Set visit: Creating Laika’s stop-motion animated film, Missing Link

Missing Link Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Laika has created some truly beautiful stop-motion animated films like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, and the studio is currently gearing up for the release of its next film, Missing Link. It follows the adventures of a man who tries to help a legendary creature across the world to find a place he can call home. Hugh Jackman stars as the voice of Sir Lionel Frost, Zoe Saldana as Adelina Fortnight, and Zach Galifianakis as Mr. Link/Susan. Nerd Reactor was invited to check out the film’s set at Laika in Oregon to see how it was all created.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if there was like an Indiana Jones of stop motion,” said Chris Butler, the film’s director. “And really, a lot of this stuff that I grew up watching and reading is kind of thrown into the pot here. It’s a little bit Indiana Jones, it’s a little bit Sherlock Holmes, it’s a little bit of Ray Harryhausen creatures thrown in…. basically everything I love.”

There’s something to be said about Laika keeping the magic of stop-motion animation alive while also using the latest 3D printing technology to produce better colors.

“It’s a kaleidoscopic travelogue,” Butler continued. “Big, bright, bold and very colorful. It’s definitely our most colorful movie to date, and I think it’s definitely our most playful as well.”

The Puppets

Laika Set Visit Missing Link - 10 Missing Link Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

The Missing Link characters are brought to life by puppets, and it’s kind of like posing GI Joe or Barbie figures. The puppet department covers 20,000 square feet on the second floor of the studio and can accommodate up to 100-plus fabrication artists including jewelers, engineers, illustrators, hairdressers, textile experts, and more.

The puppets start from 2D designs and then gets the 3D treatment with a concept sculptor. The design maquette gives the team an idea of the character’s personality and a sense of scale and dimension. After that, they dig into the design to see how they can create a performance out of the puppet. For example, Link’s avocado body and limbs should still allow for total function and movement. The process from 2D concept to a puppet that’s ready for the stage is around nine months. It may sound like a long time, but the puppets are very complex, and an armature can have 250+ components.

Facial Animation using Rapid Prototyping

Missing Link Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

When animating a character’s face with traditional stop motion, an artist would have to sculpt a new face for each frame of animation. Laika employs a different technique called rapid prototyping that uses 3D printers to create new faces ever since it was utilized in Coraline. To animate the face, the animator would pop out a face and switch it with another face. These faces are held on by magnets, and the animator would have a lot of facial expressions to pick from inside a box.

Missing Link Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

For Missing Link, Laika printed over 106,000 different facial expressions. That’s a lot compared to Coraline, where it only printed 20,000 for the entirety of that film. It takes 6 months or more to engineer the components inside the head for a Missing Link character. The exploded view (as seen above) gives you an idea on what goes inside a puppet’s head, with some having up to 70 pieces.

Hand-Painting in Coraline

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

In Coraline, the faces had to be hand-painted, which is definitely time-consuming. The teeth were also tough since, at the time, they wanted to create separate ones similar to dentures. So that meant they had to paint them and then glue them in the back individually.

“We thought we were really smart until I walked in and saw a painter who had just spent literally probably two weeks painting a whole tray of hundreds and hundreds of teeth,” said Brian Mclean, the director of rapid prototyping. “And then they were going in and gluing them into the faces. As they went into it, they realized that all the faces had closed mouths. It was a huge waste of time.”

3D Color Printing

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Laika then started using the ZPrinter 650 for ParaNorman, and at the time, it was the one and only 3D color printing technology on the market. It was also used in Boxtrolls and Kubo and the Two Strings. The machine prints on powder or plaster and sprays colored glue on the faces and uses a combination of cyan, yellow, magenta, black and white (or clear).

The process is very delicate since it feels like chalk, and you have to be very careful like a paleontologist dusting off dinosaur bones. After lifting the face off of the machine, the team would have to sand it and make it smooth while also being careful not to tap a nose, or else it would break off. It is then dipped in super glue to harden it.

Full-color Resin 3D Printing

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Thanks to the new technology of the full-color resin 3D printer, Laika was able to bypass the ZPrinter 650 since handling the faces were too delicate. Dealing with pointy noses would be tough on characters like Missing Link’s Sir Lionel Frost and Adelina. The Stratasys J750 changes the game with mixing color. With the ZPrinter 650, it’s like using a 2D inkjet printer. With the resin printer, you can now include white as a fifth color, and the colors aren’t actually mixing together. The solid droplets of raw colors are placed next to each other to form a pattern (18 million voxels in a cubic centimeter). When you zoom out enough, it tricks your brain into thinking the colors are mixed. These droplets are so small that you’ll need an electron microscope to see the actual raw colors.

Rigging

Ollie Jones demonstrating the rigging process. Credit: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

For more complicated sequences, Laika employs the rigging technique. These are scenes that help the animators create subtle, finite performances. For example, a scene with characters inside a carriage would involve rigging to help simulate rocking back and forth and curtains swaying left and right. It can also help with creating funny moments like Mr. Link splitting his pants.

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Rigging is also used for poses that are hard to move due to their clothing. As seen above, there are mechanisms that will allow the movement of legs inside clothing.

Production Design

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

The puppets need to interact in front of a background, and that’s where the production designers come in. These sets from Missing Link are huge and serve to help push the story. From the black and white room from the Gentlemen’s Club to the woods in the Northwest coast, you really get a sense of the mood and atmosphere.

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

The sets are also a great place for the team to add a lot of fun Easter eggs. Above you can see poor Monkey from Kubo and the Two Strings being turned into a trophy head.

Photo: Nerd Reactor

Even though the sets aren’t actual size, they are still massive. Here’s a photo of yours truly standing in front of the Shangri-La set.

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Missing Link has bold colors, and the forest definitely shows off the lush green. As as you can see in the photo, Laika shoots the film in RAW 4K using the Canon 5D. It’s a very efficient way for the team to shoot since they can send it to the different departments quickly and not worry about waiting to develop a film if they used film photography. If the camera breaks, they can always go to the nearest Best Buy to purchase more.

Laika is definitely pushing the boundaries on visuals and stop-motion animation, and Missing Link is looking to be an adventurous and fun film that takes viewers all around the world from the Western town of Santa Ana to the cold world of Shangri-La.

Missing Link hits theaters on April 12, 2019.

You can check out more photos from the set visit below:

Missing Link Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

 

Missing Link Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Link Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Missing Link Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Missing Link Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Missing Link Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Missing Link Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Missing Link Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Missing Link Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Missing Link Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Missing Link Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

Photo: John Nguyen/Nerd Reactor

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John 'Spartan' Nguyen
John 'Spartan' Nguyen 9715 posts

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