Scenes from Coraline, Laika’s 3-D adventure film starring a young girl who stumbles into a parallel and often nightmarish Other World.

Image: Laika

Phil Knight, the man who turned ordinary sneakers into a $160-a-pair branded footwear experience, is a businessman right down to his shiny black track shoes. By the way, Phil, what shoes are you wearing?

“These?” Knight says, incredulous that anyone would need to ask. “They’re 360s.”

OK, asking Phil Knight what kind of shoes he’s got on is a bit like wondering what kind of computer Steve Jobs uses at home. The seventy-year-old billionaire cofounder of Nike is whooshing around his Beaverton office in a pair of Air Max 360s, the sneaker that, as anyone on the Nike campus can tell you, features an air-filled sole that cushions heel-to-toe transitions and offers a smooth overall ride—shoes that will set you back three figures unless your name happens to be Phil Knight.

No doubt about it: Phil knows footwear. But on February 5, Knight enters radically different territory as Laika, the Portland animation studio he owns, premieres its first feature-length movie, Coraline. For the supremely calculating Knight, breaking into the movie business is an unnerving journey into the unknown. “The footwear business is risky,” he says with a rueful laugh. “But the movie business? That’s gambling. At Nike, we launch new products, but every six months there’s something different. With animated movies, it’s more like a three-year cycle. So it’s a bigger deal.” Or as Laika CEO Dale Wahl puts it, “This is like taking three years to make one shoe, putting a ton of money into it, and hoping that somebody buys it.”

"You’re burning your fingers on hot glue, you’re cutting you hands on bits of armature wire…The only reason stop-motion characters have life is because they take it out of someone else. They’re little vampires that suck the life out of the people who work on them.” -Travis Knight

Not since the days when Knight peddled sneakers out of his green Plymouth Valiant at track meets across the Northwest has he taken such a risk. With Coraline, the fledgling Laika—known as Will Vinton Studios before Knight took over the company in 2003 and ousted founder Will Vinton—enters the highly competitive animation arena alongside powerhouses like Pixar, DreamWorks, Disney, and Sony. Pixar, the industry giant, has been nominated for twenty-five Academy Awards (winning nine) for such box-office smashes as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. (In 2006, Disney bought Pixar for $7.4 billion, an amount that’s still a few billion shy of Phil Knight’s total net worth.) “ Coraline is a huge risk,” concedes Henry Selick, the film’s screenwriter and director, who also directed The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. “But these days in animation, the safest bet is to take a risk.”

The choice of Coraline as Laika’s first release makes the crapshoot even dicier. The movie employs a painstaking technique known as stop-motion animation—think of the old Gumby TV show, or Vinton’s California Raisins, or The Nightmare Before Christmas_. For a stop-motion production, animators position malleable silicone puppets on miniature sets and then film them one frame at a time, moving the puppets incrementally to simulate motion. Stop-motion is notoriously labor-intensive—_Coraline took three years to make, about twice as long as a typical live-action feature. Adding another layer of complexity, the film was shot entirely in stereoscopic 3-D, a first for a stop-motion animated feature. Stereoscopic 3-D involves shooting the same frame twice, from slightly different perspectives. The dual images are then superimposed upon each other on the movie screen, creating the illusion of depth for viewers wearing 3-D glasses. By the time Coraline was in the can, the film had cost Phil Knight close to $70 million—roughly the equivalent of 437,500 pairs of Nike 360s.