Defying (and Engineering) Gravity

One of rigging operator Ollie Jones‘ biggest challenges in Missing Link was to make stagecoach tassels move. Chris Butler had asked Jones to create a swinging movement in the tassels as the stagecoach drove down a rickety cobblestone street. It was a problem that took Jones six months to solve. “Making that commitment to detail,” Jones said, “when you’re inside something, it gives a life.”

To make that commitment requires tons of research, Jones said, which was not how Laika used to work when they first broke out onto the scene with Coraline:

“We used to work so much more with intuition. I think if you look back at Coraline, you would see that they are more signifiers of how things would work, they’re more cartoon-y or they’re more symbolic. Here, we really dive into our research. And I find that it helps more and clarifies. Research is a good discussion piece, it brings you, the director, the animation supervisor, the animator all to one point, where if you just make stuff up, it becomes so much more subjective.”

“With animation, we don’t get any movement for free,” Cook added. “Like in live-action where you have people walking around and if they move their arm, their sleeve moves with it. Does not happen here. So we have to engineer every single move.” In costuming, Cook achieves that by using weights and lining in each version of a character’s costume to signify a different movement and “trick the camera” with color and shape. Because Laika has become virtually a one-stop shop to manufacture and use its technology, from fabrics to rigs, the departments have gained even greater control. So while it takes several months to design and create something, “We start to build a library of formulas for that particular movie that we can draw on to populate different characters and different costumes,” Cook said.

That library and the level of research that Laika dedicates to its films have become essential to achieving the realism that they wanted with Missing Link, and which they’ll continue to expand upon in future films. That’s why Laika stop-motion films look so different from traditional stop-motion, Craney said:

 “We don’t do crawl. We don’t do boil. We don’t want any shift in costumes, in surface. Isle of Dogs is a very different thing where you see lots of scatter, it’s the sort of purest stop-motion. We’re a hybrid studio and we don’t go for that.”

A Brand New, Yet Old, Tool

Which brings us to the centerpiece of Laika’s hybrid studio: the 3D printer. “Our idea was let’s take this brand new 3D printing technology, harness the power of the computer, sculpt and animate the faces within the computer and then send them to the 3D printer,” Mclean said. Coraline was the first movie made with this technology, and since then, Laika has been steadily innovating and testing out new 3D printing technology. And the technology that they’re using for Missing Link is their most advanced yet.

Laika worked closely with Stratasys to help develop a full-color resin printer, an evolution of the white resin printer used for Coraline and the color powder printer they used for ParaNorman, Box Trolls, and Kubo and the Two Strings. “We have made a name for ourselves in the 3D printing world and the stop-motion world, so we don’t accept any product off the shelf,” Mclean said. Laika ended up partnering with a research company in Germany to provide the software, which they were able to immediately put to work with Missing Link.

“This is the first film where we’ve been able to do highly customized facial animation, meaning very single shot of the film had a unique set of faces printed,” Mclean said. Together with Craney’s puppet department, which develops the armatures or robotic exoskeletons for each character, Laika was able to further hone the tool that they continue to be at the cutting edge of. “What we’re really building is a tool for our actors, or our animators by proxy, to create the illusion of life,” Craney said. “It’s like performance from within. That’s what we aim for, and we keep pushing for that with the next one.” Added Mclean:

“It was a weird thing to be coming into a stop-motion studio in 2005 with this idea of using 3D printers because a lot of the stop-motion artists felt extremely threatened by CG and they suddenly saw CG coming right into their backyard and planting a foot… The irony was, once people understood that it was just another tool, it was a tool in the tool chest that once you learned how to use and you stopped being intimidated by it, it suddenly opened up the horizon to do things in a whole new way, or to do things that were done in a traditional way but just faster. We’re on the cusp now where 3D printers, we use them for faces primarily, but every other department in Laika is using 3D printers for something…And these are all traditional artists who realize that it’s an amazing tool.”

LAIKA Missing Link

A Departure or a New Chapter?

With the 3D technology provided by the full color resin printers, which use a technology called voxel printing, the characters’ faces in Missing Link have a translucent, almost skin-like texture. When light glances off Sir Lionel’s face, you can see it glowing through his pink, triangular nose — giving the film a realism that Laika has never achieved before. And it’s something that can only be achieved through the intersection of stop-motion and new technology.

“I love the physicality of it,” Lowry said. “And even though computers are getting wildly sophisticated, a beautifully lit set with light falling on all these different things gives a real tactile, human kind of feeling to me.”

Laika films will continue to look better and better, but they can’t go back, Mclean said. The new 3D printing technology actually isn’t capable of printing the faces like the ones they printed for Coraline 10 years ago. “”We don’t have the ability to create a Coraline face again,” Mclean said. “She would probably look a little too realistic”:

“The only thing I think we lose is, every time we yank out an engine and stick in a new one, the team that isn’t involved in that, the rest of the production, doesn’t recognize how much we have just knowingly stepped into doing things. So they get frustrated with us, going, ‘You guys have been doing faces for 15, 12 years now, why is it taking you so long?’ And they don’t understand that we’ve had to essentially rebuild an entire pipeline every time we try a new technology.”

Though it’s a departure technologically and tonally for Laika — the film has more comedy than any of their previous features — Missing Link may be a new chapter for the animation studio.

“[Missing Link] a departure,” Sutner said. “But we wanted to do that departure on our terms.”

Missing Link hits theaters on April 12, 2019.

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