Q&A With Ty Johnson, who helped to create heroes of films including "Paranorman," “Kubo And The Two Strings,” and Oscar-nominated “The Boxtrolls"

By: Rachel Handel

February 19, 2015

Digital Animation Stopmotion Animation

“I like to tell people that I play with dolls for a living. In truth I’m more like a digital sculptor.” 

The Oscars are a night known for big stars, fashion, and serious anticipation. For Ty Johnson, a 2005 graduate of The Art Institute of Portland who earned a Bachelor of Science in Media Arts & Animation, it means the chance to potentially become part of an Oscar-winning animation team. Ty is a 3D modeler for LAIKA, an animation studio in Hillsboro, Oregon. As a part of the LAIKA team, he worked on the Oscar-nominated film “The Boxtrolls.”

The Art Institutes: Describe your job as a 3D Modeler.

Ty: To do my job, I utilize 3D Modeling software [including] Maya and Zbrush. The characters I make are based off of drawings and clay maquettes, but there is a lot of my own flavor in these characters too. It is up to me to ensure my creations are aesthetically pleasing and also meet specific technical standards established by riggers, texture artist, animators and everyone else downstream.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love making internationally recognized Oscar-nominated films. Being a part of something as huge as “Paranorman,” “The Boxtrolls,” and “Kubo and The Two Strings” has given me the opportunity to share my passion with literally millions of people.

The Art Institutes: What process do you use to bring characters to life?

Ty: At LAIKA, we create our films using an ancient animation technique called stopmotion. Because of this process, I rarely render my characters. Instead my creations are grown using state-of-the-art 3D printers, and then physically assembled into a stop motion puppet. 

The Art Institutes: What do you need to consider when creating a character?

Ty: Modeling a character with the intent of manufacturing means that I have to consider a myriad of real world limitations. These include principles such as minimum material thicknesses, color depth, light permeability, mechanical tolerances, and minimum printer resolution, as well as everything conventional CG film makers worry about too.

The Art Institutes: How do you incorporate 3D printing into character creation?

Ty: Each and every puppet head I model is further broken into 72+ mechanical parts. These mechanisms allow for the articulation of eyeballs, glowing ears, and the swapping of magnetic facial expressions. Because no two characters are the same and therefore require entirely custom internals, 3D printing is the perfect medium. Getting every intricate parts to fit and function in misshapen heads as small as a golf ball is the hardest yet most rewarding part of my job.

Furthermore, I am set apart from other 3D Modelers in my department as being a leader. As such it is also my responsibility to help interview and train newcomers, exemplify best 3D modeling practices/techniques, and continually document and improve existing workflows.

The Art Institutes: How do you get in “the zone” to create?

Ty: I grab the first of the four coffees from [LAIKA’s kitchen] before making my way to the Rapid Prototyping department. My desk is a graveyard of puppet parts and coffee cups. It’s usually obvious which character I’m working on because I’ll have a 14” tall grey sculpt of him/her under my lamp, be turning it around in the dark room, and periodically taking measurements with my calipers. While I toil in the dark, I like to wear a pair of nice headphones—the best investment a 3D modeler can make in my opinion—that keep my studious colleagues from enduring a shameless adoration of flamenco guitar.

The Art Institutes: What’s it like seeing and feeling your work come to life?

Ty: Being able to hold my work and feel its weight is an incredibly satisfying sensation. It’s also a great way to see what details are being lost in translation.

Most Creative Leads at LAIKA aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. I’ve had some draw directly on my print during a review and others have gone as far as to carve into them or add clay where they wanted volume. It’s a fantastic creative dialog between new age digital artists like myself and luddite visionaries.

Once I have art approval, there’s no changing the design. I have to turn this character bust into a stop motion puppet head no matter how whimsy it is. The puppet build phase begins with me neutralizing the character’s expression and trading my messy topology for an immaculate edge flow that supports this character’s performance. As any character rigger will tell you, this is the step that separates good 3D Modeler from the rest.

But perhaps the hardest part of my job is this, engineering dozens upon dozens of 3D printed parts that, once assembled, allow stop motion animators to articulate eyes/eyelids, swap magnetized interchangeable facial expression, tension specific

joints or quickly swap out broken ears or [other issues]. Getting all these pieces to fit in something comparable to a ping pong ball is no small feat of engineering. But I’ve come to realize I really enjoy this type of spatial problem solving and it offsets the purely sculptural part of my job so nicely. This balance between art and engineering means I never get bored.

The Art Institutes: What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Ty: I’m especially proud of those characters I helped create for “Paranorman.” I love how fearless the art direction of that film was. Norman, Mitch, Sandra, the Tree face; each of these characters were so different. I could never have imagined we would streamline the puppet build process back then.

My colleagues and I often refer to our first films as “the wild west days.” A lot of the mechanisms I was engineering then were entirely my own design and had never been attempted. I’m particularly proud of Norman and his incredibly complex eyeball apparatus. I went through a hundred designs before I tried using a universal joint to limit the rotation of an eyeball to just two axis. The result was an eyeball and eyelid rig that could be tensioned to suit a particular animator’s preferences while preventing the eyes from spinning as ball and cup-style eye rigs are prone to do.

The Art Institutes: Who are your creative heroes?

Ty: I can’t help but think of Jim Henson and his amazing puppets when I’m at work. I am a 90s child and Jim’s fingerprints were on everything I grew up with. He’s definitely a hero of mine.

The Art Institutes: How did your education help to prepare you for your career?

Ty: Many 3D Modeling packages have, by their own admission, steep learning curves. The Art Institute of Portland provided me with the resources and structure I needed to [achieve success in the industry].

The [school] also taught me a valuable lesson in adaptation. Halfway through my degree, The Art Institute of Portland [updated its software from what I’d been using for a new] “industry standard.” I was distraught and worried that I was starting over. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. The truth is that technology moves fast, standards change, and if you can’t adapt you’ll be left in the dust. It didn’t take me half as long to learn new software or precisely why my industry preferred it over others. Since graduation this scenario has played out time and time again. Now when I learn about new tools and software I look forward to it like a kid on Christmas Eve.

Ty Johnson | 2005, Bachelor of Science, Media Arts & Animation | The Art Institute of Portland

The Art Institute of Portland is one of The Art Institutes, a system of over 50 schools throughout North America. Programs, credential levels, technology, and scheduling options are subject to change. Several institutions included in The Art Institutes system are campuses of South University or Argosy University. The Art Institute of Portland, 1122 N.W. Davis Street, Portland, OR 97209-2911. ©2015 The Art Institutes. Our email address is

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