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.

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