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Explore the VFX of LAIKA’s ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’

From environments spanning the Snowy Plains, the Underwater Garden of Eyes, and the mysterious Hall of Bones, to effects such as massive water simulations, disintegrating magical boats, and digital set extensions, explore the VFX of LAIKA head Travis Knight’s Oscar-nominated directorial debut.

Marking more than two decades since a stop-motion animated feature has been nominated for an Oscar for visual effects (1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas), LAIKA’s Kubo and the Two Strings has been full of surprises.

Stop-motion animation is an established discipline: single frame by single frame -- with 24 frames per second -- animators subtly and painstakingly manipulate tangible objects on a working stage. Each frame is photographed twice in order to create a final stereoscopic 3D image. Then the thousands of photographed frames are edited and projected together sequentially, bringing the characters and environments to life: movie magic created by hand.

But at LAIKA, that is simply one aspect of the studio’s unique hybridization technique that has been perfected across its previous films, including Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls. The visual effects team is at work on every frame as well, sometimes for environment expansion or crowd enhancement, and sometimes for intangible additions.

Led by visual effects supervisor Steve Emerson, the intermingling of live sets and VFX extensions reaches new heights with Kubo and the Two Strings. A classic hero’s quest of David Lean proportions, the action-filled epic film’s course was charted for a fantastical version of ancient Japan, inspired mostly by the Edo period of the early 1600s to the late 1800s. As LAIKA chief and Kubo and the Two Strings director and producer Travis Knight comments, “LAIKA does what live-action films do, but in miniature and with inanimate puppets!”

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Along the way, exotic locales were dreamt up, created, and filmed, with the final script calling for 80 unique sets spanning numerous landscapes, from mountain ranges to the insides of a whale. Many of the film’s settings were built full-scale, while others were a combination of miniatures, classic matte paintings, and CG set extensions.

One of the biggest challenges for Emerson and his team was the stunning wave sequence in the film’s prologue, which helps set the scale and scope of the epic tale. “It took us about eight months to come up with a look for the roiling sea that combined realistic water motion and a heavily-designed surface,” Emerson relates. “The waves are beautiful and menacing, and most importantly they fit into Kubo’s world and propel the story. For us, that’s what it’s really all about -- shoring up the storytelling.”

Emerson’s group had to closely coordinate with the camera department, not least because of the production’s carefully plotted-out shooting schedule: cinematographer Frank Passingham supervised five separate camera lighting teams which, over the course of 94 weeks of shooting, accrued 1,345 shots for the film.

Once Passingham’s team had a frame shot and tagged, it went to the VFX unit “almost immediately,” Emerson notes. “A big component of my responsibility is to make sure that the vision of the director and the performances of the animators are retained when VFX is used to augment a scene, whether it be an environment or crowd scene.”

From environments spanning the Snowy Plains, the Underwater Garden of Eyes, and the mysterious Hall of Bones, to effects such as massive water simulations, disintegrating magical boats, and digital set extensions, here, courtesy of LAIKA, are a selection of images showing the VFX artistry behind many of the epic film’s visuals:

Water Effects & Environments:

Stop-motion animated plate.

Seams and Rig removal of stop-motion animated plate repositioned in raw digital environment supported by a matte painted night sky. The raw digital environment includes volumetric clouds simulated to create a churning stormy cloud as well as turbulent ocean fluid simulations mimicking hand crafted physical material to blend with the stop-motion plates.

Digital environments surfaced and lit in 3d environment, taking care to apply show standard Japanese wood block art styles inter-weaved into the ocean texture to help provide a hand-crafted feel.

Additional fluid simulation effects for foam, churn, spray, and atmosphere.

Final integration and composite of all elements with the last introduction of a magical wave parting effect from the hero character.

Village Environments:

Village Characters:

River & Forest Environments:

Snow Environments:

Hall of Bones Environments:

Water Environments:

Garden of Eyes Environments:

Origami/Paper Water Effects & Environments:

Water Environments:

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.