Two alumnae of the UConn Fine Arts program talk Golden Globes, the future of animation and the journey of art making in this interview with Laika’s Taylor Lynch.
Scrolling mindlessly through the endless sea of Facebook, my eye catches on the bright bold logo of the UConn Art and Art History page. I pause my thumb on the screen, from my phone peers an unfamiliar face from an instagram screenshot, captioned with a congrats to an alum for winning a Golden Globe for their work on Missing Link, a stop motion animation movie released last year. Immediately the gears start turning in my head, I tag Jasmine in the post, it’s been nearly half a year since the last issue of the magazine’s been released, the technical deadline for articles was days ago, and I have yet to have a serviceable idea on what to submit. Finally, like a beacon buried within my constant procrastination, I have found inspiration.
Ten day later it’s midnight, and I’m sending off a carefully curated collection of questions to Taylor Lynch. I don’t even know exactly what she does, but I know she works for Laika (the company responsible for Missing Link), that she graduated from UConn, and I have looked at her full body of work on her portfolio website. Having been a few years removed from graduation, it’s rare for me to find opportunities to talk to artists nowadays, especially ones I feel I can relate to with similar passions.
To preface, I curated my studies within my BFA to be a flexible equivalent of skills to get into the practical/special effects industry for movies; it’s not exactly a traditional area occupied by ‘fine artists’ especially those interested in 2D, contemporary or abstract art. The artistry in movie design is a specialized niche, and becoming even more so due to the advent of technology diving into a precipice of exponentially increasing computer generated imagery. (It was only a couple of years ago when I was on the road, that I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of Laika’s work (sets, puppets, props and costumes) and have my mind absolutely blown by the spectacle of each hand-made microscopic detail.) Special effects artists who have survived have done so because they are the best of the best, in addition to having adapted to the times. It’s not easy to find people who have time to discuss these sorts of things; so I leapt at my chance….
Taylor Lynch was born in Illinois, raised in Texas and spent a majority of her childhood in Colorado, where her parents settled for a while after moving around the South West U.S. However family circumstances brought them back to Niantic C.T, where Lynch’s mother had grown up. Choosing to attend the University of Connecticut was mostly based on finances, and although initially nervous to attend such a large school she grew appreciative of the community within the School of Fine Arts.
“Translating and transferring my emotions into images and making them exist outside of my mind and body is at once a way of acknowledging, embracing, and exorcising them.”
During her undergraduate career she majored in painting, which was her original plan, but found that “by the end of my senior year I was spending more time in the printmaking studio than anywhere else.”
Lynch’s websites boasts a variety of media, divided into three distinct sections “Painting”, “Printmaking” and “Photography.” While unified by a distinct thematic style throughout most, it is clear that she has dabbled in a wide and varied selection of mixing material and practice.
When asked if she has a favorite pursuit she responds, “I don’t know if it’s my favorite necessarily, but I always come back to drawing-- it’s always been the most intuitive for me. Sometimes that leads to other media, sometimes not, but I always start with drawing.”
The printmaker’s style initially gives off a distinct boldness, blotches of dark shadows among intricate line work. Application of color is careful, delicate, and oftentimes subtle washes; applied in a different style than the densely contrasting monochrome. Whether it comes from staring too long at one ornate piece, or scrolling through the body of work as a whole; a tense theme eventually begins to prick at the viewer. This imagery is not a happy one. Prints are dark, bordering on macabre urging you to look away or to look closer. Face appear, twisted with disdain, corkscrewed bodies; subjects helplessly trapped in a forlorn moment of helplessness. My instinct is confirmed when I ask about her rather dark style; she describes that it comes from a place of “...darker mental spaces: anxiety, depression, trauma,” explaining, “I definitely use artmaking as a form of therapy. Translating and transferring my emotions into images and making them exist outside of my mind and body is at once a way of acknowledging, embracing, and exorcising them.” She also credits her upbringing and interests in the “grotesque” as sprouting from a less censored childhood of X-Files episodes, the Alien movies and a household full of Ukiyo-e prints, and of course having a birthday around Halloween.
In her own words she would describe her style as “personal, autobiographical, psychological, body horror, funny, grotesque,” noting that while she has “always gravitated towards figural work,” she has moved away from the realism as it exists in our world, in favor of “depicting exaggerated, fantastical, grotesques in a realistic way, as they exist in their world.”
“It’s really helpful to explore the same ideas in different mediums. It allows for experimentation and discovery and happenstance.”
Feeling like I have a much better idea of Lynch’s background, style and body of work, I dive into my next section of questions, the one I myself am most anxious to geek out about: the section I dividedly title “Cinema, The Globe and The Questionably Detrimental Advent of CGI.”
The first thing to know is the who, what, where, when, and why of her career at Laika. Lynch began work at Laika in 2016, meaning Missing Link was the first of Laika’s (known for Paranorman, Coraline, and Kubo and the Two Strings, amongst a few others) films that she worked on. After receiving her MFA in Printmaking from Temple University, moving out to Oregon, and grappling with a tough break up, she calls getting the interview, and eventually the job, “miraculous.”
Although feeling like it was a long shot, she applied to the company because “it seemed like a magical place to work where I could be close to a variety of artistic disciplines.” After having studied a 2-D medium for most of her degree work, I inquired about her switch into the third dimension, she responds that it wasn’t really something she really considered, aptly adding, “...that it’s really helpful to explore the same ideas in different mediums. It allows for experimentation and discovery and happenstance. Art-making is, to me, at its core, problem solving. And it’s fun to find a new way to solve a problem.” This exploratory nature brought Lynch to her current position.
So what exactly does Lynch do, working for a stop motion animation company?
“At Laika I’m the Senior RPQA, which stands for Rapid Prototyping Quality Assurance. Our job is essentially a highly specialized form of 3D Print Post-Processing. All of our puppet’s faces are modeled and animated digitally and then 3D printed. They’re far from ‘camera-ready’ when they first come off the printer. They’re riddled with print lines and fully encased in a gelatinous support material that ensures the resin stays in position as it cures under UV light. It’s our job to meticulously clean, coat, and prep each individual face, ensuring a seamless transition between each puppet character’s facial expressions as it is replaced from frame to frame.”
To me, utilizing new technology to pre-animate and 3D print, in order to accurately create massive replications of facial expressions (anywhere from five to several hundred can be printed for a single speaking line), in order to ease and enhance the replacement animation, within a set that is still largely crafted by hand, perfectly sums the potential for marriage between advancements in computer technology still being rooted within physical craftsmanship; using advancements to assist and ease the process rather than overtake and replace it.
“Even though I know it will be good for me and that I will feel ten times more fulfilled and accomplished after spending a few hours doodling or painting than I will after falling down a Youtube rabbit hole, it’s still work. It still requires energy. And it’s tough to find that balance of work, social life, and me time.”
Over the last several years I have come to realize that while not everyone can identify the difference between practical (in camera/on stage) effects and visual (post shot/ computer generated effects), it does not mean the detached coolness does not ultimately transcend to the overall tone of the movie (Jurassic Park versus Jurassic World, and the original Lord of the Rings versus The Hobbit). Not only this but it lacks visceral reactions from actors as well. Lynch explains, fundamentally echoing the philosophical sentiment of Carroll and Debra Spinney (of Sesame Street), that it really comes down to that “The CGI is exact and impressive, but it’s also cold and doesn’t trigger a sensational response in the same way. Having something physical lets you know that it will respond to your touch, that the light falling on it is real. But really, the most important factor is that you can hug a puppet, you can’t hug CGI.” Or in the case of the Alien have your face hugged by it. Luckily she reminds us that, much like the still existent presence of film, and revolution of polaroid and vinyl records, “it’s very rare and unusual for people to do away with one form of technology entirely once something new comes along.”
Missing Link, was not only up against all entirely computer animated movies, but also all movies that were tied to some sort of franchise or existing story (including two of the highest grossing movies of all time). Yet, it still came out victorious for the win at the Golden Globe Awards. In fact it was only the fourth time in the history of the “Animated Feature Film” category that the award hadn’t been given to a Disney movie. Lynch believes a revival of old practical effects garnering new attention is “no coincidence” and, “that this recent fascination and trend towards more traditional effects is led by people who grew up with that aesthetic. People who were children in the 80’s and 90’s are making the movies now that they would’ve wanted to see then. And now we have 3D printing and CGI and digital modeling software, all of which we use at Laika to enhance, what is at its core, traditional replacement animation.” Ultimately this phenomenal underdog story for the Globe awards piques hope for a revival of traditional puppetry in a cinematic world currently ravaged by dominant CGI culture.
So what’s next for art and artists? My last summary questions for Lynch were some things I have had on my mind for a while, as I struggle to balance a full time office job, social life, and self care, and desperately yet apathetically watch my creativity burn in the wastelands of wasted time. What are the biggest challenges facing artists, the best tools for self discipline and her best advice for aspiring artists?
With no prompting in one direction or another Lynch’s answer was a big fat hallelujah in corroboration with my current struggles, “For me personally, (as well as many people I know) the biggest challenge is overcoming my own laziness and making time for art in my daily life. It’s hard to resist the siren song of the couch and the urge to veg out and laze around after a long day at work. Even though I know it will be good for me and that I will feel ten times more fulfilled and accomplished after spending a few hours doodling or painting than I will after falling down a Youtube rabbit hole, it’s still work. It still requires energy. And it’s tough to find that balance of work, social life, and me time.”
So what can we do to help that? Lynch suggests getting a planner, and scheduling out specific blocks of time, emulating the structure that we experience with classes in school; a discipline to help prevent activities from recurrently getting pushed aside. She also recommends surrounding yourself with people who will hold you accountable for pursuing what you want; “Whether it’s a partner, a maker space, or a group of friends that gets together to work on their projects, finding a community that you feel welcomed by and supported in is so, so helpful. I feel so grateful to have people in my life who really bolster my creativity, and who I can collaborate with.”
And lastly what advice does she have for her past self or future artists? “There’s not one unified definition of success, and you are not obligated to monetize what makes you happy.”