Set Visit: The stop-motion wizards of Laika Studios talk Missing Link

Missing Link, Laika, animation

To look at the unassuming, black exterior of the Laika Studios warehouse, you’d never suspect that, within the building’s hallowed halls, some of Hollywood’s most talented and innovative artists are busy summoning movie magic. However, after personally touring the facility’s meticulously-decorated corridors, and witnessing their cinematic chicanery firsthand, I can assure you that Laika’s newest animation, MISSING LINK, is about to cast a very powerful spell over audiences come April 12th.

Featuring the voice talents of Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Emma Thompson, Timothy Olyphant, Stephen Fry, David Walliams,  Matt Lucas, and Zack Galifianakis, among others, MISSING LINK tells the extraordinary journey of Mr. Link (or Susan, if you please), a lone sasquatch longing to reconnect with others of his own kind. After enlisting the aid of an intrepid explorer by the name of Sir Lionel Frost (Jackman), as well as the spirited and regal adventurer, Adelina Fortnight (Saldana), the trio embark on a kaleidoscopic globetrotting adventure to the mythical valley of Shangri-La, where the film’s cryptozoological hero hopes to discover his long lost people.

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Our tour began with a trip to Laika’s Viewing Theater, where we were greeted by MISSING LINK director-writer Chris Butler and producer Arianne Sutner. Once everyone had made their introductions, the lights inside the theater dimmed in preparation for a private screening of select scenes from the film. The reel played for nearly a half hour, and contained several extended sequences that I recognized from the film’s trailer, including Sir Lionel’s battle with a massive sea creature, the Sasquatch-seeking trio’s meeting with a wise, old crone, as well as the time leading up to when Sir Lionel sets out to meet the elusive Mr. Link. In my experience, the scenes did much to showcase the diverse personalities and motivations of the film’s cast, in addition to highlighting Laika’s bold exploration of color for their upcoming release.

While I delighted in previewing every scene, it was an extended chase sequence aboard a massive cargo ship that truly blew me out of the water. Following the moment in the trailer when Mr. Link chooses to go by the name Susan, a harrowing hunt ensues between Sir Lionel and an odious, bald-headed villain named Stenk. As the two characters pursue one another, they barrell through the claustrophobic halls of the ship’s living quarters. Outside the vessel, a storm begins to rage, churning the ocean waters, causing the ship to rotate. As the transport continues to turn, almost to the point of capsizing, the camera follows behind a frantic Sir Lionel as he attempts to make an escape. The scene is positively mesmerising. In fact, I was so taken with the footage that I don’t think I blinked until Sir Lionel, Adelina, and Susan made their brave escape.

As Butler tells it, the original idea for MISSING LINK came to him about 15 years ago, when he thought to craft a story featuring a cryptozoologist that served as something of a cross between RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and SHERLOCK HOLMES. At one point in the writing process, Butler developed the character of Mr. Link, and, in time, discovered that the story should be about him. “I really wanted an Odd Couple kind of movie. It’s definitely a little bit PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES,” says Butler.

Butler also touched on the process of developing the idea for MISSING LINK over such a lengthy period of time, particularly with the intention of bringing the story to life at Laika, a studio that is forever pushing the boundaries of contemporary special effects technology:

“I think the changes in technology enable us more. I think stop-motion used to traditionally have to tell stories that are a little more limited in scope, because you had physical puppets on physical sets. You had to be very thoughtful about how you expanded the world that the puppets are in. With digital set extensions and CG characters you can basically take down the walls and open that world up,” Butler explained. “It’s actually amazing that, when we look back, say with something like PARANORMAN, you think ‘wow’, there’s been major progression with what we’re doing. You don’t always see it here because you’re in the trenches, but when you step back you think ‘yeah, that’s not bad’,” he added.

“Every movie we make, we do want to make it its own thing. People sometimes ask ‘What’s the Laika style?’, and I don’t think there is a visual style that is just Laika, because we want each of our films to have their own identity. If anything, our brand is that we want to tell a different story every time,” Butler concluded.

Missing Link, Laika Studios, animation

Next, we met with Deborah Cook, Laika’s veteran costume designer. Originally from England, Deborah has designed and built costumes for every Laika film. Her designs for KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS won a nomination for Excellence in Fantasy Film by the Costume Designers Guild, and she received a Visual Effects Society nomination for CORALINE.

Upon meeting Deborah at an elaborate display featuring the central characters of MISSING LINK, she began speaking about the film’s variety of costume influences, and how she went about creating each of the character’s signature looks. 

She began by revealing to us that much of the costume designs were modeled after fashions worn from 1890-1910, in and around the Victorian Era. “We go through many iterations of research and consolidating. We study images from this time and see which ones speak to us the most,” said Deborah. Then, after ushering us over to a nearby concept board, she explained that several costumes worn by the film’s characters include elements of “satin, Jacobean embroidery, William Morris wallpaper, scroll work, heat pressing, Darum quilting, and Anaglypta wallpaper.” Deborah then explained that each of those materials or designs has a “relief” about them, meaning that their durability and patterns could be manipulated and brought into the scale of Laika’s costuming techniques.

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

“For this film there was a slightly bigger team of people working on the project because there are so many textures that are spread over different regions,” Deborah explained to the group. She also informed us there was a great importance placed on building the costumes around the character’s body contours, saying that the goal was often to make the garments appear “tight and cinched in,” particularly with Mr. Link’s clothing. “We had to find a way of working with woven fabrics that were going to suit our scale. It was quite a big deal because we shoot with digital pixels that are notorious for not liking parallel lines, small squares and woven fabrics. It gives the materials a kind of Moiré effect.” – a visual perception that occurs when viewing a set of lines or dots that is superimposed on another set of lines or dots, where the sets differ in relative size, angle, or spacing.

Among the many fascinating details Deborah revealed about the film’s costuming, we were surprised to learn that MISSING LINK had a total of 25 artists assigned to its costuming department. To give you a bit of perspective, Laika’s puppeting department consists of about 100 people. Part of the reason Laika’s costuming department was so large for MISSING LINK is because the group was also responsible for dressing the film’s VFX characters. In fact, the VFX team has to emulate how stop-motion animated characters move, in addition to what the fabrics look like in action. Furthermore, the VFX team can change the scale, texture and color of each costume to suit the scene’s location, lighting and atmospheric influences.

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Next we met with John Craney, Creative Lead and Puppet Fabrication Supervisor on Laika’s MISSING LINK. Craney’s department occupies roughly 20,000 square feet of the second floor of Laika’s building and provides working space for about 100 artists, jewelers, puppet fabricators, illustrators, textile experts, ceramics craftsmen, background artists and hairdressers on MISSING LINK. Fun Fact: the Adelina Fortnight character has 2,000 feet (¾ of a mile) of hair affixed to the top of her skull. Imagine having to punch each individual strand in one at a time.

When speaking about the challenges of making MISSING LINK, Craney explained that “When you’re building a character at Laika, the worst case scenario is being tasked with building one that is large, husky, covered in hair and over a foot tall.” Naturally, he then gestured at a table housing three different puppets of Link in various states of completion. The first was a base armature of the character build with metals, screws, hinges and joints. The next was an unpainted, stationary model (built by veteran concept sculptor Kent Melton), with the third being a complete, camera-ready puppet.

“Once a maquette has director approval, taking the character from paper to stage is a rather exhaustive process. On average, producing what we call a unique first version (fully tested, fully proofed out) is about nine months,” says Craney. “There are 250 components in here, from the screw to the casing for squash and stretch. Link took a bit longer than that because of his size and fur. In fact, Link is probably the most sophisticated maquette we’ve made other than an elephant featured in the new film. At the beginning, there were 12 versions of ‘naked Link’ and ten clothed versions as well. On this show we’re using a relatively new type of urethane that’s a pourable plastic, and a resin that’s actually climbing resin. So when you go to a climbing wall, those pieces that you see are made up of the same material. We love it. It’s very durable, no breakages,” Craney added.

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Before we leave John to speak with Brian Mclean, Director of Rapid Prototyping at Laika, I’d like to note that I was fortunate enough to be the only one in our group who got to hold the finished puppet of Mr. Link, which I found to be surprisingly heavy. Weighing in at about three kilos, the Mr. Link maquette – 1,000 layers of fur and all – is roughly a third as heavy as the original 1937 King Kong puppet. Furthermore, in cases of wear and tear on the puppets, Laika has 14 fabricators who work in a “puppet hospital” to make any necessary repairs to the models throughout the film’s production.

After bidding farewell to John Craney, we were greeted by Mclean, who took us through the intricate process of creating facial animation for each of the characters featured in MISSING LINK. After issuing a brief warning, Brian removed the face of a character on display, revealing a complicated armature skeleton underneath. Following a collective gasp from the group, we were  welcomed to check out a state of the art 3D printer (1 of 6 in production to be exact), that at the time was busy printing faceplates for four different characters.

Missing Link, Laika, animation

“Each one of these characters have 3D printed replacement faces, and after all is said and done, we’ve printed a total of 106,000 faces. When animators go onto the set, they do so with a box of faces, with each piece having been pre-selected for a specific line of dialogue. The faces will have codes on the back, and the animator will have an ‘act sheet’ that tells them exactly what frame they need to remove one face and put on another. When animators are on set, they are animating the body, hair and costuming. Additionally, they are also popping faces on and off to execute dialogue and expressions. The faceplates are magnetic. We buy hundreds of thousands of magnets from China, which we then have to temper so the animators aren’t struggling to remove and replace the pieces with each frame (24 frames a second),” Brian informed the group.

“We also spend a lot of time on the registration systems. It’s really important to give the faces a proper space to land. The most challenging part of facial replacement is consistency, because when you’re replacing faces 24 times a second, any time those faces don’t align in the exact same spot you’re going to get ‘chatter’ or inconsistencies. Replacement animation has been around for over 100 years, but what Laika did was marry traditional facial animation with digital effects,” Brian said with regard to his department revolutionizing the game entirely.

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Next, Brian spoke about the concept of reusing faces during the filming process. “We started out re-using facial expressions. On CORALINE we had 20,000 faces, 6,000 of which belonged to Coraline herself. We would just replace the faces and you could make the character say a line of dialogue. Over the next few films, we were gradually creeping up on the idea of achieving shot-specific animation, but we didn’t quite have the infrastructure or technology to support it. We’ve always walked this fine line of re-using a substantial amount of faces, and then ever so slightly doing some scenes uniquely. But on MISSING LINK, this was the first time we could fully embrace shot-specific animation. Almost every single shot had a unique set of faces created for it. That’s how we ended up with almost 6,000 faces per character, and in some cases more than that.”

Lastly, Brian touched on the reasons that Laika doesn’t typically employ the use of motion-capture when recording dialogue for their characters by saying, “We do what we refer to as LAVS (Live-Action Video reference) where either the facial animator or the stage animator will do a performance. Motion capture is really difficult with our character designs because none of them are really naturalistic. So motion-capture doesn’t really work in that regard, but it also doesn’t work because we’re going for really stylized performances. We call it ‘naturalistic animation’ because it’s seen through a world that we’ve created.”

After watching Brian disappear into the building’s labyrinthine halls, we were greeted by Ollie Jones, who heads up the Rigging Department at Laika Studios. As a rigger, Ollie provides the control and accuracy for the animators to move the puppets around.

We were then led to a room where several rigging aparati were strewn about, and Ollie began explaining the way Laika uses a complex system of dials, platforms, and axis to manipulate aspects of each puppet, including select mouth movements, additional prop interactions, and subtle gestures that give each character a physical performance all their own throughout the film. The first rig contained an enormous, manipulative model of Link’s mouth, which Ollie and his team used to film portions of the character’s dialogue.

Missing Link, Laika, animation

The next set-up was dubbed the “300x Butt Piece,” a rig that provided for the moment in the film when Link accidentally tears through the backside of his newly-acquired disguise. The reason for building this piece is that the motion of Link’s bottom intricately tearing through the material of his suit proved too difficult for the animator’s to film, so a seperate, and far-more elaborate animation device was built. As you can see from the photo posted below, Link’s bottom is rigged to push out of the tear he’s created at the seat of his pants. As dials turn and the rigging extends, animators are able to film the age-old sight gag one frame at a time.

Before parting ways with Ollie, he walked us around to three more rigging stations: a series of platforms with a regal-looking Sasquatch perched atop a complex pattern of teal-colored tile, a condensed version of Link’s forest home, and a setup featured toward the start of the film that highlights a fierce battle with a Loch Ness-like sea creature. 

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Our next meeting was with Production Designer Nelson Lowrey, who served as our guide for a walking tour of the art and stage designs for MISSING LINK. Part of Lowrey’s job is to research and break down locations used for the film, including the production of sketches to be converted into sets and props. He works alongside a team of three to four animators and artists on the designs, providing roughly 100 finished paintings (per location) to be used as reference material for the props and set building departments.

Of course, we couldn’t release Nelson from our clutches without inquiring about the concept and execution of scale on a film such as MISSING LINK. Stop and think about it for a moment: Just how do they interpret the size of objects in relation to their characters, especially when everything still appears life-sized, once all is said and done? Believe it or not, “the scale of a character is all based down to the eye-rigs. Essentially, you want everything to be as small as possible. After all, the bigger the object the larger the set, crew, etc. That’s what dictates the size of characters. I’m also trying to bring the scale of the show down. I want it to appear huge, but it also has to be manageable,” said Lowrey.

Missing Link, Laika, animation

As Lowrey continued to speak about the arduous and innovative set building process, he clued us into the fact that several of Laika’s larger sets are built in sections. Much like pieces to an elaborate puzzle, each set platform is capable of interlocking with others of its kind to form one complete picture (or location). The sections are then able to be pulled away, so that artists and animators can interact with the environment. Often times Laika will cut holes in a set that animators can poke out of, enabling them to reach tight spaces and manipulate props to their desire. “We create a mote, a channel, if you will,” said Lowrey. “We do a clean pass at first, then after the animator completes their task, we would scrub the area digitally in post. We want the animators to be comfortable, on account of that a 30-second shot could take months to complete.”

Lastly, as part of the final leg of our tour, we returned to Laika’s Viewing Theater, for a special VFX presentation with the studio’s Visual Effects Supervisor, Steve Emerson. Emerson has been with the company for over eleven years, and has contributed to all four of Laika’s award-winning films: KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, THE BOXTROLLS, PARANORMAN, and CORALINE. In-part, Emerson’s job involves creating digital assets for film’s like Laika’s MISSING LINK. The job involves building digital characters that are indistinguishable from their physical counterparts, hiding faceplate lines during dialogue sequences, editing out rigging that help the animators achieve their goals, expanding on physical sets and much, much more.

“If I have a digital artist that is going to build something for these films, they’re not doing that in a vacuum. If you’re going to build a digital puppet that’s destined for the background, you’re going to be working with the animators. That’s a huge advantage that we have here in terms of creating digital assets for these films that ultimately feel tactile, like they belong in these universes. MISSING LINK, by far, is the most complex thing that we’ve ever done. For MISSING LINK, we’re talking about a worldwide adventure that starts off in London, and then we’re in the Pacific Northwest, and then we’re in Santa Ana, California; we go to the American Southwest, we’re in New York, we cross the Atlantic Ocean, we end up in France, go through Switzerland, now we’re in India, cruise through the jungle to the Himalayan Mountains and up to the magical valley of Shangri-La,” Emerson mapped out, enthusiastically.

“If you’re building a background character set for India, you can’t use that same character in Santa Ana, California. Without digital effects, the movie would have required many more puppets and assets. We just can’t do it all. We do it digitally, and we’re not afraid to grab that technology and use it to tell our story. That’s the core of what we do here at Laika. We’re helping to tell stories,” Emerson beamed as he spoke.

From there, Emerson walked us through a series of sequences for which his department was instrumental in completing the following tasks: completing scenes, adding background characters when necessary, creating intricate effects to make Laika’s physical sets pop and shine, and genrally adding to an already solid tapestry built by the studio’s talented army of animators and artists. Due to the visual nature of the presentation, I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s a bit of an uphill climb to take you through the experience scene-by-scene. I suppose this is the point in our coverage where I extend my hand, Aladdin style, and ask you to trust me when I say that the work being done to complete MISSING LINK is nothing short of next-level. 

Before I bid you adieu, I’d like to express one final time that Laika’s MISSING LINK is poised to blow your mind. It’s a globe-trotting adventure for the whole family that’s positively packed with a cast of memorable characters, plenty of heart, lots of laughs, and spell-binding visuals. It’s undoubtedly the studio’s most ambitious endeavor to date, and I can’t wait for you to check it out.

Laika’s MISSING LINK will arrive in theaters on April 12th.

Below you’ll find a gallery containing several photos of sets we visited throughout the afternoon, each more astonishing than the last:

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation

Missing Link, Laika, animation