With “Missing Link” (April 12th, Annapurna Pictures), Laika shifts gears for its fifth stop-motion feature, getting more playful yet more epic with the help of its game-changing tech. It’s a Victorian buddy comedy-adventure about explorer Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) and a Sasquatch named Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis) embarking on a globetrotting quest 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.
For director Chris Butler (“ParaNorman”), it meant “stepping out of the shadows and embracing that colorful, wide open space kind of palette,” he said. “I think stop-motion often has this connotation of making creepy or dark kinds of stories. And there have been some great ones and we’ve made some great ones, but I don’t think that’s all it can do. For years, I’ve wanted to do an ‘Indiana Jones’ stop-motion movie. And this one is huge. We really shouldn’t have been able to make this movie in stop-motion but we did.”
Butler, who worked as an animator on Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride” and the Oregon studio’s breakout feature, “Coraline” (directed by Henry Selick), always had Jackman in mind for his dashing lead, Laika’s first “adult protagonist. “Sir Lionel represents a certain masculine, heroic, old school, ripping yarn kind of protagonist, and I wanted to check all those boxes,” Butler said. “But I also wanted him to be narcissistic. One influence was Sherlock Holmes, and what I loved about him was he was a true eccentric and so compelling because of it. But he’s a borderline sociopath and I didn’t want that.
“But I did want a hero who was flawed, who was going on a journey physically and emotionally and who’s got a lot to learn,” added Butler. “The thing about Hugh is that he’s effortlessly charming and makes Sir Lionel likable even when he’s not. I also wanted him to be graceful and proficient. The only thing stopping him from succeeding is his [arrested development].”
By contrast, Link represents child-like innocence in this latest odd couple pairing. And true to form at Laika, both are social misfits in search of different kinds of acceptance among social elites. “Link is truly naive and out of place, which Zach is so good at playing, and I thought that was more interesting than making him a buffoon,” added Butler. “He gets a little testy at times, but when I wrote those scenes when they were arguing, it seemed sour and he lost that innocence. He was too self-aware so I rewrite those scenes. I intentionally designed them as opposites: Spiky Sir Lionel and Link is a fuzzy avocado.”
But in Laika’s quest to improve facial performance, the Academy Award-winning Rapid Protyping team implemented full-color resin 3D-printed face replacement, another stop-motion game-changer. “I come from 2D animation and this was a big deal for me,” Butler said. “There’s only so much you can get out of a facial performance. Up until this point, we used a kit system so you have a selection of mouth shapes and eyebrow shapes and you put them together in a sequence that matches the dialog. And that has given us great results.
“But this was the first time that we were completely bespoke. Every single shot was specific to an animated face. We didn’t use kits anymore. And what that allowed us to do was a [higher] level of sophistication and nuance. And I think it really shows.”
At the same time, Laika achieved greater epic proportions with the art department making 110 sets and 65 unique locations (led by production designer Nelson Lowry). From London to the American West to the Himalayas, highlighted by a glorious Yeti temple (Hindu Jainism meets Brutalism in architectural design). Meanwhile, Laika’s talented VFX team (supervised by Steve Emerson) utilized savvy CG to scale up and enhance believability. “We wouldn’t have been able to do this movie 10 years ago,” Butler said. “The innovations that we’ve come up with on the last four movies have enabled us to come up with solutions for the challenge of making a much bigger movie here. Everything comes from a physical asset and I think that’s how we maintain a believable co-existence of digital and practical.”
And what was it like with Laika owner-turned director Travis Knight (“Kubo and the Two Strings”) helming his first live-action feature, “Bumblebee”? “It was the same, really, he just wasn’t physically in the studio,” said Butler. “We’d talk every week. The only thing I missed was having him there animating shots.”