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Chris Butler Takes on Sasquatch and Indiana Jones in LAIKA’s ‘Missing Link’

The writer and director of LAIKA’s new stop-motion/CG-animated epic comedy adventure shares his insights on helming the studio’s biggest, most complex and technologically innovative film yet. 

With today’s release of their fifth animated feature, the stop-motion/CG hybrid tour de force Missing Link, LAIKA brings to audiences the studio’s most ambitious, expansive and funniest film to date. One of the industry’s most creative and technologically innovative animation studios, LAIKA has once again seamlessly integrated stop-motion wizardry -- centered around painstakingly detailed hand-made puppets, props and sets -- with state-of-the-art visual effects and CG animation, brought together in a beautifully designed comedy adventure that is epic in scope yet intimate in tone.

Missing Link tells the story of an eccentric, though slightly self-absorbed, adventurer, Sir Lionel Frost, voiced by veteran actor Hugh Jackman, attempting to cement his legacy as the world’s greatest investigator of myths and monsters by reuniting a mysterious and solitary Sasquatch, the humble Mr. Link, voiced by actor and comedian Zack Galifianakis, with his mythical Himalayan cousins, the legendary Yetis of Shangri-La.

Written and directed by Chris Butler, who also wrote and directed the studio’s 2012 Oscar-nominated ParaNorman, Missing Link takes audiences on a dramatic, fast paced, globe-trotting adventure across lush forests, dusty deserts, stormy seas and snowy mountain valleys, as our heroes, Sir Lionel, Mr. Link and the equally intrepid Adelina Fortnight, voiced by actress Zoe Saldana, brave elements and adversaries on their perilous journey.

For Butler, the inspiration for Missing Link can be traced to a singular event, when, as a kid, he was completely mesmerized by Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film he considers “hands down, beyond question, the best movie ever made in the history of the universe.” Butler’s story, like Steven Spielberg’s classic, combines swashbuckling heroism, history and mythology, action, comedy and romance into a ripping yarn of a buddy movie.

“I think all the stories I write can be traced back to things I enjoyed when I was a kid,” Butler explains. “That’s probably true for a lot of people, but it seemed to me that there were many roles that I’ve been trying to play at since I was about five years old. And one of those was a cross between Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes. And that was the original hook. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we made a stop-motion Indiana Jones kind of movie?’ A true rollercoaster action-adventure comedy. And at LAIKA, it was finally the time to make it because I don’t think we would’ve been able to do it properly 10 years ago.”

Missing Link is the studio’s “biggest” film in terms of sheer numbers of practically everything, from puppets and sets, props and rigs, to the number of CG characters and VFX shots, as well as the expanded use of 3D printing for facial animation replacement part fabrication, a production process LAIKA has continually pushed to the limits in their pioneering stop-motion filmmaking.

As Butler, who also designed the film’s characters, developed the story, practical constraints on visual scope and scale didn’t deter him, as he assumed whatever locale or action sequence he conceived, the studio could handle it. “I’m spoiled at the studio,” he confides. “No one has ever tried to tell me ‘No, you can’t do that’ when it comes to creating a world or a story. So, at no point, when I’m writing one of these things, does someone say, ‘Well, you can only have seven countries,’ or, ‘You can only have eight characters.’ That conversation never happens. Some might argue it should, but it never really happens to me. So, I don’t feel inhibited when I’m first coming up with the idea. Having said that, some limitations are beneficial to the creative process.”

Butler readily admits that some constraints can be useful, as they force him to focus and tighten the narrative to include only enough complexity to properly move the story along. Relentless attention to detail is LAIKA’s bread and butter. But, they never seek to fill the screen with complexity for the sake of dazzle. According to the director, “Case in point would be, some of the places that we go to in the movie, where we’re only there for a matter of shots. Not even minutes. So, what you have to try and achieve with those shots is giving the audience what they need. And what they usually need is some familiarity so that they immediately know where they are and why they’re there.”

One example is a sequence set in the New York shipyard. “I knew there was a way to approach this where we could’ve storyboarded a conversation so that you saw all of the docks of New York behind the characters,” Butler recounts. “That would’ve been an incredibly awful build for something that takes place over probably less than a minute. So, I went about it thinking, ‘How can I set this scene in an elegant, aesthetically pleasing way that helps the audience know where they are, but isn’t gratuitous?’ Ultimately, I came up with a handful of shots of ships’ rigging and masts that do the job for you. When you see them in the movie, they are beautiful shots that are far more effective than seeing this giant flying camera shot through a densely populated dockland.”

With LAIKA CEO and the film’s producer, Travis Knight, doing double (possibly even triple) duty directing the most recent Transformers movie, Bumblebee, he wasn’t able to animate on Missing Link, or spend the same amount of time on set as he did on each of his studio’s previous four films. But LAIKA’s creative leadership, a group led by Knight that includes Butler and producer Arianne Sutner, as well as department heads like Nelson Lowry in production design, Steve Emerson in VFX, Brian McLean in rapid prototyping and Deborah Cook in costume design, is a lean, intimate and confident team with vast experience and expertise in the studio’s unique style of hybrid filmmaking.

“I’ve always considered myself in a very lucky position at the studio with regard to my creative relationship with Travis,” Butler notes. “He is nothing but supportive. I know there are plenty of studios out there with vast chains of executive notes, and that’s just never been the case here. So, I’ve never really felt that kind of pressure to produce, and I’m very thankful for that. We’ve made a few of these now. And while we’re definitely learning how to make these types of films, we’re also learning about each other. A lot of these faces are the same. I’ve worked with Nelson for many years… I’ve worked with Steve for many years. So, you develop a bit of a shorthand in how you work with each other, and I think that’s useful, too. But that is not to say that made making this movie any easier. It didn’t. This movie was a tough one. It was a challenge from day one, though we knew it would be. What we learned from making four beautiful movies before this is that you get the feeling that no matter how difficult things may seem, our team will figure it out. And that is a great crutch to lean on when you’re a director, knowing that you have the people around you who can figure it out.”

With more than 110 sets, 65 unique locations, 106,000 3D-printed facial replacement parts, 531 CG assets, 182 CG characters, and 47 motion-control camera rigs used in creation of 1,486 shots -- the most of any LAIKA film -- Missing Link is the studio’s most complex movie yet. Mr. Link is also the heaviest lead character the studio has ever created, and his unique, neckless pear shaped proved especially challenging.

“It’s pretty obvious the biggest challenge on this film is the scope and scale,” Butler says. “It’s a big movie, although I think for me, there were challenges that maybe people won’t immediately see. The main character, Mr. Link himself, was the most complex puppet that we’ve ever made. He is covered in fur and stylized, but that in itself was challenging. I wanted him to be capable of very sophisticated movements. I made a conscious decision very early on that the look of the hair in this movie was going be stylized. I wanted the stuff that’s on people’s heads to look like the same material that’s covering Link’s body. So, I knew I didn’t want to go the route of realistic hair. I also wanted to avoid the crawl factor where you’ve got boiling fingerprints left by the animators, which you sometimes see in stop-motion. That has its own charm, but I didn’t think it had a place in this particular aesthetic.”

Characters with sculpted fur are “always very silicone-y,” Butler continues. “It very, very quickly ruins the illusion because silicone can bunch and crease in very weird ways that immediately tell you it’s not real. So, that was a big challenge, creating this puppet that was capable of performing almost any kind of action while still having this moveable kind of tile-like pattern of spider-like hair over its top. It took over a year to refine that puppet, to get it working properly. I’m still staggered that we actually did it. There were things our team did with Link’s neck, in order for it to be able to move around and have the hair move on top of other hair, that was like on the level of NASA science. It blows my mind.”

Butler adds that despite all the studio’s technological advances and growing body of experience in sophisticated hybrid filmmaking, LAIKA’s films are getting more, not less, difficult to make. “That’s never going to change,” he acknowledges. “I don’t think we have to keep making bigger movies, but I do think we need to keep making movies that push the boundaries of the medium, that innovate. Someone asked me, ‘Because of the technical innovations that you’re making at the studio, does it make things easier?’ Well, no, actually, it makes things harder. Every time we innovate, we push further. We try to tell different kinds of stories. We try to tell more expansive stories. We try to go for more detailed animation. So, every time we achieve something, we keep aiming just a little bit higher. These things, they’re never going be easy. But, I don’t think anyone works here because it’s easy. They are here because it’s their passion.”

Ultimately, for Butler, directing Missing Link was a much different experience than what he went through making ParaNorman. “The nuts and bolts of the job itself remained the same, but so much changed in just the last few years,” he says. “The two big things for me were, on ParaNorman, I’d never directed a feature before, so there was that kind of the blissful ignorance of weighing into this thing and figuring it out. But I also had a co-director, Sam Fell, and he had done it before. So, there was that kind of security blanket if you’d like. Having said that, I’m not inferring that ParaNorman was easy by any means. It was also a different kind of movie. ParaNorman was set in one town, so you go to a small number of locations multiple times. It had a smaller cast. It was a much more... it was a smaller story. We still had huge ambitions in terms to different facets of that story, but it was just a different kind of narrative.”

Missing Link covers half the globe, rarely returning to a single location, which Butler says made him think about the film differently from day one. “You start planning it differently,” he notes. “Because even something as simple and boring as how to schedule a puppet on a set is different because your set schedule is different. You make one instead of six because you’re only using it for a minute instead of 20 minutes. Stuff like that. I approached this film from such a different angle that it felt like a completely different job to me, a completely different experience. I also think having done ParaNorman, I was probably lulled into that false sense of security that was like, ‘Oh sure, yeah, I can do anything now.’ And then, a few months into the production of Missing Link, you’re like, ‘Uh-oh, this is a big one.’ But we did it, you know? We aimed high and we did it. And like I said before, you figure it out, you find your way through it. But it did feel very, very different to me.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.