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Around the World in 94 minutes
At the start of an animated movie the director and producer make a list of the actors they'd like to voice their characters. So much rides on the cast and so much is demanded of them. As Travis Knight has said, "We ask a lot of our voice actors. They have only one instrument to work with, their voice, and through that one tool they have to convey all the emotions of the film. Not everyone can do it at the level we need."

Butler remains stunned that all his first choices said yes. And it's a dream cast. Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Thompson, David Walliams, Stephen Fry, Timothy Olyphant, Matt Lucas, Amrita Acharia and Ching Valdes-Aran.

Missing Link is LAIKA's most ambitious film to date in terms of its world building. It's epic in every way and Butler needed a stalwart hero to ground the production. But there's also a great vulnerability to Sir Lionel that demanded an actor of enormous depth and complexity who could be very funny as well. Butler recalls one of the biggest moments of his professional career this way:

"In my head Sir Lionel was always Hugh Jackman. My early drawings of Sir Lionel are based on Hugh, this square jawed, leading man. We went out to him and he was very busy, well, he's Hugh Jackman after all. For a while it looked like we weren't going to get him. I think we pursued him for six months and it got to the point where we thought we might have to start thinking about someone else. I can't remember exactly how it happened but we pushed and pushed and he read the script. And he was in Australia and I was in England for family stuff. So I'm at my mum's little detached house in the suburbs of Liverpool. I knew he was going to call me at 2am in the morning so I went up into the attic to take the call so I could talk. He was driving in Australia and he said he loved the script and definitely wanted to do it. In my exultation I ran downstairs to find my mum was making tea, of course. When I told her that the 'Wolverine' was going to star in my film, she was so excited, as any loving mother would be to see her son so happy. It was only as we continued chatting that I realized she had no idea who the 'Wolverine' was, as she doesn't get to the cinema much. But when I said 'Hugh Jackman' is going to be in your son's movie,' her eyes lit up. 'Oh my, Chris,' she said. 'I just LOVE him!' That was a nice moment."

Hugh Jackman turned out to be the perfect leading man. He visited the LAIKA studios outside Portland, Oregon to see how the movies are made and Butler, a proud Brit, reveled in the fact that "his English accent is better than mine." Jackman's take on the movie was right in line with Butler's. "The story is about finding your tribe, being yourself and also about true friendship being more important than the things we chase like acceptance," he says. "Sir Lionel was such great fun to play. He's courageous and adventurous, but he's also a little silly."

Acknowledging the contribution of the LAIKA team of artists to his voice performance, Hugh says "I pretty much had the accent down. That didn't really change, but seeing Lionel in design form and his costuming, that really helped me. "My favorite moments of the movie are interactions between my character and Mr. Link. I think that "Odd Couple" relationship is funny. I love Zach's performance. I love seeing these two characters grow closer. And I do love the fight scenes. It's particularly enjoyable to be in a fight scene without having to do the fighting!"

"When I toured the LAIKA studio I was just amazed," Jackman recalls. "First of all, the size of it, the number of artists involved, the amount of time it takes to make one frame: 24 frames a second! The years it takes and the level of artistry to make these films. It's a mixture of the size of the operation, the hours they put in, and the people! If you're going to spend that much time over the course of years, you have to love it and they ALL LOVE IT!"

Some might say that Sir Lionel doesn't start out as a hero. After all, he is seeking fame and entry into the snobby Optimates Club, a thoroughly unpleasant group of unenlightened explorers. It's Link who allows Sir Lionel to find his heroic self. The moment is very specific. While being held captive in an ice pit in the Himalayas, Link has a moment of great sadness. At no point in the movie before do the two characters ever make hand contact. "That was very specific," says Butler with conviction. "It's because the universal symbol of fellowship is to extend a hand to someone and they're not there until that moment in the ice pit when Sir Lionel needs to reach out to his friend to comfort him. That's when he becomes a real hero."

"The movie is fun and funny and it's very heart-warming," says Jackman. "Ultimately, it's about finding your family, finding your true friendships, finding the things that really matter in life, rather than filling your time with things we think are going to make people accept us or respect us."

One of the connective elements that lends cohesiveness to the entire film physically is the frequent scenes of hands, feet and most importantly, footprints. There are many footprints that populate various landscapes. In fact, one particular shot of footprints delights the director. When Sir Lionel, Adelina and Link are trekking through the Himalayas towards Shangri-La there is a shot of Link's gigantic footprint in the snow. Then the camera pulls back to reveal Lionel's footprint next to Link's and then further back we see the imprint of Adelina's foot...because they have now become a team, a group all searching together. They've discovered that journey made with friends is so much more worth taking.

Zach Galifianakis voices the eponymous main character, dubbed Mr. Link by Sir Lionel early on but who renames himself "Susan" halfway through the film. "We were so lucky to be able to get our first choices for all the main roles," says producer Arianne Sutner. "Link is smart, naïve and so emotionally pure. Because Zach is such a fine actor, he's able to layer his voice performance with all of those emotional notes."

Galifianakis was so impressed with LAIKA's body of films and was helped immensely by the artwork that Chris Butler provided in the early stages of trying to find a voice for Mr. Link.

"I love stop motion animation" says Galifianakis. "Part of the LAIKA magic is that they are doing this old- fashioned form of animation and breathing real life into it. That's what made me want to do the movie."

Jackman agrees, "I signed on to do the film because of LAIKA's love for storytelling. Kubo and the Two Strings is one of my favorite movies of all time and the characters in Coraline are so indelible. The movies they make all have a great message. They're all funny and satirical. So, they're always entertaining, but they leave you with something very inspiring and heart-filled."

"Even though they never recorded together, such is the talent inherent in Hugh and Zach that it seems as if they could be buddies," says Butler. "During recording sessions, I'd be in the booth, scribbling notes and alternate lines but sometimes I'd read with them as well. I would read lines with Zach Galifianakis and Hugh Jackman. And I found myself thinking 'What an absolute treat, what an honor.' I look back now and realize I made a complete fool of myself trying to be funny reading lines with two of the greatest comedic actors of our time."

"It's a great thrill for a writer to work with an actor who brings a fresh take to lines of dialogue that you've lived with, in some cases, for years," says Butler. "Zach in particular showed me so much insight into Link. His talent is so prodigious and Link's attributes are all embodied in his personality already, so revisiting some of the lines through his filter turned out to be an exhilarating experience."

On working with Galifianakis Butler says "Well I knew I wanted the exact opposite of Sir Lionel, who is over-confident, selfish, self important, narcissistic and very, very British. I wanted his Watson to be the opposite so that together they could be an Odd Couple. That would both be really funny but also touching. I knew there was a quality to Zach that was other worldly, which I thought could lend itself very well to that character."

"I imagined what Link's life was like in the forest before Sir Lionel arrives," Galifianakis recalls. I would imagine that he's somewhat content but really lonely and very curious. I don't know if I would have made the decision that he does to leave the forest for the unknown. But Link is really curious and wants to see beyond what is familiar to him."

As Butler sees it, "Sir Lionel believes in Link because he believes in the existence of Sasquatches. Link believes in Sir Lionel as a great man. The myth of both is believed by the other...perhaps that is a basis for friendship. Belief in your fellow man is much more important than belief in age-old laws or conventions.

"I think Link is content to go along on this trek with Sir Lionel even though he doesn't know what he is letting himself in for," says Galifianakis. "And for Sir Lionel, I think he learns over the course of the journey that taking advantage of another creature for your own gain is probably not the best way to go through life."

Adelina Fortnight, voiced by Zoe Saldana, was a delight for the production. "Adelina is a fabulous woman," says Butler. "Like Sir Lionel and Zach, she's also flawed, which I thought was important. When she first sets off on the adventure, I don't think she's honest with herself about her reasons. She goes because she wants to complete her late husband's quest of finding a mysterious species. And by the end of the movie she realizes it's about time she had her own quest. I love that about her and the way that Zoe voiced her."

Adelina is a woman in Victorian society, constricting to be sure. But she's also a woman mourning the loss of her husband in Victorian society which means she is supposed to be confined to her house. But in her past life she had been an adventurer along with her late husband. And now because he is gone, she's confronted with society's view that she should stay at home all the time. She's not having any of that.

LAIKA's lauded costume designer Deborah Cook spent a lot of time researching style and clothing from the Victorian Era and also female adventurers from the period. Initially, Cook dresses Adelina in a Victorian mourning dress, corseted with lots of petticoat layers. But it's a bright purple color, so we know right off that Adelina is an individual and an outlier. Then that societal norm would be stripped away when she goes on her adventure.

"I didn't know exactly what Adelina should wear on the trek but I knew I didn't want her to wear a skirt for practical reasons," says Butler. "Animating that would have been hellish. Adelina is very active. We knew she was going to be wearing pants but it had to be era appropriate. For that Deborah Cook really rose to the task, doing ferocious research and nailing it."

"Not only is she a female," adds Butler. "She's a widow, and she's an immigrant. That was by no means an accident. I wanted her to be an outsider. When she talks to Lionel in the ice pit and he's sulking about wanting to be accepted by the Optimates Club of adventurers, he tells her she could never understand. She rolls her eyes because she is an immigrant woman in Victorian times."

Adelina was so important to Butler because he wanted to embrace the gripping yarn adventure but then subvert it. Comedy played a big role in this effort, but Adelina was key to this as well. "I wanted her to have a history with Lionel but I didn't want her to be just his romantic squeeze," says Butler. He wanted to play with that cinematic trope and set up an expectation that they were going to get together a la Indiana Jones and Marian. "I liked them having a history. It's obvious that they dated in the past," Butler says. But Butler didn't want to take that relationship down the conventional road. And the real core of the emotional story is what happens when these three disparate characters come together as a group of friends.

According to Zoe Saldana, 'Adelina is the kind of person that you could drop your kids off with her and go run your errands and when you come back, your kids are going to be fed, well taken care of, and they're going to acquire a few more good manners that you hadn't taught them yet. She's firm and really strict and very responsible and diligent. But she has been missing fun in her life and she doesn't realize just how much she's been missing that fun until Sir Lionel Frost comes back into her life. She's the kind of friend that I would like to have in my life."

No two of these characters have a perfect relationship at the start. Lionel and Adelina have a fractured history. The Lionel and Link dynamic is definitely one-sided. That was even worked into the scene where they embark on their adventure. They are all in a stagecoach and it's a bumpy, lopsided physical scene, so they are quite literally off to a 'wobbly start.' They only start coming together after a huge confrontation with the villain aboard the Manchuria ocean liner during a rough storm. Many of their early scenes together as a group are on shaky ground."

"Missing Link is definitely a story about belonging," says Saldana. "That's what brings Sir Lionel, Link and Adelina together. Lionel never really wants to go very deep in his relationships...he's much more concerned about his own reputation. But in reality, he's trying to cover up the hurt he feels over being neglected by this group of people (The Optimates Club). He just wants their approval. Mr. Link yearns to be around his own kind and to have conversations, to fall in love, to make friends...he's very lonely. And then there's Adelina, who has been stuck in a kind of limbo since her husband passed away. She feels like she was constantly living in his shadow, not living her own life. By fulfilling his dream of going to Shangri-La, she gets a chance to discover herself and what she wants. These three individuals find themselves together on an unexpected journey and they realize that the treasure they are looking for was always there within the friendship that forms among them."

What these three individuals share is a passion for adventure. Galifianakis thinks Link's urge to get out in the world speaks to a larger takeaway from the film. "That theme of self discovery is very much part of Link. But I also think it encourages all of us to get out of our comfort zone and see the world. This is a very well thought out script with many funny parts for the young kids but lots of dimension and themes for those of us over five as well."

Another way that Butler subverted the familiar adventure story was in his choice to have Mr. Link rechristen himself as "Susan." Galifianakis really enjoyed that part of the story. "I think we'd all change our names if Madison Avenue and Hollywood didn't steer us down old roads," he says. "I think I'd be a number if I could rename myself."

For Butler, the Susan moment was, of course, a wink to gender identity but also underscored the theme of finding your own path in life. Link/Susan is on a journey of self discovery even as Sir Lionel thinks, at least at the start of the film, that his salvation will be the world knowing that he has discovered a mysterious creature. Both of these assumptions will undergo change as the story unfolds.

"We live in a world where convenience has overtaken beauty," Zach suggests. "So, when you look at LAIKA and the way these craftspeople are making their films -- to a great degree in the same way stop motion has been done for a century -- it's pretty spectacular. There is something about that handmade thing ...there's a soul there that most CGI films can't replicate. I was telling my wife last night after seeing the finished film that I really think this could turn into a classic. Not because I'm in it but because of what Chris has done here. He knows exactly what he wants but is a very soft-spoken man, which I like a lot in a director. I truly enjoyed working with him. His mastery of this art form is impressive. You know, people make movies in order to get a rise out of an audience. You want them to have a pep in their step on the way to the car after seeing a movie that mattered to them along with a group of strangers."

"Sometimes a good movie is almost incidental," Galifianakis continues. "So many things have to be right to get that result. In Missing Link, everything was right. I'm very proud of this film."

Saldana was deeply moved by visiting LAIKA and taking part in this form of moviemaking. "LAIKA is making movies in a unique way. The studio itself is so beautiful, you feel like you're in this factory of dreamers with everybody working meticulously on each small detail. They're executing these movies with so much perfection and dedication. I felt like I was in a different world when I stepped into LAIKA's studio."

Working with a director like Chris Butler was another plus for Saldana. "Chris was amazing," she says. "He's so passionate and these characters were so real to him. When I did my voice recording, I was acting with with him, not Hugh or Zach. We made decisions together for our character of Adelina. We would then rethink those decisions as we went along. That kind of back and forth with your director, who is your boss, your captain on a film, well it's just really special when you align in that way."

Production designer Nelson Lowry says "When I think of all the parts that go into putting a film like this together, I think of seeing an oil painting in a museum. It's astounding. The light, the character, the story that it's telling, the contrast, the perspective. And at some point I find myself thinking. 'This came from little dabs of paint on a brush. Someone actually took those dabs of color and created a whole world which is now giving me a profound experience. In a way, we do that same thing. We just use a lot of different materials and there are a lot of people doing it. But, essentially, we're creating a whole world, a whole story out of nothing. We take yards of fabric, plywood, paper, paint and we create a setting for great voice actors and animation to bring the story to life. I love these films."

"There's no resting on our laurels with this film," he continues. "This is the most setups that we've ever done with only Sir Lionel's study and the Optimates Club being revisited. We go from one location to the other, an average of one new environment every five minutes. We never get to 'establish' a setting. We have to start from scratch on each and every location from a design perspective because we're traversing different countries, different cultures, and different geographic situations: from urban London to the ocean to the jungles of India and the snowy landscape of Shangri-La. Each moment of the film is completely unique and fresh. We were constantly inventing throughout the entire span of the film. And the scale was an enormous challenge with big locations. We sometimes built a small section of location and then in order for the audience to infer what is outside of that, we leaned on the VFX Department.

"After working on a roster of previous films that were a bit darker in tone (though they all contained comedic elements)," says Lowry, "Missing Link allowed us to make a brighter and cheerier film. When I read the script I laughed all the way through. And when Chris said he wanted a big, bright colorful film, I was just so excited to help bring his vision of a buoyant, fun film to life."

The design team kept that comedy blueprint front and center in creating the world for Missing Link. All the proportions and size, and shapes of props, rooms, doorways...everything had to reflect a Chris' humorous character design while not going over the top. The film is highly stylized and a visual delight."

Size was a particular challenge. For instance, the Himalayas required very large sets. "The Himalayas are something like 20,000 feet tall," says Lowry. "And the Sir Lionel puppet is about a foot tall. If we were to keep to our scale in a stop motion animated film, with Sir Lionel being about a foot tall, that would make the mountain range about 1,500 feet tall. We were building such giant representations of nature. We wondered how do we insert our tiny puppets into such vastness and have them be discernible in the scene? Many spirited discussions among the production design team, the director and the director of photography ensued. Eventually we found the right scale so that our characters could be seen clearly, especially in the climactic scene of the movie which takes place on a perilous ice bridge in the mountains. In order for them not to be perceived as specks of dust, we had to modulate and change the scale of things to make something more stylized, not quite real, but ultimately more convincing in telling the story."

Though the locations changed drastically, one unifying element throughout the film was the character design of the three main characters. Those three puppets had to feel in sync with the disparate environments they find themselves in. The worlds were designed to accommodate Butler's original character designs.

Butler had established a very clear rule of thirds in the character design and that concept was applied to the environments as well. "When you're building a world from scratch, there is an inherent license to depart from reality," says Lowry. "You don't have to be a slave to reality. You want to avoid making something look like a doll's house. So we establish rules that govern the entire build. The rule of thirds applies to everything in the film. So if you look at Sir Lionel, for instance, he's mostly all legs and his torso is very compact. You might say he's two thirds legs and one third torso and head. His head is a tube with a triangle as a nose. We apply that same mandate to many of the physical objects that surround him. For instance, in his study he falls back onto a chaise lounge that has same proportions. It marries character and environment.

Art Director Rob DeSue relates LAIKA's mandate to not repeat an aesthetic from any previous film. "LAIKA breaks new ground with the look of each of its films, that's baked into the DNA of the studio. On one hand, that is very challenging because there is nothing to fall back on but it's also exhilarating to know you're going to make something that no one has ever seen before. Production Designer Nelson Lowry provided the Art Department time enough to experiment with different palettes and techniques to ensure the film had a strong, visual point of view."

"It's certainly the most colorful movie we've ever made," DeSue continues. "Chris Butler's clear directive was that we could have something be neutral but nothing could be drab. You know Chris' first film for LAIKA, ParaNorman, was a pretty colorful film, but with Missing Link he wanted a vibrancy and a saturation of color that we hadn't done before. We also steered away from neutral color and black and white. Finding alternatives proved to be an exciting challenge. Chris had mentioned color mixing as a way of achieving vibrancy and we used that throughout production. It probably showed up first in Deborah Cook's costume designs and we ran with it throughout the film's build."

Because Chris Butler, production designer Nelson Lowry and Director of Photography Chris Peterson had decided on a classic film shooting style in terms of depth and field, the production was able to pack lots of vibrancy and saturation and detail into the backgrounds as well as the foreground. But within this huge open environment, the backgrounds are a bit in soft focus, so all that detail doesn't overpower the eye. It allows all the elements to coexist without distraction. That way the characters are still the most prominent element in the frame. Your eye goes directly to where it needs to go but the environments are as equally rich as the costumes so when any one object comes into focus, whether it be a plant, vase, sofa or a mountain cliff, it all looks splendid and part of the same piece.

According to Art Director DeSue, "I had a hard time initially figuring out how to apply our director's love of National Geographic Magazine photos into the sets. These extraordinary photos have austere, simple, large shapes as a primary emphasis and the silhouettes are really bold. In the end it was those silhouettes that really spoke to us...along with the aesthetic of open spaces played against a density in the set decoration...those are the rules we followed to bring his vision to life. We wanted to have beautiful surfaces but not a lot of decoration. We used texture to our advantage. For instance, in the Himalayan village set, we created a beautiful surface on every piece so it gave us the presence of pattern, it gave us places to hide bold, vibrant, complementary colors and then we didn't need to fill the environment with too many other dimensional props. Our mantra was 'let's not focus on decoration. Let's focus on beautiful surfaces first, whether it's a tile floor, a piece of furniture, an ice wall, etc.' And then we figured out what we needed to add to the environment to create balance."

"It was fortunate that we went from Kubo and the Two Strings, at the time the biggest scale we had ever pulled off at LAIKA, to Missing Link because we learned a few things on that film that we expanded upon this time around," DeSue says. "In particular we leaned into creating 'environmental maquetes,' which are so useful not just for the art department to attach a broader landscape to the specific place that you are building, but these models can be scanned and imported into pre-vis, and then cameras can be dropped in, different lenses can be tried. It helps so much to work out the challenges of balancing the scale of an object or puppet with the scale of the landscape. And when done correctly, it can be the foundation for a visual effects build. We did these location maquetes all the way back to Coraline. We did maquetes for the ground around her house, the house itself, the garden, But this technique really became indispensable to us when we had to build something as daunting as a piece of the Himalayas in 1/2000th scale. That was a giant step for our art department because it allows us to keep our style while we build out so much bigger."

When Butler would talk to the crew about the inspirational "dynamic pictures" of National Geographic Magazine, he often talked about white or natural light on the subject. Therefore there was a decision not to influence the environments with a lot of gels, unless it was night or dusk. That meant that the Art Department's paint jobs were a little bit more saturated, and a little bit more vibrant so that the characters could stay untainted by a color applied to the set lighting-wise. In the jungle that was a big deal. Early R&D showed that the result of trying to make a forest look bluish by applying gels didn't work. In those cases, the Art Department would create the desired effect through painting alone.

Director of Photography Chris Peterson recalls how Chris Butler described the film to him. "He said to think 'Technicolor meets National Geographic Magazine.' So that means an intensity of color in a natural setting even though there's a stylistic delivery in terms of the way the textures are painted. The graphic look of that paint job is a little touch of style that separates our film. All LAIKA films have stylistic touch points. The Japanese block prints in Kubo is probably the best example. And because in Missing Link there was already a commitment to instill so much color into the environments and the characters themselves, I didn't want to get too exotic with gel choices. And so most of the gel choices that are in the film are CTBs (color temperature blues) to color temperature oranges to was about adding coolness or warmth, not outright color."

Craft + Tech = LAIKA Hybrid Filmmaking
Every new LAIKA film demands something new and the entire LAIKA team is up to each successive challenge. There are artists who are sculpting puppets, people making sets, animators breathing life into inanimate objects on set. LAIKA is a tactile wonderland. To do something practically, or in camera, is the goal. But at the same time, the studio brings cutting-edge technology into the process.

LAIKA has found a way to push facial animation beyond what has ever been done before. Hopefully, the moviegoer forgets that it's a 12-inch puppet up there on the screen. There's a life to stop motion that no other form of animation connotes. In addition to receiving a Best Animated Feature Film nomination for all its previous films, in 2017 Kubo and the Two Strings was also nominated for a Visual Effects Oscar, only the second time in history that an animated film had received that recognition. This came on the heels of the 2016 Scientific & Engineering Oscar plaque that the studio was awarded for its pioneering the use of 3D printers/Rapid Prototying in stop-motion animation.

Since its inception, LAIKA has been innovating new methodologies in order to expand the universe of potential stories that could be told through stop-motion animation. Today the studio enlists all aspects of the filmmaker's tool kit to tell its stories: traditional stop motion, 2D, motion capture, 3D printing, CG, stereoscopic cinematography...whichever format or tool helps to propel the story and create more identification with the characters.

LAIKA's "hybridized" filmmaking process succeeds because of the contributions of the traditionalist and the futurist, the craftsman and the engineer, the sketch artist and the Rapid Prototyping expert. It is this juxtaposition of old and new, legacy and innovation, old-school and cutting-edge, all in the service of storytelling, that pushes the boundaries of the medium and creates a LAIKA film. It is this mandate, rather than a "house style" that distinguishes LAIKA.

Brian McLean, LAIKA's director of Rapid Prototyping who was awarded the Scientific and Engineering Oscar plaque and was part of the Kubo and the Two Strings VFX team nominated for an Academy Award, says "We had the benefit of having a new facial animation supervisor on this film, Benoit Dubuc, who did an amazing job of bringing together a really talented facial animation team. And for the first time in any LAIKA film, we actually embraced a full shot-specific animation philosophy where in past films, because we were 3D printing every single face, we oftentimes would reuse facial expressions for different shots throughout the film. But for Missing Link, we actually produced unique faces unique for every single shot. Instead of a facial animator having to pick from a library of pre-existing expressions, they had the opportunity to start with a clean slate. They would create custom animation, timings, reactions and responses based on exactly what the shot needed. And I think that was extremely important to allow that comedic timing to come through in our film. We ended up producing over 106,000 faces. To put that in perspective, our first film, Coraline, had about 20,000 faces for the entire film and our most recent film, Kubo and the Two Strings, had about 64,000."

Stop motion animation is one of cinema's earliest "special effects." The LAIKA team was excited by the old Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials and Ray Harryhausens's King Kong creation and the advertising world's California Raisins. "LAIKA has essentially resurrected this 100-year-old technique of stopmotion animation," says McLean, "but we're not afraid to fuse stop-motion with cutting-edge new technologies or create hybrid films with CG elements all in the service of having this classic cinematic medium compete with its flashier CG cousins."

All of the LAIKA Heads of Department have been asked the same question by friends, families or colleagues. Why do it in stop motion instead of entirely in CG? McLean has what he thinks is as good an answer as any to try to explain LAIKA's love of hybridized filmmaking.

"This is not my original thought but sort of an amalgamation of lots of conversations around here," he opines. "It's akin to asking an artist 'why draw or paint this still life or portrait when you can just take a photograph of it?' We think there is an artistic challenge to what we's a bit of mystery when the alchemy of real light on real objects is transferred to the screen. I look at Missing Link and I feel very proud of the imagery that we have produced. And knowing that it's a team of over 400 artists and technologists that has brought those images to life only increases the sense of wonder that we all feel when we finally see it on a screen in a theater."

As far as the use of 3D printers in the filmmaking process on Missing Link, Mclean said it was similar to ripping the engine out of a car and starting from scratch.

"The range of characters and Chris Butler's specific character designs, particularly Sir Lionel, Mr. Link and Adelina, drove the rapid prototyping department to find a brand-new 3D printing technology to make the faces possible. We've used the same basic technology since ParaNorman to produce color infused facial parts, but starting on Missing Link we opted to turn to our longtime Rapid Prototyping partner Stratasys for a new technology. We used Stratasys' brand new J750 full color 3D printers combined with the universal 3D printer driver, 'Cuttlefish' from Fraunhofer, a German research institute. That strategic partnership among these three entities was unique to LAIKA." "This partnership enabled us to move from powder-based color printing to resin-based color printing. And that may not seem like a huge change, but powder-based 3D printing is very similar to inkjet printing in the sense that it's jetting colored glue onto a white powder. When you move to resin printing, you're actually including white as another color. You're not jetting colors down onto a substrate. Because you're building colors up layer by layer, you can't mix colors. That means that you have to put raw droplets of cyan, yellow, magenta, white and black next to one another. And these tiny little droplets are called voxels or three-dimensional pixels. If you were to take a Sir Lionel face or a Link face, and you were to put it under an electron microscope, you would just see tiny dots of raw color. You wouldn't see a smooth mix of color. It's a little bit like a pointillist painting. So that math problem, that difficulty of figuring out how you place these raw droplets of color together to get an appearance of smooth color is really complicated. It was the combination of Stratasys hardware coupled with the Cuttlefish software that created such a game changer for us on this film."

VFX Supervisor Steve Emerson, who was nominated for an Oscar for Kubo and the Two Strings, says that surprisingly, in terms of visual effects work, the work we do here at LAIKA is very similar to what the VFX department would be doing on a big live action superhero film. Perhaps people tend to think of us in terms of traditional 2D animation or they think of us in terms of computer-generated animation. But the reality of the work that we're doing here is that it is live action because of the puppets and real objects/sets, etc. to which we apply photo-realistic visual effects. So, you know, we have actors just as a live-action film would have actors. We shoot those actors on green screen sometimes. The difference is that our actors happen to be 10 or 12 inches tall as opposed to six feet. And they're photographed over the course of weeks, one frame at a time, as opposed to capturing an acting performance on a live-action set. But the process itself of creating visual effects for this film is very much live action-based. So, everything is much smaller. Everything takes a lot more time, but it's a live-action visual effects workflow."

VFX supervisor Steve Emerson continues, "On Kubo all the action was set in mythical Japan. You are moving from environment to environment, but it's still very much unified by that Japanese aesthetic. In Missing Link, we're going from Loch Ness to London, to the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest of America, crossing the country to New York...across the Atlantic Ocean to end up on the Coast of France. Then it's onto a train to end up in India before arriving at the base of the Himalayas and that's before we even get to Shangri-la. It was important to the team, and certainly to our director, that the VFX department didn't just create generic digital 'extras' or environment extensions, that could be reused across all these cultures. Instead, we had to create unique costuming, unique characters, with different skin tones and facial features for each and every one of these different cultures. It was, by far, our biggest VFX challenge on this film."

One of Emerson's favorite scenes is the barroom brawl in a Pacific Northwest logging town. "In the midst of this bar brawl there is high angle shot looking down at Mr. Link as he stands in the middle of all this chaos. There are multiple puppets fighting and bottles flying through the air. It's a frenetic but funny scene. In order for us to do our work to make the scene really sing, out came the hacksaws and the crew started chopping the bar up to make four different stages with different vantage points. In that particular shot, you have Mr. Link, Sir Lionel, our dastardly villain Willard Stenk (voiced by Timothy Olyphant) and his henchmen, the barkeeper; we even have Misty the dog in the shot. We don't have an entire set; we don't have all the puppets available. What ends up happening is that you'll get vignette performances independently. You'll get pieces of the set independently and this is over the course of a year or more, like months at a time. And then at the end you have to puzzle piece this thing together and make it look like a seamless image that was captured at a single moment in time. It's endlessly challenging and rewarding."

Every single shot in the movie is touched by the visual effects team in some way. Even a clean shot with no VFX additives is going to be looked at by the VFX team, if only to clean up dead pixels. And sometimes there is some cosmetics work that needs to be done on a puppet. Stop motion animation is a very rough process for puppets...lots of handling and contorting by animators. LAIKA even has a "puppet hospital" (really, that's what it is called) where puppets go for refurbishing and refabricating -- that's the LAIKA version of "R & R". There's always VFX work done on the puppet's faces, since LAIKA's 3D printing process prints an upper and lower face, the seam needs to be eliminated by VFX. The team also does work on the puppet eyelids, enhancing the eye shape to make it look as human as possible.

According to Emerson, the Nessie monster prologue on Loch Ness in Scotland presented a formidable challenge to his VFX team. "In case you haven't heard, water is not a lot of fun for stop motion animation. It's not something that you can grab, and pose, and animate one frame at a time. We've done things in the past with rapid prototyping such as the water coming out of the faucet in Coraline, which was done one frame at a time using 3D printed water. In ParaNorman, we had water pouring onto a high school bathroom floor and that was done with a combination of 3D printing and then posing and forming K-Y Jelly into water shapes. And in Kubo, we fashioned an entire VFX and rigging blueprint for how to recreate the "Great Wave off Kanagawa" block print painting for the film's prologue. But in the case of the Scottish Loch, we knew we probably weren't going to be able to get enough K-Y to fill that thing up. We had a boat in the middle of the Loch. We had Nessie, the monster, who was going to be performing in and interacting with the water along with Sir Lionel and his aide Mr. Lint. This was going to be a challenge. We referenced the stage animator's performance of the Nessie puppet which was filmed alongside Lionel and Mr. Lint in their rowboat. When animation was complete, VFX replaced the monster with a digital duplicate in order to create a more believable water interaction and allow Chris Butler to adjust her performance the limitations of the puppet. In that scene, digital really created many of the elements: the water, the fog, the sky, the land masses that surround the Loch and then, ultimately, Nessie as well. Those were all digital efforts."

The Puppet Department, headed up on this film by Georgina Hayns and John Craney, had its own set of challenges when presented with the character designs on the film, which were conceived by writer/director Chris Butler. The two biggest hurdles were the fact that the film is very stylized aesthetically and the main character is...well....a Sasquatch covered in fur. Fur is one of those words that strikes fear in the hearts of all puppet fabricators.

The Puppet Department had to crack the code on how the fur was to be created. Weeks of testing with different fabrics ensued: all kinds of fake fur were tested. The discussion shifted to what pattern the fur would adhere to. Finally, the "S" shape was landed on...each single piece of Link's fur has an "S" shape. Chris Butler had been looking at Victorian engravings from the 19th Century which led to concept artist Trevor Dalmer creating some different iterations of Link's fur patterning. The "S" shape won the day. According to Hayns, "Deciding on the 'S' shape had significant application across this production because we used it on every character that had fur, including Misty the dog and the Elder (voiced by Emma Thompson) in the Himalayas. The size and configuration of the fur might change but the overall 'S' shape configuration remained the same, one of the ways that we create cohesiveness on a production...creating a recurring list of shapes that appear throughout the film."

Each and every one of those 'S' shape fur pieces was made out of clay from a tiny extruder (think cookie dough coming through a cookie extruder in a particular shape). That way each piece had dimension while maintaining a clean graphic form.

Another issue had to be solved in the Puppet Fabrication department. "Our main character is a Sasquatch and he's covered with fur. And he ends up in these environments, whether aboard a ship or in the Himalayas and it's windy. Our director wanted Link's fur to react to the environment, of course. He wanted it to animate. He wanted it to move. Stop-motion is an incredibly detailed laborious process and now we're asking the animator to move each piece of fur...and Link's costume had a zillion pieces of individual fur. With that kind of detail, we'd never get the movie done."

John Craney recalls that the Puppet Fabrication team had multiple discussions about how to deal with the fur movement in windy environments and came up with the idea of invisible UV paint. It's the type of material that CSI teams use when investigating a crime scene, looking for fingerprints and other residue. A piece of Link's fur would be painted with the UV paint, not too much at the base and more at the tip. When that piece of fur is blasted with UV light, you end up with a really bright area at the tip. Then, when VFX receives the animation plate from the stages, it reads as somewhat gray at the base and white at the tip of the fur section. The computer then drives distortion based on luminance values. Because there is more white at the tip, it moves more, and because there is less white at the base, it moves less, just as real fur would do in the wind. The end result is fur that is wiggling around in the wind. That is shown to the director and the animation supervisor, Brad Schiff and another challenging production problem is solved. LAIKA's capability of augmenting a stop-motion performance with a digital solution is unique in the animation space.

Mr. Link is a high point in LAIKA's puppet making, says Brad Schiff, the Animation Supervisor. "We did things with Link that have never been done before. Not only was there squash and stretch, but Link also has a breather and a belly mover. When Link sighs, he is actually inhaling and exhaling breath. He also has a belly mover so his large belly could bounce as he walks. He is a funny character and the way the puppet was created helps us communicate that humor. I don't think Link is the first puppet that has ever had a belly mover, but it's definitely the first time we had all these elements in one puppet."

Stop Motion Rigging Supervisor Ollie Jones, who along with Schiff was Oscar-nominated for VFX on Kubo and the Two Strings, says "We had to create rigs and special effects for many differing environments. We had an elephant in a jungle, puppets hanging off cliffs and snow blizzards. Interiors posed their own set of challenges. Ambient motion in an environment really helps elevate a scene and Chris wrote lots of opportunities for motion into the film: trains, coaches, and an ocean liner. In the stagecoach scene, Chris asked for swinging tassels in the interior. Looking for expedience on stage and legitimacy in the performance, we had to find a way to motorize nearly 200 tassels. We created our own human scale live action tassel rig for research. From that we could identify and reduce the movement down to two-axis. By layering motion and offsetting the animation by a couple of frames we could produce a seemingly organic performance from a simple push and pull motor. Then we coordinated the tassels with the shades, curtains and the puppets. The whole ensemble was pre-programmed and placed on a hexapod (a six axis motion table) that gave the stagecoach a foundation for everything else to react to. In that scene we had over 40 motors in play in just a few square feet of space."

"Working practically with the Puppet Department is always part of the Rigging Department's process," Jones continues. "We've worked on lots of bigger puppets over the years including the Giant Skeleton in Kubo. For the elephant in the jungles of India, we again collaborated with the Puppet Department on the skin, which is very loose. When you see those legs moving, you can see a lot of stretch happening in the gussets of the armpits. A lot of silicone and mass had to be weighted against the actual armature. We implemented gas springs that helped to alleviate some of the tension, with some elements like the head, driven with a rack and pinion. That resulted in the ability to tilt the elephant's head without springing around."

Rigging also played a huge part in the climactic scene on the ice bridge in the Himalayas. The show's heaviest puppet, Mr. Link, is dangling from a rope. It was an enormous collaborative effort with the Puppet and VFX Departments to support our heaviest hero character in that situation. I'm not sure we've ever had a puppet swinging over a frozen crevasse supporting multiple other puppets on a rope," Jones wonders with a chuckle. The Rigging Department created an enormous network of mechanical tethers to support that action, even artificially stretching Mr. Link as he swung like a pendulum."

LAIKA's Costume Designer Deborah Cook, who was nominated for a the Costume Designers Guild Award for Excellence in Fantasy Film for Kubo and the Two Strings (the first time a stop motion animated film had ever been recognized by the prestigious organization), felt a keen mandate to enhance Chris Butler's comedy through the film's costuming. "Looking at the characters, the dialogue, and the comedy factor in Chris' story, my job was to find components in costume that would really support that vision and bring out our characters individual personalities. For example Link steals a suit from someone in the Pacific Northwest logging town. Being wedged into that suit is going to contribute to the comedy factor given how it fits around those lovable curves. It's very pinched under the armpits and the front of the vest is extremely tight, fur tufts are poking through in areas and the legs and arms are too short. It grips around that wobbly belly. That provided a comedic aspect to this costume. Finding those elements of the silly factor and the essential nods that support the narrative was imperative and a very rewarding process."

Sir Lionel's suit is another example of how costume reveals character. "The shaping of the hounds tooth pattern in his suit is very sharp, very elegant," Cook says. "It's tailored and sleek. It's kind of pinched and pointed in its pattern and that supports Lionel's personality, but also gives a formality and a 'city gent' aspect to his clothing. When you see his suit, you expect certain behavior, as you do when Link appears in the ill-fitting suit."

Both suit fabrics were created at the studio from the ground up with LAIKA's own technique.

"With Adelina, her costume very much reflects that she is a rebellious woman. When we first see her, she's wearing a mourning dress following her husband's death. She wears a cameo that might have a lock of hair or a portrait of her husband that she is wearing close to her heart. But the color of the dress is vivid fuchsia. It's not the Victorian dusky gray, navy or black that would traditionally be used for a mourning dress. The audience registers there's something underlying in the choice of color in that dress that propels the story forward but also gives you a clue to her personality. She's trying to fight her way out of that mourning phase and move into a more adventurous way of life. Costume helps propel the narrative in a film."

Cook continues, "And then there is Adelina's adventure suit. She's wearing a swan-bill corset which is super sucked in and tight, very curvaceous and a little racy and a very liberating progression from a Victorian corset or bustle which was very constricting, big and bulky, and hid the female form. She wanted to wear those pants. They're big, voluminous and agile. They would in that era but on the brink of still being considered underwear or gym wear for a woman, but she was not having that. She was very risqué and going to wear exactly what she wanted to have her adventure in life."

LAIKA's costuming excellence has been evident in all its films. Cook says "it's a level of investment that everyone here is dedicated to. We're very committed to pushing boundaries." Just as the film is about exploration, Deborah's department "has our own exploration into fabrics and textiles. We make all our own fabrics and why wouldn't we? We have the best people in the world working here and we know what is demanded of the fabrics. We have an amazing look development artist and a fantastic costume fabrication team with an extensive knowledge of properties. We're patent pending on our own weighted costume linings, essential for giving gravity to a costume in our scale, and we're continually engineering capabilities and solutions for each film's challenges.

Emerson talks about the giant icicle from which the characters dangle in the climactic scene. "That required a great deal of interdepartmental collaboration at LAIKA. Everyone knew we wanted it to be a real object out on the stages and knew that Mr. Link was going to have to perform on the surface of the icicle. Somehow, we needed to achieve a realistic-looking cracking effect using whatever material it ended up being composed of."

The animation team began testing using different types of materials. Eventually they pulled off an in camera ice cracking effect using silicone. The challenge would be translating the effect onto a large scale, faceted icicle. Keith McQueen, LAIKA's Head of Model Shop, and Kieron Thomas, the Assistant Art Director, oversaw the creation of two separate icicles: a plastic resin version for puppet animation and a separate silicone version for cracks that would be photographed post-animation and combined together in visual effects.

What was especially critical was ensuring that two different icicles "registered" or in simpler terms, lined up perfectly. This was achieved by using a custom-made registration rig that was developed by Senior Rigger Brian Elliot. When animation was completed on the resin version, the rig swapped in the cracked silicone version and a separate plate was shot.

"All those elements were taken into visual effects," says Emerson. "There we did plenty of image sweetening and revealed the cracking ice with roto mattes."

Music as Travel Guide
LAIKA films have a rich history of impactful and beautiful musical scores. LAIKA President and CEO Travis Knight places enormous importance on working with the industry's leading talents in order to enhance the animation process. From Bruno Coulais' (Winged Migration) whimsical score for Coraline in 2009, to Jon Brion's (Magnolia) spooky fun score for ParaNorman in 2012 and Oscar-winner Dario Marianelli's (Atonement) repeat role on both the fantastical and quirky The Boxtrolls in 2014 and the lyrical homage to Japanese culture Kubo and the Two Strings in 2016, LAIKA's scores have been recognized by fans and critics alike. To musically connect all the emotional dots on Missing Link, director Chris Butler and producers Arianne Sutner and Travis Knight had one name at the top of the list: Carter Burwell, who received Academy Award nominations for his scores for Best Picture nominee Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Carol and is renowned for his many collaborations with the Coen Brothers including The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Blood Simple, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Hail, Caesar!

Butler was a fan of Burwell's, first and foremost. He was convinced that he could heighten the comedy, provide emotional nuance to the more intimate moments and ignite a moviegoer's imagination in this globetrotting, swashbuckling comedy.

"In many ways, Missing Link tips its musical hat to the glorious, big Hollywood movies that I grew up with," Butler says.

Burwell concurs, "I remembered the soundtrack to the original 1956 Around the World in 80 Days, which was one of Chris Butler's inspirations. It had made an impression on me as a kid. I felt that the music for Missing Link should have that same kind of epic sweep right from the beginning when we meet Sir Lionel trying to photograph Nessie the monster in Scotland."

Burwell continues, "So the task was to do something lighter and more playful in tone than some of the more serious films that I've been involved in. Since Chris and I had never worked together before, we needed to find a common language so we could communicate throughout the various stages of production on the film. And even though Chris was at LAIKA outside Portland, Oregon and I was at the east end of Long Island, our communications were solid and clear. In some ways a lighter tone is more difficult for me, as my experience has mostly been with dark comedy and intense drama. Seeing the film evolve from story boards to the animatic to the final animated film was immensely helpful."

In many ways, Missing Link harkens back to a more traditional style of Hollywood moviemaking...a big bold story set against multiple fantastic and exotic locations with unforgettable, bigger than life characters who embark on a grand adventure. Burwell was keen to explore that musical legacy while being cognizant of the need to create a score for a modern audience.

"I wanted the audience to get excited whenever we arrived at a new location," said Butler. "And Carter's music really helps with that by giving each new place - whether it is the Pacific Northwest, the jungles of India, or the vast expanses of the Himalayas -- an individual musical signature."

As it happens, Burwell had a history with animation that Butler wasn't even aware of when he put him at the top of his list for composers. Burwell was an animator in college and his first job out of school was in animation. When his agent called and asked if he was familiar with LAIKA's four previous films, he said "of course" and was immediately excited by the prospect of working with the studio. While much of Burwell's work was in creating fresh musical accompaniment to the various locations that the main characters visited, he also developed a suite of musical cues for each main character to help maintain cohesiveness throughout the film.

"One of the challenges is the counterpoint of the grandeur of the locations and scope of the film with the size of the puppets. To me as a composer that was a great and satisfying challenge," says Burwell, who had also previously worked on the Oscar-nominated stop-motion animated feature Anomalisa.

LAIKA also commissioned an original song, written and performed by Walter Martin, to play over the closing credits. Missing Link producer Arianne Sutner recalls that it was important to have an "out of time" sound, but not an "old-timey" song'. They didn't want to tack on a contemporary pop song that bore no relation to the movie, yet they certainly didn't want Victorian music. More specifically, the filmmakers were looking for a song that would leave the audience with the boundless sense of optimism that the ending of the film conveys. According to Sutner, "We ended Kubo and the Two Strings on a gorgeous bittersweet note with Regina Spektor's version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. We made an intentional decision to end Missing Link on an entirely joyful, upbeat note. He was very touched by the friendship that evolves between Sir Lionel and Mr. Link. I love Walter's vulnerable sounding lyric at the beginning and how the words and their meaning gain momentum as the song progresses, much like our Mr. Link progresses in the movie."


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