[Warning: this article, based on a set visit, contains spoilers. Nothing that the studio thinks will ruin your viewing experience, but if you wish to go in knowing nothing, avert your gaze now.]
“If you must blink, do it now.”
Thus begins Kubo and the Two Strings, the action-fantasy samurai tale that is Laika‘s newest stop-motion animated feature. We open with the woman in the boat that you’ve seen in the trailer, using her magical stringed instrument (it’s called a shamisen) to slice giant waves in half in an attempt to manage safe passage across a violent ocean.
But a Perfect Storm-style wave is still too much and she is sucked under, hitting her head on a rock and unleashing a red mist of blood. She washes up on shore, barely conscious, along with her backpack that has the mark of an insect upon it.
Inside the backpack is a baby, and the narration tells us that “his grandfather stole something from him…” as we see that the child has only one eye.
Fade to years later. The baby Kubo is a boy, and the backpack he was carried in is now his shirt. His mother is scar-faced and silent, as if brain-damaged from the rock all those years ago. Kubo must guide her to her food and feed her, as he folds paper into various animals…all of whom will later appear as real characters in his adventure to come.
A bell rings far below them, as it is revealed that Kubo and his mother live in a cave atop a giant, angular cliff. A town lies below.
Later, in the town, amid basket makers, Go players, and the occasional dragon puppet, Kubo prepares to ply his own wares. After laying out his mat, he repeats the phrase that began his own tale as we see it: “If you must blink, do it now.” Using the shamisen, he does not slice through waves, but rather brings his origami figures to life, enacting the story of a samurai named Hanso and his battle with the Moon King. To win, Hanso needs the “sword unbreakable, breastplate impenetrable, and helmet invulnerable.”
He slices the legs off a paper spider. Is eaten by a paper shark and cuts his way out. And then…a fire-breathing chicken? Yes, an elderly beggar friend of Kubo’s had earlier suggested it as a bit of comic relief. The crowd eats it up. But right as Hanso is about to finally face the Moon King, the bell rings. The origami figures fall into paper sheets. Kubo tells the crowd to come back tomorrow.
You could miss a lot by blinking at Laika’s studio in Portland, Oregon. There are whole worlds inside. Among the sights are rows of puppet faces like a stylized equivalent of Game of Thrones‘ House of Black and White, large forests that look like the greatest Star Wars Endor playset of all time, and a 16-foot-tall skeleton (with a 20-foot reach!) said to be the largest stop-motion puppet ever created. Bringing folded paper to life seems like a relatively simple task compared to activating a 10-foot tall floating eye-creature, through the use of a custom track-ball made out of a full-sized bowling ball and two disassembled optical mice.
But if you notice the parallels, you’re not alone, says Laika CEO and Kubo director Travis Knight: “Kubo is essentially a proxy for me. He’s a kid, he’s a story teller, he’s an animator, really, when you think about it. His whole world revolves around his mother. He goes on this journey of exploration, this journey of discovery over the course of the film. This classic, kind of Joseph Campbell hero’s journey. And it really is about that point in our lives when we’re crossing the Rubicon from childhood to adulthood, and the things that we gain and the things that we leave behind along the way.” Knight animated the beach sequence himself, telling us, “I always keep wanting to get my hands dirty, to get my hands actually creating the stuff, not just calling the shots. So it was important to me, even as tricky as it was to schedule, and as much havoc as it wreaked on my life, to try to find those moments where I actually could still get out on set and bring something to life a frame at a time.”
Kubo’s journey takes him on a quest through a magical world, accompanied by a humanoid beetle/samurai hybrid named Beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) and a maternal ape named Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron). It’s a world that had to be created from scratch, one that will only ever exist in the studio, and even then, just partially. Back when they made Coraline, the first feature under the Laika brand, director Henry Selick insisted that everything seen in the film should be a real object at some point. Says visual effects supervisor Steve Emerson, “For the most part, Henry got what he wanted.” From ParaNorman onward, however, the buzz-phrase has been “hybrid films,” or as Emerson puts it, “Storytelling without limitations.”
“A lot of times you’re asked to make concessions right out of the gates,” he says of stop-motion. “You look at classic stop-motion films: not a lot of puppets, not a lot of environments, not a lot of big effects.” The average stop-motion producer would look at a script, see a crowd scene, and simply rule that it would have to go, or be set somewhere else. Not this time. When Kubo’s doing his origami show for the village, he is a stop-motion puppet, but the crowd are computer-generated. And if Laika has done their job, you’ll never tell the difference (I certainly didn’t on first viewing). Every CG character goes through the same design process as the real ones, even down to having a physical maquette made, so that if need be, one can be placed on the set just to see how the lighting falls upon it.
As for the lead characters, Laika’s rather famous for using 3D printing to get the full range of facial expressions for their characters. If you saw Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa (not a Laika movie, but also stop-motion) you may have noticed how the faces of the characters had a seam line at the brow—this is normal, to save having to swap out a face completely if, for example, the only change in expression is a raised eyebrow. Kaufman showed all the seams in his work, literally and metaphorically, but Laika digitally erases that line, which would be distracting in their more immersive realms.
You might think 3D printing makes the animation easier, but head of production Arianne Sutner is quick to disabuse anyone of that notion: “Don’t let Brian [McLean, supervisor of rapid prototype] tell you it makes things easier. It does not. But what it does do is bring you more repeatable, subtle and better animation.”
McLean, it turns out, had no intention of any such thing, as he broke down the company’s history of printing. On Coraline, they used a plastic printer, but “the downside is it was all one color,” says McLean. So each expression had to be hand painted. For ParaNorman, they got a color printer, but the material it uses is compressed powder with “the texture of wet chalk…it’s not very repeatable.” Fine detail was harder to get, and the parts would come out very fragile, having to be dipped into vats of superglue.
For Kubo, they went to the printer company and asked them what they had in the works that was new and unreleased, and learned that there was a prototype plastic printer that could mix up to three colors. The Laika team liked the software, but asked if they could play around with the hardware, and in the end, customized their own. Monkey, who is cyan, magenta, and white, was made from this printer. The humans, who need more subtle shade gradations to appear recognizably human to us other humans, are still powder.
To a toy collector like myself, Monkey in final form is like a dream of what action figure technology could someday be, featuring “squish and stretch” realistic anatomy movement. Fitting over a metal armature is a muscle “suit,” then a fluffy “fur” suit, with the fluff separated into layers by combed-in silicone gel, such that every piece of fur can then be hand-animated (the human characters have genuine human hair, also stylized with silicone). For the villainous characters known only as Sisters, their capes that become wings include 183 individual hand-made feathers, with piano wire woven in and ball joints up the spine.
Kubo himself stands about 9.5 inches. Keep that in mind when you look at the images of him standing in the sets. And with all the faces printed for him—separate brows included—he has around 48 million possible facial expressions. His origami figures are actually created in paper origami first to make sure they can be done, then reproduced in Tyvek, which doesn’t tear. Costumes are a whole different department, with the 50 layers of silk in a Heiyan kimono cheated slightly by using bendable metal inserts that allow it to hand like a larger garment would.
For all Laika films, says assistant art director Phil Brotherton, they start with a “nugget.” For Coraline, a Japanese graphic artist. For ParaNorman, a particular New England town (he won’t say which one, but Salem would be the obvious guess) got them going. In The Boxtrolls, it was the idea of “the nervous line,” i.e. nothing was ever straight or parallel. For Kubo, it was Japanese block artist Kioyoshi Saito, who was influenced by European artwork and had patterns running throughout. And a bit of “the nervous line” remained, too, as we were shown on a miniature chest of drawers where one was slightly crooked. The Japanese call this “wabi-sabi”—beauty in imperfection.
The main thing designers had to remember was to keep everything appropriately stylized. Says Emerson, “They never just want a cloud. They want a cloud that’s made out of, like, tool or gauze or some kind of crazy material…A lot of tools are made to create atmospheric elements, but they’re not necessarily made to create atmospheric elements that are made of different types of material.” The art department had to have reference boards at all times for the movie’s style, or else something Brotherton calls “style drift” might happen. In this situation, you think you know what wood looks like, but you forget what wood specifically looks like in this world. “It’s surprising how hard it can be to make something not look like tree bark and yet still feel like tree bark.”
For Knight, who is an animator, none of this was new…but working with Academy Award-winning actors was. And he soon realized, he says, that it was too superheroic a task to do absolutely everything: “Early on, going back two years ago, we were just getting started on shooting. I thought, ‘Oh, yeah! I can do this! I can animate, and I can direct, and I can run the company all at the same time. No problem!’ I looked at models—Ben Affleck. Ben Affleck can act and direct, so clearly I’m as good as Ben Affleck! [pause] I’m not as good as Ben Affleck, it turns out.”
Directing people, it turns out, is the exact opposite of directing maquettes. “Going into it, it was… I’ll say this: I approached it kind of from an animator’s perspective. Animators typically work from the inside out,” says Knight. “By that I mean the animator will, working with the director, will figure out what the emotional core is of a particular scene that they’re working on. When the character is angry or rude, where that is coming from, then try to figure out physical gestures, movements that indicate that emotion, to clearly communicate the idea. Actors, oftentimes, work from the outside in. As a director, you work with them from the outside you. You do not tell them ‘Oh, you’ve got to be mad here.’ That’s a no-no. You’ve got to try to figure out, create a circumstance, a situation where they can actually feel that emotion, and give you an authentic performance.”
Because the voice acting is recorded first, and often separately by the actors, it isn’t possible for them to play off of one another as they would in person. To compensate, Knight had them say the lines many different ways, to allow for the differences any other actor might bring to the table in interpretation. He tells us, “We can’t shoot it, so we get the actors to play the roles in a number of different ways, just to make sure those things will work when we end up putting them together in the editing room. And that feels weird for an actor. That’s a strange thing to put them into, playing a scene in a way that feels wrong to them. But these guys were all extraordinary pros, and they did a lot of great stuff.” He mentions that for a scene in which Matthew McConaughey had to sound like he was really exerting himself, “he’s on the ground, cranking out an inhuman amount of push-ups, just to get his breathing and his voice in a certain way.”
And that brings us back to the second scene we got to see: a battle scene. In this one, Kubo and Monkey and Beetle are in the Temple of Bones—in reality, a fully created floor with just one manufactured wall and the rest green-screened (many sets are often done in miniature and then composited with the characters later). Beetle is flat on his back, like an actual upside-down bug, and is (in that McConaughey drawl) rejecting assistance at first with a, “No, no, no…yes.” He agrees to be helped, and then demonstrates he can crawl like a bug as well as stand like a man.
They appear to be searching for the Sword Unbreakable, and see it ahead, held in a giant skeletal hand. Beetle recklessly forges ahead and removes it, saying he’s got this…and then all the bones lying around rise into the air, forming the giant skeleton we saw before (when you see it onscreen, bear in mind that you are probably seeing it at actual size, though a smaller model was made for wider shots). “I don’t got this!” (Beetle is evidently from the Deep South of feudal Japan.)
Monkey tries the Sword Unbreakable, and it breaks. “Not the right sword, you idiot!” says Monkey.
“I’ve got a bone to pick with you!” says Beetle, to the skeleton. “See, because he’s made of bones.” And then they notice that the giant has multiple swords embedded in the top of his head. The scale is such that they just look like hairs from a distance.
Kubo animates some paper birds to distract the monster, which brings its foot down onto Beetle, who yells, “Oh, ffffoot!” before taking to the air.
Kubo: “You can fly?”
Beetle: “Apparently! Yes!”
The rest of the scene will have to wait for August 19. The new feature film is an exciting prospect, but don’t expect Laika to imitate Pixar in having a short film attached. Says Knight, “I think they take a loss on the shorts, too. You always do. You can’t monetize them. There’s virtually no way to monetize a short. So there’s all that. As a business model, it doesn’t work. As a creative thing, it’s exciting, but we pour every ounce of energy that we have into making our movies, and I would never want to split that off. Because the same people that you want creating beautiful shorts, you want creating a beautiful movie.”
If you must blink, do so before August.
But before then, check out a few more images in our gallery below.
Images: LYT/Nerdist, except where otherwise specified