Each year the Congressional Institute sponsors the Congressional Art Competition, which culminates in a reception in Washington, DC, for winners from across the country. At the reception, a member of the artistic community shares his or her insights with the winners and their guests. Arianne Sutner of Oregon spoke at the reception for students from Minnesota through Wyoming. A video of the full reception follows this sketch of her presentation. For more information on the Congressional Art Competition, please click here.

Arianne Sutner
Photo courtesy of LAIKA Entertainment

Producer Arianne Sutner of LAIKA Entertainment has worked on major, award-winning films, but her film career could easily have easily have flopped like so many movies. Thinking back on her life, she recalls that she “clearly wanted to be a filmmaker,” but also acknowledged her perceived limits on a career path: “I didn’t realize that I could do that,” she said. The commercial success and warm reception of the Academy Award-nominated film ParaNorman disprove her initial assumptions, but the success of her film and of LAIKA Entertainment, like any other challenging endeavor, came from the encouragement and faith of others, and a personal commitment to showing initiative and taking opportunities that up.

Sutner grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Washington University in St. Louis. After graduation, Sutner moved to San Francisco, where a couple of opportunities helped launch her career. She found work at Skellington Productions, headed by filmmaker Henry Selick in 1991, who was then a first-time director. Coincidentally, they both hailed from the Garden State: “Artistic talent stems from anywhere and everywhere—even from New Jersey,” she joked. A midnight showing of Tim Burton’s Batman was also pivotal in shaping the direction of her career. She saw the movie and thought to herself, “This is an artist I would like to work with.” “This was something that was kind of eye-opening for me at the time,” she recalled.

When she discovered that Burton and Selick were collaborating on a stop-motion feature length film project in San Francisco, she sought out any opportunity to be a part of it.  That film turned out to be the much lauded Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Sutner landed a job as Production Assistant on the two-plus year project.  A production assistant is on the bottom rung in the hierarchy of a film crew: They are modestly paid to do hard work—running around town, cleaning up after the crew, all manner of tasks, large and small. “It’s underappreciated,” Sutner said, but is a gateway to the filmmaking industry. “If you are good at it, you get a lot of respect from the crew, and if you pay attention, you can get an excellent overview of how movies are made, and you generate opportunities for yourself to learn and to move up.”

Being a production assistant was not glamorous, but it was immensely rewarding for Sutner, even if it was not lucrative: It taught her about her own capabilities. She found, for instance, that she can be “unexpectedly skilled at knuckling down and getting things done” if she cared about a project. She also learned that she can be a real team-player for such an initiative.

“It’s amazing when you discover things like that about yourself,” Sutner said. “It’s even more amazing when other people discover those things about you, because then they eventually start giving you more responsibilities for things you never believed you were capable of doing and you start to become a valuable asset to whatever enterprise you’re engaged in.” Plenty of others have seen Sutner’s talents and dedication, which is how she ultimately landed at LAIKA Entertainment, where she produced the Academy Award-nominated film ParaNorman.

LAIKA creates stop-motion animated feature films, advertisements, music videos and other cinematic works. Major international corporations have commissioned the company for their commercials, and critics have praised their movies, but Sutner pointed out that there are many computer applications that allow a student to create a stop-motion video like professionals. The only real difference between the two is the size of their budgets and “perhaps a level of fanaticism and attention to detail that might just shock a layperson.”

LAIKA employees’ gusto is necessary, since CEO Travis Knight is ambitious. His goal is for the studio to generate one spectacular feature-length film each year. Stop-motion animation makes this particularly difficult, since each frame, consisting of each character’s every distinct movement, is constructed by hand and filmed separately. Moreover, LAIKA is emphatic about manually producing as many frames as possible, and Sutner says they only “call in the digital cavalry” when the action is too complicated or when there are too many characters in a crowd.

The sheer scope and complexity of making a stop-motion animated film is astounding. A feature-length film lasting 90 minutes will require an astounding 136,800 frames. The hundred-plus puppets will “act” on about 50 stages with three-dimensional sets and props. These sets are laden with thousands of handcrafted props to create a sense that these are real scenes. To produce a movie and their other projects, the company employs anywhere from 300 to 500 people. They are animators, photographers, welders, jewelers, sculptors, and so many more. “We’ve put together a real melting pot of artists and they all collaborate with one another and problem solve, and share ideas and techniques. It’s incredible,” Sutner said.

The enriching experience Laika offers is unique because of the highly refined skills and creativity of its staff. “We are constantly searching for the most talented, the hardest working artists we can find from around the world,” Sutner said.

Achieving such excellence comes from a long process, and, generally, formal education is critical for that development. Sutner reminded the Congressional Art Competition winners that her colleagues at LAIKA have been professionally trained for their craft, rather than simply having learned it as a hobby. “I hope most of you go to college and continue studying and honing the artistic abilities that you’ve already proven you have,” she said. Art classes are essential for success, but alone they are insufficient to make a person an excellent artist. “I think pursuing education and being a full-rounded individual is really helpful as an artist,” Sutner said.  “To know about any discipline, to know as much about the world you live in, and your community and others’ communities, that can only help.”

At this time in their lives, the Congressional Art Competition winners were perfectly poised to pursue their education and learning experiences, since they were not weighed down by many of the responsibilities of adulthood, like jobs or financial obligations, Sutner suggested. “Take the time now to study, learn, experience, grow, absorb as much as you can be. Be sponges, actively pursuing knowledge and understanding, so that when opportunities do finally arise—and they will—you’ll know what to do, because you have a better sense of who you are as an artist,” she encouraged.

Opportunities for work and professional development that follow upon education are other essential elements for success. “The kinds of opportunity offered by LAIKA and other companies that require creative thinkers are the kinds of opportunities that as adults you will find yourselves seeking one day after college…because once you enter the job market, those opportunities are your lifeline to success. They are the bridges that connect one chapter of your lives to the next and the only way to seize upon them is to be prepared enough to recognize them when they appear,” Sutner said.

But the winners of the Congressional Art Competition probably have some inkling of what a great opportunity is and when to take it, since they each already have at least one big award under their belts. So all that remains is for them to persevere in developing their artistry—or as Sutner encouraged, “If you just continue down this road, anything is possible.”

To view the trailer for Sutner’s film ParaNorman, click here.