‘Coraline’ studio Laika is using Intel AI to enhance its stop motion films

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Laika studios is using Intel AI to enhance its stop motion films.
Image: Laika Studios

It goes without saying that the film industry has been revolutionized by technology. Although stop motion animation isn’t as popular as it once was, it is also benefitting from technological innovation.

Laika, the studio behind films like “Coraline” and “Kubo and the Two Strings,” is using artificial intelligence (AI) technology from Intel to clean up its projects. The use of machine learning tools helps the studio cut back on what used to require thousands of hours of manual labor. It is yet another example of how AI can be impactful across every sector.

Smoothing Out

Laika isn’t afraid to embrace new technologies. In 2012, it adopted the use of 3D printing to add new levels of detail to its film “Paranorman.”

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The 3D-printed models give the animation team extreme flexibility to create complex facial performances. Artists painstakingly adjust the models to portray emotion through stop motion animation. However, the process leaves behind artifacts like a visible seam on the models and circles around their mechanical eyes.

Laika has relied on techniques like manual digital rotopainting to remove the imperfections. However, that is grueling work for an animation team that takes up a huge amount of time and money. The studio even considered leaving the artifacts to remind viewers that everything they’re seeing is created by hand. Ultimately, that approach didn’t stick and the animators returned to rotopainting.

Steve Emerson, the visual effects supervisor at Laika says, “The largest subset of the visual effects team is rotopaint, and nobody who goes to a film walks out and says, ‘Oh my God, the rotopaint was so incredible in that!’”

He adds, “We want to be able to streamline some of these tasks. So then we can ship those resources over to really push the look and the visual experience of a Laika film. And then it also gives the people that are doing those types of tasks new opportunities to really stretch themselves as artists.”

The team turned to an Intel-powered machine learning tool to accomplish this. It works as a plugin for Nuke, the 3D modeling program used by Laika’s animators.

The AI solution is able to clear up artifacts in 70 frames—about three seconds worth of content—in roughly five and a half minutes. That same process takes five to six hours to complete by hand.

Smart Solution

It’s worth noting that the AI program doesn’t make artists irrelevant. Animators still need to train it to understand each individual character model. That process alone takes artistic skill and several weeks to complete. Animators also have to tell the AI tool where to work by setting bounding boxes.

Even so, the decrease in work is dramatic. Laika estimates that, based on the labor involved with its latest film “Missing Link,” the Intel tool could decrease cleanup time by 50 percent. That would open up 2,000 artist days. In other words, animators would be able to deal with other aspects of stop motion animation.

Laika plans to use the Intel tool while producing its unannounced upcoming project. Stop motion animation fans can certainly get excited about it. When the film releases, AI will be partially to thank.

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