REED HOME Gryphon icon
Alumni Profiles
reed magazine logoAutumn 2008

Dreaming in Stop-Motion

Cody Bartol '01

Photos: Galvin Collins Copyright © 2008 LAIKA, All Rights Reserved

In 1993, Cody Bartol ’01 got his mother to drive about 100 miles—out of the northern Wisconsin woods in which they lived and across the border into Duluth, Minnesota—to see The Nightmare Before Christmas on the big screen. “We couldn’t believe that people got paid to make something that cool,” he remembers. “It was all made by hand and it had one of the strongest aesthetics that I had ever seen in a movie. Making something like that just seemed like a far-off dream job.”

Thirteen years later, Bartol was hired by LAIKA, an animation studio owned by Nike co-founder Phil Knight, and for the last two-and-a-half years has spent his days surrounded by 1/6th-scale props as the model shop coordinator for Coraline, a stop-motion animation feature film shot in 3D to be released in February 2009. Henry Selick, the man who directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, is directing the film.

Bartol’s childhood is the stuff romantic stories are made of. He grew up at the end of a dead-end, dirt road, surrounded by 40 acres of woods, not far from the cold and windy shores of Lake Superior. His early years were lived with his parents and two brothers in an old caboose and boxcar. There were chickens, pigs, goats, horses, and a big garden. “We would get our firewood straight out of the surrounding woods. We used an old hand pump to get water out of a well. We had an outhouse and bathed in a sauna or in one of the creeks when weather permitted. It was actually a really neat place for a kid to grow up,” he reminisces. Eventually, a phone, television, and house came to the family homestead, but he points out that the house—built next to the old railcars—isn’t fully modernized.

When it came time to choose a college, Bartol says, “only Reed stood out. I thought about going to art school or film school, but felt that it wouldn’t be challenging or well-rounded enough academically. Reed had an ethos that spoke to me.”

As a studio art major, he experienced the tension between making art for the sake of academia or intellectualism and doing it as an expression of tactile creativity. “It was a tricky balance to maintain,” he says, “but one that ultimately gave me an extreme confidence in my ability to think and communicate critically when dealing with my own or another person’s artistic work.”

Unlike computer animation (created by studios like Pixar) or traditional animation (classic Disney), stop-motion animation is done with three-dimensional, hand-made objects. In Coraline, which is based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, the characters are puppets made of foam and latex on metal armatures. “The animators pose these puppets on and among real sets and props and then take a picture to capture one frame of digital film for the movie at a time—24 of these successive frames equal one second of running time in the movie,” explains Bartol. “If the movie might be around 90 minutes long, you begin to understand the fantastic attention and patience it takes to craft this kind of animation.”

Bartol’s job is to organize the creation and deployment of the thousands upon thousands of props that are built on site. He coordinates with art directors, model makers, set dressers, camera teams, the rigging department, and animators to make sure Coraline’s props arrive to the set on time. He is also “one of many eyes watching to make sure that the props meet the aesthetic and functional approval of the director.” The ability to work long, hard hours, while maintaining a passionate engagement in the work, and the ability to be an adept, intelligent, and sometimes humorous communicator are skills, Bartol says, he gained at Reed.

“I have vastly broadened my working knowledge of filmmaking and animation while making contacts with people who I would be very happy to work for, and alongside of, for the rest of my career,” says Bartol. “I will have made an earnest contribution to what will be a major motion picture. I have gotten paid for my efforts. It is a dream job.”

—Laura Miller ’92

reed magazine logoAutumn 2008