting is new and different and interesting, and on top of that, its very funny!
When you guys are working hard on a tough scene, do you ever blast any Chilly Tee over the speakers to get everyone as pumped up as they presumably do in the clubs whenever Chilly Tee is rocking the mic?
I did here some Chilly Tee get cranked up at one point...
Of the films you've worked on, which is your favorite to watch as a viewer? (Actually, can you watch the movies you've worked on despite intimately knowing the process? In other words, when you create a stop motion film that illusion of size, space and life is broken...can you step back into the illusion when you watch your work on the big screen?)
I enjoy watching all of them. Usually they get released long enough after we finish animation that I can see it with relatively fresh eyes. Picking a favorite it hard... I might have to say Paranorman?
How much room do you have to improvise as an animator in a stop motion feature? I would imagine a lot of what your shooting is preordained before getting to set. Do animators have a frame to frame shot list they are working from?
It really can depend of the level of trust you have achieved with the director. At Laika we typically shoot a block and a rehearsal before doing the final shot. This gives you a chance to try some things out. You always need the shot to fulfill its purpose in the sequence. There will be one thing that NEEDS to be communicated and you have to nail that. Sometimes there room to add in ideas that can either improve that communication, or simply make the performance more beautiful. The more successful you are with these extra ideas of yours, the longer your leash gets.
Is going to an art school one of the best ways to get into the business? Or is it more, work a lot on your own work and get recognized?
I love the Laika movies and can’t wait for Missing Link! Thanks for doing this!
You'll learn a ton in art school. I think one of the most valuable things about school is that it forces you to learn a lot in just a few years. You will also push yourself in new and different directions, and be influenced by your peers. You'll learn to collaborate... I don't think there's a downside other than the cost! Also, after you graduate, everyone goes their own way and suddenly you have a network of professionals that would gladly recommend you to an employer!
I see lots of animators journeys similar to yours: work hard in University, get a job at a big studio, work your way up fairly quickly, work on big films for a decade or so, then leave to work on personal projects or teach.
As I said, I see this happen quite a lot, and it can be quite disconcerting for someone considering s similar career path. So, my question: why is this so prevalent? Do you feel stuck in a rut? Is there nowhere else to move up to in the company? Do you feel like you’ve hit the ceiling of your ability? Can you just not fit in with the company culture?
You do seem happy in your new job, and a lot of people in your position just say they “needed a change”, which is fair enough. I was just wondering if there’s something more to it - something you noticed in yourself or your peers or the animation industry.
I think an obvious reason would be that people embrace the production life style when they're young (long hours, work hard/play hard) but then you get older and start a family start to look for something more stable with a more predictable schedule. There are certainly a few vets who stick with it longer! Also I think the desire to create more personal work kicks in at some point...
These movies certainly take a long ass time to create. How stressful is working on the films? Considering the nature of stop motion, and how crucial the product will be to the studio?
It can get pretty stressful... different people handle it in different ways. There's a lot of pressure to nail all your shots and deliver work that is on par with the other animators. At a place like Laika, that bar is set pretty high! It helps to realize you are there because they want you.
I'm starting movie academy for production and after effects next year, any advices how to prepare for it and what to do once it starts, as in what should i focus on mostly in my free time? :)
You can always get a jump on learning the tools. There are lots of tutorials out there that can help you get familiar with software. Once the tools are second nature you can bring anything from your imagination to life! Alternatively, you could spend a lot of time writing and brainstorming. Assignments can come quickly in school... if you have a bank of ideas you can hit the ground running!
Is there an equivalent to rotoscoping in your field?
You can certainly work directly on top of a reference layer, but it can be hard translate that to a puppet...
What made you decide to move to Maine?
I grew up in Maine. This was a chance to come home!
Do you have any thoughts on the switch to Streaming Platforms investing in content?
Has your experience been good overall with that type of business model? Does it have any impact on you creatively?
Do you think that more platforms for content will increase investment in content?
Do you feel animators are fairly treated In the industry?
As an animator, I think its awesome to see streaming platforms take an interest in animation and stop-motion. It means more work for everyone. In an industry as small as stop-motion, competition gives individuals a bit more say as to which projects they want to work on, which should ensure that they are treated well!
How was it like working with Neil Gaiman on Coraline?
I only got to meet him once. He came to the studio for a tour and spent a couple hours signing posters for everyone... he even did little drawing on each one... seemed like a great guy!
So I'm curious about how artists and animators work together to do stop motion. On one hand art design can be literally anything, on the other stop-motion is about manipulating created art for animation purposes.
Are the artists separate roles from the animators? How do artists and animators collaborate together to bring things to life? Is there a lot of feedback? Are there ever times where cool art design doesn't work in practice for stop motion?
One thing I find so interesting about a stop-mo studio is the diversity of talent. At Laika, there are hundreds of employees all collaborating. They each have their tasks and supervisors and reviews that keep things on style and consistent. There is lots and lots of feedback. As an animator, I would collaborate with many departments prior to launching a shot. I would meet with the director to get briefed on the performance, then would go to my set to pose the puppet and help the camera crew establish a frame. I would work with rigging, who would provide me with any external support I needed to get the desired performance (does it need to jump, for example?)... I would need to meet with someone from armatures to tension the puppets joints. You want the joints looser or tighter depending on what needs to happen. If the puppet needs to hold an extreme pose, you might want the legs a little tighter... if something is moving in very small subtle increments, you want it as loose as possible... There's a whole checklist that requires talking to people in each department, with the goal of setting yourself up to do the best animation you can.
Do you think motion-capture will ever be more ubiquitous? Is it considered any kind of a threat to your field?
Its not something I'm terribly worried about. It mimics reality too closely. I think we'll see it get used a lot for VFX in live-action films, but what I think is the most fun part of animation is being able to bend physics a little bit and play with reality. Could you imagine motion-capturing a daffy duck cartoon?
How do you render your films? Do your employers buy their own hardware or do you guys use some type of cloud based rendering?
No totally sure... I think its all done in house. That's not something I terribly familiar with
Love your films. What one are you most proud of?
I'm most proud of "Missing Link" because I was trusted with some bigger chunks of scenes, and I feel it represents the best animation I've personally ever done.
What words of wisdom would you give to a 9 year old interested in making stop motion animations?
At 9, I'd say just keep doing it. Have fun. Make magic. Don't get bogged down in story and details, just have fun with it and try to entertain your friends and family. Eventually if its sticks, you'll get curious about advanced tools and techniques... but you have to love it first!
If you weren't doing stop motion so much, what other animation medium would you like to work with?
I would love to experiment with VR. That in itself isn't an animation medium... you can incorporate different mediums, but as a delivery method I think its fascinating. Its this whole new vehicle that we haven't figured out yet. Its a chance to be a pioneer.
What advice do you have for those who want to get into animation? It seems like there's a new animated show on Netflix every week. Is getting something like that off the ground really just a matter of location and knowing the right people?
Those things certainly matter, but it still has to be good. For every show you see pop up there are waaaaay more that never see the light of day. Learn enough of the process to have a diverse set of skills that make you employable. One way to get into those "right places" in front of the "right people" is to be a good animator or sculptor or storyboard artist... often employees of an animation studio are able to pitch projects, or at least will meet people who can open doors...
There are so many exciting things going on in the world of animation, both in the states and abroad! What are some animated films or shows you're looking forward to, or feel aren't getting the attention they deserve?
I was pretty excited to hear Del Toro's Pinocchio is finally going to get made. I've been hearing rumors for so long!
Does stop motion need to include dolls/figures ?
Could it be just stationary falling in place and moving around maybe ?
stop-motion can be a lot of things... I interpret it as anything that physically exists that you manipulate frame by frame in front of a camera. This can be found object animation, cut paper, pixilation with humans, legos... sky's the limit!
Do you have a fear of failing or imposter syndrome? How do you deal with it? Sometimes I worry about dropping out of school because I feel like I'm never good enough here.
Its not that uncommon. Keep doing your work and understand that you are there for a reason. If you are in school and are intimidated by the art being created around you, try to think of that as a good thing! You want to be inspired by what others are doing. If you were clearly the best and most talented, then you would probably get bored.
How do you like your coffee? With or without room?
I like room
How does a voice actor's performance influence your animation process? Do you keep footage of the recording sessions to reference as you're working?
Its awesome when there is good video reference from the voice actors. Some voice actors don't get too into it physically, but when they do its a gold mine. For Anomalisa, Jennifer Jason Leigh really gave an incredible physical performance as she sang "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"... I had access to it and pulled a lot of the mannerisms, poses and gestures to incorporate into the animation. There were so many things that you would never think to do, but just happened naturally as she was singing and feeling the emotion. In general, the more reference the better. You can always chuck out what isn't useful.
What is your favorite type of sandwich to eat?
I love sandwiches... its hard to beat a good Reuben...
Coraline was a great film but small detail bothers me. It was advertised as being “from the director of Nightmare Before Christmas” leaving a common misconception that Tim Burton directed it because he was the producer of NBC. Was this intentional when it was advertised?
I think the intention was to capitalize on the NBC fan base... maybe also Henry Selick hoped people might realize that HE directed Nightmare Before Christmas? Not sure... none of that is based on factual info... just my own thought process.
I'm going on a date soon with someone who is currently working on a stop motion project. What are some questions I can ask to help the date go well? Are there and questions or phrases I should avoid? Thanks,
If they talk about the puppets like they are real... maybe phone a friend...
No, I'd say if you find that aspect of the person interesting, just ask enough questions so you feel like you understand what they actually do!
Is rendering software getting advanced enough to simulate some parts of the scenes you capture? Or is all of your work old school
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