Dale Wahl is used to Laika Entertainment, the fledgling feature animation operation owned by Nike chairman and co-founder Phil Knight, being viewed sceptically by the Hollywood establishment.

"It's kind of expected," says Wahl, who 18 months ago became president and CEO of Laika Inc after a 16-year stint with Knight's giant sportswear company. "We got the same response at Nike. He started Nike with a bunch of lawyers and accountants and people said, 'What are you guys doing in the shoe business.' His response was, 'We're smart guys, we'll figure it out.'"

Now Laika, with help from some respected film industry names, is aiming to figure out the business of making animated features. Knight - who Wahl says is as passionate about movies as he is about sport - made his initial move in the business in 2003, when he bought commercials and TV animation company Vinton Studios. In 2005, Vinton was reborn as Laika Inc, a Portland, Oregon-based entity active in commercial production and animated features.

Feature division Laika Entertainment has already made the award-winning CG-animated short Moongirl, from acclaimed director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas). And the division will go into production soon on the first project in a slate of $50m-$70m features using a variety of animation techniques.

Coraline - again directed by Selick and said to be the first stop-motion animated feature to be originally shot in 3D - is being produced with Bill Mechanic's Pandemonium Films and will be distributed worldwide (probably in 2008) by Focus Features. At least two other projects are in development.

To compete in the increasingly crowded field of independent US animation companies, Laika, Wahl believes, must focus first on material. "If I were to name one key component, it's story," he asserts. "And then you need some very creative animation, art and character talent."

Laika has already signed up Selick as the company's supervising director. Veteran writer, director and story-development artist Jorgen Klubien has joined the staff as a director of story for feature film. And former Oxford University Press Children's Books publishing director Fiona Kenshole has been appointed head of worldwide literary scouting.

Eventually, says Wahl, Laika will have around 500 people working on entertainment projects. And in about three years' time, those employees will move to a new 30-acre, state-of-the-art animation campus the company recently commissioned near Portland.


Coraline (pre-production): A young girl discovers a magical version of her own life through a secret door in her new apartment. Based on the children's novel by Neil Gaiman, adapted and directed by Henry Selick. Voice cast includes Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Ian McShane, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.

Jack & Ben's Animated Adventure (development): A CG-animated story of brotherly love set in the animal kingdom. Written and directed by Jorgen Klubien.

Here Be Monsters (development): Based on the acclaimed 2005 British children's novel by Alan Snow about the quirky inhabitants of Ratbridge.