Set Visit: We step into the magical world of Laika's Kubo & the Two Strings!
It all started ten years ago when production began on a wonderful little film called CORALINE. Released in 2009, this inspired fable is a gorgeous example of stop motion animation. It featured incredible characters and a wonderfully compelling story. It’s a tale that holds up especially well all these years later. In fact, this has been a tradition for the creative team at Laika. Instead of releasing film after film, year after year, they nurture their stories and bring them to life after fine tuning and making sure everything truly works in the world created. They did the same with both PARANORMAN as well as THE BOXTROLLS, and now, we are about to see an epic adventure in the form of KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS.
Recently, a group of journalists were invited to spend the day at Laika in Portland, Oregon. And let me just say how magical a place it was. Once we arrived at the studio, the lot of us were gathered together to enjoy a little something from Voodoo Doughnut - that maple bacon donut was one hell of a treat. After partaking in the delicious morning bite, we were given a terrific introduction to the world of Laika by Arianne Sutner, producer and head of production. After settling in, we were then transported to a screening room to get the first glimpse of their latest, and arguably most ambitious, KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS.
The fifteen minute preview included a “cold opening” to the film, a prologue, and a scene featuring Kubo and his mother. The opening, featured Kubo’s mother battling the elements of a raging sea. With only herself, her child and an instrument and a tiny boat, she magically parts the waters searching for safety from the storm. Unfortunately for the mother and her child, they are washed up on the shore of an island somewhere at sea. This sequence is all the more impressive considering how much time is spent on every single frame - this includes the incredible power of the ocean. When we say EPIC, this is definitely a massive undertaking for Laika, but from what we witnessed, Mr. Knight and crew have contributed to something extraordinary.
Next up, we saw one especially impressive scene involving a massive skeleton which Kubo and his friends must try and destroy. One of the most exciting things about the new film is just how far they have pushed the use of stop motion. The scene features Kubo (voiced by Game of Thrones star Art Parkinson), and a protective “Monkey” (Charlize Theron) as well as a heroic “Beetle” (Matthew McConaughey). All are trying to destroy the gargantuan bag of bones. The only way to do this is to find a powerful sword, one of the many that had been previously thrust into the skeleton’s skull. What is even more incredible is this skeleton is an actual puppet which stands 25-feet high.
And since Kubo is a storyteller with music and magical origami, we enjoyed an entertaining bit where he works his mojo for a local crowd. The way his origami comes to life and the different characters they create was quite a thrill. There is a big black spider, a fire breathing chicken - yes, I did say a fire breathing chicken - and Kubo’s heroic adventurer who fights off all the make believe monsters his maker can throw at him. This sequence was a wonderful example of the power of storytelling. The music, the heroes, the villains, and the adventures that Kubo creates for a mesmerized audience.
As impressive as the footage was, it was even more thrilling to see some of what appears in the film in person, as actual sets, props, costumes and characters. After the introduction from Arianne and the footage, we met with Steve Emerson (VFX Supervisor) to get a taste of his involvement in the film. He proceeded to give us examples on making a “hybrid” film, one that is stop motion, but one that also uses computer animation to bring it all to life. This includes green screens, as well as making adjustments to the puppets when needed. He specifically discussed the crowd sequence in KUBO. He explained the use of photographic reference, which go out to the costume designers and the animators as well to help create other characters, aside from the leads.
After getting a look at some of the ways the VFX contribute to the stop motion, we were then given a studio tour with Dan Pascall (Production Manager). Our first stop was with Georgina Hayns (Puppet Fabrication Supervisor). When we arrived on the soundstage, there were two large boards featuring pictures of the characters, and a number of specific materials to each one. Georgina explained how they go about finding the right look for Kubo, his mother and the many other characters. Unlike most animated films, the costumes here are designed and placed on the puppets, to give them that added bit of reality. And yes, the clothes are fantastic. The detail that goes into every aspect of Laika’s vision is inspiring.
Next up we had a glimpse at Rabid Prototype with Brian McLean (Supervisor of Rapid Prototype). Rabid Prototype is process used to create a scale model, which in this case is part of the complex way they bring all the puppets to life. This gave us a glimpse at not only Kubo, but the previous films as well. Brian gave us examples of how the process has changed and grown with technology, and will in fact continue to do so. That is what is so amazing about Laika, just how collaborative this group is in finding new ways to tell these stories without sacrificing what makes them special.
During our tour we also were able to step inside the physical world, with the magnificent sets that included Hanzo’s Fortress, a cemetery, an underwater sea monster, Kubo’s boat, and a 25-foot puppet of a skeleton. This particular effect was absolutely brilliant. Both the skeleton and the underwater monster were massive in scale, and visually stunning as well. Two of our guides here were Phil Brotherton (Assistant Art Director) who gave us a look at the props used in the film, and Oliver Jones (Animation Rigging Specialist) who gave us the chance to play around with the magnificent sea monster. What really excited me about this was the way the crafted a large mouse out of a bowling ball to move the beast. That's right. A bowling ball. There is almost a MacGyver sense of creation on the set of a Laika production and it is amazing.
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS looks to be a mesmerizing experience for fans of stop motion. And I’m thankful that we have a place that has the ability to give this sort of animation such a unique and appealing touch. If you can’t wait for the adventures of KUBO, you are not alone. The exciting world of Kubo will be arriving in theatres this coming August 19th.
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