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‘Missing Link’ Director Chris Butler On Bringing Innovation & Live-Action Energy To Medium Of Stop-Motion Animation

By Matt Grobar

November 19, 2019

With his second stop-motion feature, Missing Link, writer/director Chris Butler took on a story with colorful characters, massive environments and a variety of complex action sequences, striving to bring a live-action quality to an animated world, which would be put together through a painstaking physical process, one frame at a time.

Centered on Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), an investigator of myths and monsters who journeys with a sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis) into the Himalayas, to reunite the creature with his long-lost relatives, the latest feature from Laika Studios and United Artists Releasing was a massive challenge—“a bit too much of a challenge, at times,” Butler says—but one he felt compelled to take on.

As far as action sequences were concerned, Butler’s biggest inspiration with Steven Spielberg—particularly, the work he’d done with Raiders of the Lost Ark, and other films in the Indiana Jones franchise. “What I loved about the Indiana Jones action sequences is that it’s not just a chaotic montage of kinetic shots. There’s a narrative; there is a beginning, middle, and an end within the action scene,” the director explains. “I wanted that kind of sense, where there’s a narrative with comedic moments, with dramatic moments, all within these action scenes.”

Scripting all of Missing Link’s action sequences out, beat by beat, Butler worked with story artist Oliver Thomas to map out all of the most complex moments in the film, striving then to bring each bit of action, each effect and each sweeping environment to the screen primarily through practical methods. “We always try to approach any challenge from a practical point of view, first. At the beginning of a scene, we all sit around, all the different heads of department, and we talk about, how are we going to achieve this?” the director says. “If we can’t achieve it practically, or it becomes too cost-ineffective, then we’ll look at digital [effects]. But even when we’re dong something digitally, we will create a practical version of it first.”

DEADLINE: How long have you been thinking about Missing Link? Why was this the project you wanted to pursue as your second feature?

CHRIS BUTLER: The idea has been around for a long time. I’ve got a grab bag of like a dozen ideas that is comprised of basically everything I grew up loving, and over the years, I’ve dipped back into them. I knew I wanted to do something that was like Sherlock Holmes meets Indiana Jones, and I also had a story that I wanted to do about Bigfoot, and they somehow evolved into each other over the years. After doing ParaNorman, my venture into horror for kids, I wanted to do something totally different, so when it came time to talk about what was next, this just seemed like a natural progression.

It was also more ambitious. I wanted to do something bigger and bolder. I wanted to see if we could pull of an epic adventure movie in stop-motion, essentially, because we felt like it was a suitable challenge.

DEADLINE: In the film, Sir Lionel finds Mr. Link in the Pacific Northwest, which is also where Laika is based. Did that connection cross your mind as you were making it?

BUTLER: Yeah, but I don’t think that entered into any of the reasoning. It just so happens that Laika is at the same place that the majority of Bigfoot sightings are. So, it did seem like a nice fit, and certainly when we were doing the Pacific Northwest forest, everyone who works there knows what that looks like, so it was pretty cool to get that verisimilitude.

DEADLINE: How did you come to key early decisions, in terms of an aesthetic for Missing Link?

BUTLER: My background is actually design and storyboarding, so when I’m writing, the design is already formulating in my head. The first thing that I did on this one was, I put together a look book that was like eight or nine pages. I just pulled different facets that I wanted to explore in the movie, like dense patterning. Victorians loved patterns—if you see reference photos of their wallpapers and suits and shirts, it’s just pattern on pattern on pattern—and I thought we could do something interesting with that.

The scale of the thing was another page. I looked at some animated movies that I really respected in the past. One of the influences was a movie that never actually got finished, called The Thief and the Cobbler. Richard Williams, who just passed away, it was his long-running project; his art director was Errol Le Cain, an illustrator I’ve always loved, so I looked at his work. Again, it’s very dense patterning and very intricate, and National Geographic photography was another big influence. I knew I wanted this to be a color movie—like, no-holds-barred-color—so I looked at a lot of ’70s and ’80s travel photography, and the photography of Steve McCurry. He did a lot of gorgeous portrait photos of people all over the world, and that was a big inspiration, as well. So, it’s really just taking a bunch of things that I admire, putting them in a book, and then starting to have a conversation with people.

I knew I was going to be working with Nelson Lowry, the production designer, so I’d take that book to him, and we’d talk about what we could implement, and how we could work this into it. Then, it was his job to run with that and make it into something else. Also, at the very start, in development, I worked with a small group of artists myself. There was me, a comic artist called Warwick Johnson-Cadwell, French artist Julian Wells, and Trevor Dalmer at the studio, Santiago Montiel. There was maybe five or six of us, and we just produced artwork. I’d do a drawing of Sir Lionel in his study, I’d give it to Trevor, and he’d do a painted version of it. Julian would be doing different versions of loggers and lumberjacks you might see in the Pacific Northwest, and that, to me, is a really lovely part of the process, where you’ve got a blank canvas, and you really can go anywhere with it. Particularly in animation, you genuinely can have anything look like anything. So, it’s really starting to pull that together and see what fits.

DEADLINE: What informed the designs for your central characters?

BUTLER: I think because I come from a 2D background and a design background, I always want to push character design to a place that maybe I haven’t seen before. On ParaNorman, I found this artist, Heidi Smith, whose style was like no one’s I’d ever seen before. It’s asymmetrical and kind of beautifully grotesque, so finding her was a slam dunk.

I knew I didn’t want to go down that path again, so instead of asymmetry, I thought, I want it to be really symmetrical, simple shapes. So, I had a sensibility in mind, and I really tried to find the person who would do that. But in the end, I kept going back to a bunch of drawings that I’d done very early on. I tend to draw when I’m writing, and there was one drawing I did of Link, in particular—just a very simple line drawing, [that’s] since become known as the ‘Hairy Avocado.’ It was a really simple shape, but there was something about that shape that people liked. So, in the end, I thought, Maybe that’s it.

Like I said before, I worked with a guy, Warwick Johnson-Cadwell, whose style of drawing is so recognizably him, and because I’d been such a big fan, I hired him at the very start of the project to basically draw the world. He drew everything—Victorian gents, chimney sweeps, horses, elephants. He just populated this world in his style, and it was really liberating for me because I don’t draw in his style. But he was suggesting an aesthetic that influenced my drawings. I took what Warwick did and put it through my filter, and that’s where we ended up, with the look of the movie.

I always knew that this strong shape thing would be a big part of the overall look, and you design a movie around your main characters. I had ‘Hairy Avocado’ Link, and because his personality is so soft, he’s all curved lines. So, it made sense that Lionel was the opposite—he’s all spikes, sharp angles. I do think that sometimes, my ambitions for character design are very difficult to create as puppets. Because in 2D, sometimes I come up with something that, when it’s made as a puppet, becomes really difficult for the animator to manipulate. I think probably animators hate me, because I have these wildly odd designs. They’re definitely a challenge, and I think that’s also one of the things I love most about Missing Link—that these characters are such broad, bold shapes, but we still managed to get such nuanced acting out of them.

DEADLINE: What was your approach to crafting the film’s many large-scale environments? With Lord Piggot-Dunceby’s club, for example—which is enormous, both on screen and in real life—what informed the size of the set, and the way in which it was built?

BUTLER: The optimal size for a puppet is 13 inches. That’s big enough so that you can get nuance out of it, but small enough that you can create a movie in a warehouse. So, if Lionel’s 13 inches, then you think about what a room is, built around him. The club was supposed to feel like this old, dusty place in Victorian England, so it needed to feel big. So then, you’re looking at something that’s many feet wide and many feet long.

In the end, you have to make functional choices like, “Can this fit?” But you’ve also always got to think about where the animator is in this set. Because someone is moving a character on that set, you’re going to have to create access points for the animator. Sometimes, that means splitting a set in two or three or four. I might have one corner of the woods in one unit on the stages, and another corner of the woods many units away, shooting at separate times.

It depends on how big the location is. I felt very strongly that I wanted the logging town to be built in its entirety. Even though it’s not in the movie for that long, just having that sense of place was really cool, and that was a massive set. But then, when Lionel’s riding over the hill and sees the logging town in the distance, we built that as a miniature. We gave that to the visual effects department, and they’d pretty it up and composite it within the scene.

I [also] had to establish Victorian London in one shot, so I knew it had to be pretty impressive. Now, there was no way we could’ve built that, so we built little elements. We had the corner of Lionel’s street, [at] puppet scale. We shot that, but the rest of that cityscape was ultimately created in the computer.

DEADLINE: LAIKA has always been a leading innovator, when it comes to stop-motion technology and technique. In what ways did you find yourself pushing creative and technical boundaries with Missing Link?

BUTLER: Part of the studio’s philosophy with every movie is, “How can we push this further?” I think sometimes, people think that just means, “How can we make the movie bigger?” and I don’t think that’s the truth of it. It just so happens that this was a big movie, but I think it’s more about, how can we push all these different aspects? We’ve been working with replacement faces since CoralineCoraline was the first use of a black-and-white 3D printer; ParaNorman was the first use of a color 3D printer, and each time, we take what we had before and push it further.

[With the] facial accents, the kit system that we’ve always used in the past, it’s given us great results, but you’re always thinking, How can we make these characters more compelling, more convincing? How can we make the acting better? Working with a team from movie to movie, they’re just getting better and better, and it’s like, How can we keep the facial animation up to the standard of the puppet animation? And that became this bespoke system, where we’d literally animated every facial performance in the movie uniquely. We didn’t use a kit at all, so every shot was its own performance, and then printed out.

I think there’s a tendency to talk about stop-motion as this nostalgic novelty, and it’s interesting to me because 2D animation, CG animation is always moving forward. It’s always pushing boundaries, but a lot of people see stop-motion as this thing that’s stuck in time. I think that you can embrace this beautiful, old art form, but that doesn’t mean you can’t innovate. So, you always end up trying to take the medium that you work with and say, “What else can I do with this? How can I use technology to make this better?”