Kubo and the Two Strings – Set Visit
Visiting LAIKA studios for many is an ultimate wish. For myself it is like everything you wish Disneyland was and more. A kind of fever dream that cast a haze upon your psychi and makes you question wether it was a reality or just a dream from a comma inducted by a noxious mixture of Krylon Crystal Clear and JB Weld. Any and every opportunity to visit LAIKA and see this group of artisans build and shape a masterpiece is a repeating bucketlist wish that luckily I’ve had the pleasure of achieving a couple of times. So the chance to see the building and filming of Kubo and the Two Strings was not to be passed up.
So lets first start with what LAIKA is working on and chances are you already know this but I’ll fill you in anyway. Kubo and the Two Strings is a feature length stop motion film focused on the young Japanese boy named Kubo who I can say has been through a rough batch. He’s lost his father and him and his mother are hiding out in a cave near a village. That’s pretty much all I’m going to tell you about the film other then the fact that he has a traditional japanese banjo called a Shamisen also called Samisen which only has 2 strings. When he plays this instrument he is able to control and channel his magical abilities and all sorts of wonderment happen. Of course there are monsters, demons, talking animals, and a lot of adventure.
What’s different about this film compared to all the other LAIKA films is that Kubo and the Two Strings is a larger scope and breath then what has been produced in the past from this legendary studio. In the past we would venture into the alternate realities of an old victorian house or chase trolls or zombies through a city. Kubo and the Two Strings takes us on a real adventure putting the hero in danger and placing him on a real hero’s journey. Kubo and his pals venture across a vast and vivid landscape and are met with all sorts of challenges along the way.
One such monster that he faces against is the Moon Beast which technically is an amazing piece of modern day technology and engineering. The Moon Beast is an almost 100% 3d printed monster that uses a ball-in-socket armature as its skeleton. The beauty of this puppet is just amazing. Not only were they able to print the hard outer shell segments of the puppet, but there is a translucency to the puppet that you have never seen done before in 3d printing, plus they manipulate the color of the puppet using UV passes while animating which gives it that underwater sea monster look.
They definitely didn’t stop there. One of Kubos companions named Monkey is also utilizing 3d printing in its design. It’s face of course is animated using 3d printed replacement animation, but its fur is also 3d printed. Then theres the beetle samurai which also uses hard surface modeling and then 3d printed. LAIKA is really going above and beyond with the standard animation techniques of puppet building and pretty much bending the rules along the way.
The typical puppet size of these beautiful creations is roughly about 12 to 15 inches. I’m pretty much guessing at this, but I can tell you LAIKA has broken a world record and also produced a number of firsts in the world with their larger puppets. Lets start with the ground braking stuff. When walking the halls and isles at the studio you usually expect to see sets and props set up and animators and crew working. This trip however produced something no one has ever seen and they should definitely be getting some kind of award for it. They produced a couple of motion control puppets slightly larger then a very tall human that are completely controlled remotely. One of the controllers that moved the eye is a trackball which actually uses a bowling ball as it’s remote surface! These monsters are under water creatures that sway and move and are pretty much giant eye stocks. They are beautiful and to control and build them they needed a lot of engineering and thought. All shot on a Front Light Back Light stage the creatures can actually be seen in the behind the scene and promo footage about the film. I have to unfortunately stop talking about them otherwise I’ll be giving away a lot about this monster. But this beast will pretty much make you rethink how you approach animation with puppets.
The next monster is the biggest stop motion puppet that has ever been built in the world. If I remember correctly it is roughly 16 feet tall and is built to the scale of Kubo’s puppet. The puppet is so massive they actually could only build the upper torso of the character since it would require a cherry picker lift for the animator to work from. Luckily that wasn’t necessary. The animator was able to stand on an elevated platform to animate the giant skeleton puppet using a combination of levers and pulleys plus a little remote control action. This giant puppet needs to be entered into the Genius Book of World Records like yesterday.
So those are the huge things that stick out the most when it comes if you saw me on the street and asked me what my visit at LAIKA was. Yet there is far more to mention and a lot of really mind boggeling creative techniques that we just can’t ignore. For one the clothing of the puppets is pretty much all hand made to the point were they even embroidered by hand the little insects and patterns into the fabric. They even attached each individual feather from the twin sister assassins capes which even includes its own armature to allow for realistic fabric animation. The textures that the clothing department had developed and created are of a magical quality that you will never see anywhere else.
The sets are on a level that also is so huge and grand you have question how the animator even reached the center of the stage to even animate. I’ll give you a hint, modular stage. Okay, I’ll just tell you… They have the stage in pieces where the animator can actually pop out from under the stage in the middle of the set to animate the puppets! There were a ton of led lights used for the little lanterns that line the street scene, and they used a huge and I mean huge light just to give the effect of the sun beaming down on the characters.
The effects used in the film are also on a whole other level. If you’ve seen the trailer for the film you would know that they had a lot of water in those sequences. Of course that is animated CGI water, but the boat is real. Not only is it real but they had to animate it to look like it is in the water floating and being thrown around. One of the big challenges with todays stop motion/CGI hybrid techniques is getting the blending of the two worlds to meet and look seamless. The crew at LAIKA has done this. With the quick 3D preview that they allowed us to see I am utterly blown away and really can’t wait to see the film.
Stay tuned and I guarantee you there is more to come. But for know I would leave you with this thought. When was the last time you saw a film that broke records in building techniques and production delivery that was a mix of mediums and techniques never seen before? Hmmm…