Like most cinephiles, my love for stop-motion animation came from three distinct pop culture touchpoints. When you’re young, you watch Rankin & Bass shorts, many of which introduce the art form through holiday celebrations. “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas” showcased subversive storytelling and iconic imagery that defined a subculture. Finally Ray Harryhausen‘s incredible breakthroughs in stop-motion redefined the form. His work on “Mighty Joe Young” (1949), “Jason and the Argonauts” and of course “The Clash of the Titans” remains iconic to this day. Today, LAIKA Studios has taken up the mantle of stop-motion animation over the past decade.
The animation studio first grew in the public consciousness with “Coraline” ten years ago. Henry Sellick‘s dark tale became the first use of 3D printing technology to create its characters. Before, a puppet was hand sculpted from a model. In 2015, the Academy recognized the breakthrough of LAIKA’s work. They were rewarded a Scientific and Technical Award for the use of rapid prototyping technology and 3D printing techniques.
For many studios, this would be a moment of celebration and validation. For LAIKA, it meant they could go even further. They continued to innovate on each subsequent film, and now they are looking to change the game once more. Their latest film, “Missing Link,” opens April 12, 2019. With the release date around the corner, AwardsCircuit was invited to visit LAIKA Studios and the “Missing Link” set. Time and time again, we heard how ambitious their latest adventure comedy has been for the studio. I can say with certainty, that calling “Missing Link” ambitious does not even begin to describe the breakthroughs LAIKA accomplished on this film.
“Missing Link” Director Chris Butler and Producer Arianne Sutner
The story of “Missing Link” begins with Oscar-nominated director Chris Butler. He began conceptualizing the story more than a decade ago. He thought “wouldn’t it be cool if there was an Indiana Jones for stop-motion?,” a gigantic feat for the style. Today, he can present the fruits of that dream. “A little bit Indiana Jones, a little bit Sherlock Holmes, and a little bit of Ray Harryhausen’s creatures” might be the perfect description of Butler’s story. Additionally, he wanted to expand the use of color from other LAIKA pictures. Due to technological restraints on the 3D printing process, many relied on a limited color palette in their character design. On “Missing Link,” this was not the case. Expanding the story and visual language of “Missing Link” turned it into a “kaleidoscopic travelogue” with more than sixty locations. Combined with more puppets, special effects, and brilliant costumes, his latest feature became a deceptively large undertaking.
Oscar-nominated producer Arianne Sutner knew that the success of “Kubo and the Two Strings” helped raise the profile of the studio, but they didn’t want to be confined.
“We’re trying to work in every different kind of genre. We might do a romantic comedy or a musical, but within that genre we want to make it the best we ever have. We do seem to want to push the boundaries of stop-motion as an art form. When Chris is writing his screenplay, we don’t want him to be hampered by what we’ve brought to the screen. We want to have the tools to make that happen.”
Costume Designer Deborah Cook
After watching a thirty-minute sizzle reel, we began discussions with the crew on the making of the movie itself. Deborah Cook, who received a nomination from the Costume Design Guild for “Kubo,” explained her influences on the feature. In designing the costumes, she drew from diverse styles and artists, including Errol le Cain, Jacobean embroidery, and William Morris.
She constructed elaborate synthetics and fabrics in-house in order to create material that shines in the extreme close-ups of stop-motion filmmaking. Utilizing laser cutting, digital stitching, and other techniques, her team crafted period-specific, yet functional costumes. These designs are so detailed, they can be recreated on larger scales and maintain their complexity. With larger, blown up pieces, the stitching is as intricate and gorgeous as you could imagine.
LAIKA Puppets with John Craney
Other LAIKA department heads explained the difficulties of the puppets themselves. John Craney, the Head of Puppets, gave us demonstrations of advancements in the building process. Using a skeleton of Susan, the Sasquatch of “Missing Link,” Craney showed how the armatures have grown in complexity in recent years. LAIKA can accomplish far more complex, yet subtle movements with each character. With the help of gears, they can now, breathe, blink, and even move the facial muscles without disrupting the shot.
3D Printing Technology and Rapid Prototyping with Brian McLean
The technology in the puppets was matched by the ability to craft more complex faces in the characters. Brian McLean, one of the recipients of the Science and Technology Oscar, showed us the technology firsthand. Not only did he run us through the process of 3D printing, but he showed off the process of changing a puppet’s face. Utilizing magnetic faceplates and an Exacto knife, he altered a character’s eyes and facial expression in less than sixty seconds.
For “Kubo,” LAIKA printed 64,000 faces, a number that tripled the 20,000 for “Coraline” less than a decade earlier. With “Missing Link,” they printed more than 106,000 unique faces for character animation. Rather than reusing ill-fitting faces for multiple shots, LAIKA could instead build faces for a single frame of the film. For a company that has already pushed the boundaries of 3D printing, LAIKA took a daring, but massive step forward.
Production Design with Nelson Lowry
Perhaps the most thrilling piece of the studio was the set tour. Nelson Lowry provided us a view of the production design through a dozen separate locations and stages. Using travel magazines and Kodachrome images as inspiration, they created the world of “Missing Link” in extensive detail. Lowry explained that when you break down the script of “Missing Link,” we travel to a new world every five to six minutes. Lowry’s team built more than sixty total sets. Some were built for wide angle and establishing shots, such as a view of a small town or valley. The team designed others for close-ups of the characters interacting with the environment. We traveled past an ocean liner, a town in the old west, the forests of the Pacific Northwest, London, and even through the snowy mountains of the Himalayas.
It became clear as we walked between the sets that there no film will travel to as many diverse and strange locations as “Missing Link” does to achieve its narrative. Nor will any contain as much detail. Everything built for “Missing Link” features visually unique color pallets that remain distinct from one another. Yet there were slight similarities, drawing parallels between wildly different environments. Once again the team echoed the idea of “Missing Link” as an ambitious film, yet even that description could not capture the impressive design elements in each beautiful setting. There is so much detail in each sequence, many Oscar-nominated films (such as 2009’s “Sherlock Holmes”) would bow down to the specificity of the designs.
Rigging with Ollie Jones
Ollie Jones, the head of rigging, also showcased the importance of practical effects in a stop-motion production. In various sets, he displayed how his technology and team can create steady pieces of motion, that can later be digitally removed from the feature. It is a thankless job but adds incredible value to the project. One such example was a close up of Susan’s butt as his pants split while he is stretching. With a few gear turns, we could watch a seam split, in camera. Another rig allowed the curtains and individual tassels of a train to move independently of the characters in the shot. We were informed later in the day, that the effects specialists removed more than 1,000 rigs from various shots. This is an essential piece of LAIKA’s success, that can easily go unnoticed by the layman. Yet Jones’ work could be one of the most important aspects of the “Missing Link.”
Visual Effects with Steve Emerson
We concluded our tour by meeting with the head of visual effects, Steve Emerson. Emerson, Jones, Brad Schiff, and McLean’s collaborations made “Kubo” the first film to earn a Best Animated Feature and Best Visual Effects nominations in the same year. Emerson preached creating “hybrid films” that utilize CG and practical effects to fully realize the potential of stop-motion animation. Rather than “simplifying stories,” Emerson collaborated with the other heads of department to extend sets, build more puppets, and add elemental features that adds new dimensions to the footage.
Needless to say, “Missing Link” features a significant amount of visual effects. The VFX team created 182 digital background characters throughout the film. These characters, inserted to the background of the world, had to also be unique to their location in the world. Digital inserts in a film like “Kubo” allowed for some repetition because the entire story takes place within a singular culture. This was not the case for “Missing Link” as a travelogue.
This presented additional problems when creating digital props. “Missing Link” contains more 1,486 shots. Within that, there are more than 500 additional digital elements. An item that might be used in the Pacific Northwest is likely not available in the Himalayas. Extensions had to match the complexity of the existing sets, many of which extremely detailed. Even the use of water and fire changed from “Kubo,” with more than 460 shots incorporating steam, water, clouds, snow, and other elements of the natural world.
LAIKA created an impressive, robust world with “Missing Link.” As a technical feat, it represents a massive step forward for stop-motion. LAIKA pushed “Kubo and the Two Strings” into Oscar races we have never seen before. “Missing Link” should continue that trend. Look for the latest work to realistically compete in production design, visual effects, and costume design if our tour was any indication. LAIKA put themselves on the map for their complexity in creating these films. With the tenth anniversary of “Coraline” this year, it might be time to reward the technical breakthroughs of the incredible animation studio.