Inside Laika studios, where stop-motion animation goes high tech

The studio's upcoming epic Kubo and the Two Strings is their most ambitious yet


I'm standing between two boats — one intact, one cracked into two jagged halves. They're each about the size of a conventional canoe, but they have masts, rumpled sails, tiny handrails around the edges, and little decks connected with miniature stairs. Both ships are spangled with bright orange, yellow, and red spots, but up close, the spots resolve into tiny autumn-leaf decals, meticulously applied to every surface in thick layers. These are two of the sets for Laika Studios' new stop-motion film Kubo And The Two Strings, and when they appear in the film, they look immense: The Japanese child warrior Kubo and his animal companion Monkey leap and roll across those decks, fighting an enemy who hovers above them in midair, in the middle of a violent storm that rips leaves off the ships and tosses them around on surging waves. It's a big scene. These are, comparatively, little boats.

But the detail on them is spectacular. Standing next to them, it's easy to see how many hours of work went into constructing them to look like real sailing ships made of leaves, even through the lens of an ultra-high-def Canon 5D Mark III positioned inches away from the decks. Kubo's production manager, Dan Pascall, says the most time-consuming part of making the ships isn't even immediately evident: The design crew had to map every leaf — thousands of them, each individually laser-cut and about the size of a human thumbnail — and reproduce the exact same pattern on both ships, so they'd match from shot to shot within the film. It's a lot of effort for something most people wouldn't notice. "God knows," Pascall sighs, "there are easier ways to make movies."

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That refrain — "there are easier ways, but we challenge ourselves to take ultra-detailed, time-intensive routes instead" — came up repeatedly during my visit to Laika. From their Hillsboro, Oregon warehouse, just west of Portland and at a comfortable remove from Hollywood and Silicon Valley, Laika has positioned itself as a studio that has the time for those routes, and is scaled to afford the extra effort. Where other studios are increasingly moving to a make-or-break, blockbuster-only model, Laika's roughly 400 employees, are quietly turning out a film every two or three years, making $60 million features that bring in around $100 million at the box office. Focus Features handles their distribution, and until this year, even their marketing has seemed home-grown, focusing on sizzle reels and modest, tasteful videos about how their hands-on aesthetic makes them stand out in a digital marketplace.

"The ethos of this whole place is that we are artists first and foremost," says CEO Travis Knight. "When we started Laika 10 years ago, we could see the writing on the wall. Stop-motion animation was basically taking its last, dying breath. We had to come up with a way, if we wanted to continue to make a living in this medium that we loved, to bring it into a new era, to invigorate it."

When he mentions the dying breaths of stop-motion, he's talking about famed stop-motion house Will Vinton Studios, the claymation house responsible for the TV show The PJ's, as well as the California Raisins and other advertising hits. Knight interned there, working as a young animator, and when the company had major financial problems, Knight's father Phil, founder of Nike, became the majority shareholder and installed Travis first as a board member, then as CEO and president. The Knights rebranded the studio as Laika in 2005, and moved it away from advertising and into feature-film production. Kubo is the first film Travis Knight personally directed, but he's been a hands-on animator on all three of its previous feature films — 2009's Coraline, 2012's ParaNorman, and 2014's The Boxtrolls. (That's him in the post-credits scene at the end of The Boxtrolls, personally animating two characters from the film having a wink-wink meta conversation about being controlled by invisible hands.)

It's no wonder that Laika has few peers these days: in a film industry that favors quick turnaround and endless scalability, stop-motion is an inherently slow, difficult way to tell a story: It involves moving characters around on set by hand, shooting tiny movements individually, at a rate of 24 individual frames of action for each actual second. That's particularly challenging with an expansive, epic fable like Kubo. The story features more than 70 separate sets, some complicated water effects, and a lot of fast-paced physical action.

But Laika's version of stop-motion is particularly striking because its characters and backdrops are rendered in such detail, and move so smoothly, that its films could be mistaken for wholly CGI creations, instead of stop-motion with digital assistance. And its processes are striking because they're all built around the idea that technology has to service art rather than the other way around. If a director wants a particular visual effect, even if it's never been done in animation before, it's up to the fabricators and artists to figure out how to make it happen.

Knight appears to be a true believer in the artistic singularity of stop-motion animation. In person, he comes across as a visionary who talks entirely in enthusiastic speeches about Laika, art, creativity, the storytelling tradition, Buddhist teachings, and the Japanese concept of beauty in impermanence. At the same time, he can be disarming and self-effacing. "We wanted Kubo to be a stop-motion David Lean film," he explains. "To be myth in miniature. And to make a small-scale movie that's shot on a bunch of gussied-up tabletops in the middle of a crummy warehouse look and feel like a big epic fantasy on an endless majestic vista, that's a real challenge. So it took all of our tools to make that happen."

Kubo and the Two Strings

Knight isn't kidding about the gussied-up tabletops, or the "crummy warehouse." What I saw of Laika Studios was mostly one 150,000-foot, sweaty, high-ceilinged space partitioned off into individual overheated little rooms by floor-to-ceiling black curtains. The remaining Kubo sets and puppets — including a wriggling robot eyeball-plant controlled with a bowling-ball-sized trackball mouse — dominate the little makeshift rooms they're placed in. But they'd probably dominate any room.

The sets are fantastically detailed little worlds, built from foam, paint, wood, and resin, and designed to look seamless when assembled, but to pull apart easily so animators can access any point of them for a scene. According to Pascall, the art department had to build multiple sets for each animator who worked on Kubo. "The animators' time is the most precious thing that we have," he says. "So we need three sets for each of them — one they're currently animating on, one ready and waiting for the next scene, and one that's being prepped."

One of Laika's ideals is that only one animator should work on a given scene at a time. "We don't double up on animators per shot," Pascall says. "We've tried it in the past, and it doesn't work. They work at different paces, so it slows them down overall." He says they sometimes shoot layers or characters separately, then composite them digitally, especially if the characters are far apart in a shot, and the depth of field would keep one of them out of focus for the camera. But for instance, in a scene where Kubo stands in a wooded area and a wind blows through the trees, that's the work of a single animator moving every leaf and branch separately. The process is incredibly laborious: On Kubo, 27 animators worked simultaneously on their own scenes, each trying to achieve the company goal of 4.3 seconds of animation per week, and more often, only hitting about three seconds per week.

And before they can even get started on a scene, other teams have spent many months assembling all the materials the animators are going to use. According to Puppet Fabrication Supervisor Georgina Hayns, an individual "hero puppet" can take four to nine months to design and build, so the fabrication team starts its work some 12 to 18 months before shooting on a project begins. Each shoot requires many copies of the same puppet, again so multiple animators can work simultaneously — there were 32 separate Kubo puppets on this shoot. Each puppet requires a complicated custom body, handmade clothing, and a rig that can hold the tens of thousands of 3D printed faces the animators swap in and out. (A quick sequence at the end of Laika's ParaNorman shows a sped-up version of the complete puppet-fabrication process.) Because of the wear and tear on the puppets caused by constant handling, the fabrication department includes a maintenance team that re-tightens the puppets' joints after every shot. And because the wires in the puppets' fingers are so fine and fragile, each puppet requires a backup library of hands. "The fingers can break mid-shot," Hayns says, so she has "one crazy little department" that just makes spare hands: "If we've got 140 puppets out there, we probably have 500 pairs of hands."

Each puppet also represents a lot of problem-solving, both for costumes and for particular character traits. On Kubo, one issue was how to give Kubo's ally Monkey muscles that moved, and fur that could be fluffy, or matted, or soaked for individual scenes. "She was definitely the biggest challenge, because we had never made anything like her before," Hayns says. "We built her an a completely different way, with a completely different approach, from the inside out. But she was a huge success as well." Hayns' team eventually built the character as a rigid armature with a "muscle suit" around it that could squash and stretch to suggest the body under the silicon-infused fur. Kubo's costumes are similarly individually rigged in hidden layers, with latticeworks of wires and weights to let them hold consistent folds and wrinkles through months of handling. They're the result of intensive research into traditional Japanese robes and Laika's first experiments with silk costumes, but they're driven by engineering as much as traditional costuming.

"From each show, we learn new techniques, and we have new groundbreaking things happen," Hayns says. "But we're always looking to see what cool new technology is hitting the market. You can get 3D printers that are actually making fabrics at this point. It's just not quite small enough for us yet. We're not afraid of technology. We embrace it. We love doing something new, and making our movies as bright and as bold as we can with whatever's out there."

Kubo and the Two Strings

One new thing in the case of Kubo And The Two Strings is a greater reliance on CGI, especially to handle water effects and fill out crowd scenes. In a scene where the Kubo character tells a story to an admiring audience, most of the viewers are digital creations rather than physical ones. Laika doesn't have a problem with digital assists: They've been necessary from the beginning, to erase the rigs that hold up the puppets, and the seams between the upper and lower face plates. Even Laika's first feature, Coraline, had some computer-animated effects.

But the company addresses the CG characters in the same hands-on, aesthetics-driven way it addresses the physical ones. Computer-generated characters go through the same design processes as the puppets, with the costume department providing the VFX team with fabric swatches to scan, and the fabrication department building physical character models for the effects team to manipulate, then copy into a digital environment. The advantage of the physical maquettes for VFX Supervisor Steve Emerson is that his team can put them on the sets to study how they interact with the lighting systems, in order to build more accurate digital models.

"With a typical film production, by the time you're talking about visual effects, the camera team, the sets, all that is done," Emerson says. "They've all moved on, and you're picking up the pieces and figuring it out. What's great about the work we're doing is, not only are we collaborating, we're running in parallel. We're not developing in a vacuum. It's such an overwhelmingly collaborative process."

Kubo and the Two Strings

Laika's processes have to be collaborative, because of that emphasis on artistic choices first. When a director calls for a marionette skeleton with a 22-foot arm-span, big enough to grab or stomp on the normal character puppets, it's up to the fabrication department to figure out how to build it. On Kubo, that skeleton was built in pieces, with its legs as a separate set, being animated in a different room. And it's up to the rigging department to work with them to hang the skeleton's top half from the ceiling in a way that will give the animator full motion control. Here, Animation Rigging Supervisor Oliver Jones and his team were able to build a sliding system of pulleys that let animators move the skeleton's arms smoothly and freely, then step on a floor pad to lock them precisely into place for each shot.

And when a thorny issue crops up in pre-production, it's never clear which department is going to solve it. Emerson says that as the head of computer effects, he's used to keeping his mouth shut in meetings, to make sure the fabrication, rigging, 3D printing, and artistic departments have first crack at each new issue. "We're not purists about stop motion," Knight says. But he does prefer creative technological problem-solving over one-size-fits-all software solutions. "Within these walls, you have giant, throbbing, NASA-size brains that are inventing technologies, and then you have Luddites, people who are still working with their hands like artists and craftspeople were a century ago. I love that convergence of different types of methodologies and people. I think it creates a ground for innovation."

That innovation is going to continue to be necessary if Knight's going to meet his next goal, of getting Laika to a one-feature-a-year release schedule. "It's going to take some getting to," Pascall says. "Right now, we're at an 18-month turnaround, and that brings a lot of challenges. We're doing three things at once: marketing on Kubo, shooting the next film, and pre-production on a third, and we're doing it all with the same crew." The studio is also expanding beyond its 150,000-foot confines into the building next door, which brings its own set of logistical headaches, especially with production currently underway. "Every department has to move. There have been lots of sleepless nights."

But there's also huge incentive to expand, not just because the studio's end products are so unique, but because of the hands-on, intensely cooperative process that creates them. Knight is enthusiastic about Laika's future not because Kubo is perfect, but because it's the end result of years of satisfying, fulfilling work. "The entire film is filled with all different kinds of imperfections and failings, and it's always something you have to come to terms with," he says. "Sometimes it's maddening to work in this medium, because of the imperfections. But that's one of the things that makes it inherently beautiful. We really embrace that side of it, because it makes these films human."

Photography by Vjeran Pavic