How the studio behind ‘Kubo’ went high tech to make stop-motion look astonishing

Every year, five films are nominated for an Academy Award in the “Visual Effects” category. Each of the projects nominated this year offer a unique, inside look at the amazing tricks filmmakers and their talented effects teams use to pull off the visual spectacles that make for a big-screen blockbuster. In recognition of these five films — and one of our favorite Oscar categories — we’re putting the spotlight on one “Visual Effects” nominee each day leading up to Sunday’s broadcast, and taking a closer look at what made them stand out.

Previously, we looked at the visual effects that recreated a real-world disaster in Deepwater Horizon and crafted the reality-bending sequences in Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange, as well as the technology that made animals talk in The Jungle Book. Now, we explore the practical magic that made the stop-motion world of Kubo and the Two Strings come to life.

(Note: This is an update of an article originally published in August 2016, edited for our “Oscar Effects” series.)

We’re standing under a gigantic orange skeleton with fiery yellow eyes and gangly arms that stretch a startling 22 feet from tip to tip. Scaled to a height of 18 feet (if its legs were actually attached) the ominous creature comprising foam and steel isn’t some overgrown Halloween nightmare. In fact, it’s the largest working puppet in the world (unofficially — Guinness was too expensive to bring out, we’re told) and just one of three monsters wreaking havoc in the new stop-motion animation adventure from Laika Entertainment, Kubo and the Two Strings.

Unlike iconic animation studios such as Dreamworks and Pixar, Portland, OR-based Laika practices a new kind of hybrid animation. The recipe includes a strange brew of traditional stop-motion animation techniques, stylized computer generated effects, and ground-breaking 3D prototyping. That eclectic mix breeds an artistic melting pot inside Laika’s walls, including everyone from CGI specialists and puppeteers to costume designers, artists, set builders, riggers, lighting techs, and more.

The bizarre alchemy of all those disciplines working together has resulted in some of the most striking animated films ever created — and the studio’s new Japanese odyssey, Kubo, is its most ambitious venture yet. For its efforts, Laika’s latest venture has not only picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, it’s also the first animated film in over twenty years to receive a Visual Effects Academy Award nomination, following 1993’s A Nightmare Before Christmas. Follow along as we (quite literally) peek behind the curtain to see how these modern auteurs make their magic.

A new kind of stop-motion

Before we get started, a few notes on modern stop-motion animation. While Laika’s artisans are in love with the intrinsically unique aesthetic produced by the age-old art form, you can cast aside those hazy memories of Gumby, The California Raisins, or even Wallace and Gromit — this isn’t your grandfather’s stop-mo. To push the art to its visual limits, Laika has spurred rapid technological advancements, breaking new ground with each film. Still, like all Laika projects, Kubo began with a big idea — and some very small puppets.

Practical perfection

Cast aside those hazy memories of Gumby — this isn’t your grandfather’s stop-motion.

For the first stop on our tour we met with head costume designer Deborah Cook, who filled us in on the meticulous manner in which each of the lead puppets — who serve as the stars of the films — are dressed to impress. As Kubo is set in feudal Japan, the filmmakers chose woodblock artist Kiyoshi Saito for visual inspiration. Cook also travelled to Japan and buried her head in stacks of costume books to dress the film’s “human” characters, including Kubo and his mother, with authentic looking fabrics, weapons and armor, and even traditional Japanese shoes.

No matter what the story calls for, the puppets have to look and feel like living, breathing creatures. As such, the exterior fabrics don’t just need to look authentic, they have to move realistically. Underneath, the puppets are constructed from tiny lattice skeletons which allow them to be arranged in all manner of poses so they can be framed, shot, and moved ever so slightly to create the illusion of motion. As Cook tells us, “that’s a whole other art.”

For instance, with the creepy gothic goddesses Kubo faces (known as the Sisters), the designers used a variety of everyday materials to create the lifelike movement of their feathered capes. Puppet Fabrication Supervisor Georgina Hayns tells us each of the capes’ 183 feathers were constructed of “a fine plastic sheet, which then has a layer of tissue paper glued to it,” and is finally laser etched. A woven lattice work of piano wire was then attached at key points to each feather, allowing the animators to move them and shape them in wavy motions.

This inventive use of materials, from its puppets to its myriad sound stages, is indicative of Laika’s painstaking efforts to create visually striking characters living in rich and distinctive landscapes. Anchored in the world of practical effects, Laika creates a style that is totally unique. But in order to bring palpable emotion to these still-life puppets, the studio also mixes in some truly revolutionary technology with its old-school methods.

Old meets new: The secrets of 3D rapid prototyping

Laika’s first step into cutting-edge technology began over a decade ago with its very first film, Coraline. To realize the vision of the gothic adventure, Laika’s head of Rapid Prototyping, Brian McLean, says the studio needed to give the century-old art of replacement animation — which involves taking a snapshot of a figure, replacing the expression, taking another snapshot, and so on — a 21st century makeover.

“On Coraline, the simple idea was to take a character, model their face in a computer, animate it in a computer, and then send that geometry to a 3D printer.” For its new creations, Laika teamed with a prominent 3D printing company called Stratasys, and as the first studio to use the rapid prototyping technique, Laika won a scientific and technical Oscar in 2016.

“ … we were producing 3D-printed parts that literally no one else in the world had the technical capabilities of doing.”

However, the futuristic method came with a rather archaic problem. “The faces were coming out in a white plastic,” McLean Says. “We had to have a whole army of painters come through and hand paint every individual face,” It was a laborious and time-consuming process in a field where virtually every step is laborious and time consuming.

The solution? Between Coraline and the studio’s following film, Paranorman, Laika teamed with 3D Systems, which offered a brand new technology: 3D color-powder printing. The new printers created colorized faces that looked even more realistic and required no painting. That allowed Laika to ramp up the vitality of its puppets with each new film: While Coraline used 207,000 expressions, Paranorman and The Boxtrolls used 1.4 million and 1.5 million expressions respectively. For Kubo, that number stretched to an astounding 48 million.

Even with the new tools, however, Kubo’s characters presented a brand new challenge that again required an advancement in 3D printing. Specifically, the film’s Moon Beast monster and its two anthropomorphic characters — magical protectors for Kubo called simply Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) — required more detail than color-powder printing could muster. So, Laika sent out a wire.

“We’d made quite a name for ourselves in the 3D printing industry, which meant that we could reach out to 3D printing companies and say, ‘Hey what do you guys have in the works?’”

Laika found a partner in the same company that helped the studio revolutionize the industry for Coraline, Stratasys, this time using a brand new kind of plastic color printing. However, the software was too limited, so the studio collaborated with Stratasys to re-engineer the printers with its own operating system. Stratasys agreed, and the rest, as they say, is animation history.

“It meant that, during the course of the production of Kubo, we were producing plastic color 3D printed parts that literally no one else in the world had the technical capabilities of doing.”

CGI with style

Even with thousands upon thousands of 3D-printed faces, dozens of sound stages, and mountains of practical effects, Laika’s visual aspirations these days stretch well beyond the studio’s physical limitations. That’s where Visual Effects Supervisor Steve Emerson and his team come in.

Emerson began doing relatively simple tasks for Coraline, like removing some of the puppet rigging and the seam lines created by the removable 3D printed faces (for a look at the technique without seam-line removal, see Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa). The team’s role has ramped up for each movie, helping to create what Laika calls hybrid animation.

“We’re doing photo-real interpretations of real environments, but we’re not trying for realism.”

“The hybrid thing is about ‘let’s see where else we can take stop-motion animation,’ but we don’t want to replace it,” Emerson says. “My job as a visual effects supervisor is to ultimately deliver the vision of the director — it’s to make sure that all of the work that we’re doing is seamless in its integration and it’s not intrusive.”

The team’s expanded role began on Paranorman with the task of creating a few ancillary characters to help clear up resources elsewhere. As they gained the trust of the practical creatives around them, their work began to be more and more interlaced with Laika’s grander aesthetic — but always keeping the goal of seamless integration paramount.

“What’s crazy about what we do is that we’re doing photo-real interpretations of real environments,” Emerson says, “but none of the tools that we use are created to do it for stylized environments. We can open up [3D animation software application] Houdini, and do an ocean simulation pretty quickly out of the box, but we’re not trying for realism.”

The breathtaking ocean scenes in Kubo’s trailers are striking examples of the film’s stylized CGI. The ripples and textures in the water don’t quite look like natural ocean waves or currents, because they’re not supposed to. In fact, Kubo’s animators wanted to use practical effects for the water, settling on a plastic material much like garbage bags, but soon realized it wouldn’t work. So Emerson was tasked with creating the materials in the virtual world.

“It’s all stylized. So it’s never a straight ocean that looks like water, it’s a heavily stylized ocean that [looks like it is] made out of a garbage bag, or a piece of paper. It’s never a cloud … it’s a cloud that looks like it’s made out … of cotton, or something that’s tactile. Nothing is ever symmetrical, it’s heavily, heavily stylized. So it’s truly a unique type of visual effects we do in order to support what they’re doing out here with the puppets and environments.”

When we asked Emerson if Kubo was the most difficult film his team — and the entire studio — had ever produced, he gave a very simple answer: “Absolutely. It’s not even close.”

The 89th Academy Awards ceremony will air Sunday, February 26, at 7pm ET on ABC.

Product Review

'Far Cry 5' trades palm trees for pines, but it's still the same old game

Far Cry 5 has all the pieces of a lighthearted open-world romp and a dark, fascinating narrative-driven game. Unfortunately, the two are incompatible.
Movies & TV

The best movies on Netflix in July 2018, from ‘Coco’ to ‘Jurassic Park’

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, subdued humor, or anything in between.
Home Theater

Bask in the glory of your home theater with these 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays

What good is a 4K TV if you don't have the means of pushing it to its limits? Here are our favorite 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays, all of which are nothing short of stunning. It'll make you wonder why you haven't always watched movies this way.
Home Theater

The best Dolby Atmos movies for your home theater sound as good as they look

If you've got your hands on some sweet Dolby Atmos gear, the next step is to find films that take advantage of it. These are our picks in every genre for the best Dolby Atmos movies currently available on Blu-ray and streaming services.
Movies & TV

First poster for 'Aquaman' accompanies news of when we'll see the first trailer

Jason Momoa will bring Aquaman back to the big screen for a solo feature in December 2018. Here's everything we know so far about the aquatic superhero's live-action adventure in the DC Extended Universe.
Music

Spotify vs. Pandora: Which music streaming service is better for you?

Which music streaming platform is best for you? We pit Spotify versus Pandora, two mighty streaming services with on-demand music and massive catalogs, comparing every facet of the two services to help you decide which is best.
Computing

Microsoft’s foldable ‘Andromeda’ pocket device may never surface

Sources claim Microsoft’s two-screen “Andromeda” project may be put on hold indefinitely. Executives made the decision over the last several weeks to not include Andromeda components and services in the next Windows 10 update.
Virtual Reality

Got a Gear VR headset? These are the apps and games you've got to try

Before you put on your new Gear VR headset, you should know which apps and games are worth downloading. Whether you're a fan of documentaries or arcade games, here's a list of the best Gear VR apps and games to be had.
Computing

Stop dragging windows on your Mac. Here's how to use Split View to multitask

The latest iterations of MacOS offer a native Split View feature that can automatically divide screen space between two applications. Here's how to use Split View on a Mac, adjust it as needed, and how it can help out.
Movies & TV

Two of the last Blockbusters just closed in Alaska, leaving but one survivor

Blockbuster's inevitable march toward extinction has taken what might be its penultimate step. With the closure of two movie rental stores in Alaska, there is now but one lone Blockbuster in Bend, Oregon.
Movies & TV

Tarantino's 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' gets a new release date

Quentin Tarantino's ninth feature film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, uses the infamous 1969 Manson murders as a backdrop to tell a story set in bohemian Los Angeles. Here's everything we know so far.
Computing

Microsoft's foldable Andromeda device may debut this year. Here's what we know

Microsoft was reportedly working on a pocket-sized clamshell device code-named 'Andromeda' sporting two touchscreens. Meant to disrupt the mobile market, it's now put on hold. Here's everything we know about the Surface Phone.
Movies & TV

15 epic sci-fi novels you should read before they become blockbuster films

You can get ahead of the next crop of science-fiction movies coming out of Hollywood by picking up the books that inspired them. We compiled a list of books you can add to your reading list now to get a glimpse of the future.
Photography

Fujifilm announces ultra-wide 8-16mm f/2.8 and massive 200mm f/2 lenses

Two new premium lenses have joined Fujifilm's X Series, an ultra-wide zoom for landscapes and astrophotography and a fast telephoto prime for low-light sports and wildlife. At $2,000 and $6,000, both are decidedly made for professionals.
Movies & TV

A horse, a sword, and hair clips highlight latest 'John Wick 3' set videos

The third installment of the wildly successful action series that stars Keanu Reeves as a deadly assassin forced out of retirement, John Wick 3: Parabellum, hits theaters in May 2019. Here's everything we know about the movie so far.
Home Theater

PlayStation Vue: The master guide to Sony’s internet TV service

PlayStation Vue is Sony's answer to live TV without the need for a cable or satellite TV subscription. To help you understand the service, it's plans, and numerous features, we've created this handy guide.
Movies & TV

Robin goes gritty in first trailer for DC’s ‘Titans’ streaming series

DC Entertainment released the first trailer for Titans, the new live-action television series based on the teenage superhero team The Teen Titans, which will debut on streaming video platform DC Universe later this year.
Home Theater

From the Roku Ultra to the Fire TV Cube, these are the best streaming devices

There are more options for media streamers than ever, so it’s more difficult to pick the best option. But that’s why we're here. Our curated list of the best streaming devices will get you online in no time.
Home Theater

Dish Network or DirecTV: Which is the better choice for you?

So, you’ve chosen to go with a satellite television provider. Check out our quick rundown of what both Dish Network and DirecTV offer in terms of content, hardware, and pricing, and why you might choose them over streaming services.
Movies & TV

‘Iron Fist’ season 2 premiere date and teaser trailer revealed at Comic-Con

The first teaser trailer for Iron Fist season 2 reveals that Finn Jones will return to Netflix as Marvel Comics' popular kung fu superhero Danny Rand in September, and offers a peek at what's to come for the show.
Movies & TV

New looks at 'The Walking Dead' and 'Star Trek: Discovery' debut at Comic-Con

Comic-Con always means the premiere of some of the biggest movie trailers and television previews of the year. From Aquaman and Venom to Star Trek: Discovery and The Walking Dead, here is what we're most excited about this year.
Movies & TV

First photos from 'Star Trek: Discovery' season 2 debut during Comic-Con

The crew of the U.S.S. Discovery will return for more adventures on CBS All Access in the near future. Here's everything we know about Star Trek: Discovery season 2, from the cast and themes to the season premiere.
Music

Listen up! These are the best movie soundtracks of all time

Whether you're a lover of beautifully composed original scores or a fan of perfectly compiled background music, these are the best movie soundtracks of all time — from Star Wars to Garden State.