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Phil Knight's "Coraline" Hits Theaters

Phil Knight
AP
Phil Knight

One of the most successful entrepreneurs of all time, Nike founder Phil Knight, is now investing in new sector — one that's actually doing well in this economy — movies.

Knight shook up the sneaker business when he introduced his first running shoe and now, no surprise; he's trying something innovative in the movie industry.

Coraline, which Universal's Focus Features (GE is distributing) on 1,200 screens starting Friday is the first stop-motion animation shot stereoscopically for 3-D. This is the first 3-D venture and the first movie from Laika, a stop-motion production house Knight bought in 2002, which has mostly made commercials.

Stop motion is a technique of shooting miniature models, using a different shot for every frame of the film. (Remember the Claymation California Raisins?) Shooting it stereoscopically means there are two cameras, rigged up so they each take a shot for every frame-- effectively one for each eye, so it really looks 3-D. It's incredibly time intensive -- more than 1,000 different pairs of hands were made for the characters and Knight says there were 450 different faces for the Coraline character herself. Because people are physically making all the characters and backdrops there's something very real about it, in contrast to the animation we're now used to.

Knight was introduced to stop-motion animation by his son Travis, a long-time animator and now the lead animator on Coraline. When Laika was having financial troubles in 2002, he saw an opportunity and bought the company. Knight told me in a first on CNBC interview: "A good investment is a little bit of an oxymoron when you're talking about movies; it could be a gamble if it comes out, but it's more gambling than business."

This was a pricey gamble—Laika tells me the movie cost $70 million to make, which means it'll have to be a huge hit to be profitable. And Knight doesn't take the investment lightly—he helped select the Coraline book into a movie and he was a frequent presence on the set. He also says that stop motion, if done right, can be fairly economical. In this weak economy maybe Knight's smarter to sell movies than sneakers—people are still filling theaters. Now we'll see if Coraline can do just that this weekend.

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