By Matt Grobar
December 3, 2019
Since its inception 14 years ago, LAIKA has become perhaps the greatest innovator in the medium of stop-motion. Led by President and CEO Travis Knight, the team at the Oregon-based animation studio has worked tirelessly to push creative boundaries with each of its five films, taking on one of its biggest challenges to date with writer/director Chris Butler’s Missing Link.
Starring Hugh Jackman and Zach Galifianakis, Missing Link centers on Sir Lionel Frost, a self-centered investigator of myths and monsters who encounters a Sasquatch in the Pacific Northwest. Learning of the solitary creature’s desire for familial connection, the explorer accompanies him on a journey to the fabled Shangri-La that proves life changing for them both.
With his second feature, following 2012’s ParaNorman, Butler’s goal was to bring the energy of an epic, live-action adventure film into the medium of stop-motion. With its large cast of memorable characters, its enormous environments and its meticulously crafted action sequences, the globetrotting picture gave LAIKA “a totally new playground in which to play,” Butler says. Ultimately, the journey of bringing the film to life was every bit as exciting and taxing as the one that Frost and his companion, themselves, experienced.
Below, Butler joins three of Missing Link’s key creatives—producer Arianne Sutner, production designer Nelson Lowry and visual effects supervisor Steve Emerson—in breaking down the creation of two spectacular sets, as well as the process of executing moments of complex action within them.
Shangri-La: The Yeti Temple & Its Ice Bridge
NELSON LOWRY: Designing Shangri-La was the biggest challenge as it was the only location that doesn’t exist. Chris wanted it to feel like a reward to the viewer, something truly wondrous.
CHRIS BUTLER: [One major] thing to do was to figure out, what would a Yeti temple look like? Culturally, what is that? I took the idea that comes originally from [James Hilton’s 1933 novel] Lost Horizon, which is that Shangri-La is a place where man never grows old, and kind of played with it. So, rather than man not growing old, it’s a place where man hasn’t evolved—i.e., it’s the place where Yetis live, because they are the missing link. So, I had lots of conversations with Nelson, and we were trying to figure out, what could this ancient civilization look like?
LOWRY: We made many passes of the Temple’s architecture. This was tricky. When you make any nod to another culture’s mythologies, you want to honor, not ‘ape’ them. And there are no Yeti Temples! So, I combined Indian Hill, Brutalist and Jainism architecture to create the final design. Our amazing concept designer, Montiel Santiago, cracked the design that Chris eventually approved.
ARIANNE SUTNER: There are always so many challenges when you’re shooting outdoor sequences with nature as a backdrop, the number one , how big are the vistas, and how big do your ‘miniature’ sets actually need to be?
The Shangri-La Ice Bridge and the Yeti Temple are massive architectural structures that dwarf the scale of our characters. So, the questions all revolve around how to place our roughly 12″ puppets seamlessly into these environments. How much do we build physically? How much do we build digitally?
For Shangri-La, the solution was to shoot in many different scales. We built sections of the bridge and the temple at standard puppet scale to allow characters to physically contact the ground. But we also built those same locations in their entirety at extremely miniature scales so we could fit them into our shooting space and photograph them as composited elements. Of course, we took full advantage of opportunities to add digital set extensions, but we always try to keep that to a minimum.
STEVE EMERSON: The climax of the film takes place in a moment of extreme jeopardy, where Mr. Link is hanging onto an icicle [on the ice bridge]—a miles-deep chasm below him—and the icicle begins to crack.
BUTLER: We knew that it was going to be the most spectacular scene in the movie, with all the moving pieces that were involved. I knew I wanted to have the climactic fight with [Sir Lionel and Mr. Link] suspended in the air, and I wanted this giant ice bridge to collapse. I had it in my head, how this ice bridge was built. Again, it’s very much based on Brutalism—it’s all hard lines and blocky, brutal shapes. The whole bridge is basically built out of glass panels.
EMERSON: The icicle-cracking effect created a lot of challenges, as we wanted to get it in-camera, rather than substitute it for a computer-generated version and do the cracking in post-production.
Stage tests were done with different types of materials. The animators got great results cutting into silicone. It looked like ice cracking, but the problem was that the rest of the icicles didn’t look like ice. They ended up creating two separate icicles—a silicone version for animated cracking, and a plastic resin version which was photographed in multiple lighting scenarios, in order to achieve the necessary reflective and refractive qualities of ice.
Most of those icicle shots required upwards of twenty camera passes, using different lighting scenarios, in order to hit the look. It seems insane, really, when you consider we could have easily shot the character animation on a stand-in icicle, and replaced it with CG. But sometimes, you’ve got to let go of common sense when you’re working on these films, and that’s what I really love about LAIKA. It’s never about choosing the path that seems simplest. It’s about honoring the art of stop-motion animation, and challenging ourselves to use that art in new and different ways.
The Jungles of India: Sir Lionel & Friends Atop an Elephant
EMERSON: In the case of the jungle sequence, Chris was asking for four puppets riding an elephant while traversing a dense, moist jungle. It would be a first for a stop-motion film and everyone was excited for the challenge.
BUTLER: It’s one of my follies, I think, in the sense that I knew this scene really is just a conversation scene. I could have set it anywhere; I could have set it in a room, with the curtains closed, so all we had to make was one room. But I thought, this is part of the whole movie. It’s like this beautiful, wide, colorful world is opening up, and it’s opening up for Lionel, too, because he’s starting to empathize. He’s actually becoming a better person. So I was like, what can I put behind him, in this conversation, that’s just breathtaking? I want this to represent how beautiful the world can be.
EMERSON: Our first course of action is always to figure out how we can get a shot in-camera, so we started there. We had built large-scale puppets for past films, so we knew we could leverage that experience to build what ended up being a 36-pound elephant, capable of carrying four other puppets.
SUTNER: In the Indian Jungle, foliage is everywhere you look. Adding digital set extensions to an environment like this is next to impossible because the time and labor it takes to drop mattes behind so much visual texture is cost prohibitive. For that reason, we had to physically build the entire world. Our design team came up with very clever layering and lighting tricks to pull it off, while the camera and VFX crews did a masterful job of finding ways to shoot in multiple passes and seamlessly composite all the pieces together.
LOWRY: When designing the Indian Jungle, I started by researching the area’s topography and flora. It’s always best to start with what is authentic, and then blend those notes with the style of the show. I looked for trees and plants with large foliage and good silhouettes (including rubber and cashew). The terrain is nicely varied. The color of the soil is often red or brown, which contrasted nicely with the greens. Chris wanted this environment to contrast the blueish tint of the woods in the Pacific Northwest, so we pumped up the yellow and green, as far as the film’s color palette would allow.
The elephant animation took almost three months to shoot. I remember that when we started putting it all together, we realized that we needed some extra frames, in order to extend the shot for a transition. We just needed something that we could cycle, maybe a second or two. That was a really big ask—at least a week’s worth of animation, probably more. But the production came through with more frames, and our compositing team managed to bring it all together.
When it came time to shoot the background, the set dressers ran out of foliage, so we ended up shooting the background in multiple passes. Basically, we dressed the set, shot the front end of camera move, broke the set down, dressed the area we’d need for the tail of the shot, then shot the camera move again. Once we had coverage for the entire jungle, the plates and animation were combined in post-production, and a set extension of the Himalayas was added to the tail of the sequence.
SUTNER: I’m proud of the fact that we were able to pull these two very challenging sequences off well enough to tell the story that we wanted to tell. The fact that they also look so visually stunning is a bonus that speaks to the talent of the entire LAIKA team. You can almost smell the oppressive heat of the Jungle, and feel the freezing altitudes of the Himalayan peaks.