My Visit to LAIKA for “Kubo and the Two Strings”

Posted on June 30, 2016 at 10:00 am

P6060108On my first trip to LAIKA, for “The Boxtrolls,” they told me their mantra was “No straight lines, no right angles, no perfect circles.” The world of that film was sooty, steampunk, Victorian. I visited again to learn about their new film, “Kubo and the Two Strings.” For this “fantasy-action-adventure quest story” they have moved literally to the other side of the world, geographically, aesthetically, and culturally. This film takes place in “a mystery, magical ancient Japan,” inspired by 17-century Japanese woodblock prints and origami. It is spare but richly imagined. Origami, which is all straight lines and precise, sharp corners, is at the essence of the story. And LAIKA remains one of my favorite places in the world to visit.

Producer Arianne Sutner told us that in addition to the real-life sets and characters built for stop-motion photography, all of the CG is done in-house. “Every panel is touched. Everything is touchable. We studied Japanese artists as sincerely and honestly as we could.” And they brought in experts in Japanese culture, art, and history to advise them.

The cast includes Charlize Theron as a monkey and Matthew McConaughey as a warrior who is “half samurai, half beetle, and a human, flawed character.” Kubo’s grandfather is played by Ralph Fiennes and Rooney Mara plays his two aunts.

All photos copyright Nell Minow 2016
All photos copyright Nell Minow 2016

Visual effects supervisor Steve Emerson explained that while they are relying more on CG effects for backgrounds and non-central characters, “we embrace technology in a way that is respectful to the stop-motion and honors it.” He joked that his group’s reaction to seeing a crowd scene in the script was, “Couldn’t we just have a meeting in a cave with a couple of close friends around?” “No, we need a village.” To make sure that the CG characters, even in the background, look consistent with the “built” figures, they photograph the physical materials like fabrics at a microscopic level, and use the same director for physical and digital scenes. “You’re really really good at your job if no one realizes you did anything.”

laika3Many fantasy films have a monster, but this movie has three, and each presented its own challenges. The Hollow Bones (an enormous skeleton) was “screaming to be digital” because it was so complicated. “But we always make things really really hard on ourselves.” So, they created the largest stop-motion puppet ever built. They love to take on new challenges or revisit old ones. “Remember that thing that was a disaster a few years ago? Let’s try it again!”

I love the way LAIKA brings together every kind of technology and material. While one of the artisans is using a glue gun and a mylar balloon from the party store, another is using NASA-level complexity algorithms to create clouds and water. We saw puppets that incorporated a bridal veil and LED lights, an effect created with a rubber dog toy, and how one prop that they burned looked less authentically charred than a more stylized version made with paint. And we saw clips of scenes on water that looked so real we could almost feel the ocean spray on our faces. And there’s the underwater garden of eyes, and the boat made of leaves. The sets and puppets were dazzling, and I am sure the movie will be, too.

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