AWN’s Miscweant examines the increasing sophistication of the technology powering the stop-motion studio’s fifth animated feature film, a globe-trotting adventure directed by Chris Butler.
LAIKA, the unique stop-motion studio, sets multiple challenges for itself with every new film, challenges as towering as the Himalayas -- which is appropriate for their newest film, Missing Link, since the Himalayan mountains happen to be one of the film’s many locations.
Since Coraline, their first film released ten years ago, the studio’s productions and the technology behind them have grown ever more sophisticated. They’re put to good use in Missing Link, their most complex film to date. Take the characters’ faces, for example. The studio formerly created a library of faces that were swapped out to convey their characters’ emotion or lip sync their dialog. They created 20,000 of them for Coraline, 64,000 for Kubo and the Two Strings, their previous film…and 104,000 for Missing Link. Those earlier films reused faces when dialog or attitude matched with earlier scenes, but in Link every character in every shot had a custom-made face for that shot and that shot alone. Then there are those dangling tassels swaying to and from during a stagecoach scene -- 180 of them, each separately rigged and motion-controlled. (And did I mention all of Missing Link was shot “on ones,” each frame individually animated, which might account for the 112 million processor hours -- equivalent to 12,785 years -- to render the entire film.)
Missing Link’s writer & director Chris Butler is a LAIKA veteran, having worked on every one of the studio’s films, starting as Coraline’s character designer and head of story, scripting Kubo and the Two Strings, and writing and directing ParaNorman. His “elevator pitch” to LAIKA studio head Travis Knight for Link was “imagine David Lean directing Around the World in Eighty Days starring Laurel and Hardy.”
Missing Link is definitely a globe-trotting adventure, its characters travelling from Loch Ness to London to the Pacific Northwest to India and eventually the high Himalayas and the hidden land of Shangri-La where Sasquatch “Mr. Link” (or as he dubs himself, “Susan”) hopes he will be accepted by his distant cousins, the Yeti. As for the Laurel and Hardy part, Susan has convinced vain and fame-hungry explorer Sir Lionel Frost to guide him. The pair also resemble Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, with Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman, done with portraying Wolverine) as the sharp-witted deep thinker and Susan (Zach Galifianakis in a funny and heartfelt vocal performance) as his loyal but naïve sidekick.
Frost acquires another travelling companion when he less than nobly tries to steal a map leading to Shangri-La from Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saladana) the widow of a fellow explorer; he’s welcome to the map she declares -- as long as she’s along for the ride. Then there’s Lord Piggott-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), head of the explorers’ club Frost yearns to join, out to stop Frost from upsetting his insular world view -- at all costs.
There’s no shortage of bravura set pieces in Missing Link, from a battle with the Loch Ness monster to a fight on a storm-tossed ship that at one point has Frost and his opponent running along a corridor wall Inception-style, and finally a deadly showdown on an ice bridge over a bottomless gorge. (I had no idea it was possible for someone to hold onto the side of a cliff with one hand while three people dangle on a rope tied around his waist; I would not want to thumb-wrestle someone like that.)
LAIKA is fully committed to merging classic stop-motion with cutting-edge technology and CG elements. (Or as they refer to it, “hybridized filmmaking.”) The studio continually updates and expands their arsenal of techniques with each new project, adding refinements to their already sophisticated tools in ways too numerous to mention. In the final analysis however, Missing Link is about people (even if they are stop-motion puppets) and not technology. As Butler explains, “Ultimately, the film is about finding your family, finding your true friendships, finding the things that really matter in life, rather than filling your time with things we think are going to make people accept us.”