Laika, the revered Oregon stop-motion studio run by Travis Knight, gets more epic with its fifth feature, “Missing Link,” a globetrotting, “Indiana Jones” style adventure comedy (April 12, Annapurna Pictures). It’s a buddy movie about explorer Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) and a Sasquatch named Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis), who embark on a quest from the Pacific Northwest in search of the legendary Shangri-La, home of Link’s ancestry. They team up with adventurer Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), who possesses the only known map to their secret destination.
Once again, Laika embraces inclusion in its first movie not starring a child hero, written and directed by Chris Butler (“ParaNorman”), who said: “Link embodies a child-like innocence and the kids in ‘ParaNorman’ acted more adult than the adults in this movie.” True to Laika’s mandate to push stop-motion and storytelling in new areas of exploration, “Missing Link” moves in a completely different direction from its four Oscar-nominated predecessors.
Set in the early 20th century, but with a colorful, Victorian style, all of the puppets were built 20 percent smaller than usual, allowing the sets to be smaller as well. while keeping the enormous Link at an animator-friendly size of 16 inches tall. Both the production and costume designers found inspiration in Victorian patterning, stitching, and embroidering, from elaborate wallpapers (based on the works of illustrator William Morris) to textiles (including roof tiling, brickwork, and leaves of trees) to clothing. “Chris wanted strong silhouettes with forced perspective,” said Deborah Cook, the only costume designer nominated for the Costume Designers Guild Award for her work on “Kubo and the Two Strings.”
Lionel’s houndstooth suit contained interlocking star shapes to represent the proper weave and the rich blues and yellows reflect his modern, fashion-forward sensibilities. Adelina, also fashion-forward, sports a swan-bill corset beneath her fuchsia dress with vivid purples and blues. Her hair uses nearly 2,000 feet of multi-colored silk thread, blended and styled by hand to mimic the shapes and linear qualities of the pen and ink illustrations of the “Gibson Girl” look.
The art department, meanwhile, made 110 sets and 65 unique locations, the most in a Laika feature. A multitude of custom-made and unconventional materials were used in creating the landscapes, such as silk-screened and laser cut craft paper, textured fabrics, plastic beads, tissue paper, miniature railroad materials, goat hair, foam balls, and black light paint. In terms of lighting, Butler wanted the Kodachrome look of “National Geographic” with bold colors traversing London, the American West, and the Himalayas.
Additionally, the look complemented Butler’s unusual character designs. “Lionel is a tube with a triangle stuck on it,” said production designer Nelson Lowry. “That’s a pretty severe stylization for what we’re used to. Definitely the Himalayas were the most difficult because of the scale. One set was 800 or 900-feet tall based on the way the storyboard was drawn. And we can’t digitally extend everything. So I had to figure out scale in a way I never had before. The architecture of the Yeti temple was [the Hindu] Jainism meets Brutalism.”
Link, who’s shaped like an avocado with a face, was a nightmare to animate. His fur was created with several techniques and three kinds of rubber. His general body mass was comprised of pieces of perforated foam latex onto his metal armature. Then, like a fur suit, sheets of molded silicone with the fur texture were applied over this body shape and glued closed. “He has no neck and is covered in fur so we had to find a way to have the facial animation drive the fur animation,” said John Craney, the puppet lead. “This took a year of testing materials and techniques. The solution was we created a separate 3D-printed ring (or driver) that was unique to his figure eight face shape. The driver pushes and pulls the fur into different shapes. This would help the fur snap into place.”
But the biggest breakthrough for the Oscar-winning Rapid Protyping team was full-color resin 3D-printed face replacement. Partnering with Stratasys (which introduced the new J750 printer) and Fraunhofer (developer of Cuttlefish software), Laika achieved unprecedented accuracy and detail.
“The surface quality and smoothness is how they came out of the printer,” said Brian McLean, director of RP. “We had 99 percent registration accuracy on all of the faces, [alleviating the] brute force on the previous films. It hasn’t gotten any less expensive, but we’re taking over the higher yield with a lot more volume.”
As a result, Laika delivered customized facial performances for the first time on every shot, avoiding the limitation of recycled expressions. “We had faces coming off the printer that were used for a frame or two and never again,” McLean added. “And what that does is allow us to do refined acting passes for every moment. What that meant was, because we were completely shot specific, we had a team of 12 facial animators with floating heads in Maya software doing unique performances. Chris would review them and provide defined acting notes for a shot and then the faces would be boxed up and stored away in what we call Siberia.”