Studio LAIKA and the Ghosts of Invisible Labor

Creator's Statement

Stop-motion animation studio LAIKA’s features share a preoccupation with what lies beyond the visible world. The eponymous protagonist of Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009) can access a fantastical Other World, while the titular hero of ParaNorman (Chris Butler and Sam Fell, 2012) communicates with the undead. In The Boxtrolls (Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, 2014), Eggs is the only human inhabitant of a subterranean troll dwelling. Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight, 2016) features a character guided by spirits. Enigmatic and dangerous, the concealed spaces in these films are a source of fascination for characters and viewers alike. Drawing on J. D. Connor’s approach to industrial allegory, which reads Hollywood films as self-representations negotiating industrial politics and ideologies, my essay argues that this narrative focus on uncovering awe-inspiring secret worlds reflects LAIKA’s self-aware fascination with the technology and process of stop-motion production.[1]

This video aims to highlight the explicit link that LAIKA draws between the unseen spaces its characters explore and the invisible labor involved in making puppets move. Unlike traditionally drawn or computer-generated animation, the stop-motion frame maps onto an actual physical area – the edge between the miniature set and the animators’ workspace – allowing LAIKA’s films to articulate and interrogate the creative process as a spatial relationship. Videographic criticism lends itself perfectly to the comparative close visual analysis required in order to unpack the ways in which the studio has repeatedly cast stop-motion labor as an invisible, yet omnipresent force that shapes and haunts every shot from beyond the edges of the frame. Side-by-side comparisons of representational strategies and narrative motifs reveal visual rhymes and parallels, both within the individual films and between them. 

In her groundbreaking analysis of cel animation labor, Hannah Frank writes that 'the viewer of animated cartoons must work […] if she wishes to see the labor that went into their making. […] Ultimately, the labor that shapes our aesthetic experience of animated cartoons is our own'.[2] Following in Frank’s footsteps, I look at LAIKA’s films as archives of their own production 'in order to recuperate the dynamic interplay between art and labor.'[3] But what this methodology reveals about the studio’s output is not simply a pattern or a question of house style; it is a production ethos and a branding strategy, as I’ve argued in greater detail elsewhere.[4] LAIKA’s features include both scenes of creation contained within the narrative universe of the film and scenes showcasing the work of the animators themselves. The studio’s over-arching project – to demystify the stop-motion process while effectively laying claim to a vanguard role in its contemporary development – has generated 'official' paratextual and publicity materials (in the shape of promos, behind-the-scenes clips, mid- and post-credits sequences, etc.) ripe for repurposing, remixing and recontextualization. Taking this as an invitation, my essay intercuts these self-reflexive glimpses into the studio’s process with their corresponding allegorical manifestations in the diegesis, revealing how these two levels of labor discourse have explicitly – and repeatedly – mirrored each other in LAIKA’s body of work.

Commercial, mainstream stop-motion animation remains a rarity in the twenty-first century. Intricate, time-consuming, deeply labor-intensive, and requiring a set of extremely specialized production skills (knitting tiny, puppet-sized sweaters comes to mind), the technique is often seen as challenging or downright prohibitive to pull off.[5] It is hardly a surprise, then, that stop-motion studios such as LAIKA and famed British outfit Aardman Animation remain invested in (over-)emphasizing their commitment to traditional craftsmanship as a mark of their enduring creative excellence.[6] Even a live-action auteur like Wes Anderson couldn’t seem to resist leaving visible traces of the animators’ labor in his stop-motion feature Fantastic Mr. Fox (released the same year as LAIKA’s debut Coraline). As Joel Burges has noted, the puppets’ fur in this film noticeably “boils” (exhibits unwanted random movements as a result of the manual frame-by-frame adjustment involved in the process), “disrupting the self-generating enclosure of story and storyworld.”[7] It is such deliberate disruptions – and their generative, revelatory potential – that my close reading interrogates.

This video essay, too, is the imperfect product of its own complex labor history. Its content is based on a twenty-minute talk I delivered at the 2017 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. It is researched, written, and directed by me, but its production was executed in a collaborative framework. My animation studies colleague Alla Gadassik worked with me as producer, securing funding from her academic institution, as well as hiring and supervising our production assistant Gil Goletski (her former student). The voice-over narration belongs to Vancouver-based poet and lecturer Jacqueline Turner, and editing credit goes to Goletski. There were delays and derailments during every stage of the process – initially due to scheduling discrepancies and my formerly precarious employment status, and eventually, during the peer-review process, due to the covid-19 pandemic. 

To borrow Comiskey’s apt term, the particular circumstances of this essay’s labor history have transformed it into a time capsule of the moment of its production. The final edit was completed in the spring of 2019. No further production work could be carried out beyond this point, as funding had been depleted, and key participants had moved on to different projects. Complicating matters further, the voice over was recorded even earlier, before the release of LAIKA’s latest feature-length film Missing Link (2019). As a result, a line in the finished product now sounds out of date, and cannot be easily redubbed. Additionally, my analysis of LAIKA’s films remains incomplete, as it does not account for this feature. 

In that sense, this essay, like the films it unpacks, retains visible, disruptive traces of its creative labor. In mirroring my analytical concerns in (all too) practical terms, it has served as an opportunity to think more deeply about collaborative videographic work as both intellectually invigorating and disproportionately vulnerable to institutional and economic obstacles. 



Mihaela Mihailova is Assistant Professor in the School of Cinema at San Francisco State University. She is the editor of Coraline: A Closer Look at Studio LAIKA’s Stop-Motion Witchcraft (Bloomsbury, 2021). She has published in Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, ConvergenceThe International Journal of Research into New Media TechnologiesFeminist Media Studiesanimation: an interdisciplinary journalStudies in Russian and Soviet CinemaFlow, and Kino Kultura. She has also contributed chapters to Animating Film Theory (with John MacKay), Animated Landscapes: History, Form, and FunctionThe Animation Studies Reader, and Drawn from Life: Issues and Themes in Animated Documentary Cinema. Dr. Mihailova is the co-editor of Animation Studies ( and currently serves as Secretary of the Society for Animation Studies.



[1] J. D. Connor, The Studios after the Studios: Neoclassical Hollywood (1970-2010) (Stanford University Press, 2015).

[2] Hannah Frank, Frame by Frame: A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019), 153-55.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Mihaela Mihailova, ed., Coraline: A Closer Look at Studio LAIKA’s Stop-Motion Witchcraft (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).

[5] For an in-depth discussion of the ways in which contemporary American stop-motion features emphasize their handmade status while downplaying the importance of digital effects and technologies to their production process, see Andrea Comiskey, '(Stop)Motion Control: Special Effects in Contemporary Puppet Animation', in Special Effects: New Histories/Theories/Contexts, Dan North, Bob Rehak and Michael S. Duffy, eds (London: Palgrave, 2015), 45-61.

[6] For more on the subject of Aardman Animations’ self-reflexive engagement with their own workflow, see Annabelle Honess Roe, ed., Aardman Animations: Beyond Stop Motion (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).

[7] Joel Burges, Out of Sync & Out of Work: History and the Obsolescence of Labor in Contemporary Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2018), 115.

Mihailova places her analysis in an industrial-allegorical tradition (represented by, in addition to Connor, scholars like David E. James, John Caldwell, and Jerome Christensen), which provides a generally compelling framework for revealing LAIKA's zeal for reflexivity. LAIKA has long harmonized the themes and generic appeals of its films with the studio's 'alternative' status within the contemporary animation marketplace vis-a-vis CG hegemons like Pixar. (This edgy strategy is perhaps most obvious in ParaNorman, but we can trace its lineage years before the studio's founding—as far back, at least, as Henry Selick's involvement in The Nightmare Before Christmas.) Mihailova's analysis suggests just how tightly these connections are woven into the films' narratives and articulations of space. In so doing she ties Laika's strategies into a larger history of self-figuration in animation while highlighting how they might engage the particularities of stop motion. 

That LAIKA's films perform reflexivity is all but indisputable, even if the particular allegorical framework suggested here regarding 'secret worlds' seems a bit too tidy. It requires some glossing-over of distinctions among spaces (or worlds) that are unseen, invisible, and simply offscreen, and it fits some of the films better than others. (Boxtrolls seems like the biggest strain.) Many elements that can be read reflexively needn't hinge on the secret-world distinction—or perhaps it's just that the different senses of 'secret world' and 'boundary-crossing in the different films (living/dead, real/fantastical, above-ground/underground) require stretching the relevant narrative and aesthetic variables beyond what they can satisfactorily bear. The skeptic (cynic?) in me expects that analogous interpretive frames could readily be mapped upon other, non-stop-motion animated films with similar subject matter (ghosts, monsters, machines, etc.—Onward, Coco, or Soul, perhaps?). But this is a broader issue I have with this line of meaning-making—and, as noted above, the author is convincing on the whole regarding LAIKA's reflexivity. (This, I'd argue, is baked into stop-motion generally, due to the way that the craft relies on object substitutions and the processes of conceptual blending they prompt.) The essay visually connects texts and paratexts—diegetic space and profilmic space—to underscore LAIKA's thoroughgoing efforts to discursively bridge and blend these domains. 

I concur with Mihailova's later arguments about the contradictory nature of LAIKA's emphasis on the handmade and discuss these issues in a contribution to the 2015 volume Special Effects: New Histories, Theories, Contexts. Stop-motion discourse in general, and Laika's promotional rhetoric in particular, emphasizes the form's material and handmade status. This 'handmade imperative', which serves as a form of market differentiation for stop motion, posits a computerized 'other' and a set of value-laden binaries derived from this distinction; it also effaces the ubiquity of CGI and other digital processes within contemporary stop-motion craft practices. Those hoping for a continued place for the medium among high-profile, high-budget animation must wait and see whether and how these contradictions (whereby stop-motion is increasingly indistinguishable from computer animation, and vice-versa) can be sustained, and what role LAIKA (recovering from calamitous box-office performance of Missing Link) will play.

Mihaela Mihailova’s 'Studio LAIKA and the Ghosts of Invisible Labor' offers a delightful and compelling reading of how the studio’s feature films (CoralineParaNormanThe Boxtrolls, and Kubo and the Two Strings) acknowledge the labor of stop-motion animation. To win this reading, Mihailova traces out the narrative motifs, spatial environments, and character construction that point to the craftedness of the animated world and the labor of its making. Narratives of border crossing link together the films’ diegetic magical realms and the animator’s workspace, fantastical spaces that fragment and reform through supernatural means point to the very materials of making, and the protagonists of the films are given the power of animators, creating and controlling other beings in their animated worlds. Each of these points flows seamlessly into the next and accumulate in a persuasive reading of how the animator’s labor imprints onto LAIKA’s film worlds. 'Studio LAIKA and the Ghosts of Invisible Labor' is an excellent example of close reading in an audiovisual format. 

The essay’s argumentative thread is carried along by a persistent voiceover, which Mihailova felicitously illustrates with clips from the films, behind-the-scenes documentaries, and promotional materials. While behind-the-scenes footage and other promotional materials reinforce the video essay’s argument that LAIKA’s films are about the very labor of stop motion animation, what Mihailova persuasively calls 'industrial allegories', this footage also raises a question about the invisibility of the invisible labor that Mihailova traces out. LAIKA seems insistent on making us see the labor of stop-motion. The video essay states, 'stop-motion labor maintains a privileged role in Laika’s promotional materials and self-reflexive narrative threads', and Mihailova’s statement sees the demonstration of stop-motion labor as part of the studio’s 'branding strategy'. While I believe that this video work could flesh out the tension between visibility and invisibility with greater detail, this tension does lead it to a reflection on the role of CGI labor, for according to the essay, 'the specter of CGI' haunts the studio’s stop-motion animation. Like the stop-motion animation, might CGI be another ghost of invisible labor? Might there be two ghosts—two modes of invisible labor? And one wonders, can the forms and features of LAIKA’s animated worlds provide the material for an allegorical reading of the films’ CGI labor? That the video essay raises such questions, while clearly being outside its purview, points to the generative nature of Mihailova’s video essay. 

Mihailova’s statement draws a point of connection between the video essay’s theme (labor) and its own construction. Indeed, as a collaborative effort with a director, producer, voice actor, and editor, the Studio LAIKA and the Ghosts of Invisible Labor highlights the issue of labor and creating video essays. Such a collaborative mode of production is unusual in the construction of video essays, academic or otherwise. The statement’s crediting of the various positions sparked a desire for a greater understanding of the production of the video essay. I wanted to know more. Yet withholding a clear delineation of labor might be the correct move, given the vexed relationship the video essay already has with institutional modes of evaluating scholarly labor. 

The argument of 'Studio LAIKA and the Ghosts of Invisible Labor’ and, indeed, its very production are intellectually generative and provide an opportunity to reflect on animation, labor, and the video essay format. Mihailova’s contribution is a welcomed addition to animation studies’ engagement with labor and the video essay’s engagement with animation.