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Visiting ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ Laika’s Samurai Stop-Motion Adventure

Behind the scenes in Portland on Laika's fourth stop-motion feature.

Travis Knight

Steve Wong Jr | Laika Studios / Universal Pictures International

Laika’s fascination with folktales gets more sweeping and exotic with the samurai adventure, “Kubo and the Two Strings,” expanding yet again the boundaries of stop-motion.

“Every Laika movie has its own aesthetic, but this one’s more open and expansive— there are areas where the eyes can rest,” explained Laika’s lead artist/CEO Travis Knight, who makes his directorial debut with “Kubo.”

Citing an epic, fantasy quality reminiscent of David Lean, Akira Kurosawa, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Knight couldn’t resist helming “Kubo” (shepherded by Shannon Tindle, who recently made the “On Ice” Google Spotlight VR short and retains story and character design credits).

READ MORE: Watch: LAIKA Delivers Yet Another Spectacular Trailer for ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’

“What really got me excited about this film was at its emotional core about this boy and his family and what would ultimately become his surrogate family. And that resonated personally. There’s a lot of me in this movie,” admitted Knight.

Musical storyteller Kubo (Art Parkinson of “Game of Thrones”) goes on a fantastical quest to battle demons from his family’s past, accompanied by Monkey (Charlize Theron) and samurai Beetle (Matthew McConaughey).

Kiyoshi Saito, a 20th century Japanese graphic artist renowned for very textural woodblock printing with a touch of Cubism, was a major stylistic influence.


The set of “Kubo and The Two Strings”

And that co-mingling of East and West, old and new, defines “Kubo,” with bold shapes and striking colors. The distinctive woodblock grain found its way into the look of the materials that went into the making of the streets, skies, clothing and sea.

“The big change in ‘Kubo’ is it’s set in mythological, fantastical Japan. And we’ve been able to draw on all periods in Japanese history and culture, but we were very meticulous in our research,” said Georgina Hayns, creative supervisor, puppet fabrication.

“Challenge-wise, we’ve got everything from an exoskeleton beetle to origami puppets to a fully-flying, articulated-caped, sister puppet,” she added. “The main thing we were told was that the silhouette was the most important part of the character design, so there were a lot of vast, open scenes where you just see the silhouettes of the characters moving against the sky, moving against snow. And then up close the texture was very important and we drew from Saito in the way we painted all of the faces and costumes.”

“Kubo” marks several firsts for Laika in terms of character design:


The set of “Kubo and The Two Strings”

Beetle contains a muscle suit serving as his samurai armor, which rides  over the internal skeleton with soft foam that fits around the armature; Monkey has her own muscle suit on top of the armature and covered with a fluffy fur fabric suit with combed silicone; the Origami paper puppets are made of folded tyvek placed over an armature; the twin Sisters (Rooney Mara) are a cloaked single puppet with Noh-inspired masks and made of 481 feathers.

But the flying Moonbeast, orange skeleton and tentacled, multi-eyed sea monsters raise “Kubo” to Ray Harryhausen-like stature.

Moonbeast, which spans three-feet, represents Laika’s first fully 3D-printed puppet, and is made of 850 individual exterior pieces and an internal armature of 250 parts. It’s shot at different light exposures (including UV) against a green screen.

The 18-foot skeleton (reputedly the largest in stop-mo history), a combo of high-and low-tech, functions like a moving set with gears and an arm held up by a cable and a bucket with bags of sand.

The sea monsters are motion-controlled and interactive and have glass bowls moving across LED lights to create a caustic underwater effect.


The set of “Kubo and The Two Strings”

Another breakthrough advanced Laika’s rapid-prototype face replacement printing (which this year earned an Academy Sci-Tech award).  “We found a new way to print with plastic (for the non-human characters),” said Brian McLean, director of RP printing. “We reached out to Stratasys and collaborated with their R&D in Israel. With access to new software and hardware, we reached a [greater] level of color and sophistication in a plastic-printed 3D part.”

The powder-based characters improved as well: Kubo has more than 22 million possible facial expressions, compared to the previous Laika high of 1.5 million.

READ MORE: Watch: LAIKA, Studio Behind ‘Coraline’ and ‘ParaNorman,’ Celebrates 10th Anniversary with Beautiful Featurette

Costume designer Deborah Cook also experimented with Japanese culture, she said, creating an amalgamation of 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.”

As a result, Cook fashioned an under structure for the 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.

For Knight, it’s about pushing the immersive potential of stop-motion while retaining its inherently charming, tactile tradition.

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