WonderCon 2019: Laika Studios and ‘Missing Link’

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In the 10 years since Laika Studios released their first feature film, Coraline, and breathed fresh air into the tradition of stop motion animation they have become one of the most consistently innovative and fresh studios out there. Each subsequent film pushing the limits of their craft, all imbued with fable-like stories that speak to people of all-ages, Laika continues to create carefully crafted magic.

For their latest film, Missing Link a cryptid hunting romp around the globe, Laika Studios came to WonderCon to give a little insight into the process of how their films get made. The panel featured writer and director Chris Butler, head of production Arianne Sutner, production designer Nelson Lowry, and puppet fabrication supervisor John Craney so the audience got to hear from many aspects of the production process. The actual animators were missing from the panel but all four of them were sure to shout out the animators and all of their hard work on the film.

In Missing Link, Hugh Jackman plays myths and monsters investigator Sir Lionel Frost who in searching for bigfoot and ends up finding Mr. Link (Zach Galifinakas) and going on a journey around the world along with Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana) to see if they can’t find Link a companion. This story had been marinating in Butler’s head for a good 15 years, predating any of the other Laika films and stemmed from a desire to mix together childhood favorites Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes as well as add in some monsters as well.

It is Laika’s most ambitious project yet with 110 different sets, 106,000 puppet faces created, compared to 20,000 for Coraline, challenging water scenes (a dizzying clip was shown of a chase on a ship in the middle of the storm that was stunning although perhaps a bit too real on the water-front) and location changes every six minutes or so for a total of 65 locations. It was agreed that Missing Link could not have been made without all of the experience and innovation that stemmed from Laika’s first four films, Coraline, Paranorman, Boxtrolls and Kubo and the Two Strings.

The panelists brokedown the timeline of a Laika film. Butler finishes the script and it is sent to be polished and broken down making sure that any changes later are minimal. The goal is to get the first draft of the storyboards done within six months. The table read of the script for the storyboard process is done by people in the studio. They were joking around about how bad these scratch recordings are but that if they can make it work with non-actors reading the script then they know they have something special.

The casting and voice-recording happen early on in the process because it’s important to have the lines down before making all of the faces for the puppets, the skeleton of which is called an armature. While it’s possible to work it later if need be, they prefer to avoid it as there’s the risk of looking like a bad dub. They say in animation there’s really two actors for every character, the voice actor and the animator and the character would be nothing without the whole team.

During this process, designs for sets and characters are being researched and workshopped. The sets have to fit the unique shapes of the characters because they need to integrate seamlessly into the world so chairs, for example, have to be designed with the unique shapes of the characters in mind.

Link, described as a hairy avocado with legs, was actually pulled from one of Butler’s original ideas for the character despite trying many other designs. Part of Lowry’s job was researching all of the different destinations for the time period in order to create the set. His approach was to take the best parts of the initial inspiration and then remove what doesn’t work, a simple philosophy that works so well.

They do try to design the sets so the animators have the easiest time getting access to them, trying to minimized roadblocks, and this was the first film they were able to successfully use miniature sets. At the Laika Live experience at San Diego Comic Con last year people were able to get a look at how a small look at this process.

Craney broke down some of the interesting aspects and challenges of creating the armatures. Link has over a thousand pieces of individually painted fur. There’s a belly-rig installed for accurate bouncing and the eye-rig is so precise that individual eyelashes can be moved.

Additionally, the pupils are moved around with a scalpel. The faces pop on and off and are 3D printed. For Missing Link everything is about 20% smaller than in previous films because everything needs to be to scale and Link would be massive and so hard to work with if they hadn’t scaled down. There is a chase scene with an elephant and that elephant was also made to scale against the other characters. 

Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis) in one of the actual sets brought down to San Diego Comic-Con

Once the puppets are made, sets are built, the story is set, and recorded the animators get to work. Setting up a shot takes about two days and the film is in 24 frames per second and each animator can average about four seconds of film a week. At the height of production with 91 units working, almost twice as much as any previous film, they were able to get about 90 seconds of footage in a week.

Butler was asked if while he’s scripting if he takes into account the medium and he said that sometimes he’ll be like oh I’m not sure how they’ll be able to do that but they’ll figure it out. Over two years to animate and then another year in editing and finally the film is ready for the most joyous part, to be shared with an audience. 

The care and work that goes into production is amazing so it’s no wonder it takes so long between films. However, Sutner did say Laika is expanding and growing both physically and in terms of capabilities and hopefully soon they will be able to work on more than one film at a time. Getting a glimpse into the way the films are made and the culture of Laika which encourages and strives for stories that not only entertain but also challenge and inform helped put some perspective to how much work goes into these beautiful films.

Be sure to check out Missing Link in theaters April 12.