Animated films are dominated by CGI houses like Pixar Studios, DreamWorks and Imageworks, and as a result, traditional cel animation is clawing to stay alive, even in television. Another method that has gone further by the wayside is stop motion, a technique that once stretched the cinema's horizons. It especially became a powerful technique in the hands of the late legend Ray Harryhausen, whose innovative work would go on to inspire filmmakers, writers, animators and visual effects specialists alike. Stop motion is versatile and has been woven into the fabric of some of our favorite genre films, whether it be the original Star Wars trilogy, Terminator or Robocop. But it takes an incredible amount of time and money to make a feature-length film. Since the advent of computer-generated animation, the only place you could still find stop motion was in the rare commercial or short film.
Auteurs such as Henry Selick, Tim Burton and Nick Park continue to carry the torch, but building up to 2009, Laika Entertainment, another studio, took stop motion into new heights with its 3D stereoscopic features, beginning with their adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Then they began to embrace technology and create CG-stop motion hybrids to break some of the medium’s limitations with Paranorman and, finally, Boxtrolls. While they have yet to break the box-office bank in a big way, each of their films has earned Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature. Their next feature, Kubo and the Two Strings, has the potential to do both.
I was lucky to have been invited by Laika to take a tour of their film factory located in Portland, Oregon, and take Blastr's readers behind the scenes of Kubo and the Two Strings as we hear from the artists and specialists who helped make the film, including its director, Travis Knight.
The first stop was at the screening room to watch 15 minutes of the film, consisting of four scenes. The first established some of the central relationships of the main story. Next, there was a showcase of how Kubo breaks some of the conventions typically seen in stop-motion films, like taking it “off of the table top” and into moving environments. Then after seeing a sample of Kubo’s abilities at play, I was treated to a taste of the grand, Indiana Jones-type action scene that’s sure to have viewers talking this summer.
From what I gathered, Kubo was an infant when he and his mother survived a shipwreck. Although the accident left his mother changed, she still manages to care for Kubo on her own despite challenges. She passes on her magic to Kubo, who has the special ability to bring inanimate things to life and, through his music, entertains the local village with elaborate stories by literally bringing to life stacks of paper, which he is able to turn into origami and kirigami creations that act out his story. After awakening a family vendetta, Kubo is chased by monsters and must go on a quest to find his late father’s suit of samurai armor.
Laika CEO, animator and Kubo director Knight described what they hoped to do five years ago when they decided Kubo would be their fourth feature film.
"We wanted (with Kubo) to tell something that was evocative of those great, epic stories I grew up with," Knight shared. "Star Wars, a David Lean movie, J.R.R. Tolkien, or Lone Wolf and Cub were things that had sweep and scale and emotional resonance underneath it all, but would be something interesting told in this medium– we wanted to tell this Kurosawa-type myth in miniature. But that was just on the surface."
We wanted (with Kubo) to tell something that was evocative of those great, epic stories I grew up with. Things like Star Wars, a David Lean movie, J.R.R. Tolkien, or Lone Wolf and Cub, things that had sweep, scale and emotional resonance underneath it all, but would be something interesting told in this medium–to tell this Kurosawa type myth in miniature. - Travis Knight
"For me, the story rings deeply personal...he’s a kid, a storyteller, he’s an animator, really, when you think about it. His whole world revolves around his mother, and he goes on this journey of exploration, this classic Joseph Campbell hero’s journey, and it’s about that point in our lives, when we’re crossing the Rubicon of childhood into adulthood, and about the things we gain and the things we leave behind along the way. As someone who experienced that as a kid and now as a father, at various stages you know the struggles that they go through. It’s an opportunity to tell this coming of age story in this incredible setting that’s a deeply personal thing for all of us. For me it’s about a boy, his mother, and his makeshift family."
I was extremely impressed with what I saw in the preview, and while I’ve liked Coraline, Boxtrolls and Paranorman, each for different reasons, Kubo and the Two Strings unlocks a lot of my deeper loves for Akira Kurosawa films, storytellers and music that serves as a character. This is their biggest film yet in both scope and heart. Kubo is a really ambitious film for Laika Studios and you can really sense it through the screen. I could tell off this sampling that it might be a perfect storm for me, but I think those same elements will draw others in and I got to see the onion layers peeled back.
BUILDING SCRIPT AND STRETCHING DOLLARS
"We’re not Disney; we’re an independent animation house, not a multinational media conglomerate, so we have to be careful about how we spend our budget," cautioned Knight. "Our dollars are relatively lean, I think our entire budget on this film covers Disney’s craft service bill. It doesn’t look like it, but part of it is being very smart about how we spend our resources."
“We don’t really design anything until we feel very good about the script. It’s more of a live-action model, really. Oftentimes, if you look at animation, a ton of films find (their story) in the boards. You can do great work that way, but it’s incredibly expensive. We just can’t do that. We want every dollar up on the screen. We don’t want any wasted effort. So, we spend a lot of our early time figuring out who these characters are, the arcs of the story and almost exclusively devoting our energy is in the script, which is only a couple of people working on it at any given time. You start burning through cash once you start adding people to the project.”
“So, little by little, you start adding more and more artists into the mix once you feel good with who these characters are, what this world is, and how the script is shaping up. Then, you can bring in the designers, who are figuring what characters look like, and illustrators examining what the locations look like. Initially, though, the first couple years is exclusively working on the script. You start with a simple idea then you start building it out and bring in people who can bring that to life. So, we had a couple of extraordinary screenwriters, Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, who wrote and directed Paranorman, who wound up shaping the screenplay for Kubo.“
“Then, you bring in your storyboard artists, who are writers in their own merit, writing visually. A lot of invention comes in that process, as well. With each step, something new gets introduced, and that’s really exciting. So, even though this takes a half a decade to make, it never feels dull to us. You’re always exploring some new stage or facet of this movie, and it’s always evolving. The storyboard artists do our blueprint of the film and story reels, which takes a year to year and a half. Then, you bring in your designers and animators and they’re bringing their own personal experiences to it. So, it continues to evolve.”
“You have to be disciplined about how to approach that stuff, because, as I said our budget is relatively meager, so we have to make sure every ounce of energy goes up on that screen. But, by keeping our teams relatively small - and on Kubo our animation team is 20-25 people, which is a fraction of the animators on a big CG feature - you do more with less, but also because there’s fewer people, there’s also more of themselves in the movie, it’s more of distillation of these animators’ personality and spirit of each artist involved. That does give these films something of a purity to them, it’s not spread out among a thousand people who are only doing bits and bobs. It’s a small team that’s pouring everything they have into these stories.”
VISUAL EFFECTS AND USING CG
Right after the screening, Visual Effects Supervisor Steve Emerson discussed blurring the line between where stop motion ends and the CG work begins. The answer is not necessarily one or the other, but there is a philosophy around here that asks, "What will make it more beautiful?"
One of the ways they mask some of the blending is by telling the story through the main characters, so that, even in a crowd scene, the audience focuses on those handful of characters, which are stop motion puppets in real-world environments. The rest of a crowd scene - in this instance, in the village where Kubo tells his stories - is created by computer animation. Chances are the audience will never notice because the practical puppets remain the focal point.
“One of the first things I learned on the job was, if you do your job well, nobody knows you did a thing,” Emerson shared.
Emerson then broke down another scene that can be seen briefly in the trailers: the oceanic storm that Kubo’s mother must weather at the beginning of the film. Kubo contains the most environments ever attempted by Laika, and the VFX team tried many different ways to animate the ocean with stop motion, but there wasn’t a way to get water to move on a practical way without taking the viewer out of the moment. Ultimately, a mechanical grid was created with a black garbage bag wrapped over the top to capture how the moonlight reflects off the water, but only for reference. The grid was then moved by a rig which moved the boat and then the texture of the water was created in CG, which had textures created by blending cut up pieces of paper, Japanese wood block art and patterning mapped onto a CG layer for the water churn of the ocean.
I asked Emerson if there is a line is to drawn between recreating the real world in their production and allowing the quirky look of the chosen materials, textures and fabrics to come through.
“It comes back to things being intrusive,” Emerson said. “While it’s important to everybody here that we’re reflecting the style of the show, we have to make sure that any of those components are not distracting and takes you out of the story. The way we get that realism is through animation and motion. There’s a specific realism in the motion of the waves, but then we dial in the stylization based on the show look in concert with that. Early on, we went too far with the style, and we have to back it up so it’s less intrusive. There’s a sweet spot in the middle, but sometimes it takes a long time to get there."
KUBO'S DESIGN PRISM AND ART DIRECTION
For the aesthetic of Kubo, the designers looked to Japanese wood block artists. The art of well-known block artists such as Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai, for example, are big influences, but the artist that made the biggest impact on the overall look of the film was a 20th century graphic artist named Kiyoshi Saito, who took block art in a different direction. He made it simpler, designed with more shapes, bold swaths of color and asymmetry, which in turn, makes it more cinematic. As it pertains to Kubo, the look is heavily stylized and echoes Saito in the landscapes and settings. The characters are simple and shape-based, some influenced by late Edo period porcelain doll making, as with the Sisters (played by Rooney Mara). When there’s bold and bright color, like in the origami, it’s deliberate and it really pops.
“A lot of the big swaths of color (Saito used) are given texture by using the process, pushing the woodgrain into ink,” explained Knight. “So, you see these textures in his work, driven by the process, in addition to coming from centuries of traditional Japanese wood block art printing. He did it all himself and was heavily influenced by European painters like Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse...Edvard Munch. So, it’s that interesting distillation of East and West, old and new, the real and the imagined that’s synthesized in one artist. On the other side, you get something totally new, which is something we absolutely do here with every film.”
Knight said that they used Saito’s block texture throughout the entire film, on nearly every surface.
“It’s real subtle, but in the clothing, the sets, even the water, that texture is within it (tying it all together),” Knight explained. “It’s what makes it feel like a real place that has history to it...tradition, like it’s been lived in. We knew right away that we were heavily influenced by these Japanese wood block prints as a design aesthetic, but what does that mean, exactly? How does that inform all of the other choices we make in terms of design for the film? In the end, I think it’s a very unique world. Ultimately, the film becomes a distillation of all the things we love and obsess over and our own lives and put it in a big gumbo, and at the other end, something new comes out. It’s exciting as an artist to take these overlapping spheres of influence and put it through your own filter/life and it’s a statement to the world, which hopefully people go out and see."
Assistant Art Director Phil Brotherton is part of a team of 50 whose job is to help build everything that wasn't a puppet. "It was our job to take Saito’s art, which is in 2D and its own visual language, and turn it into 3D art that can be filmed and A) have a cohesive style and B) look like what it’s supposed to," Brotherton explained. "That’s probably the biggest challenge in any film. It’s surprising how difficult it is to develop that link between 2D art and 3D models to make tree bark, for example, to look stylized and still look like tree bark. You can create a stylized character and over the years build a bunch of photorealistic props, your character doesn’t look like it belongs."
"Usually, we start with the characters, and that informs us how we should stylize our art," Brotherton continued. "Over the course of two years, we have a tendency to have style drift, and we create these boards for ourselves to remind us of our style. Once we stumble on a prop, or set of props, we'll photograph them and put them on our reference board for the time you'll need to know how to make something. If they don't, they'll say, 'I know what wood grain or stone looks like,' and over the course of a few months the new wood grain doesn't look anything like the old wood grain."
"Our production designer on the last three films really likes to use found materials so we will go through industrial material catalogs and find all kinds of strange patterns and find all kinds of creative ways to use them. Usually, we’ll try to get a limited library of those kinds of things, and use them over and over again."
The next part of the tour was into the actual studios where Laika creates their puppets, dresses them and shoots scenes. Taking us through a costume board was Puppet Fabrication Supervisor Georgina Hayns who explained how Costume Designer Deborah Cook carries the Saito block art theme throughout the costumes, which included diving into Japanese culture, studying silhouettes and textures, and finding fabric that can encompass all of that. The picture of the costume board here shows how each character/puppet had their own color palette and unique fabric choice that was both functional and specific to that role.
You can also see the evolution of the beetle design that will be seen on Kubo’s back. Many methods were attempted to get a specific shimmer effect when the light hits it, including shadow folding, stitching on top of embroidery, painting on surface, laser etching into fabric and vinyl heat pressing into fabric. It's that level of detail that's appreciated by Laika's passionate fanbase. Because production works on different scales to get closeups and establishing shots, different methods need to be employed to get the same effect, no matter the scale.
Cook leads a team of 15 designers whose biggest challenge was trying to get silk to pose and fold at the small scale. So, for Kubo's mother, they created a rubber backing for the silk to lay on and in some instances inserted pieces of tin to allow it to be posed when affixed to the custom ball and joint armatures. (See the gallery for more images)
“All of our costumes have to have an armature,” Hayns explained. “You’re either informing the costume where to move with a wire or an armature or you’re allowing weight to pull it and follow through. We use both on Kubo. That’s the thing about stop motion: you can add a lot of details and you’ll see it.”
Hayns moved on to her department, Puppet Fabrication, which is where it’s easy to geek out. She began by showing the reference maquettes of each character and then the corresponding ball-and-socket armature with pivot joints. The puppet department is split up into several sub-departments: Armature, mold making, silicone casting, costume, hair, paint. It’s all about getting the right information. All of the wigs were made out of human hair, with silicone combed in to give each puppet a graphic feel to their hair. Also note that, whenever you see an object hanging off of a character in the film, whether it's a weapon, a shamisen, a drinking gourd, etc., there has to be an internal armature rig so it, too, can be moved frame-by-frame. The puppet department had a handful of other challenging characters in this film and I'm going to run down them and be sure to check out the gallery below to see more pictures.
• Kubo’s samurai friend, Beetle, which they said was one of the most sophisticated puppets they had ever created. Once you see Beetle moving on screen and how much moving one limb moves several other parts, then you’ll know what a challenge he was. Hayns said that they had to design the internal skeleton (above) at the same time as the external parts to show that his armor was part of him, and was beetle-like. "Beetle had 85 external armored parts that were printed out had to be molded, textured, and painted. There were many extra joints, molds and jigs involved to make sure it all works together. It’s a combination of passive animation and informed animation."
If you look above at Beetle's original design, the big shoulder pieces on either side of his neck had to be removed because they restricted his movement. This was an example of the puppet team and the design team massaging the balance between logistics and character design, but they do try to stick to the original design as much as possible.
• The Sisters - The Sisters are an adversary for Kubo and they wear capes that need to drape down when they’re standing or walking. When they step into action, their capes raise up and turn almost into feathered wings. To achieve the graphic look of the cape, each feather (183 total in each cape) is made of styrene plastic, and has tissue glued on top of it, laser-etched and laser-cooked. The structure of the cape is a series of ball and socket joints and a spine of joints on each row vertical and horizontal, woven together with piano wire. The cape could stretch and compress and move as a real cape of feathers would without any right or angles. Check out the behind-the-scenes video in this article to see a time lapse of the creation of the cape.
• Monkey - The challenge for Kubo's fully furred conscience and parental figure on his journey was that he wouldn't be a molded shape, but instead had to have these soft, fuzzy chamois-like pieces of fur covering his body, which could have been animated to represent the wind rustling through his fur or to show motion, or be affected when his gets wet. They approached Monkey like they were creating a series of full body suits, starting with the armature and then building on top of it. Next, they created a stocking suit with grip points. A muscle suit went over this, with elastic muscle stretch points. Finally, a fluffy fur fabric suit is wrapped over the muscle suit, then finished by combing silicone into the layers of fur and trimming them to have the "fur" look. The silicone will allow each piece to be formed and moved for animation. Hayns described the end result as a complete animal "squash and stretch" that they had never achieved before. They were really proud of their achievement here.
• Origami and Kirigami Creatures - For the origami creatures that Kubo brings to life, Laika needed material that looked like paper, but could be durable enough to take the beating of the animation process and the endless posing. The proper material would need to resist the natural oils on fingers so the surface wouldn’t smudge. Eventually, they found that sealing Tyvek made it all possible and gave the illusion of paper but was durable enough to pull it off. Some of the pieces, like Hanzo's skirt (above, extreme left), which looks like it has dozens of tiny folds, is actually a molded piece of resin that gives the illusion of folded paper. The Hanzo puppet was in 733% scale.
RAPID PROTOTYPING AND PAINTING
Supervisor of Rapid Prototype Brian McLean took me deeper into the creation of the puppets and prototypes in explaining their elaborate and exhaustive process for creating worlds for Laika’s films. All of Laika’s puppets are made from 3D printing, from the thousands of face combinations to intricate creatures with countless moving parts. It certainly doesn’t make it easier to make a film this way, but head of Production Arianne Sutner said that it allows for “a more repeatable, subtle, and better” animation.” They make so many pieces and parts that they’re driving the advancements in the 3D printing world, and parts are being manufactured around the clock.
For those who collect models or deluxe action figures, this part of the tour was your heaven. Think about creating your own custom action figure with no limitations. If the puppet didn’t move right or was restricted in some way, they simply made the change to the design and printed a modified piece. If the fabric didn’t move the right way or look right on camera, a new way was invented. They also have an innovative way to color the plastic in ways to get the gradients and shading so that there’s more warmth and richness to the puppets. McLean leads a team of 70 that design and engineering the inner components of a puppet, the inner parts of a head (see an exploded head of Norman from Paranorman in the gallery) and animating the head. Audiences see about four pieces on screen when there are over 70 pieces that make up a Laika stop motion puppet head.
One of the more fascinating part of McLean's leg of the tour was explaining the history of the painting of the puppets/prototypes. For Coraline, all of the plastic was printed out in white, and then required an artist to hand-paint each facial expression. Still, it was worth it when you saw the stop motion performances. To cut down the laborious and time consuming nature of this process, Laika explored using powder color printer for Paranorman. It allowed for more color, but there were issues with consistency, accuracy and detail. It was also extremely fragile to touch in the multiple-step drying process and was sensitive to Portland's humidity and abundant rain. That made it especially difficult, as printing the same face during two different times of the year could give you two completely different faces. Despite that trouble, the end result was worth it, and the method was used for Boxtrolls, too.
For Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika worked with Stratasys and their 3D printing on technologies not yet released to the public, and came up with a new method to help achieve some of the more complex non-human characters. However, an innovative coloring system needed to be developed by the Rapid Prototype team to allow for gradiants, fading and shadowing. The end result is more sophisticated, cutting-edge coloring method with much less hand-painting techniques.
There's a creature in Kubo called the Moon Beast, which is like a slithering dragon that swims through the air, and it is Laika's first puppet that is 100 percent printed in 3D. To put it in perspective, if the Moon Beast puppet was printed to human-sized scale, it would be 73 feet long. Fortunately, there was minimal contact between it and Kubo, so they were able to shoot most of the Moon Beast sequence on green screen and at a manageable scale. However, there was a scene in which the tail, which is also a hand, grabs Kubo, so a four-foot tail was printed with the 3D printer then assembled.
Time relative to size and coloring needs remain limiting factors. If you want to crunch some mind-boggling numbers, McLean broke down what it took to physically print out the pieces needed to shoot the Moon Beast sequence.
"One of the down sides to doing Moon Beast is that he's so large that you need to animate him very slowly, so there's a lot of subtlety in its body movement and its facial movement, so a lot of its shots, we needed to produce 24 faces for every second of film, but we could only print 20 faces in 40 hours. So, every second of film, we were almost spending 60 hours printing time for one second. There's something like a year and a half of straight printing time...in all, for Kubo, for all of the characters, we printed over 66,000 faces alone, and with all of the face combinations and 48 million different facial expressions. "
In the final leg of the actual tour, I was able to walk through a majority of the remaining sets. Laika had been working on two films simultaneously (the other being presumably Wildwood, the New York Times Best Selling children's fantasy novel by The Decemberists' singer-songwriter, Colin Meloy.) Each set had its own room set up under a maze of black drapes. The scale and detail of these sets are incredible. Some of the pictures in the gallery (below) were taken with my phone using the panoramic mode, because there was no easy way to capture them and illustrate the size of them. One set was what looked like a 15-20 foot wide aftermath of a village destroyed by the Moon Beast, and it was only one third of the full set.
In that same gallery you'll also see a few things of note, including the big skeleton creature puppet and its massive rig. I've included a few pictures, including one with me standing about ten feet in front of it. I'm only five foot three, and only the top half was still left (the bottom half was in a few parts was being used for animation classes). It's said to be between 20-25 feet tall when put all together.
There's also a series of photos for the Garden of Eyes set, and it's hard to see what's going on without explaining some of the ingenuity that goes on in this set. You'll note the first in the series when you reach a picture with a large eye. There's a large creature that you'll see a small scale maquette of sitting on a table with a series of light and switches. To build a large scale of this set would have required too much room, so they used a smaller scale, then focused in on one of the many appendages with the eye at the end of it and then filmed it in a variety of ways. Now, this was a really complex rig with a lot of moving parts including the eye lid, the pupil, and the series of tentacles that branched off the appendage below it. On the control panel, if you will, are two balls. One small one moved the appendage, and the large bowling ball moved the eye. The bowling ball is housed in a jerry-rigged track-ball setup that used two computer mice sensors a bowling ball. This was used in concert with another puppet set up that controlled each of the little tentacles that could wag like a tail, and I'm sure I'm missing a few other moving parts. All of it is monitored on a computer next to the puppeteers, and is pretty amazing when it works in harmony.
While we didn't get to see the score being created, I wanted to ask Knight (who made a rap album back in 1993 under the name "Chilly Tee") about how the music in Kubo is a critical part of the story. Laika brought back Academy Award-winning composer Dario Marianelli (Atonement, Jane Eyre), with whom they worked on Boxtrolls. Knight told me in great detail how the score gives weight to Kubo's actions, and that it’s also a big part of his magic. Because music is so crucial, Marianelli’s work needed to come earlier in the process than in the typical feature.
“That’s how he communicates what he’s feeling," Knight explained. "Like any artist, what comes out in their work is essentially what’s roiling around inside of them. Sometimes, there are things we can’t necessarily articulate in the clearest way. Our art expresses that and gives voice to those things that he’s feeling. For Kubo, his magic, his music is driven by his emotions. If he’s feeling rage, joy, or sadness, that’s coming out into the music. So, we had a lot of stuff we needed to communicate very clearly with the music.”
“The tricky thing on this film is that, a lot of times, the music has to be seen being played. Often times, a lot of the stuff is under score; it can play and support the narrative, but it’s not necessarily synced to anything on the screen. But for Kubo, he’s actually playing a lot of that stuff. The score then supplements what he’s playing, but it has to be rooted in the shamisen, which is very challenging instrument to get emotion out of, by the way. It’s a simple folk instrument that’s similar to an American banjo, and anyone who’s heard a banjo will tell you the challenge is in the thinness of the instrument...but it can also be incredibly expressive if played right.”
Knight told me that Marianelli was contacted a year and a half ago. He was given a short turnaround time to compose his first two pieces because they needed to syncopate it on screen. The animators needed a sketch of it too, so that they could accurately get the timing down with the fingering, whether it’s uptempo or a specific rhythm, otherwise the action and sound will never line up.
“So, his very first piece of music he created was also the most critical piece of music, which is a challenging thing for a composer who needs to define what this character is feeling emotionally with these two songs, and that’s going to ripple throughout the entire movie. Kubo is effectively a version of Orpheus, someone who creates divine music. That’s a tall order, for a composer to create (music to illustrate) god-like musical powers (from a banjo). It’s a testament to what an incredible composer Dario is, because he nailed it.”
“As filmmakers, we learn something any time a new artist comes on board, particularly a world class artist like Dario. As they get their interpretation of the material, you might see the scene in a different way or different color than you had expected. That might change the course of a sequence or what a sequence might be. You see different possibilities in it. I think that’s true of any great artistic collaboration, you’re always feeding off of each other, you’re always influencing each other, and informing each other and that’s certainly true with our collaboration with Dario. It was another aspect of coming to a new step of the process with excitement as it was another way to tell the story, sonically.”
THAT'S A WRAP
That completes our visit at Laika Studios! This was an intense, packed look behind the scenes into what I think will be a great movie experience. Before we close the door on this tour, be sure to thumb through our gallery (below) and watch the video (above) to get a visual taste of the tour and the magic behind Kubo and the Two Strings, which hits theaters August 19.