By Ellen Booraem
Special to The Ellsworth American
GOULDSBORO — As a young teen in Prospect Harbor, Adam Fisher fell in love with Aardman Animation’s Wallace and Gromit, the 1990s man-and-dog duo who introduced many of us to a new age in stop-motion animation.
Even though he spent his Sumner Memorial High School years haunting the art room, it didn’t occur to the Gouldsboro teen that animation could actually be a career field.
“The idea that that was something attainable never crossed my mind,” the 1997 Sumner grad said recently. “Anyway, I was just as interested in science.”
It turned out to be more than attainable. In April, the celebrated Laika Studios released “Missing Link,” the tale of a gentle 8-foot-tall beast who travels from the Pacific Northwest to Shangri-La in search of relatives. Fisher, now 40, was an animator for Mr. Link, the furry central character.
As in other Laika films — “Coraline,” “Box Trolls,” and “ParaNorman” among them — the characters in “Missing Link” are puppets of molded silicone on a metal armature, placed in a small three-dimensional set to be lighted and filmed like a human actor. Animating a character is a painstakingly slow process, sometimes moving a body part a millimeter or two per frame. It takes 24 frames to make one second of film.
With Mr. Link done and dusted, Fisher has moved on to help a new crop of Adams find out what’s possible for them. Last fall, after a decade living on the West Coast, he moved back to Maine with his wife and toddler son, and he joined the brand new Animation and Game Art Department at Maine College of Art in Portland. He teaches everything from character development to the mechanics of stop-motion characters.
His students have a long road ahead of them, as Fisher can attest. His journey started when he took a class in filmmaking his freshman year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. It was an eye-opener. “I thought, wait a minute, you can study this? This makes sense to me.” By junior year he was a film studies major. “I knew this was the world I wanted to get into, but not how I would fit into it.”
The picture focused further in a computer animation class. (“I thought, Oh wow, this is awesome.”) After graduation, lacking equipment other than a camera and some clay, he made a stop-motion animation film in his bedroom. “It was pretty rough around the edges, but it cemented the fact in my brain that I wanted to animate.”
So off he went to a master’s program at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he connected with Tom Gasek, one of the animators for Wallace and Gromit and “every other stop-motion thing you could think of from that time.” Gasek connected Fisher with the animation director at Laika, who liked a short he’d made: “The Ballad of the Purple Clam,” the clam flat’s answer to “Moby Dick.” (It’s a hoot. Catch it here: https://vimeo.com/55556602.)
It took a year (“I bugged them every month”), but finally Fisher landed a job at Laika as a production assistant in face animation on “Coraline,” the 2009 release that put the Oregon-based studio on the map for exceptionally fine stop-motion animation.
Stop-motion facial expressions are created by replacing some or all of a character’s face for each shot. “Coraline” pioneered the use of 3D printing to create some 6,333 silicone facial features that could be mixed and matched to create more than 200,000 expressions.
Fisher progressed to assistant face animator on that film, then to face animator on “ParaNorman.”
By this time, he was focused like a laser on becoming a “stage animator,” the person who figures out how the entire puppet will express itself and move through the set, and then makes it happen. “I like being active, with my hands on the puppet, performing through the puppet in slow motion, over days. That physical connection works for me. There’s more excitement when you’re part of the space.”
Laika gave him the chance to train himself after hours with one of their puppets. He moved on to other projects, sometimes at Laika, sometimes as far afield as Los Angeles, gaining experience with various styles and pacing.
Through it all, his goal was to make it back to Laika permanently. He did that with “Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016), hired as an assistant animator but eventually tasked with helping develop The Moonbeast, a glowing, segmented monster whose animation he said “was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.” After that, he made it to full animator on “Missing Link.”
What happened to the Sumner kid who was interested in science as well as art? He’s alive and well. Stop-motion animation, Fisher said, “uses both parts of my brain.”
A process that creates at most a second and a half of film on a shooting day is “meditative,” requiring patience and focus and “getting fussy over little details,” he said. There’s so much set-up and rehearsal and test-shooting and consultation with the director and other animators, a Laika animator has to be on his toes to achieve the studio’s optimal three-second-a-week pace.
“You have to have a big-picture image of what the performance should be,” he said, but also there’s math: If a character has to get across the set by Frame 57, how many frames per stride? How many millimeters will his legs move in each frame?
And there’s acting. Typically, an animator’s first act after receiving a puppet and getting briefed by the director is to go off in a corner and film himself as the character, figuring out the character’s style but also the physics of how he moves. Thirty-five animators were involved in creating Mr. Link, coordinating their styles to keep the character consistent.
As exciting as it all was, Fisher insists he doesn’t miss being an animator. He’s a teacher now, heart and soul.
“You can tell the minute a concept clicks home with students. You see it in their work . . . . It’s every bit as exciting.”