Since 2005, Laika Studios has redesigned the landscape of stop-motion features. By printing their own 3D puppets in-house, and using replaceable parts to create more dynamic face movement. Their 2009 debut, Coraline, wowed audiences with the thrilling, dynamic puppet performances and the dark fantasy storytelling. Laika studios has been hard at work completing their fifth project, Missing Link. Their first film without a child protagonist, and the first globe-trotting adventure, Laika set several Everest-sized goals with their Victorian era mystery.
Alongside those large goals, Laika always infuses big hearted storytelling into their gorgeous animation. Distinct from most animation studios, there is no signature house design at Laika. Each new director brings his or her own unique eye to the creative team. Chris Butler, who wrote both Kubo and the Two Strings and ParaNorman for the studio, wrote and directed Missing Link. Straying away from traditional Victorian puppetry, Butler leaned into his animation style of elongated limbs and digits, that give a slightly alien look to his human characters.
Above the vision boards in the costume shop at Laika Studios, the words “Invest with color. Naturally occurring patterns” hang above a collage of Victorian images. Photographs of dastardly western outlaws hang next to sketches of correct corset lacing, and plaid swatches. No detail was overlooked by costume designer Deborah Cook. When asked how long the process can take, she responded that she’d been in production on Laika’s sixth film for three years and had only just begun crafting the first costume.
A peek underneath the puppet’s wardrobe gave instant insight into why the process takes such a long time. In stop-motion, puppets are moved a fraction of an inch then photographed. Repeated until 24 photographs create one second of film, this is how the illusion of movement is created. The clothes have to move with the doll and be able to react to the surrounding elements in a scene, like the biting winds of a mountain storm or the treacherous tides of an angry sea. So slim supports are placed behind pleats and lapels so that the clothing can be delicately bent to react.
This level of meticulous care is hand built into every aspect of Laika’s craft. Every puppet part: eyes, ears, face plate, fingers, every stitch of clothing, and all aspects of set design are made and printed in the studio. Over their five standout films, three different 3D printers have been used to design the various types of dolls. The first created incredibly fragile but highly detailed puppets. Their current printer (the J750 by Stratasys) can print sturdier copies of detailed, colored pieces simultaneously unlike the previous two printers. To be precise, over one hundred and six thousand faces were printed for Missing Link.
These advancements have earned a “Nerd Oscar” – their words, not ours. In 2016, Laika received a Scientific and Technical Achievement Oscar under the Scientific and Engineering category “for pioneering the use of rapid prototyping for character animation in stop-motion film production.” Director of Rapid Prototype, Brian McLean, described his job as “Infusing 3D animation with facial animation.” Looking at the puppets up close the level of detail is astounding. They have to be perfect. The final images will be projected on screens as large as 117 feet tall. Even the tiniest detail will be magnified hundreds of times. Having in-house manufacture for all pieces means quick fixes to keep production moving are a thing of the past. If a part breaks, they’ll print a new one. Perfection is the aim of every department.
To that goal, Laika crafted a lot of neat inventions over the last decade. For example, dual controls called a jet pack are installed on characters covered in hair. The controls hang loosely about three to four inches out of a character’s back. The puppeteer can then maneuver the puppet without having to touch it physically, jostling the hair in the process. This invention was created after Monkey, from Kubo and the Two Strings, caused puppeteers to have to triple check that each strand of hair was moved accurately between shots.
Designed by Nelson Lowry, Missing Link used over 110 sets for the globe-trotting adventure. That’s the most sets any Laika Production has attempted. For continuity purposes, one animator was assigned to one set. This meant as many as 30 sets could be actively in production at one time. Good thing Laika bought the warehouse next door so they could expand their operation. Temples made of ice and hidden in the mountains, stand next to entire logging communities, which can be found next to grand imperial country clubs of Victorian England. The scale overwhelms.
Lowry, who won an Annie for Production Design in an Animated Feature Production for his work on Kubo and the Two Strings, used Indiana Jones and Frankenstein as visual references. Every set is either grand in scale or design. The Pacific Northwest is painted in hues of blue and green, though it seems obvious to describe a tree as heavily textured, Lowry’s trees are uniquely bold in their sculpt.
When including cultural references from around the globe, Lowry always airs on the side of caution. “I want to keep things non-denominational, and non-cultural,” Lowry explained. “I go out of my way to undesign implements. People ask us to put names on graves in cemeteries. I’m like, ‘No!’ There’s a place for that.”
Missing Link arrives in theaters on April 12, 2019.