Joey Moser talks to director Chris Butler, production designer Nelson Lowry, and visual effects supervisor Steve Emerson about Laika’s masterpiece, Missing Link.
Laika’s Missing Link feels like the underdog in the Best Animated Feature category at this year’s Oscars, and it deserves to be right out front. Released this spring, Chris Butler’s film centers on the bond between Sir Lionel Frost and Mr. Link as they trot around the globe to find Mr. Link’s true place in the world. It’s a buddy comedy like no other since Sir Lionel (voiced to arrogant, dashing perfection by Hugh Jackman) and Mr. Link (a lovely Zach Galifianakis) are a man and a Sasquatch.
When you take a deep dive into the crafts of Missing Link, you will see proof that it is one of the most ambitious animated films ever created. These animators have created a Victorian world so detailed and specific that you will want to reach through the screen and touch everything in sight. The clothes have so much texture that you feel like the wool is itching your skin and the corsets are pulled too tight. When the action starts trotting you across the world, the locations are vast, and the photography is gorgeous.
What separates Laika’s brilliance from other studios is that everything must be physically built and presented on their stages and meticulously shot frame-by-frame. There is a sense of care and precision in Laika’s films that we don’t see anywhere else, and they are always worth the wait. I was fortunate enough to speak with Butler, production designer Nelson Lowry, and visual effects supervisor Steve Emerson on their contributions to such a rich, singular, and hilarious stop-motion animated film.
Missing Link the is the brainchild of director Chris Butler. Since Butler was raised on Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark is his favorite film) and Sherlock Holmes, it felt like this was the story that he was destined to make. He wrote and co-directed Laika’s ParaNorman, but Missing Link is the first time he performs double duty solo for the studio. Butler’s ambition to bring a sprawling story to the screen is evident in every frame, and he brings that exuberance to the screen in such a special way. Yes, he can entertain an audience, but there was a special message that he wanted to include with Missing Link.
Awards Daily: Every other Laika film has been centered on a child, but Missing Link does not. Are you just sick of talking about kids?
Chris Butler: (Laughs.) When I set out to write it, I didn’t really think about how it would fit within Laika’s catalog. Since I started writing it years and years ago, it was before I even came to the studio. I think that was definitely a strong factor in selecting to do this after Kubo and the Two Strings. I don’t think it was our goal to make our brand anguished children. It just kind of happened that way. One thing we feel strongly about at the studio is that we don’t want to get into a groove of repeating ourselves. I think it’s our intention to do something a little bit different. Either tonally or thematically and certainly in look. I do think that all of the films look differently from one another. After Kubo, which arguably is our darkest movie and emotionally sophisticated since it deals with death, we felt we wanted to do something different. After ParaNorman, which was my zombie movie for kids, I wanted to do something new.
AD: I love that movie.
CB: Travis [Knight] asked me what I wanted to do next, and I had three scripts that I was working on and they were all very, very different from ParaNorman. They were all about stepping out of the shadows, you might say. I think Missing Link, back then it was called Seeking Shangri-La, that was the most different. It was a huge, epic movie in terms of scope and scale. It was going to be the most colorful we ever made since we were doing so much traveling. Most of it takes place during the daytime, which is not like most of our films.
AD: Oh, yeah, I guess I didn’t notice that now that I think about it.
CB: The two main characters were adults. Well, arguably adults. They’re both pretty immature. How can we be totally different than before, and this project was far different than the other two scripts.
AD: And that lends to the broader comic feel that Missing Link has. All of the other films have funny moments and elements to them, but this one is a lot funnier.
CB: Yes. I think it’s the most playful, and that’s partly because I set to make a buddy movie essentially. I wanted it to be Sherlock Holmes meets Indiana Jones meets Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
AD: Who would not want to go see that?
CB: Exactly. That’s what I had in my heart—that yin and yang. The relationship between these two characters comes with that playfulness that you’re talking about. I wanted it to be about the ultimately civilized man. This Victorian gentleman should be civilized and this uncivilized creature, but in terms of humanity perhaps the most human character in the movie is the primate. The ape.
AD: I love a lot of Zach Galifianakis’s delivery on his lines. He says things so simply, and I think his performance is so great.
CB: And that was vital, I think. When you’re writing something, it’s you on your own, and the characters don’t have voices yet. You are trying to give them each personality that is different than each other. At first, I think the voice I gave Link, initially, was too sophisticated and not different enough from Lionel’s. When I went into the first recording with Zach, he kind of deconstructed my lines and changed the order of words around. He has that real sophisticated naivete that always draws me to him. His comedy is about displacement. It’s about the person in the room that doesn’t sink in. That awkwardness. There’s a real humanity to it, too, and after that first session, I rewrote all of his dialogue.
AD: Oh wow. The way that he’s written, you can’t help but love him. You gravitate towards him instinctively, and he even has that big, wide face. His cheeks are rosy.
AD: I read that Link was the most complex puppet to get physically correct. What was so challenging in the design of Mr. Link?
CB: I come from 2D background. My initial sketches of Link were broadly stylized and two dimensional. Very simple shapes. At the start of the project, I worked with a slew of different character designers to find the character, because the look of the movie starts of the character. I kept coming back to the original sketch of him, though. At the time, we called it ‘the hairy avocado.’ It had curved lines and simple shapes, and there is something appealing in the simplicity of that. With 2D you can cheat.
AD: What do you mean?
CB: It’s a flat image and perspective and dimension don’t come into it. You can play with proportion. But when someone has to physically build it, it’s a whole different thing. I think, ultimately, that stop motion animators really hate me. (Laughs.) I came up with a design that really had no shoulders, no neck, and his limbs were just big tubes with no definition. When you ask an animator to move a puppet like that, to give it nuance in the performance, it’s almost impossible, let alone building the thing in the first place. How do you build shoulders into a design that doesn’t have them? From that point of view, it was extremely challenging to the puppet team. The cherry on the top was the fact that he’s covered in hair. That kind of stop motion/King Kong/Fantastic Mr. Fox hair is almost like taxidermy. I didn’t want that look because Missing Link is very stylized, and I didn’t think that would work in this world. So we looked into sculpting the hair instead, so every little tuft and that leaf-like or scale-like hair fit more of the design aesthetic, but then the question becomes, how does this move frame by frame?
AD: So it’s another entirely new challenge.
CB: I know they were working it for a year to get his neck mechanism right so he could turn his head and all those little pieces of hair would ride over each other and not bunch up. When you use a silicone puppet, as soon as the silicone creases in a way that’s not natural, you instantly see that it’s a rubber.
AD: It gives it away.
CB: Yes, you have to divide the mechanic that doesn’t betray what it’s made out of it. Considering that the character is in most of the movie, I think they did a fantastic job, but it’s something we’ve never tackled before.
AD: Laika ups the ante with every movie. It sounds like you don’t let the parameters of what you know you can do affect the idea. You run with the idea and then figure out how to make it come alive.
CB: When I’m writing something, no one ever tells me, ‘Don’t do that.’ It’s kind of weird.
AD: It’ll just make you want to do it even more.
CB: When I’m writing, yes, but when it’s up to me to make the thing, then I think, ‘Why did I do that?’
AD: I saw that they made over 106,000 faces just for Mr. Link and there’s so much bigness to this film. With every new location, there’s a beautiful, big establishing shot. That has to excite you or does it scare the crap out of you?
CB: I think it scares the crap out of the head designers. They have the bigger task. I always wanted to make this kind of Indiana Jones adventure with stop motion animation. I was speaking with Sam Fell the other day—we directed ParaNorman together—and he told me that I was always talking about making a Raiders of the Lost Ark stop motion film. It was a burning ambition to do a big adventure movie. When I saw what they were achieving these majestic vistas with Kubo, it gave me confidence that we could do it. That’s probably the way Laika keeps pushing it. Every time we are doing something new, and then we utilize that in the next one. We are constantly building on the next one. Especially to see how the visual effects can be integrated into the film. Our VFX department is in house and they start on day one.
AD: It has to be one of the most collaborative place I’ve ever heard of. I was going to be cheesy and tell you that you are like a family.
CB: It’s true. Most of us have been together for five movies, and obviously the studio is evolving, so more people are coming in. You learn each other’s shorthand. You are aware of who to go to when you need something. There are key people who I leaned on so hard because I knew they could achieve what I wanted.
AD: If I may ask about one particular sequence. The ship scene really jumped out to me upon re-watch. There’s so much with the ship turning and the visual effects of the water. What was the most challenging aspect about achieving that certain sequence?
CB: I have to say first that there were plenty of moments that were equally as challenging.
AD: Of course.
CB: The biggest challenge probably came to the animator because we came to the conclusion that the movement of the ship, the sets were too big to move. We had to create the motion of the ship in camera. I was working with Mark Stewart, the cameraman who worked out that sequence, and he figured out a whole script of how the motion of the ship moved throughout the storm. And also the sequence where Lionel and Adelina are in their cabin chatting and swaying from side to side. He planned that all out in advance, and I did some camera tests just to see how it was working. Some of the more establishing shots, they established with foamcore.
CB: Yeah, we did it really crudely. There’s a shot where Link is running down the stairs, and he slips around a corner and he runs toward a window. They mocked that all in foamcore and a crude Mr. Link that they moved down these crappy stairs just to get ahead of that camerawork. Ultimately, once we figured out the motion of the ship, what that meant for the animators is that they had to create the in balance of the characters entirely in their head. The set wasn’t moving, but the characters had to be moving as if it was. If that makes sense?
CB: So if a character is swaying or almost falling over from the walls, the animators had to do that themselves, frame by frame, and constantly think of which way the ship is moving. Which was the floor?
AD: Oh god…
CB: Yeah, it was mind boggling. We came up with a template to figure out where the ship was, but the idea of animating a puppet walking is hard enough. Imagine animating it when the ship is moving off-balance. I still can’t get my head around how they achieved it.
AD: It’s that kind of stuff with animated films that people don’t know about. It just makes you wonder how you guys can do it all.
CB: I do, too! And I was there. (Laughs.)
AD: I know you love the Victorian Age and the Gilded Age.
CB: Yes, I do.
AD: Can you tell me why you are such a fan of that time period?
CB: When I was kid, I was such a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, and he became a big influence on Sir Lionel. I was attracted to this character, because he is incredibly flawed. Everyone knows he has a fantastic brain, and he’s the world’s greatest sleuth. Borderline to that, he’s almost sociopathic, and that balance makes for a really dynamic character. When you put that character in any scene, and you don’t know how he’s going to interact with people. That makes it way more interesting, and it became a part of Sir Lionel’s character. Not to that extent, but he is something who lacks empathy. That was my in to Victoriana. I thought it was important to make this a period piece, because we have access to everything. Since it’s about exploration, it needed to be at a time when the world is…
AD: Still a mystery?
CB: Yes, unveiling its own mysteries. Because of media and TV, we think of Victorian times as this fog-soaked, Jack the Ripper, blacks and browns era. It’s probably because we have so much of material of that time in black and white and sepia photographs, but the Victorians loved color and pattern. There are dense patterns in wallpaper, rugs, and even in brick tiles on roofs. It’s pattern on pattern on pattern. I think quite often with animation, we are often simplifying, but I wanted to make a movie with a lot of looks that remained sophisticated and not overwhelming.
AD: I kept thinking of when Lionel is in the Optimates Club, and there’s constant chatter about what is true and what is falsehood. It’s a search for truth, and we are living through a time when reported truth is constantly under attack. Whether you intended to or not—especially because it takes so long to animate a stop motion film—it has become very timely.
AD: Did that cross your mind during the filming and creation of Missing Link?
CB: It did. When I started writing Missing Link, there was no Trump. There was no degradation of moral values, especially to the extent that I didn’t think I’d see in my lifetime. There’s so much of that awful isolation that’s happening right now that I absolutely lent into it. Kids movies should have a relevance to the world we live in. I never thought of kids movies as babysitting material where you could sit them in front of and walk away. I want to make kids think and make them see the world in a way that challenges them. That’s what I grew up with and I think I grew up to be a rather empathetic human being. There were so many elements to it that I didn’t expect to be so timely, like Adelina feeling displaced in a country that doesn’t really want her. Also, feeling overshadowed by men. I thought, ‘Wow. I’m going to take advantage of it.’ You have Lord Piggot-Dunceby—
AD: I mean, just his name…
CB: Yes (laughs), and his world view is loathsome and it’s prevalent today. I am happy to have something to say because it’s worth saying.
AD: On that same coin, you took advantage of that, too, with ParaNorman in that moment that everyone couldn’t stop talking about at the end…
AD: I screamed in the theater when I saw that.
AD: I have to thank you for that because, if I would’ve been a kid seeing that, that would’ve given me a really hopeful outlook. I saw it when I was about 27, and it still thrilled me.
CB: That whole movie is about essentially living in a closet because people might not like your truth, and that’s important. What makes this whole career worthwhile is after ParaNorman, I got all these letters from kids that didn’t know their place and didn’t know their place to be. I wanted to do that with Link as well. Through all this chatter, we talk about the scope and the scale, but it was important to say something about identity. It’s about what you choose and it’s not about what other people put upon you. That’s highly the reason why he chose Susan as his name. That’s what the movie truly is about.
AD: And it’s done so simply. There’s no conjecture and the characters just move on, and it’s a moment that people are talking about with such passivity that it makes me happy. They are noting that this has never really been done in an animated film, and it kind of gives me hope that progress is being made.
CB: Well, that’s it. I felt this with Mitch, but it turned out to be quite shocking to some people. (Laughs.) That kind of subversion is necessary and to not make a big deal about it is to say that this is the norm. Please just go with it.
AD: You’re going to cause more trouble if you don’t. Acceptance is the way to go. (Laughs.)
CB: Yes (laughs)! That moment with Lionel and Link on the ship is really a generational conversation. Lionel represents the older generation that is struggling to evolve and Link is the younger generation. I did a screening at a school, and it made me so happy that the kids saw it.
What Nelson Lowry and his team are able to accomplish with the production design of Missing Link is mind-boggling. Not only does the film pop with color, but Butler’s idea of patterning is reinforced throughout the film. Sir Lionel’s study is cluttered with artifacts of great conquests and searches of the unknown, but an opposing wall looms with the portraits of great men and women who came before him. When you watch a Laika film, you have to remember that a hand has touched what you see on screen—down to the leaves that dangle from the trees of the Indian Jungle.
Awards Daily: Every single set piece is completely different. The only place we come back to is Lionel’s living quarters?
Nelson Lowry: His study, yeah.
AD: Did that give you a go-for-broke attitude in terms of design. Like, you sort of need to get everything in because we aren’t going to return to these crazy, big set pieces?
NL: It does. Not to sound dramatic, but I feel like I’ve been training my whole life for this. (Laughs.) With every film I work on, I read the scripts, and the whole time I’m counting the numbers and putting Post-its on the page. I remember reading this script and putting one on each page. And it needed to be rich and detailed. Sir Lionel’s study is a nice bookend. It’s one of my favorite sets. It was a unique challenge to spread the resources in a way the audience wouldn’t realize what they were getting or not getting. I wanted to give them an opulent, visual meal. I had to plan that carefully.
AD: In terms of what you could build?
NL: We do have limits in what time we have and with the people we have. I’m not just responsible for the design of the film, but I also have to make sure that we are able to make it. It makes sense to over-deliver on visuals that I know we can’t do. It’s a constant weighing of two things. Of course, we always want to make it bigger and better, so I’m trying to fulfill that but making sure, from a producer’s end, that I can pay off on that vision.
AD: Every time I have seen the film, I’ve wanted to reach into the screen and touch everything, because there are so many different textures.
AD: But I love Lionel’s study because of all the colors in it. Those deep plums and scarlets really pop. It’s almost dandy-like.
NL: Yes, it is.
AD: Did you want to include those pops of color that we wouldn’t see anywhere else?
NL: In terms of the tone of his study, a lot of that came from Chris Butler who loves the Victorian era with all the textiles and wallpaper. Those colors really existed in the time. Sometime when you see films set in ‘the ye olde days’ they give it a sepia tone when the colors were really rich and opulent. He was also a showman and didn’t shy away from being a peacock, so I wanted his environment to reflect that. Thank you for responding to the tactile element of the film because we did work really hard on that. Every surface, the specular element, the mouthfeel that I call it. . .there are so many different textures. The light and camera observe all of that, and that’s one of the things I love about making these films.
AD: I feel like that with every Laika film but, in Missing Link, it all popped so much.
NL: In terms of color, I am obsessed with it. I needed to make it colorful without making it, what I call, clownpants. Where you just throw color on everything in every scene. Early on, I plotted out the color scheme not just for the emotional beats but for the local color. I reduced all the filming locations to two or three colors, and we observed that very systematically and thoroughly in the film. If you look at stills, the film is pretty exclusively two or three colors with some secondary and complimentary colors next to them. I plotted out how that pattern of that color would be across the film. I wanted to make sure the palette of every scene was different and that it wouldn’t repeat again. It was sort of an eyewash.
AD: Oh wow.
NL: You’d go from a complimentary color to a sort of primary. There was a real patterning to that. I don’t think you notice it when you watch it, but you can feel the freshness of the color.
AD: I remember a real deep teal complimenting a deep purple and then the next scene, since it was a completely new set, I could feel the difference.
AD: Going from something that is very colorful to something seemingly drained of it with The Optimates Club. It reminded me a lot of Tim Burton.
AD: Was the intention to only have black and white because the members of the club thought very rigidly? They only see things as black or white?
NL: Very much so. That was definitely Chris’s intention. It’s not overt in the film, but there are parallels to the yeti temple at the end—both domiciles even shared a red door. The yeti temple is turquoise and greens and grays, so it was as limited as The Optimates Club. But when Chris [Butler] was talking to me about it, he told me it was important that there weren’t any blacks or any shadows. We did a lot of bouncing light into shadows and using super rich, dark colors, but if you look closely at The Optimates Club, there is no black and white. I think it reads that way compared to the rest of the film, but behind the dark gray and white kind of wainscoting and wood texture, we put down these really pastel yellow and violet and greens that you can see once you know they’re there. If you look at The Optimates Club and then a black and white film, you would see it’s quite colorful. Even their suits have a dark violet kind of vibe. It’s to keep the film buoyant.
AD: Well, I obviously need to watch it again so I can see that. I love the contrast between the two forests in the film. We meet Mr. Link in the forest and then the Indian Jungle is featured later. I read that the leaves were wax or see-through?
AD: Can you compare the design and construction of those two areas?
NL: Chris Butler had a very strong feeling that the woods in the Pacific Northwest to feel dramatically different than the jungle, but wanted both to be highly saturated and colorful. That was tricky. I tried to choose a mossy, musty, environment with brownish red trees. There’s a lot of blues and almost olive greens. Nothing saturated and bright. A little bit of a greener grass in the pasture because that’s a very warm and special moment. The jungle in India is all chartreuse and lime green and bright yellow. I remember working with the landscaping and I’d always want it brighter, but they told me that the paint didn’t come brighter. (Laughs.) To walk onto that set is so fun because it was like walking into a humid, bright green jungle.
NL: The transparency of the leaves really pays off because the light goes through and hits the next leaf. Everything glows. I’m glad you noticed those, because it takes a lot of work and planning and work.
AD: The Pacific Northwest feels like a perfect place for Mr. Link to hide since it’s so closed off and secluded.
NL: Oh yeah.
AD: Whereas in India, I felt like I could see the top and bottom of every leaf and see how the light caught it all. It always boggles my mind when I remind myself that you have to build…everything.
NL: I always think of it as shooting live-action films, so we build assets. People always ask, ‘How is it different? Is it hard?’ We have to build the glass and the clouds and the dust and dirt. We have to construct the vehicles, the props, the sets, the leaves on the trees. We have to consider each one of those, because the characters are highly stylized. You can’t just put water simulation into it, because it would look weird.
AD: I wanted to talk about the bar sequence, because I read that that was one of the most difficult sequences to shoot and there was only 60% color used in that?
AD: I loved how distressed and worn it all looked.
NL: We didn’t want it too dull and gray. There are some colors that aren’t very harmonious, and they can be kind of ugly together, I think. We used a jade green for the wallpaper, and the wood was kind of warm and chestnut but bruised violet qualities. It’s sort of elegant but off-putting and they are purely complimentary colors so they appear kind of gray. There is a lot of hidden color in that set, and we just shabbied the hell out of that thing with sanding and wearing. With sanding to make it look worn.
AD: Just talking about detail, there is a Wanted poster on the outside of one of the buildings, and the detail makes it look like it’s a photograph of real life. The bar has seen many brawls and had to replace the furniture many times because it keeps getting broken.
NL: Chris wanted it to look like the armpit of the world.
AD: (Laughs.) Well…you guys definitely pulled that off!
AD: The bridge sequence is an example of how production design and visual effects work together. Can you tell me what it’s like to work with the effects team on such a monumental moment of the film?
NL: We work so well together, and we’ve worked really closely to one another. And we work very collaboratively. I don’t take anything from my own efforts, but they are such a can-do department. They help us in so many ways. We have an art department 300 feet away from that department, so we can walk paint samples and scan them. We can go back and forth. I was initially really worried about the third act, because think of all the locations we are in and all the details and visual information, and we are suddenly where it is ice cliffs, an ice bridge, and a clear sky. That was it for a large portion of it. I was afraid that if it didn’t have enough realism, that it might feel ‘other.’ Working with Steve [Emerson] and the visual effects team, I think we overcame it. The way we did that was we built a lot of maquettes, and the entire Shangri-La Valley was built with a cardboard model and painted. Then it was scanned and a lot of the big digital effects you see are handmade kind of items. Mind you, they make it a lot better than what we give them. (Laughs.) It’s a lot of back and forth between the departments. The third act was approached with the same tactile quality that the rest of the film was approached with.
AD: I can see how it must worry you because it’s just all ice and snow.
NL: Yes, it has to look good, too.
Steve Emerson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for his work on Kubo and the Two Strings and his work on Missing Link is yet again seamless and exceptional. You might not even know you are witnessing visual effects work in these films because the teams have done such an incredible job of integrating it into the story. There is a lot of water in this latest Laika film, and that patterning was brought into not only the stormy seas scene but with frozen water in the Shangra-La finale and in the iconic moment where Mr. Link sees his reflection in a kaleidoscope of ice. The task of effortlessly incorporating the visual effects is one of the greatest things I learned speaking with Emerson.
Awards Daily: You speak about stop-motion animation with such love and such reverence. Can you tell me why you love the medium so much?
Steve Emerson: I’ve thought a lot about this, and it’s several things that I think happens when I watch a stop-motion animation film. Part of it goes back to when I was a child. I grew up in the ’70s, and a big thing then was they would broadcast the Rankin/Bass holiday films—Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Little Drummer Boy. I remember being so anxious to watch those. When you’re a child, the holiday season is magical, and those films were so much a part of that. Now when I see stop-motion animation, I see a little bit of that. It takes me back to that feeling of something wonderful about to happen. There’s something inherently wonderful in the sense that—again because I’m a child of the ’70s—it was a lot of action figures. Star Wars and G.I. Joe. It’s like those figures are coming to life and telling a story. When I see stop-motion animation, I have that kind of visceral reaction to it.
AD: With Missing Link, I wanted to literally go into that film because you want to feel the craft that went into it.
SE: Yeah! It’s mind-blowing.
AD: I read that you and the art directors did research on the topography for the opening scene with the Loch Ness Monster. What other kind of research did you guys do to infuse these exotic places with more realism with the visual effects?
SE: Loch Ness is a good one. Specific to that, we did an entire underwater sequence during the cold open. Lionel rides it above water and underwater. When we were doing the underwater look, a lot of times what we’ll do is start with reality. If there’s something with the reality that’s not working, we’ll start to back away a little bit of a time until there’s something to facilitate the storytelling. With Loch Ness, there’s certainly the overall topography of the environment, but a lot of underwater footage that was captured in Loch Ness.
SE: When you’re underwater in Loch Ness, it’s pretty murky down there. You can’t see much. We started heavy with the first version of the murk—chasing what it’s like to be down there. You want to be able to follow the puppet performances. Every shot has a specific point in terms of how it’s helping the story move along. We need to be able to see things, especially Nessie when she was further away from camera. We lightened up on that, but at the same time, each underwater plankton simulation had more than 2 million particles.
AD: Oh my God. . .
SE: For all the underwater stuff, we murked it up with 2 million particles.
AD: When I was younger, people were very vocal about incorporating visual effects into an animated film. I can recall the carpet from the cave scene in Aladdin or the chandelier in Beauty and the Beast. When you guys were nominated for Kubo and the Two Strings, I had no idea how much visual effects work goes into a stop-motion animated film. Is balancing that seamlessness a constant struggle?
SE: Some people don’t necessarily realize this because they consider us an animation studio. From a visual effects perspective, what we’re doing is live-action visual effects. It’s no different than if we were doing an Avengers movie. You have actors, you have sets, you have green screens coming into the mix. You’re shooting everything in a space with real-world light. The only difference of what we do is that everything is much smaller and we’re doing it one frame at a time, but when we are adding the visual effects work to deliver those final images—the work flows, the tool sets—it’s the same you would use for big live-action filmmaking. But the crazy part of all that is that we are doing photoreal but not real world photoreal.
AD: What do you mean?
SE: You could take a software package like Houdini, which is incredible at making smoke or water. But the problem is that it’s creating it for a real-world look. Or a photoreal look. In our world, they’re handcrafted and they’re heavily designed, so we basically take what the software is doing and troubleshoot a look that only feels like it belongs in these worlds, but also feels like it’s handcrafted.
AD: So you could create a beautiful image of real-looking water, but it has to be filtered through the style of the film you’re creating.
SE: Absolutely. We did a lot of water in Missing Link. There’s the stormy sea sequences that’s throwing water and crashing into the side of the Manchuria. We run that through a typical water system, but with Missing Link, there were three key design signatures that we were chasing with the visual effects. The first is we needed to have vibrant color. This was going to be our most colorful to date. Everything needed a simple shape language—that was a signature across the entire film. The edges are all simplified and there’s not a lot of complexity in anything in the movie in terms of the edge detail. The last thing was explicit patterning. Since it all takes place in the Victorian age, there’s a lot of patterning whether it was in the clothing or the wallpaper, and we wanted to make sure that patterning ended up in a lot of the visual effects.
AD: I’ve never heard of that before—incorporating patterns into the visuals like that.
SE: We’ll look at the typical wave that’s crashing, and it’s going to throw around a lot of detail. The conversation then becomes, how do we simplify that shape? How do we make it really colorful? And how to make the explicit pattering show up in the wave? That’s the troubleshooting part of it. We worked until we showed something to the director that he became really excited about.
AD: I read that when you were doing Kubo, the storm sequence was the hardest for the VFX team, so I was going to initially ask if that helped in your preparations with Missing Link. But it sounds entirely different now that I know more about the goals of the production.
SE: It’s different. Kubo water was about scoop language that came out of some tests that we did with some garbage bags. Did you see any of the behind-the-scenes with that?
AD: Yes, I did actually!
SE: The whole film we were trying to make it look like a Japanese woodblock painting. We would also point patterns and characteristics from traditional woodblock painting. This was different. We learned a lot on Kubo that helped us with the speeding it along, but they were different styles. That was certainly intentional.
AD: One of the most iconic moments from the film already is when Mr. Link sees his reflection in that broken ice. Is that an example of trying to capture the emotional beats through the execution of visual effects?
SE: Absolutely. The setup on that shot was a lot of fun. It comes back to creative problem solving. We have a visual effects team that has close to 90 people. We’re a group of people that works on computers, but we were fortunate to go out on the stages and then work with the art department and the camera team to see how we could pull that off. In terms of the tone and the feel of it, from the get-go, we will do a creative launch with the director. He will explain what each particular moment is and how the viewer should feel. The production designer and the art department has developed art by that point, and the artwork is gorgeous.
Usually what we are doing is chasing the artwork as literally as possible. We had a big, giant, beautiful picture of Mr. Link looking at this reflection of himself in this big block of ice. As a starting point, we had to figure out how to technically pull this off with a stop motion puppet, a DSLR camera, and knowing that we have some computers in our back pocket. We did some rehearsals with the mirror with a camera ray. There are roughly 12 cameras out all around him to capture him from every perspective. We shot the ice separately, and then it became about integrating it through compositing.
AD: I wanted to ask about compositing, because I didn’t realize how much of it is done in Missing Link. Is that the unsung hero in terms of giving something depth and perspective?
SE: You’re the artist at the end of the line. I came up as a compositor. It’s a lot of problem solving, so what ends up happening is you’ll get all these elements—whether they’re from the stages or from the digital team—and your job is to take all these elements and put them together to create an image that looks as though they were captured as if from one moment in time through a physical camera lens. It’s putting together a big, enormous puzzle that hopefully looks beautiful, elegant, and, most importantly, like you didn’t touch it. Sometimes it can be really complex. With the mirror shot, Mike Terpstra did those composites, and he had about 40-plus things to integrate.
SE: For the opening shot of the film, with the camera soaring across the water’s surface and it ends with a closeup with Sir Lionel’s face, the compositor of that shot had over 400 elements that he had to bring together and make it look like it was captured like a single moment in time.
AD: We have to talk about the final moments with the bridge and the icicle.
AD: The bridge sort of reminded me of that board game, Don’t Break the Ice, but, you know, much more elegant. (Laughs.)
SE: (Laughs.) You know what’s great about that? Simple shape language. When we were doing the bridge sequence, Chris wanted to make sure the ice blocks stayed intact. Because when they separate, you end up with these nice square shapes, so we kept all the ice intact for those moments, but then we added some compacted snow and spray to make the moment feel much bigger. That’s really interesting you say that, because that shape language is something we wanted to achieve. And, yeah, don’t break the ice! There are a couple crazy things with that sequence. Can I tell you?
AD: Of course!
SE: First thing is that it’s a fast-cutting action sequence, and you just do not do that in stop-motion animation. The reason you don’t do those shots is that not only do those scenes have to be animated, but they also need to go through a setup. During setup, people are checking things, it’s going into editorial, the director is giving comments, people are making changes. We go through all this and rehearse the animation and do it. Best case scenario, if you have a seven-frame shot of an action sequence, you’re still going to have several days of the shot set up. You typically wouldn’t do a fast-edited sequence. For me, it’s one of the more groundbreaking things about the film, and something I feel that we broke through in terms of doing something new with stop-motion animation. I think it ended up being over 200 shots.
AD: There is actually a moment when I re-watched it, the characters are swinging back and forth, and I kept thinking, ‘How the hell did they do that?!’
SE: Do you want to hear about the icicle?
AD: Of course I do!
AD: This has to be the most complex sequence of the film, right?
SE: Oh, yeah! Typically, you’re doing a scene and that scene will play out for 30 or 40 shots. You start by doing these scenes with a wide shot. Once the director is happy with the wide shot, you have a formula to work on, so all the subsequent shots move much more quickly since you already have defined the path and have a target. With Missing Link, it’s this kaleidoscopic travel log that moves through all these locations and we constantly move around. We kept having to go through that exercise of figuring out what the particular environment would look like instead of establishing it and then getting some inventory.
AD: And they’re all so different from one another. It’s not like they are similar in terms of location at all.
SE: Yes! You have to figure it out all over again. At the beginning of these films, we sit down and have a conference and go through scene by scene with storyboards and animatics. We go through shot by shot, and we discuss how we are going to do this. We got to the boards for the end of the film and the boards had a puppet that was hanging onto an icicle. As the visual effects supervisor, I tend to keep my mouth shut in those rooms until we get into trouble. I love getting the work as much in camera as possible, using creative problem-solving with stop-motion. How do we get a puppet hanging on a cracking icicle out on the stages? What will typically happen is they might take and figure it out, but if they don’t, then that’s when I think of something we can do in post. With the icicle, the typical way it would be done is put the puppet on a standing icicle, do your animation, and then remove that icicle in post and put a computer-generated icicle in its place. The you’d do a destruction simulation on that computer-generated icicle to do all the cracking. We wanted to do this in camera with a real icicle. We tested out all sorts of materials that looked and felt like ice. We were trying to figure out what looked like believable ice cracking. A plastic, resin icicle was created. We used that to animate the puppet on.
SE: We made a secondary icicle made out of silicone. We needed the secondary one because we couldn’t crack the resin and make it look like real ice cracking. Our animation rigging team created a specialize rig where we could shoot the puppet on the icicle and get the exposures of him on the plastic resin icicle and then swap it out with the silicone icicle to do the cracking animation on that. On top of that, because we have control over time on the stages, we could use it on different lighting scenarios. We could pull in a green screen and get everything on the frame level one frame at a time. We then turn it over to compositing. . .
AD: . . .and then layer it on top of one another.
SE: Yes, and make it look like a singular moment. We did it on the stages, but it was an incredible amount of work.
Missing Link is available to own now.