Chris Butler is a veteran of acclaimed Oregon-based stop-motion animation studio LAIKA. The Liverpool native was a storyboard supervisor on Coraline (2009), writer and co-director of ParaNorman (2012), and co-writer of Kubo and the Two Strings (2016). His latest effort for LAIKA, as writer-director, is Missing Link, opening from United Artists Releasing on April 12. The globe-trotting comedy-adventure follows the quest of furry, eight-foot-tall Sasquatch Mr. Link (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) to track down his relatives in the valley of Shangri-La, abetted by human explorers Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) and Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana). We caught up with Butler by phone following our LAIKA press tour last month.
What was the germ of this film? How did this idea come to you?
Many, many years ago, probably more than 15, I think that’s probably when I first started writing ideas for the story. One of my favorite movies growing up, one of my favorite movies now, is Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was of the generation that grew up with Indiana Jones and Star Wars. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could do an Indiana Jones–type character, but in stop-motion? Another big influence was Sherlock Holmes. I loved that as a kid. There was something really tantalizing about the Victorian world. So I just thought, what if I combined the two, and what if the adventure this character was seeking [involved] mythical creatures? I think probably the reasoning for that was the [Ray] Harryhausen influence—I wanted to honor the tradition of stop-motion monsters, these big old-fashioned epic movies. So it was a little bit of a grab bag of everything that I loved as a kid thrown into the blender. And this is what came out.
So is Lionel close to your image of Sherlock Holmes in those films, or is there an extra element you added?
Well, there’s definitely something else. I didn’t want to ape anything, pun not intended. I wanted to create a character who was eccentric and brilliant and really passionate about his pursuits, which is definitely the case for Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes. But I wanted him to be his own character, and what I find most appealing about any heroic character on-screen is the ones that are flawed, that have some kind of arc to their character. And it very quickly became a story about fellowship, friendship, about lost souls who were trying to find a place to belong or people to belong with. I think also it became about identity and how your identity is informed by yourself and not by what other people think of you. When all that started to formulate, it really kind of clicked together, and I’ve got this kind of Holmes and Watson duo—well, in this case it’s Holmes and his very hairy Watson—going on this big adventure to try and find their place without realizing that maybe their place is together in friendship.
Was it important for you to also include a really feisty female character in this piece?
Definitely. And she got her own callback story. I thought, wouldn’t it be great, especially given the setting in a time of great change, a time of great opportunity if you were white, British, and male. So we have this Latina who, when we first meet her, is living the confined life of a widow. The Victorian times basically dictate that her husband died, so her adventuring days are over. And so it became as much about headlining her reason to get out there as well. And then Zoe Saldana supplied the voice, and she instantly became this wonderful, kinetic character.
Did you immediately gravitate toward stop-motion animation when you were first starting your career?
No. Back when I was a kid a long time ago, the industry was predominantly 2-D. I grew up on 2-D Disney movies, before the days of CG. I think I was about six years old, probably younger actually, when I said to my mom, I want to be an animator. So I just naturally went into 2-D animation. I was a character designer, I was a storyboard artist, I was a 2-D animator for a while, and that’s what the industry was, and then of course the industry opened up into CG. But I had the opportunity to work at a studio in London that did a mix of stop-motion stuff and 2-D stuff.
I had a love for those movies, like I said. I grew up on Ray Harryhausen, Clash of the Titans, the Sinbad movies. I loved it, but my thing was drawing. And then I got the opportunity to work on Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride in London as a storyboard artist. The difference working on a stop-motion movie is, if you’re a storyboard artist trying to figure out the angle of the shots or you’re struggling to think about what you draw, you can go down and wander onto the set and that is the most inspirational thing you could possibly do. Storyboarding for stop-motion made me think more about where the camera is, how to cut from shot to shot. It made me a better filmmaker, and I think some of the limitations of stop-motion, the practical limitations, definitely informed me as a filmmaker. I liked those limitations, because I was thinking a lot more about the camera rather than fart gags, which is generally what you think of when you are a storyboard artist. I think stop-motion really made me into a filmmaker. You are in this tactile world. When you draw a character and then you see it created as a three-dimensional puppet with a costume, there’s something so magical about that. In our childhood, we play with toys because we imagine them coming to life. That’s kind of what we’re still doing here—we’re tapping into that childlike wonder about seeing these toys come to life.
What scenes were huge challenges for you on this project?
The biggest challenge is that it’s a travelogue, a journey around the world. I’ve described it as: If David Lean made Around the World in 80 Days starring Laurel and Hardy. That was what we were going for. And that is no small order for stop-motion, because you have to build the world you’re traveling. But over the last 13 years, we’ve been honing our craft. We’ve been grasping whatever technological advancements we can get our hands on in order to further the craft, and pushing the boundaries of stop-motion. So I think it’s only now that we could make a movie of this size. It’s definitely the most ambitious movie that we have ever made. I know we say that every time, but that’s because it’s always true. And just narratively, we don’t really stay in one location for very long. We literally crossed the world, and every one of those locations had to have its own identity and had to be designed and built from scratch.
So the scope of it was definitely a challenge. We’ve got sequences in the movie, big Spielbergian action sequences, which were hugely challenging just from a practical point of view. There’s one big fight scene at the end of the movie that takes place on a giant bridge of ice, miles up, that’s breaking apart while the character are fighting. Just logistically, that was mind-boggling.
How important is it to you that people see this movie in theaters?
The theatergoing experience is why we make these movies. We make them to be seen. There is nothing better than sitting in a dark theater with surround sound where you have this giant screen in front of you. The movies we make are so tactile, and the hope is that they are so immersive … watching them in that particular environment, I want people to feel like they can reach in and touch these puppets, reach in and be part of this world. And that really is the best way to do it, by going to a cinema and seeing it the best way possible. I think that’s also the beauty of stop-motion, that you can see that these things are real, they’re physical, and you can see all that detail when it’s on the big screen.