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Set Visit: Go Behind the Scenes of LAIKA’s ‘Missing Link’

AWN delivers a close-up look at the production for the Oregon stop-motion studio’s biggest, most sophisticated and largest-scale animated feature yet, arriving in theatres on April 12.

Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman), Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis) and Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana) in director Chris Butler’s ‘Missing Link, ’ arriving in theaters on April 12. Images courtesy of LAIKA Studios / Annapurna Pictures.

With LAIKA’s fifth animated feature, Missing Link, set to hit theaters April 12, AWN was invited to visit the expansive Portland studio for an intimate look behind the scenes. Joined over the course of the day by director Chris Butler, producer Arianne Sutner, production designer Nelson Lowrey, costume designer Deborah Cook, creative lead John Craney, head of rigging Ollie Jones, VFX supervisor Steve Emerson, and rapid prototype guru Brian Mclean, the small tour was shown the inner workings and costuming of hero puppets, the main sets, the latest in 3D rapid prototyping color printing process, and all sorts of sophisticated rigs that allowed animators unprecedented capabilities to craft character performances and best capture the film’s epic scale and scenery.

Some of the more “fun” facts on the production:

  • There were 1,486 shots in Missing Link -- the most of any LAIKA movie to date.
  • There were more than 110 sets and 65 unique locations.
  • All of the puppets for Missing Link were built approximately 20% smaller than the puppets of previous LAIKA films. This scale difference allowed sets to be smaller and also kept Mr. Link, the largest character in the film, at an animator-friendly size of 16 inches tall.
  • At peak production, there were 91 units in production -- about 50% more than any other LAIKA film.
  • There are 47 motion-control camera rigs in-house. The oldest motion-control camera rig dates from 1928. Originally used to hold a Technicolor 3-stripe live-action camera, it has been passed down through various effects studios for over 90 years.
  • The Logging Town was so large that a combination of miniature and full-scale sets were combined to achieve the distance of the town viewed from afar. The shooting of the full set required closing down an aisle within the studio and placing the camera rig across the walkway to encompass the shot.
  • The bagpipes were made with a specially-built latex balloon which was inflated and deflated through syringes.
  • According to costume designer Deborah Cook, “All fabrics for LAIKA costumes are created in-house. Nothing is bought off the shelf. Not only do we need to create costumes on a miniature scale, they need to withstand the puppet performances. And they also need to look good on camera. A lot of experimentation in textile creation happens here, to produce these intricately detailed costumes.”

LAIKA is considered a leader in the use of Rapid Prototyping (RP or 3D printing) for facial animation and was awarded a Scientific and Engineering Oscar plaque in 2016 for its innovation in the field. Partnering again with Stratasys for hardware and Cuttlefish for the software, LAIKA continues to push the envelope in the use of 3D printing in stop-motion film production.

  • Missing Link is LAIKA’s first film to use full-color resin 3D-printed replacement faces on ALL of its puppets.
  • Missing Link is LAIKA’s first film to 3D print custom animated facial performances for every character in every shot of the film. Past films relied on “face kits” with interchangeable facial expressions that were re-used throughout the film.
  • The RP department’s five 3D printers often ran 24 hours a day churning out approximately 2,000 faces per week.
  • The RP department printed over 106,000 faces in total. About 39,000 (37%) were Lionel faces; about 27,000 (26%) were Link faces and about 13,000 (12%) were Adelina faces.
  • The three main characters comprised about 75% of the faces in the film.
  • Due to the improved surface detail of Stratasys’ J750 3D printer, almost 90% of the faces printed for the film did not require sanding. After printing, support material was removed, magnets were installed and the faces were sprayed with multiple layers of a clear and dull coat for a smooth finish. Lastly, each face was organized, tested and then delivered to set.

For our hero, Mr. Link, voiced by Zach Galifianakis:

  • Mr. Link is the heaviest lead character ever created for a LAIKA film.
  • The shot of Mr. Link pulling up his pants while jumping was achieved by swapping whole puppets between frames to achieve zipper closure. The pants splitting shot was achieved with a specialty-built rig to support a 300% scale Mr. Link rear end. Winders provided tension to pull the fabric seam apart and push the tuft of hair to the exterior. 
  • The shot of the inside of Mr. Link’s mouth utilized six incremental driver paddles to manipulate the tongue, winders to pull open the skin of the cheeks, and another set of winders to allow for opening and closing of the jaw. The entire mouth was constructed at 500% scale with rapid prototype teeth and gums.

  • On the outside, Mr. Link is loveable and friendly. On the inside, he’s a nest of metal parts including a mechanical belly mover, a chest breather, squash and stretch devices, worm gears, and racks and pinions.
  • Mr. Link’s fur was created with several techniques. His general body mass is first established by building up pieces of perforated foam latex onto his metal armature (almost like muscles). Then, like a skin or a fur suit, sheets of molded silicone with the fur texture are applied over this body shape and glued closed.
  • Due to the extreme amount of mobility and squash and stretch needed in Mr. Link’s neck, the studio used individual cast urethane “fur petals” that were attached in layers similar to the way feathers lay on a bird’s neck. When Mr. Link twists and bends, these layers slide over and past one another rather than buckle and fold as they would if they were a single sheet of molded silicone.
  • Mr. Link’s plaid suit is a nod to Northwest clothing conventions of the day, as well as weaving history, specifically White Stag and Pendleton which were established in Oregon during this time period.
  • Many fabrics are constructed from a very lightweight stretchy fabric base dyed to a particular base color, digitally embroidered to give it an even woven texture in miniature scale, then finished with a print overlay and hand-painted detail.

For our intrepid explorer, Sir Lionel Frost, voiced by Hugh Jackman:

  • Finding the pattern for Sir Lionel’s houndstooth suit started out by working with an expert weaver to establish the size, shape and color tones of the interlocking shapes that would represent this weave.
  • However, small weaves or very close parallel lines can produce a moiré effect on screen -- a visual perception interference produced from the digital shooting process. Through much experimentation, the costume designer developed the color tones for one not to appear more prominent than the other on screen and the shape of them to give the impression of woven houndstooth but be formulated from an interlocking ‘star’ shape.
  • The rich blues and yellows of Lionel’s suit reflect his modern, fashion-forward sensibilities.

For our equally intrepid explorer, Adelina Fortnight, voiced by Zoe Saldana:

  • Adelina represents the modern woman at the turn of the 20th Century. Independent and adventurous, this revolutionary woman was popularized with the “Gibson Girl” illustrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
  • Adelina’s hair uses nearly 2,000 feet of multi-colored silk thread in various colors (over 1/3 of a mile) which are then blended and styled by hand to mimic the shapes and linear qualities of the pen and ink illustrations of the “Gibson Girl” look.
  • Another signature look of the “Gibson Girl” was the swan-bill corset, a reaction against the physically restrictive bustles and corsets of the Victorian era. This corset exaggerated women’s curves, something that Victorians would have found “unacceptable.” Adelina was a keen adopter of the modern swan-bill style.
  • The fuchsia of Adelina’s dress also conveys her fashion-forward style. The first chemical dyes were created in this period allowing for vivid hues like purples and blues. Her and Sir Lionel’s colorful dress-sense offers a stark contrast to the Victorian staples of navy blues and charcoal greys.

For the two main four-legged friends, an elephant and a horse, that joined our heroes at various points in their journey:

  • The puppets for the elephant and the horse were constructed using a “bodysuit” technique in which muscles are first carved from foam, rubber and plastic and attached to the internal skeleton. A thin outer skin of silicon is stretched over the entire body, then hand painted and detailed.
  • The elephant was LAIKA’s first puppet to be constructed with a stretchy/baggy skin not adhered to the moveable carbon fiber body panels.
  • It weighs in at approx. 36 lbs.
  • It has a specialty stunt foot created with open cavities to create the illusion of weight and compressed flesh. It features 100% independently sympathetic toenails.
  • It has an interior rack and pinion neck for head lift.
  • It uses a gas-powered spring to assist in lifting the hips.
  • The elephant saddle, or howdah, which carried Sir Lionel and Adelina, was on a 2-axis motorized rig to provide illusion of the bounce of the elephant’s walk.
  • Only one elephant puppet was created for the film.
  • The shot of the elephant walking required a 35ft long path and a motorized crane over 14-feet tall with a reach of 12 feet to support the puppets. The wraparound nature of the camera motion meant that one side of the set had to be shot first and then struck. Then the other side of the set was installed and shot to completion. It required almost three months to shoot, and is approximately 20 seconds in length in the film.
  • Sir Lionel’s Horse utilized a custom-created semi-circular rig which transferred the central pivot point of the horse to the outside of the puppet. This allowed the animator to capture the look of the weight-transfer that is unique to a horse’s gait.
  • The reins, bridle and saddle on the horse are made from real leather that had been thinned down dramatically to achieve the required scale. Many of the books in Lionel’s study were also leather bound using authentic bookbinding techniques.

For The Manchuria ocean liner, Train and Pullman Car

  • Because the characters are seen walking down the center aisle of the Pullman, the set does not have a floor. Instead, the entire set is suspended and moved on rails for animator access.
  • The (exterior) train was the largest prop built for the film.
  • The exterior train is an actual working train on rails that was pulled by a motorized winch. It ran too smoothly along the rails, so bits of tape painted to look like rust were added to the track so that the wheels would bump along for more authentic carriage motion.
  • The Manchuria set was too big and heavy to move, so the camera and all of the surrounding lighting was motorized to move around the ship to create the illusion of motion.
  • The smallest camera head used at LAIKA was built for this set. It allowed the camera to be mounted to a long pole and then sent down inside the long corridor of the ship to capture animation.

Visual effects were used extensively throughout the film, for anything from water effects to puppet rig removals. Some key stats:

  • Of the 1,486 shots in Missing Link, only 446 were 2D rigs and seams clean-up only. 465 shots required CG set extensions, 460 required CG special effects, and 325 required CG animation.
  • The VFX Asset team created 531 CG assets and 182 CG characters for Missing Link, both the most of any LAIKA film. By comparison, for Kubo and the Two Strings, 249 CG assets and 77 CG characters were created.
  • There were over 1,000 rigs removed from shots by the VFX Paint team.
  • The opening shot of the movie, the Loch Ness reveal, had more than 400 elements in the final comp. The average shots with water used over 100 practical and cg elements to produce the final image.
  • Each underwater Loch Ness plankton simulation in Nuke had more than 2 million particles.
  • One simulation volume for the stormy ocean water splash contained the maximum number of voxels (3D pixels) that Katana, our lighting software, could handle -- which is 3 BILLION.
  • The VFX Department used over a petabyte of storage -- that’s a million gigabytes, in the creation of Missing Link.
  • Missing Link took 112 million processor hours -- 12,785 YEARS -- to render the entire movie and went through five architectures of the render farm.
  • The CG Ice Bridge model asset is composed of 37,000 parts, 20,000,000 polygons, 48 UDIMs and takes 4.7GB of memory when fully loaded.
Dan Sarto's picture

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