At the multiplex the past couple weekends, a blue and yellow fish has won over audiences, and so has another the adorable seaside creature: Piper, the fluffy sandpiper starring in the short that screens before the main event, a now-expected treat at the beginnings of Pixar films.
With Pixar making its splash this past month, a smaller animated studio is looking to make its mark later this summer. Laika, known best for its adaptation of Neil Gaiman”s Coraline, will release its fourth stop motion animated feature, Kubo and the Two Strings, in August.
One thing you won”t see at the start of Kubo: a short film.
Laika, which started off with a focus on both feature films and commercial work, has produced one short, Moon Girl, directed by Henry Selick.
Does Laika have plans to get back into short films? “No” was the immediate answer from Laika CEO (and Kubo director) Travis Knight when I asked him about this during a visit to Laika”s Hillsboro, OR studios last month. And then he elaborated:
“We only have so much bandwidth, and all of our energies are going into making these original stories on a feature-length level. The shorts are interesting. I think Pixar has used them in an interesting way in that they typically try to use them as a testing ground for talent and technology, and it's worked really well for them, but we effectively can't afford to do that.”
Pixar has around 1,200 employees, while the smaller Laika currently employs about 600, a growth since their count of 394 last year.
Things are coming full circle for short films: little cartoons preceding features were the norm in Hollywood in the 1930s, before the emergence of double features did away with that trend. Now there”s new life in short filmmaking thanks to new distribution methods and to the popularity of shorts at the front of animated features from major studios.
But shorts on their own aren”t really expected to turn a profit. As Knight explained, “There”s virtually no way to monetize a short. It”s a business model that doesn”t work.”
Along with Pixar (and Disney Animation), Illumination Entertainment, home to the Despicable Me movies, is also devoting funds to short filmmaking while under the Universal Pictures banner. (Laika is also sort of in the Universal family, but Universal owns Illumination, while Laika has a partnership with NBCUniversal distributor Focus Features.)
At Illumination, “one of the big benefits [of making short films] is an opportunity to try new talent in leadership roles,” Chris Renaud recently told me. Renaud has several animated features and shorts on his resume, most recently co-directing Illumination”s The Secret Life of Pets. He explained that with shorts, they can vet talent not just among directors but also in other roles, like art direction and head of layout. He contends the short film is “a fun art form” and “a great way for audiences to settle into [the feature] movie.”
While shorts in the near future at Laika is a hard no, Knight did say one thing that might give stop motion fans reason to hope for short-form entertainment from the studio someday: “I”m certainly excited by potentially telling stories in shorter form,” he said.
Kubo and the Two Strings will open on August 19. Finding Dory and Secret Life of Pets, both with animated short films preceding the features, are currently in theaters.