Tantalized by the unknown from childhood, British moviemaker Chris Butler found in animation an ideal medium to interact with the creatures and entities that fascinate him. His fantastical concepts are turned into tactile realities at Laika, the Portland-based, boundary pushing stop-motion studio that artfully merges traditional handcraft with cutting-edge digital enhancements.
Butler’s first directorial outing, ParaNorman, featured zombies and ghosts in a haunted town where a young horror movie buff becomes a hero. That debut, written by Butler and co-directed with Sam Fell, earned him an Oscar nomination. Now as a solo writer-director, his follow-up, Missing Link, linked, so to speak, his European homeland with the Pacific Northwest setting where the production took place. It zeros in on an avocado-shaped Sasquatch who befriends an English investigator.
Mr. Link, explains Butler, came from a sketch in one of his countless notebooks from many years back. The charming and massively hairy protagonist was loosely based on a Gigantopithecus, which is a real ape-man similar to the one seen in the 1980s comedy Harry and the Hendersons. That drawing was the foundation for the look of the movie.
Since Butler started his career as a designer and a storyboard artist, drawing is an integral part of his writing process. “When I’m writing, I’ve got a little movie in my head. Shot by shot, I know what I want to see. So I’ve got notebooks that stretch back 20 years that are just filled with scribbles of dialogue and drawings of characters, and I’ll keep going back to those books and I’ll pull them out. This movie in particular, some of the sketches go way, way back, and I found then again and incorporated them.” Not surprisingly, he still storyboards his own projects.
According to Butler, a stop-motion animated movie is made twice, because the filmmakers storyboard the whole movie to make sure it works before shooting anything. They have to be certain that every single shot is feasible before attempting to physically create it. Considering how painstaking and time-consuming creating a single frame of stop-motion animation is, this preparation is even more imperative here than it is when working in live action.
“When you’re shooting, it’s a lot of looking at footage, and giving notes, and looking at rehearsals; we do rehearsals for all of the shots. I spend a lot of time in the edit suite with the editor, constantly looking at dailies. Our dailies take all day. We’re in the edit suite 7 hours a day. That’s why you draw it all first.”
Though in the early stages of the massive undertaking that is to make a stop-motion feature he has complete control, once production kicks off and animators begin their arduous work to deliver moving magic, Butler shifts to a different mindset.
“The most important part of a director’s job is to keep in mind what the whole story is,” he explained. “It’s very easy when you’re making a movie, especially in animation, to get caught up in the details. If you’re so focused on those, you forget what the big picture is. It’s the director’s job, more than anyone, to say, ‘That’s not important.’” Learning to not micromanage is half the battle, he believes, when the so many elements are at play. Emotional impact is always above all else.
“It’s a giant puzzle, and you have to be able to step back and say: ‘What story am I telling? Who are these characters? What do I want people to feel? Because that’s really what you want, you want an audience to get lost in this world and feel something. “
Like most directors of animated features, stop-motion or otherwise, Butler doesn’t animate himself. The tremendous patience and superhuman concentration required for the job aren’t part of his skill set, thus he appreciates their artistic labor immensely. “Animators have to focus on the tiny details because they’re working on one motion for days, if not weeks, whereas I have to see the whole movie. I don’t even know how they do it,” he noted. “They have to get lost in one shot because they might be on that shot for months.”
Regardless of how absurdly complicated something he’s imagined appears, Butler is always confident that the unbelievably talented team at Laika will devise a solution, so he writes without constraints. “I write how I’ve got it in my head and then we’ll storyboard it, and then we get in all our heads of department to discuss how are we actually going to do this,” he said. “We’ve got some hugely talented scientists. We’ve got not just artists, but people who figure this stuff out, how to achieve it technically, and it’s amazing stuff, it’s so far beyond me. “
Illustrating the astonishing feats animators conceived, Butler singled out two particularly elaborate compositions. Towards the end of the movie, there is a scene where a giant ice bridge in the mountains is collapsing. The lead characters have to face the villain as the structure crumbles. “Just in terms of the choreography, it was hugely complex. All of these characters, these real puppets, were hanging in midair, on ropes, all swinging, and they were fighting each other,” he explained. Through it all, the team has to be mindful of the VFX that will come into play in post-production, in this case a digital collapsing ice bridge.
Then there is a chase that unfolds between Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) and a bounty hunter inside a tilted ship at sea. The puppets are seen running on the walls of the off-balance transport and stepping on doors. This upside-down corridor, Butler explained, was large in size and was made of heavy wood. “It’s very difficult to move something of that size, so instead we moved the camera.” That solution made the sequence possible, but it was difficult for animators because they’ has to move the characters as if the background was moving. “That kind of stuff blows my mind,” reiterated the director.
“It’s not the sort of thing you would ordinarily do in stop motion,” added Butler. With that in mind, he tried to approach the production like one would a live action film. One example is the inclusion of quick shots or cutaways, which are not part of the coverage often captured in stop-motion. “I’ve got shots in there that are like 10 frames long, and yet you still have to set up for two or three days to do that shot. I wanted it to feel like a live action movie, and that in itself was very difficult.”
Luckily for Butler, ingenuity and experimentation are cherished and encouraged at Laika, a place where reinventing a technique nearly as old as cinema itself is a crucial part of the equation. “The studio has been great at never trying to limit me in terms of creativity,” he proudly stated. “We are constantly making technical innovations but quite often, we will use any trick in the book to accomplish something, and that could be something very complicated and technical, or it could be something as simple as moving the camera.” That camera is shockingly just a Cannon EOS 5D.
Removed from the laborious fabrication of the images themselves, is Butler’s interaction with the voice cast, which in this case included a handful of the industry’s most easily recognizable faces or voices: Zoe Saldana, Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Thompson, and Stephen Fry. Because animators need performances to animate to, casting voice talent begins immediately after the script is locked.
For Butler, seeing his text transform and take on unique emotion through their performances is hugely gratifying. “They will create a performance with the script, with the written word, that becomes its own thing. These are fantastic actors, so you want them to make the character their own.” It’s in these recording sessions that the characters he envisioned first materialize beyond the page. “I love it when an actor does something unexpected because suddenly the character has taken on a life of its own. It ceases to be just in my head. It evolves,” he cheerfully exclaimed.
Voicing an animated character, he believes, proves to be a challenge for many performers. Even if occasionally they have access to sketches or sculptures of the figures they are embodying, they are mostly left to their own histrionic devices. “It’s tricky for them because they are used to being on set or acting with someone and suddenly they find themselves in a booth with just a script and headphones and that’s it.”
Butler is a firm proponent that voice acting is perhaps the ultimate test for a good thesp. “It’s total acting. It’s the definite form of acting. They have to become something with no props.” In turn their inflections, for humor or sorrow, will serve as road map for the rest of the years-long adventure in the making.
Laika’s features are in a category of their own, not only due to the extraordinary visual triumphs they consistently achieve, but because the tales they tell pride themselves on having a special narrative spin. Missing Link, a hilarious global quest for belonging, has once again defied the limits of their palpable craftsmanship, and makes a case for family-oriented content that’s neither a sequel nor a product fueled by ephemeral pop culture references. Staying apart from the crows is staying on brand for them.
“We don’t make a movie that looks like the last movie we made. If anything is our brand, that’s it,” said Butler. Every time we want to tell a different story, there’s perhaps a different genre, a different design, or a different look; and that’s what keeps us vital and that’s what gives us a unique voice.” MM
Missing Link opened in theaters April 2019, courtesy of Annapurna Pictures. All images, including featured image, courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.