One of the best things about attending international LEGO fan events is meeting and talking to like-minded and interesting people from around the world.
At the Skaerbaek fan weekend in Denmark this year I had an opportunity to chat to Holly Webster who had come over from Portland, OR. Not only does Holly have a cool job but she also has a very cool and particularly colourful project on LEGO Ideas, Coraline's Pink Palace Apartments, so I took the opportunity to ask her about both.
The project needs a few thousand more supporters to reach 10k so if you've not pledged your support yet, I encourage you to do so now. Given the nature of the film upon which it is based, Halloween is the perfect time to do so!
So, Holly, tell us a bit about yourself?
I have been living in Oregon and working at LAIKA, a stop-motion film studio, for over 10 years now. I have been a LEGO enthusiast for most of my life, but generally as a set builder. Portland is known for all things crafty and living here, alongside my very talented family and colleagues, makes me want to create, so I've been getting a little more ambitious with my LEGO building.
What is it you do at Laika and were you involved in Coraline?
I'm a visual effects artist in the digital asset creation department. That means I use computers to create models, paint them, and develop a look for them that seamlessly integrates with our practical puppets and their tactile world. The digital tools allow us to create more expansive scenes and interesting storytelling. There are a lot of unique challenges working with a hybrid of CG and stop-motion and the scope of the films are always expanding. Problem-solving is a day-to-day occurrence, and LEGO building is very good practice to help keep me on my toes.
I was hired when Coraline was still in production, but not for that project unfortunately. There were relatively few digital effects for that film, which makes it that much more fascinating to me, so they didn't need me for that one. I've admired the work of Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick for quite a long time, so of course I wanted to work on it anyway. Then again, it's also nice to be detached from it so I can appreciate the end product as much as anyone else, and I still got to see all the cool stuff.
I knew a lot of people that were working on it and I was invited to see the sets. It was mind-blowing, and still is all these years later. Every tiny aspect that goes into fabricating puppets, props, and sets and how it all gets assembled and operates together is almost beyond comprehension. It's artistry and collaboration at its finest.
The most impactful moment was seeing the Pink Palace set. The sets are hidden behind black curtains, so the anticipation of what's going to be revealed is really exciting. That particular set was stunning. Coraline is around 9" tall and the house is 1/6th scale, which is one enormous dollhouse. By comparison, LEGO scale is 1/48th. It was the "Other" house, brightly colored, intricately detailed, and lit for night, complete with little handmade lights. That scene stuck vividly in my mind and it was only a matter of time before I had to attempt some sort of recreation in LEGO form.
(c) LAIKA, from the trailer.
For those that haven't seen it, what's Coraline about?
The film is based on the children's book written by Neil Gaiman. It's about a girl that's just moved to a new place with her family; she's bored and missing her friends and less than excited about the whole situation. Her parents are busy and encourage her to keep herself occupied by exploring her new home, an old Victorian house with some nutty neighbors.
She finds a mysterious little door that's been closed up, but later discovers it open, revealing a portal to another world much like her own, but where everything seems better. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone that hasn’t seen it, but If you’re familiar with Neil’s work, you’ll know that things go a bit awry from there.
(c) LAIKA, from the trailer.
It’s essentially a grass-is-not-always-greener tale. It’s a delightfully creepy, beautiful, and fun fairy tale, perfect for this time of year.
Tell us about Coraline's Pink Palace and your model of it. How closely is it based on the one in the film?
The initial thought was that the Pink Palace would make a nice addition to my LEGO Modular lineup; I pictured it as like a Main St. Bed and Breakfast. I didn't think I would be as concerned about the interior as nailing the iconic exterior.
But as I started designing it, I had to make some decisions about how the interiors would be accessed, how to divide the rooms, and then how in the world I was going to indicate a portal. By the time I started designing it, the actual house from the film was long gone. I was able to get a rough floor plan that was not exactly accurate (because floor plans often change with movie sets), so just like anyone else I had to watch the film many times for reference.
The original house from the set made an appearance at the Portland Art Museum just as I was finishing up the design. It would have been helpful to have had access to it sooner, but at least I could confirm a few details and get some photos, including both houses next to each other.
I was heavily inspired by my very favorite set, 10228 Haunted House. Not only do I love the overall style, but also the way it opens like a dollhouse, making it easy to setup and play with the interior scenes. It seemed a very logical method for this house as well. In addition to the hinged opening, I also adopted some of the Modular standard and made sure the levels could be removed when the house was placed between other buildings.
Funny thing is that I explored a multitude of techniques for the portal, and ultimately landed on an idea that resembles the hinged fireplace in the Haunted House. It was unintentional and I continued trying to come up with another alternative so it didn’t look like a complete ripoff, but that solution worked best so I went with it. I couldn’t effectively work the tunnel in there, so I left the door in it’s bricked up state, trapping Coraline in the Other house.
Some other fun features referenced from the movie are the piano that spins around with a hand crank or motor as you sing the "Other Father" song from They Might Be Giants, a mirror that hides the room where children have to go when they misbehave, a mouse circus tent, a cotton candy cannon, a painfully boring painting of a boring blue boy, and a sign resembling the one we see in the first shot of the film.
Were there any particularly difficult aspects of it to recreate in LEGO?
The Victorian angles presented some challenges because I ended up needing to span a lot of odd increments, and then matching up all the roof lines was quite a task to complete. I relied on a lot of jumpers, hinges, clips, handles, and inverted bricks to fill those gaps. The portal was another big challenge, as I mentioned.
On set, the rooms are never actually connected; each room is generally its own set. If the rooms had been put together, that little door would have opened from the living room into the Other Father's parlor, instead of another world, which is why I needed to offset it somehow.
The last but not at all least of the challenges were the minifigures. It was a mad dash to finish in time for Bricks Cascade in Portland. I first had to decide which characters to include. I'd decided by this point that I was going to submit the project to LEGO IDEAS and needed to choose a realistic number of figures that could potentially be included at a reasonable price point. I landed on Coraline, Other Mother, Other Father, Wybie, The Cat, and her upstairs neighbor, the Other Mr. Bobinski as being absolutely necessary.
It was a difficult decision to eliminate the Other downstairs neighbors, April Spink and Miriam Forcible, but since I'd already made a design decision earlier to eliminate the basement (for now) to fit the Modular standard, it was a logical solution. This also helped to keep the parts within the max number allowed for IDEAS.
I mocked up some artwork for the characters and tried to find as many standard parts that might suffice to help simplify the process. I then dove into minifig customization research. I quickly eliminated outsourcing prints as an option because I needed to customize too many parts and the expense was way out of reach. Besides, I'm a DIY kind of gal and wanted to figure out how to do it myself. I also realized that for IDEAS this was all proof of concept anyway and they would ultimately get redesigned; it needed only to show some suggestions of film references.
For instance, the characters specific to the Other world would require the more bold costumes and button eyes. However, I also really wanted something that would look good on display when exhibited. I ended up going with a combination of stickers, waterslide decals, and paint which was relatively quick and cost effective, but not without major issues.
I was able to add button eyes to the faces and print some artwork for the clothing patterns. A couple of hand painted parts and we were most of the way there, just in time for the show. I took photos of the figures and used Photoshop to make a few additional edits (like painting the teddy bear to look like Coraline's doll). I figured this would be an acceptable proof-of-concept for IDEAS and was better than nothing for the exhibition.
After I'd submitted the project, I was later introduced to Jared Burks, who has some serious customization skills (and much better equipment); he was gracious enough to do a pass based on my initial concept and did a fabulous job. I was thrilled to have an upgrade on display with the Pink Palace at San Diego Comicon, where Henry Selick (Coraline's director) managed to acquire one of the two sets of figures. I sure hope he appreciates them; a ton of work went into those.
While Jared's version was definitely an improvement, he also used decals and paint; it's not the most durable process for play things and it's not easy to make reproductions. It's a tedious, hand-crafted process, sort of like making stop-motion puppets. I'm still exploring the customization process for this project as well as some others in the works. I do intend to add a Spink and Forcible for my own personal collection, so I'm eager to find a better system for prototyping.
Why did you decide to submit to Ideas?
This actually started out as a project to test and compare some digital design tools, with no other objective in mind than to see what the tools were capable of and how far I could get without needing to use actual bricks. The answer is pretty far...eventually. I had no timeline or limits in mind, just a rough Modular scale; I tinkered with it every now and then whenever I had some down time, which is not much when you're working full time and raising kids. So, it took a while.
I was a little more than halfway through with the digital build when we started talking about Coraline's upcoming 10 year anniversary at work. That's when I started thinking this was something I should probably try to finish and share with others as part of the celebration. I'm kind of new to the AFOL community, but I've been a supporter of LEGO IDEAS since early on and I love the concept. I've supported a lot of projects that have made it all the way to my home; it's crazy to think this could be one of them. LAIKA is an independent studio that doesn't have a huge commercial presence, so IDEAS seemed like a great opportunity to put something out there that fans don't get to see very often and can get excited about.
For me, it was also a curiosity to feel out what the fandom is like out there. I really had no idea how popular this might be. Not everyone has heard of LAIKA or understands what we're doing, and it can be disheartening as an artist when you've spent so much time and effort putting something out there that seems unnoticed. But the response to this project has been beyond what I could imagine; there still remains great passion for carefully crafted film-making and unconventional story-telling, not to mention LEGO for an all-ages demographic. This has been a wonderful way of connecting with people on the other side of the screen. It's very refreshing and helps me enjoy my work so much more.
When did you submit it and what's the journey been like so far?
I submitted this project last year! I underestimated how long an IDEAS campaign can take, so we just missed Coraline's 10th birthday. It's been a really fun journey though; I've learned a lot and connected with many LAIKA fans. That was part of the goal.
It's neat to see that "Coraline" is still relevant more than a decade later and has earned a place with the classics. She deserves it. This whole thing started with some inspiration and determination mixed with curiosity, and next thing you know one opportunity turns into another, and then another. I introduced myself to my local LUG just before my first LEGO convention (as an exhibitor).
(c) LAIKA, from the trailer.
It was intimidating, but fortunately I felt well-received and I now have several friends with the same weird hobby. Funny how that works. At each convention someone would suggest that I should bring the Pink Palace to some other convention, and since I had a summer off between films, I traveled as much as I could to see what LAIKA fans were like elsewhere. Turns out they're all pretty cool, no matter where they're from.
How have you promoted the project? Has the studio been supportive?
Well, kids and work are pretty distracting, so I've not really done a lot of heavy promotion. It's a little out of my wheelhouse. Social media is the obvious method. I started an Instagram account @hwachtman and I've mentioned it among some various LEGO groups on Facebook. I look for any Coraline or LAIKA-related keywords and hashtags to see what threads there might be.
I've tried to keep the IDEAS page updated with noteworthy moments and share whenever there's an added detail. I made some cards with a QR code printed on them that I can give to people who seem interested. It's always a pain trying to get people to support something online unless they have the link right in front of them and time to login or register, so people really appreciate the cards.
Half the struggle is making people aware of the campaign and the other half is getting people to follow through. I exhibited at several conventions and got a few mentions in printed publications, which is awesome and so appreciated, but unfortunately doesn't amount to a lot of online support. I've refrained from obnoxiously spamming, but from what I gather that's often what it takes.
(c) Tom Alphin
I talked with some folks at the studio and explained how LEGO IDEAS works when I was still in the digital design phase and asked if I should (or could) submit my project when it was finished. I wasn't going to bother if they could tell me upfront there was no interest in talks with LEGO or there was an issue with me being a LAIKA employee. They were intrigued, so they gave me permission and encouragement to go for it and see what happens.
Otherwise, they're basically hands off with it. It's being treated as a fan project, which it is, and I'd wrapped on the last film before I even submitted it to IDEAS. It definitely helps to have their support though.
The LEGO model was showcased alongside some fanart at a LAIKA exhibit during San Diego Comicon, which got the attention of Neil Gaiman. One tweet from him gathered a lot of support, so that was very nice. Apparently I just need more Gaiman. I mean really, who doesn't?
How long do you have left, and how many supporters do you need to achieve 10k?
At last glance it just surpassed 7,500 supporters with about 200 days left. That sounds like a lot of time, but I anticipate this last stretch to be the toughest to gain momentum. Halloween is prime season when "Coraline" gets a lot of screen time, so hopefully it will be discovered by a few more fans before the window closes.
For anyone that still hasn't seen the film now's a good time to check it out, and I strongly urge you to check out some behind-the-scenes material as well.
Thanks Holly, and good luck!
Please, if you've not pledged your support yet, I encourage you to do so now.