After stealing the show at the Academy’s VFX bake-off and earning a first-ever Costume Designers Guild nomination for animation, Laika’s stop-motion “Kubo and the Two Strings” could be headed for multiple Oscar noms besides animated feature.
Being slotted last at the bake-off certainly helped the Japanese fantasy directed by Laika president/CEO Travis Knight, but what was refreshing and eye-opening was the revelation that every shot involved VFX integration of small puppets and sets along with environment extension and CG enhancement. Plus the fact that, unlike the other contenders, Laika’s reel was able to include the informative end credit “making-of” sequence (watch below) that’s become a studio tradition.
“There is an element of design that is incredibly complex and it has to feel hand-crafted and brought to life through human hands,” VFX supervisor Steve Emerson told IndieWire.
The scope of the VFX work involved greater inter-departmental collaboration at the Oregon-based studio. Among the highlights were battles with the Moon Beast (Laika’s first all-3D-printed puppet from its Academy Award-winning Rapid Prototype department), the Ray Harryhausen-inspired Skeleton (the largest puppet in stop-mo history at 11 feet), and the underwater Garden of Eyes.
In addition, there was water and snow blizzards that required special VFX attention, combining CG simulation and particle work with practical elements supplied by the art department in keeping with the inspirational look of wood block artist Kiyoshi Saito.
“We came in with the camera team to define the workflow, the different lighting passes that we would need in order to hit that very specific design and look and color palette,” said Emerson in describing the flying, glowing Moon Beast (3½ feet-long and made up of nearly 900 individual parts, with a goose neck armature inside).
For the orange Skeleton, there was custom motion-control rigging as well as a control system developed internally using a bowling ball and sacks of sand.
The VFX department set up a 2½-D environment in Nuke for compositing the underwater encounter with the sea monsters and added atmospheric depth and plant life and Kubo’s hair (the only instance in post-production). For CG water, they used Houdini software from SideFX, but added wood grain textures (carved wood with paper pressed against it) and fractals for cohesion.
Costume designer Deborah Cook, meanwhile, took the Japanese attire to a whole new level of innovative artistry at Laika. She drew from different periods: Heian (794–1192), Muromachi (1392–1573), Edo (1603–1867), and Meiji (1868-present). “But the tradition of tailoring is loose and floaty, which is the bête noire of stop-frame,” she told IndieWire.
As a result, Cook fashioned an under structure for Kubo’s kimonos that could be engineered for animation during all of the action. This “graphic movement language” was then leveraged for the other costumes as well.
“Each time Kubo folds his elbow or moves his arm in the air or takes a step forward or gets rough and tumble, we came up with methods underneath to make that work,” Cook added.
The anchoring solution was comprised of a weighted lining made from tungsten and nickel powder, heavier than lead or gold. And the gravity was suited to the scale of the puppets.
Cook used lightweight silk with a matte and sheen quality for the kimonos. She drew her own clouds and printed those onto Kubo’s costumes. “And then we had beetles scampering all over his kimonos,” she said. “The beetle was his family crest and more of a modern twist, but the pathway came from looking at older kimonos where there’s a kind of narrative flowing up and down [with these objects].”
The evil twin sisters (voiced by Rooney Mara) wore a rolled cloak made of styrene (printed and dyed into nearly 500 feathers). The cloak was then held together with plastic lollipop sticks, fishing wire, and coconut fiber.
“Having a culture so invested in color, texture, and fabric techniques opens up a much bigger range of what fabrics we can use,” Cook said.