A Victorian-era London cryptologist, a mysterious creature, and a Latina adventuress from California set out on a whirlwind adventure around the globe in search of the legendary yeti (a.k.a. sasquatch) tribe. That extraordinary, epic plotline is not the kind of thing you would automatically associate with stop-motion animation. But then again, you don’t expect ordinary things from Portland, Oregon’s extraordinary studio, LAIKA.
Missing Link, LAIKA’s fifth grand adventure, is the brainchild of acclaimed writer-director Chris Butler, who was behind the studio’s Oscar- and BAFTA-nominated 2012 movie ParaNorman and also worked on features such as Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride and LAIKA’s Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings. He says he wanted to marry many of his interests in one challenging project. “I love telling stories that are outside the realm of traditional animated movies,” admits the writer-director.
A die-hard fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, monsters such as Nessie and the yeti, Indiana Jones-type swashbucklers, and National Geographic photographs, Butler generated characters and storylines that combined all those colorful elements. He cleverly describes Missing Link as “the movie you’d get if David Lean had directed Around the World in 80 Days with Laurel and Hardy.”
“Here at LAIKA, we tend to make movies that other studios may not do,” says the Liverpool-born director, who also designed many of the characters. “In some ways, Missing Link may be the most commercial movie that we’ve done, which all started with me saying, ‘I want a stop-motion Indiana Jones.’”
Butler says he wanted to move stop-motion away from the darker themes that the general public associate with the technique. “People think of it as slightly creepy, and I wanted to step out of the shadows with this movie,” he admits. “I didn’t want it to be a Halloween movie or a ghost story. There’s more to stop-motion than Ladislas Darevich, Jan Svankmajer and Tim Burton — as much as I love them. Travis [Knight] always says that we should be able to tell any story in stop-motion. That’s why I wanted to do something that was a polar opposite of those other films.”
“The movie is an artistic and technical wonder,” says LAIK president and CEO Travis Knight. “Led by Chris, our studio has once again blended fine art, craftsmanship and cutting-edge technology to achieve something we’ve never tried before: a raucous comedy entwined with a swashbuckling epic, underscoring the universal need to find belonging. Combining keenly felt emotion, mad-cap humor and retina-bursting visuals, Missing Link is a kaleidoscopic cinematic experience unlike any other.”
Veteran animation producer Arianne Sutner, who also worked with Butler on LAIKA’s Kubo and the Two Strings and ParaNorman, explains, “Coming out of Kubo, we wanted something that was lighter and brighter in subject matter. The color script alone is one of our most colorful we’ve done to date. We wanted to push the boundaries of stop-motion by doing this ambitious action-comedy that spans the globe, from east to west, all the way across the Northern Hemisphere. It’s a travelogue to beautiful, far-flung locations, which also adheres to a specific, subtle design style, grounded by extensive research.”
Building Mr. Link
Much of the success of the movie rests on the ungainly shoulders of its central character: the childlike, funny and soulful creature known as Mr. Link (and later on, Susan). Voiced by Zach Galifianakis, the character’s design was one of the most important elements of the project.
Butler first came up with a drawing of Link in his notebook for the initial pitch. That original sketch and illustrations by Warwick Johnson-Cadwell were the inspirations for the overall look of the character. He recalls, “We tried numerous artists to see where we could go with it, but no matter what we tried, people would come back to the original sketch and everyone said how appealing they thought it was. I heard it enough times that I thought, ‘Well, I don’t know. Maybe, there’s something here!”
Standing about 14-inches tall, Link was one of the largest puppets on the set, so his construction and rigging posed many challenges. John Craney, the film’s puppet fabrication supervisor, explains, “Link was a furry character, but it’s stylized fur. Of course, fur is always a very difficult element to deal with in animation, and there is some fairly complex geometry underneath his fur.”
Craney adds, “Combining silicones, flexible and rigid urethane rubbers, and foams, the puppet team created a fur solution for Link that could successfully visually break at key anatomical repositioning, back to the underbody, while maintaining a directorial request to preserve character silhouettes and profiles.”
Link’s neck consisted of a cellular walled foam cone that was able to compress and stretch with a range of movement similar to a Slinky; whereby at each cell opening a urethane fur piece was applied at the surface in rotation, until approximately 500 individual urethane fur elements encompassed the puppet’s neck and head.
The Link puppet was further enhanced by a very robust and well-considered armature and additive internal mechanisms, which aided the foundation of Link’s articulation and range. Craney points out that the puppet’s internal chest breather, squash-and-stretch spine, and an incremental belly mover enabled an anatomically credible performance that was echoed externally by a cohesive and responsive silicone fur body suit.
A Hero’s Journey
Butler says he had actor Hugh Jackman in mind when he did some drawings of the film’s cryptozoologist character, Sir Lionel Frost, early in the process. “We usually do spend a good amount of time trying to find the actor or actress who fits the character best, but for this movie, I wanted Hugh, and I wasn’t going to accept any one else. In fact, I did some drawings of Sir Lionel before we cast Hugh, and he was in my head when I drew them. I pursued him for a year because he was busy, before he actually read the script. And then, he told me that he would have accepted the role had he read the script six months before.”
Working closely with illustrator Johnson-Cadwell (The No. 1 Car Spotter and Helena Crash book series), Butler came up with the look of the characters, based on his original sketches. Lionel, who is described as a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, is a privileged aristocrat who is always dressed in the latest fashions of the era. He can be self-centered and callous, and a bit of a player, but he redeems himself through the course of the movie. The physical resemblance to Jackman is definitely not coincidental.
An Independent Heroine
Adelina Fortnight is the beautiful, strong heroine of the movie, who is described in the screenplay as “part Gibson Girl, part Amazon.” Voiced by Zoe Saldana, Adelina is the kind of dynamic woman who will not sit back and let the men in her life tell her what to do while they run off and have exciting adventures around the world.
“I wanted a strong female foil to Lionel, and wanted her to be an adventuress in her own right,” says Butler. “I also wanted it to be a romance and for Lionel to be an eccentric and a loner. Really, the movie is a romance between Lionel and Link. But I also took a lead from Sherlock Holmes’ mysterious interactions with women. Indiana Jones also had his own romantic elements.”
As Sutner points out, “Adelina is a true adventuress and unapologetic about it. She is a woman on her own, from another country, in a new world. There are lots of things working against her, but as an outsider she is very empathetic to Link. She understands because she has it a lot tougher than the privileged Englishman.”
A Giant Leap Forward
Not only is Missing Link a bold venture in terms of storyline scope, it also marks a remarkable collection of firsts for the studio. For example, all of the movie’s puppets were built approximately 20 percent smaller than the puppets of the studio’s previous movies. This scale difference allowed sets to be smaller and also made the Mr. Link puppet, which stands about 16 inches tall, the largest character. Each puppet also used a unique “jetpack” mechanism — a remote turnbuckle device fitted to the hips and the small of the back, which allowed the animators to create small incremental movements.
Missing Link is also LAIKA’s first movie to use full-color resin 3D-printed replacement faces on all of its puppets. (The studio first used the Stratasys 3D color printer on ParaNorman’s main characters). The technology allowed the filmmakers to use 3D print custom-animated facial performances for every character used in the film. The rapid prototyping department printed over 106,000 faces for the movie — about 39,000 were Lionel faces, 27,000 were Link faces and 13,000 were Adelina’s.
In addition to all the meticulously built puppets, the movie manages to offer what few if any stop-motion movies have been able to do: take viewers along on a heady adventure to far-flung locations such as the Scottish Highlands, Victorian London, the American Northwest, a cross-country train ride through the U.S., then to the jungles of India, and finally ending up in a remote snow-covered village in the Himalayas. Overall, the movie used 110 sets and 65 unique locations.
Looking back at the film’s long journey to theaters, Butler says he is quite pleased with the fact that Missing Link is able to cover what few stop-motion movies have been able to do on the big screen. “When I started out , I wanted to make the definitive adventure movie in stop-motion,” says Butler. “The goal was to make a big, bright, colorful epic that was also a bit of a love letter to all the things that I loved as a kid.”
Sutner agrees, “With each project, we are standing on the shoulders of the previous movies we’ve made. At the height of production, we had about 450 people work on Missing Link, and it has been our most ambitious project to date. Our goal is to give our audiences something gorgeous and unexpected with each one of our movies. With Missing Link, we also wanted to drive home the message that our differences should be celebrated, and that there’s a beautiful world out there for us to explore and connect with.”
Annapurna Pictures releases LAIKA’s Missing Link in U.S. theaters on April 12.