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Exploring the Magical World of MISSING LINK at Laika Studios
Through films like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, Oregon’s Laika Studios has led the charge to preserve stop-motion artistry, pushing forward decades-old techniques with technological advancements that simultaneously make the nuts-and-bolts process easier and challenge filmmakers to use it in innovative, dynamic new ways. Missing Link, Laika’s latest, is a wild, brightly-colored adventure that marks their most ambitious effort yet, featuring dozens of locations, a lead character whose plump, fur-covered design seems like an animator’s nightmare, and generally more detail, design, and color than they’ve ever attempted before.

In anticipation of the release of Missing Link on April 12, Nerdist visited Laika Studios, nestled just outside of Portland in Hillsboro, Oregon, for a look at these incredibly complex and time-consuming processes that produce such delightful characters and stories. Producer Arianne Sutner and director Chris Butler started the tour by offering some background detail about their inspirations for the film, and its place in Laika’s growing library of projects. “This is definitely the most ambitious thing we’ve done,” Butler told reporters. “We say that every time, but every time it’s true.”

Missing Link is “brighter” than other Laika films

“We always talk about it as being a kaleidoscopic travelogue,” Butler said of the film, which he also wrote. “I wanted to do kind of like an Indiana Jones, but for stop motion. So it’s a little bit Indiana Jones, a little bit Sherlock Holmes, a little bit Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and a little bit Around The World in 80 Days. It’s this big, epic, colorful adventure. So we wanted to give you a sense of how that looks in terms of the scale. We travel halfway around the globe in this movie, and it’s a quite an impressive feat.”

Laika’s films have always skewed slightly darker than many of their animated competitors, exploring sadness, fear, and loss in a way that’s accessible to children but relatable to adults. That said, Sutner and Butler acknowledged this film is a bit sunnier than its predecessors. “Is it subversive? Yeah, I think there’s a strong element that runs through this movie,” Sutner said. “But on the face of it, it’s lighter and brighter.”

“It’s more playful for sure,” agreed Butler. “More accessible. But there’s still elements of irreverence in it, because I can’t help myself.” Sutner suggested that the expansion of locales for the story and the evolution of their techniques to incorporate more computer-generated “enhancements” of stop-motion techniques both enabled and forced that tonal shift. “Before, you were confined by the three walls or even four walls. But now we’ve been working so closely with our visual effects team and the CG side. Every shot is an old-fashioned visual effect here, but they’re able to work closely with us and kind of expand our world. And we’ve been doing that successfully.”

The costumes needed to be “indestructible”

In a room adorned with sketches, fabric swatches, vintage photographs and other reference material, costume designer Deborah Cook detailed the almost 18-month process of coming up with the outfits that each character wears in the film, combining historical and even geographic accuracy with the filmmakers’ idiosyncratic impulses. “We looked at these as a way of being able to express these concepts in the costume, which also leads into the bigger landscape of the movie,” Cook said. “You can really get a flavor of that strong, dynamic silhouette, and then this is a regional pattern which gives us a texture that we knew we could bring down into our scale and would be representative of that era.”

Cook said that in addition to being small-scale, puppet costumes must be made from different materials like silicone to accommodate the needs of the filmmaking team, whose members spend hundreds of hours moving and manipulating the characters into position on set. “If the puppets are standing in a position where their elbow might be bent or their knee might be bent over a course of time, when they come out that position we need the costume to return to its original shape,” she said. “This makes it very controllable for us.”

“They really do have to be that indestructible, because they’re going to have to last for several years,” she continued. “They get handled way more than normal clothing every day. They get handled by maintenance teams, riggers, animators, into their promotional life where they’re on display.”

The title character’s design was the “worst case scenario”

Cook indicated they use a variety of printing and stitching processes to create the right look for each costume, but seldom if ever buy anything off the shelf. “We custom make everything here as much we can because it makes us more self sufficient,” she said. “We can reproduce them as much as we want in any different scale and add in the animatable qualities we need as well rather than adapt to something that may not be available in six months time. Or, they might change manufacturers so they’ll look the same to the human eye if you’re making a life-size costume, but not on our scale.”

Unsurprisingly, puppet fabrication is one of, if not the most important part of Laika’s creative process. Creative lead John Craney explained that their 20,000 feet of the studio’s 130,000 foot space is dedicated exclusively to this department. “We maxed out at 86 fabricators for Missing Link, but the department is a smorgasbord of über-talented individuals from many different disciplines,” Craney revealed. “We have illustrators, jewelers, engineers, textile experts, hairdressers, people with pottery and ceramics backgrounds and a smattering of art school rejects that kind of reinforced the personality of the department.”

Craney indicated that the design of Link (Zach Galifianakis), the film’s hirsute main character, was essentially an encapsulation of the biggest and most unwanted challenges an animator might ever face on a project like this one. “If I asked, what’s the worst case scenario when building a character, a large, husky character covered in fur and hair over a foot tall would be it. So he was quite a challenge from the get go,” Craney said. Starting from the script, director Chris Butler works with concept sculptors to create 2D designs, and eventually maquettes. After a tremendous number of revisions and refinements, another part of that team is tasked with figuring out how that design can move, and eventually, express emotion.

“Our brief really is to create a tool for the animation department so that they can bring through a performance and the personality of the character,” Craney said. “To take a hero puppet from paper to stage in development is about nine months. That might seem extraordinary, but there’s over 250 considered components just in the armature, [which] is the foundation for performance and it’s really our starting point.”

The team came up with a whole new way of designing fur

The evolution of stop motion puppetry has a long and complex history, and Laika continues to be on the forefront of its changes and improvements, adding extra parts and devices to their characters—especially under their polished surfaces—that in some cases literally breathe life into them. “A big note on this film and going forward at Laika was that we want to bring that performance from within—let characters take a breath, or to breathe, so we were building in breathers,” Craney said. “And then we needed to deal with Link’s robust tummy, so we built in what we call a belly mover—girth control. It really accentuated that weight and that balance, and it gave him a lot of visual integrity.”

Perhaps the most amazing part of this process (to a layperson, anyway) is the creation of Link’s fur, which was undertaken in a different way than has often been done in the past. Where creatures and characters as far back as 1933’s King Kong featured hair that was virtually impossible to fully control, leading to a result called “boil and crawl” where the surface appears to dance thanks to natural contact between the animator and puppet, Laika’s determination to maintain a consistent surface—a “fur continuity” of sorts—led them to design and build their title character using a completely different technique.

“He’s mainly silicon, but we did want to give him some depth and we wanted his fur line to break without that scatter, so we came up with this beautiful cowl that you can see has this fur feel,” Craney said. “It’s a really a cool piece of sort engineering – each of these [tufts of “hair”] are fur tiles. I think there’s about 200 to 300, all individually hand placed, attached to a piece of leather. And then we have this foam insert that’s a little bit like a foam Slinky that makes it glide.”

Brian Mclean, Laika’s Head of Rapid Prototyping, further detailed how leaps in technology have facilitated better, more vivid, and more expressive animation from one film to the next. “We started this crazy process with an idea we had back on Coraline to take this age-old technique of replacement animation and fuse it with 21st century 3D printers,” Mclean explained. “Replacement animation is a technique where you essentially have a sculpt of an expression and then you’re photographing it and you’re popping that off and replacing it with a slightly different expression. [Nightmare Before Christmas’] Jack Skellington is a perfect example of replacement animation, and he had something like 800 hand-sculpted faces that were used in filming. So our idea back on Coraline back in 2006 was to take this technique and animate the faces in the computer, get really detailed performances and then send that computer file to a 3D printer.”

Although the printers helped tremendously to create the sometimes seemingly microscopic nuances needed to create a character’s full range of expression, they had drawbacks. “Coraline was beautiful and we broke a lot of ground pioneering this technique, but her face is came out in a single color of white resin – so we had to go in and hand paint each one of her facial expressions,” Mclean recalled. “It’s very laborious, and it was really limiting in the character design.”

The puppets had distinct faces for every single scene in the movie

Working with some neighboring tech companies, their studio effectively became a testing ground for using different kinds of printers and printing onto different kinds of materials that would allow the filmmakers to print or inject tiny drops of color into the molds, creating faces that already had the coloring needed to be camera-ready. Additionally, they would build each face in pieces, attached to the puppets via a complex system of magnets, that would allow them to swap one out for another during shooting without disturbing the rest of the scene or the position of the character. And finally, they built eyeballs separately, popped in and out via X-Acto knives, to have full but efficient control of as many aspects of each character’s expressions as possible. The end result is not just a much more effective production pipeline – albeit, he noted, not necessarily a cheaper one – but characters that act and react with much more verisimilitude.

“For this movie we printed over 106,000 faces, and on Coraline, to give you guys a comparison, we printed for that whole movie about 20,000 faces. But we didn’t just print faces willy nilly,” Mclean insisted. “It was all about really baking in really detailed character performances. This is the first movie in Laika’s history that we’ve been able to customize every single scene in the film from a facial animation standpoint.”

But those weren’t the only details they were able to bring to life with an accuracy and resonance unlike any even they had accomplished before. Discussing the challenges of “close-ups” and cutaways, shots typically excised from animated filmmaking due to their complexity, Head of Rigging Ollie Jones showcased a handful of large-scale displays used on Missing Link, including one of Link’s jawline (shot from within as a character examines his teeth), and another where his tail pops out of the butt of his tailored suit. As with the puppets, Jones and his team use sophisticated rigs to, say, open and close Link’s mouth, to manipulate his hanging tonsils, and generally maintain the illusion that the point of view is of a creature or character that’s the same size as in wider or full-body shots.

Afterward, production designer Nelson Lowry provided a tour of sets used on the film, including a train station, the forest setting where Link is first discovered by Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), Link’s literature-filled cave, a room outside Adelina’s (Zoe Saldana) study where floor tiles and bottled-glass windows cast beautiful, lifelike shadows on miniature potted foliage, an old frontier town where Link and his companions’ horses trudge through mud, and a marble-clad room where a fireplace rages and a servant hovers expectantly in the corner. In many cases, both exteriors and interior are created for the sets so they’re able to be moved and manipulated to accommodate the characters. Like with the costumes and characters themselves, the sets were designed and engineered to match the real-life locales they are effectively fictionalizing, with the intention of being respectful and sensitive to the cultures and individuals who live there and are part of them.

Though most of the sets had been dismantled or stricken after shooting, there were a handful that still featured lighting and character rigs that would help animators manipulate Link and his friends, provide them with overall and key lights, and support other little details that would later seem to move or exist on their own after the filmmakers erased the latticework of metal rods with CGI. Visual Effects Supervisor Steve Emerson would later show us a “sizzle reel” of footage from the film where computers were used to clean up, augment and amplify the incredible handmade design work on each set to create a tangible, interconnected series of locations where snow falls, wind blows, mud flies, oceans rage and other sorts of environment effects exert an influence on the characters and story.

Missing Link takes its characters to so many recognizable places

“The idea was, let’s tell the stories that we want to tell without limitations,” Emerson said. “Let’s leverage technology in order to do that, but if we’re going to be integrating digital elements into these films, we want to make sure that we do so in a way that’s very carefully done and ultimately respectful of the art of stop motion animation. And really what that comes down to is it’s all about collaboration. So if we’re making a background character that’s going to go into a shot, the visual effects team is working very, very closely with puppet department. They’re guiding us in terms of materials and design, and they are reviewing our efforts. It’s a very, very intensely collaborative process.

Emerson reiterated that the scope of Missing Link was bigger than any of Laika’s previous films, and quite possibly bigger than almost any animated film ever made. “We’re on a worldwide adventure throughout Earth. We start in London and then we go to the Pacific Northwest. We go to Santa Fe, California. We cross America. We go to New York and across the Atlantic Ocean, where we end up in France. We go across Switzerland, through India, to the base of the Himalayas. We climb the Himalayas and finally make it to the magical valley of Shangri La.”

“Needless to say, if you have a background character in particular costume carrying a prop in India, it’s not going to work in the Pacific northwest,” he observed. “So what this meant was many more props, more background characters, more wardrobe. And we were making sure that we were being respectful of all of these different cultures as we’re building a lot more stuff—and plenty of it was going to end up being digital.”

Missing Link is very much its own beast

Watching the end result on the screen, there’s an absolute deluge of information and effort that never gets seen by viewers; not only do they not know about the sometimes multi-year process of simply designing the characters and figuring out how to effectively animate them, but they never see the thousands of man-hours that go into building sets from the ground up, populating them with props and decorations and eventually, characters, and then moving those characters several thousand times in just the slightest ways to make their movements and behavior seem smooth and believable. The sets, now taken apart and empty, loom over the characters’ heads as if hundreds of feet high rather than just a few inches. The atmosphere created through lighting and cinematography feels like true movie magic, transforming this tiny, meticulous work into believable spaces where puppets become flesh-and-blood people.

Stumping for the company she’s been a part of now for more than a decade, producer Arianne Sutner acknowledged that Laika is standing on the shoulders of giants, but aims to reach new and previously unimaginable heights—the thing the sets them apart, even more than their techniques, in an increasingly crowded moviemaking landscape. “I’m so proud of the place that we have. I mean, what am I going to say?” Sutner laughed. “But it is so important that we are here. We are doing very personal movies, and I think nobody else is doing exactly what we’re doing so well.”

“What I’m so proud of is that what you’re seeing doesn’t look or feel like another movie, including our own,” Sutner said. “On every movie we want to do something different than the last. I think we have a unique identity and we are competing with all of those other movies, tent pole movies too, so it’s kind of a tough world out there. But we give it our all, and we make, I think, these little perfect gems of movies.”

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