‘Kubo and the Two Strings’: 3D Printer Key to Puppetry

Laika Animation Studio 10 Year Anniversary
Courtesy Laika/Focus Features

When the Oscar nominations were announced on Jan. 24, some may have been surprised to find “Kubo and the Two Strings” among the visual-effects nominees. But it wasn’t a shock to those who had carefully looked at the work Oregon-based Laika had done for its latest release.

Long known as a technological and artistic pioneer for its combination of traditional stop motion and puppeteering with CG, the studio was already home to a team that pushed boundaries with such previous stop-motion releases as “Coraline.”

One member of the staff, Brian McLean, was also recognized with a Sci-Tech Award by the Academy just last year for his work in rapid prototyping.

The last time an animated film was nominated in the vfx category was 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Since then, the rise of Laika has advanced stop motion in all kinds of ways.

“When we started work on ‘Kubo’ we found ourselves in a place where we would either have to ask for a small tweak on one of the characters or we would have to find a new way to do things,” says McLean, who is director of rapid prototyping and part of the team nommed for a vfx Oscar for “Kubo.”

The team at Laika reached out to Stratasys to find out if it might have something that could help with the project. The 3D printer was still developing the technology for its new Connex3 printer. That became the tool that could help Laika create such characters as Monkey for what helmer Travis Knight has described as “an animated film about death.”

“Kubo” also features massive amounts of water and smoke or mist and skies that tie in with the overall action of the film, something that can be notoriously tricky even in a film not featuring stop-motion animation. There’s also a lot of clean-up work to be done on the puppets to make them look as seamless as possible. VFX supervisor Steve Emerson and his team used VUE and Photoshop for some of these processes and then comped them in Nuke.

“We worked very closely with the art department and the production designer Nelson Lowry,” Emerson says. “We ended up using things like garbage bags for the in-camera tests for water and the art department will create clouds from things like tulle netting.”

The film also required the team to build a 16-foot tall skeleton puppet with a 22-foot arm span.

It’s not every day that this happens and Oliver Jones, head of rigging, and his team collaborated to create a system of pulleys so the animators were able to move the creature easily and then lock it into place for each shot. The result was a monstrous being who dwarfed the 6-inch Kubo when the two battled on screen.

“Moving a giant skeleton around like that can be complicated,” says Jones. “But what you get on screen is certainly worth everything that you put into developing that process and it’s also fun.”

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