No Stopping LAIKA: A Tour of the Pioneering Stop-Motion Animation Studio Behind ‘Missing Link’

Mr. Link voiced by Zach Galifianakis in director Chris Butler’s MISSING LINK, a Laika Studios Production and Annapurna Pictures release. Credit : Laika Studios / Annapurna Pictures
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There is magic happening behind the bland exterior of a 120,000-square-foot warehouse in Hillsboro, Oregon, 17 miles west of Portland. Inside is the headquarters of LAIKA, one of the most artistically adventurous animation studios of our time. It’s there that a team of brilliant craftspeople, under the supervision of CEO Travis Knight, has created four wondrous, critically acclaimed stop-motion features: Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014), and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016).

Their fifth feature, Missing Link, is due in theaters on April 12 from United Artists Releasing. The globe-spanning comedy-adventure centers on the quest of furry, eight-foot-tall 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).

This writer eagerly accepted an invitation to take a five-hour tour of the LAIKA facility and hear firsthand from some of its key artisans how they bring their movies’ dazzling worlds to life.

Head of production Arianne Sutner, a producer on Missing Link, Kubo, and ParaNorman, compares LAIKA to “Pinewood in its heyday, an old-fashioned studio with real lights and real space.” And, indeed, the cavernous building overwhelms with its array of color-coded sets separated by floor-to-ceiling black curtains: 110 sets representing 65 wildly varying locations, all dressed for the lighting and manipulation of Missing Link’s stop-motion stars.

The stop-motion figures are at the heart of the filmmaking process, but LAIKA also embraces the integration of computer-generated imagery. “Every pixel is touched by CG,” Sutner freely reveals. Elements like water and scenic vistas are CG, and so are many of the background characters. Faces are “real hard objects,” she notes, but their expressiveness is computer-enhanced. But every LAIKA project has a director of photography lighting it like a traditional live-action movie. The combination of techniques is seamless in the finished product.

Unlike, say, the people at British stop-motion pioneer Aardman, who favor a “hands-on” aesthetic (you can actually see finger impressions on their figures), LAIKA strives for a naturalistic style, Sutner notes. “We want everyone to forget they are puppets.” To that end, the studio has even perfected an apparatus to simulate breathing by its stop-motion figures.

Thirty-one animators worked on Missing Link over its 92 weeks of principal photography. It’s an extraordinarily painstaking process: Production manager Dan Pascall says the goal of each animator is to complete 4.3 seconds of footage a week.

Writer-director Chris Butler, who previously co-directed ParaNorman, came up with the original idea for Missing Link. Although the atmosphere at LAIKA is “very collaborative,” Sutner says, “These are personal stories we’re telling—we’re not run by committee.”

Sutner is proud of the bittersweet quality of LAIKA’s previous output but notes that the overall tone of Missing Link is a bit sweeter this time. And, with its spectacularly diverse settings, she promises that LAIKA’s latest is “a kaleidoscopic color explosion.”

Production designer Nelson Lowry, one of only four concept artists on the project, says he was excited to do something “bright and poppy” for this globetrotting adventure. “Chris Butler had some key elements that he wanted to put forth. One was National Geographic magazine of the ’50s and ’60s—it brought the world into people’s homes, and there was a certain printing quality back then, very rich, saturated colors. Then he loved the patterning of the Victorian era; sometimes we think of that era as Dickensian, sepia or washed out, but of course back then it wasn’t. It was bright and colorful and new.

“And then the other thing Chris sent my way was some brilliant character designs. They’re very stylized—you almost don’t notice it, because they’re very recognizable as characters you might know, but Sir Lionel is an absurd abstraction of a person. He has a tube of a head with a triangle nose. So our job is to make the world reflect all those sensibilities.”

A Western saloon set from Missing Link.

Because the character designs are so elemental, Lowry explains, “they would walk into a room that isn’t that detailed. So I melt down the details and, with the director, try to make them more important to directly driving the story or helping to describe a character and his environment. None of the details is arbitrary—it’s all story driven.”

The characters themselves are the responsibility of an array of departments: armature, molding, casting, costume, paint, hair, and sculpting. According to puppet fabrication supervisor John Craney, the LAIKA puppet department occupies about 20,000 square feet and can accommodate as many as 100 fabrication artists, including jewelers, illustrators, engineers, textile experts, and hairdressers.

“Any experienced puppet maker, if asked, what’s the worst-case scenario for a character puppet? A large, husky character covered with hair and fur, and over a foot tall,” says Craney. The process begins with a concept sculptor named Kent Melton, whose work goes back to Coraline. Once his maquette is approved by the director, a series of castings is distributed to the various departments.

Armature is “the foundation of performance,” Craney attests, and that skeleton takes at least nine months to refine. The movie’s Mr. Link consisted of more than 250 discrete parts; the production worked with 11 naked Links and 12 clothed figures. All the armature’s joints are manufactured in-house; all the hundreds of tiny pieces of urethane “fur” are hand painted. And the technology keeps advancing. Craney says, “Our engineering is really stepping beyond, and getting into Swiss-watch territory as we try to miniaturize some of these maquettes.” Though LAIKA has come to rely more and more on CGI, for the primary performances, Craney insists, “This is a stop-motion animation studio, and we’re as analog as we can get.”

When Kubo and the Two Strings opened in 2016, some pundits observed that it fully deserved an Oscar nomination for costume design. And after meeting Deborah Cook, costume designer for Missing Link and LAIKA’s three previous films, I’m more convinced than ever that stop-motion films merit serious consideration in that category.

Some of Deborah Cook’s costume designs and fabric swatches.

Cook began her part of the studio tour explaining her “board of inspirations” for Missing Link, which is set around the turn of the last century. The board included examples of sewing and fabrication techniques from the period, and the work of two illustrators whom director Chris Butler admires, Errol Le Cain and Henri Rousseau.

The fashions of the day posed a particular challenge. “For Lionel’s suit,” she says, “we had to find a way of creating houndstooth, which is notoriously awful to shoot digitally … We had to work out how to get the size of the squares to trick our pixels in our digital camera … The shape [actually] can’t be a square. We landed on interlocking star shapes. That’s quite novel to be able to achieve that. When we were shooting Coraline, for example, the father’s jacket had a small plaid, and the lines being parallel and the small squares and the fabric weave being linear were just a nightmare for the camera. We ended up having to dye the entire jacket into brown over and over again to dull it down until it didn’t moiré anymore. Now we know what we’re playing with, and to be able to create our own fabrics and textures on-site, we can control it a lot more.”

Adventurer Adelina’s outfits reflect her boldness. “She’s wearing a swan-bill corset, which was a huge shift from cumbersome Victorian bustles—way more flattering and curvy and flexible. It gave women a lot more mobility. And she’s also wearing pants, which is extremely daring—this would almost be considered underwear at the cusp of the 20th century. This was worn by women in the gymnasium, indoors, or by suffragettes out on their bikes.”

Costumes for stop-motion demand more labor than one might expect. As Cook explains, “With animation, we don’t get any movement for free. In live action, if I move my arm, my sleeve moves with it. That doesn’t happen here. We have to engineer every single move. So all of these costumes have some kind of engineering structure underneath them to be able to move them—different gauge wires or some kind of mesh lining.” Because the animation is so exacting, “every surface crease and fold is identical across all the duplicates … Being able to reproduce and duplicate, that is huge in our world.”

Designing a costume for a lead character takes several months, Cook says, “but there’s a lot of development done up front. I’ve been working on our next film for three years already, and we’ve just gotten to building our first character costume.”

The LAIKA characters and their costumes are “built to last,” Cook notes. “These characters have to last a really long time, way longer than any item of clothing. There are giant crews of people that work on these, and they’re handled by those people every day. They’re handled by the animators under strong lights, which can change the color and create a huge amount of wear. The costumes get cut into and restitched as they’re rigged for shooting. And then they get to go on their own promotional tours—they travel the world in cases and are handled by set builders and display artists who aren’t familiar with how delicate they are.”

Each of LAIKA’s first four movies has been nominated for an Oscar in the Animated Feature category, and the studio has yet to win. But LAIKA can claim an Academy Scientific and Engineering Award (shared by Brian McLean and Martin Meunier) for their pioneering use of rapid prototyping via 3-D printing of elements for their stop-motion animation. McLean, director of rapid prototyping, guided us through the progress the company has made in this arena, from their first basic 2005 3-D printer that generated thousands of white plastic faces to be subsequently hand painted, to the color 3-D printer used for ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and Kubo that layered color glue onto a white powder (with often fragile results), to the new Stratasys J750 full-color resin printer that printed over 106,000 faces for Missing Link.

The Stratasys J750 “layers down solid droplets of yellow, magenta, black, white, cyan, all in tiny voxels, or 3-D pixels,” McLean explains. “There’s something like 18 million voxels in a cubic centimeter. Tiny, tiny dots, but it’s not overlapping those dots; it’s placing those dots next to one another. And when you look at the object, it gives you the appearance of mixed color. It’s a little bit like a pointillist painting,”

But there’s a hitch. “The crazy thing about the dithering pattern and how the drops are placed next to one another, it completely changes when you change the shape of an object. The dithering pattern to produce an orange cube is different from when you produce an orange sphere. There’s a really complicated math problem going on to figure out how to get accurate color with a three-dimensional object. That’s why it took over a decade of development to come to fruition.

“We at LAIKA have made a name for ourselves in the 3-D printing world and the stop-motion world, so we don’t just accept hardware off the shelf anymore. We were very close to the development of this product. Stratasys didn’t quite have the software side of things figured out; they had wonderful hardware, but they hadn’t quite figured out the complicated math of colored droplets. So we partnered with a research facility in Germany called Fraunhofer, and they developed this advanced 3-D printing slicer for us.”

This latest 3-D printer allows the animators to produce the inner components of a character’s head, as many as 60 individual pieces. “We spend a lot of time in the computer designing and engineering the heads so that they can be assembled somewhat quickly, but they also give the animator ultimate control when out on-set … They’ll have hundreds of faces in the face kit that are specifically printed for that shot. They will have what’s called an X sheet that will give them an exact blueprint of how many frames are in their shot and when they need to put on a face and take off another face. But as they’re replacing faces, they’re also taking an X-Acto blade, of all things, and stabbing the eyeball and moving it around and also moving the lid around.”

A box of 3-D printed faces.

McLean notes, “This is the first film where we have been able to do highly customized facial animation, meaning that every single shot had a unique set of faces printed. Back on Coraline when we started this, we would create faces that were just reused over and over again for different shots.”

The Oscar winner confesses, “It was a weird thing to be coming into a stop-motion studio back in 2005 with this idea of using 3-D printers, because a lot of the stop-motion artists felt extremely threatened by CG. They suddenly saw CG coming right into their backyard. Walking through the hallways, we used to hear people saying, ‘Oh, RP [rapid prototyping] is stealing our jobs.’ It was tough. But the irony is that once people understood it was just another tool, and once you learned how to use it and stopped being intimidated by it, it suddenly opened up the horizon to do things in a whole new way, or to do things that were typically done in a traditional way but just do it faster. We use 3-D printers for faces primarily, but every other department in LAIKA is using 3-D printers for something: prototypes in the rigging department, or to facilitate mold-making in the puppet department. These are all traditional artists who are now recognizing, ‘Hey, this is an amazing tool, and I shouldn’t be intimidated by it.’ On Coraline, the rapid prototyping department was about 30 people; on Missing Link, it was close to 90 people. So we’re not needing less crew.”

Our tour also included a visit with Ollie Jones, head of rigging, who demonstrated various methods used to manipulate character movements, including a giant mouth of Mr. Link, and a Mr. Link torso with the buttons of his suit ready to burst, for whimsical close-ups.

For the grand finale, production designer Nelson Lowry took us on an often jaw-dropping tour of nearly a dozen sets from the film, ranging from impressively big to intimately scaled. There were two towering forest landscapes, one rocky and somewhat barren, the other verdant green (and the home of Mr. Link’s lair, filled with books and in a separate corner of the soundstage). There was a London streetscape out of My Fair Lady, and two meticulously detailed rooms of the explorers’ club, decked out with the heads of various black-and-white animals (and a huge stuffed polar bear in mid-lunge). A quaint railway station, a charmingly colorful model of a train, and a vintage train interior. An entire dusty Wild West town, and a saloon where some tough hombres regret tangling with Mr. Link. A rugged ocean liner that is the setting for one of the film’s most breathless action set pieces. A Himalayan village with houses fashioned from jagged slate. A palace and bridge made of ice. And a daunting, ornate temple in Shangri-La. Just a taste of the 65 locations to be found in LAIKA’s most ambitious project to date.

Pinewood, you have some competition, even if it’s often in miniature.

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