Making Kubo: A Tour of LAIKA and the Process of Stop-Motion Animation

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Kubo Travis Knight
Director and animator Travis Knight working with Kubo on the Sun Village set for animation studio LAIKA’s epic action-adventure KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Steve Wong Jr | Laika Studios / Universal Pictures

I love living in Portland. One of the perks was an opportunity to go behind the scenes at nearby LAIKA, the stop-motion animation studio responsible for the new movie Kubo and the Two Strings, which will be in theaters on August 19th.

This was the second time I’d seen LAIKA’s puppets up close. Back in 2007, I saw the set and a few puppets from Coraline on display at SIGGRAPH in San Diego. The movie itself wouldn’t come out for another couple of years after that, so I’m not sure if the display was pre or post-production. [Edit: someone in the comments said they were pre-production maquettes] SIGGRAPH is a conference dedicated to computer graphics, and here they were showcasing items for a stop-motion movie! I thought it was fascinating. Why would a studio still expend the effort to do stop-motion when computer graphics were all the rage? At that point, I’d assumed movies like The Corpse Bride and Nightmare Before Christmas were mostly CGI simulating a computer look. (That is actually true of The LEGO Movie.)

3D animation is still all the rage, and LAIKA is still making stop-motion movies, but these days LAIKA CEO Travis Knight told us that they’d learned to live with a little more computer graphics. In fact, they used CGI animation to do things like simulate crowds, remove seams from puppets, and render water and other effects. That said, what I saw on the set tour proved that they were still stop-motion at heart.

Concept Sketch
Concept Sketch for ‘Kubo and the Two Strings.’

All stories start with a concept. Although we didn’t see early scripts, we did get to see some concept art. Kubo is an original story influenced by Japanese folklore. As the story was developed, they hired a cultural consultant to help in the process. They also had several boards on display with visual research on Japanese period costume, how it was pleated, and how it moved.

Costuming

Kubo and the Two Strings Costumes
Photo by Marziah Karch

This was one of the costume boards we were shown to illustrate the design process they went through to develop the costumes for Kubo. LAIKA’s costume designers have an interesting challenge. Their costumes have to be small but not look small. They need to have texture and depth and be able to withstand a lot of manipulation. In this example, there are pieces from Kubo’s aunts’ costumes as well as Kubo’s costume. There are several iterations of the beetle design, which is an important family symbol in the movie.

Georgina Hayns demonstrates the final cape
Georgina Hayns demonstrates the final cape – Photo by Marziah Karch

Here, Creative Supervisor Georgina Hayns (everyone called her “George”) shows the final cape design for one of the puppets. They tried reinforcing the cape with a piano wire mesh and discovered that they’d created a fully poseable fabric. This is important with stop-motion because little details like hair and fabric must be perfect in each frame.

Origami is important to the movie, but Tyvek had to play this role of paper. Wood or rice-based paper would just have not held up to all the posing required for stop-motion.

Printing

3D printing at LAIKA
3D printing at LAIKA

LAIKA now does a lot of 3D printing. I didn’t get to see the actual printer, but now I want one. The dragon—I believe they referred to it as the “moon dragon”—was printed and came out almost exactly as you see it. The one addition was some gold foil backing. The transparency and color variation came from the printer. My understanding is that the three larger Kubo heads in the foreground were also printed without any painting or retouching. We were given gift bags with small 3D printed origami samurai figures, and I still am amazed at the details.

Panorama of Kubo Set
Panorama of Kubo Set – Photo by Marziah Karch

The scale of most puppets was about one-sixth the size of a human, but the sets had to be much larger. In fact, we were told that they’d already torn down parts of the massive sets we were touring because they needed the space for other projects. (Said other projects were secret.)

The massive sets also broke apart or had trap doors puppeteers could open to sneak in and pose the puppets for each frame. In this panorama, the set is a graveyard. The tops of the trees are out of frame in the movie, and the edge of the set is a river, which is why it drops off.

Kubo Set
Kubo Set

The sets were gigantic, but they were also very detailed. Here’s a closeup of a village set. You can see the lanterns, the vegetables in carts, and the woven baskets. All in miniature. Whether it was a short or a long shot, the sets and the puppets were just amazingly detailed.

Scale

One of the most innovative things about Kubo was the way they played with scale. The story called for gigantic monsters. Rather than making a miniature monster and creating a sense of scale with computer effects, LAIKA chose to make the skeleton monster at the same one-sixth scale as the Kubo puppet,  which makes for an 18-foot giant – the largest puppet they’d ever created.

Bone monster
Kubo’s massive puppet

In this photo, I’m standing a good distance in front of the puppet, but I wanted to give you a sense of scale. It was even taller than it looks from this angle. The skeleton puppet sat on top of a hexapad and had heavy-duty wires and rigging to move the limbs mechanically for shots. The wires were removed digitally in post-production.

Kubo
Eyeball plant?

In this shot, we see another large puppet, although this one was probably only about ten feet tall. The most amazing part was the rigging. It could be animated in real time, rather than stop-motion and then added to the film. They said they filmed multiple versions of this—I want to say eyeball plant?—and then duplicated them digitally in the film.

Stay tuned for more about Kubo including more information on the voice actors and a review of the movie, which will be in theaters on August 19th. Meanwhile, you can check out an interactive map of Kubo’s Realm on YouTube.

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