Chris Butler Looks at the Magic Behind Animating ‘Missing Link’

Framing The Scene: The Magic Behind the Laika Stop-Motion Film

Sir Lionel Frost (left) voiced by
Courtesy of LAIKA Studios / Annapurna

Laika’s latest feature “Missing Link” raises the bar once again for the world of stop-motion, pushing boundaries in scope and visuals. The story of an unlikely friendship between Mr. Frost and his 8-foot yeti buddy Link is one of hope. “Missing Link” producer Arianne Sutner says the message of the film was to “leave people feeling very optimistic,” Sutner continues, “There’s a place for everyone in this world and it’s a big beautiful world where people are different and everyone will find their tribe.”

Creating that world was no easy achievement as writer and director Chris Butler explains below, breaking down how Laika and the creative team worked to create the gorgeous world of “Missing Link.”

Creating The Barroom Brawl:

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Laika Studios / Annapurna Pictures

For this movie, I wanted to do something different. The original idea was “Indiana Jones” meets Sherlock Holmes meets a Ray Harryhausen creature feature. In order to do that, I always wanted to do this big bold adventure movie. I don’t think it would have been possible ten years ago. Even when I was making “ParaNorman,” a film like “Missing Link” would not have been possible. I wanted something along the lines of the bar fight in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I also wanted a scene to take place in the Pacific Northwest, because that’s where they find Link and that’s where the studio is based.

I came up with this logging town. Conceptually, this movie is relying on stereotypes and that’s not just characters, but locations as well.

We’ve seen the barroom brawl played out in movies so many times, but I still wanted to give it a unique flavor.

From a production design point of view, how do we take this muddy town that is going to be all brown, and make it something unique to this movie? One of the things I said to Nelson Lowry, the production designer, was, “No brown. At all.” He came up with this amazing color mix. He’s using a set of different colors at any one time. Sometimes he was mixing on a minute level in order to create other colors and other bands of color.

I wanted Sir Lionel to stand out, so he’s wearing this blue suit. It’s blue and yellow houndstooth. Whenever he’s in a crowd, it stands out. It also works as a grey tone because when you’re in wide shots he becomes quite neutral. I think it was useful against those colorful backdrops.

I suggested that we wallpaper the bar with this green — almost as if the owner had delusions of grandeur. We had a lot of fun peeling it, so we put a pattern on top of a pattern so we had this rich and vibrant look.

Technically, that scene was a challenge. It’s so many characters fighting on-screen. And with stop-motion, whether it’s the number of characters or size of locations, stop-motion is traditionally a very small medium in scale and scope. You are shooting real puppets on real sets. You are limited as to how big you can make those puppets and those sets. Also, where can you put the camera? I think people who worked in stop-motion in the past took advantage of these limitations. I think having worked in stop-motion for a long time, it made me a better filmmaker. Those limitations made me think about why the camera is in a certain position and why the camera is like this. One thing we are doing at the studio is utilizing all technology to put the best version on screen. We worship stop-motion and animation, but we also believe it is more than this nostalgic novelty that a lot of people see it as. I love stop-motion in all its iterations. I love the Wes Anderson style. I also strongly believe you should keep moving forward.

We use technology to help us do things that we couldn’t ordinarily do. In the bar fight, it was a lot to do with digital extras.

So there are maybe seven or eight physical puppets in that bar. There are also 12 characters in the background, and that’s a lot of characters to have in a scene, especially when they are fighting.

An animator handles this alone, it’s them on set without an assistant. If it’s a fight between six characters, every single one of those characters is manipulated by the one animator. When you have a crowd, it becomes almost un-doable because it takes so long. You have to minutely move each puppet. It’s why we have the digital extras. We spent a lot of time with our visual effects department perfecting these digital characters.

Our VFX department is working with the costume designer. The costume designer hand-selects different fabrics that will be used to dress the background characters even though they’re digital. They will scan these fabrics. The key to it, in the end, is this close relationship between our VFX department and other departments.

Our visual effects team is there from the very start. They are part of the conversation from day one, and they’re not brought in to fix something.

The other challenge was we had so many locations and so many puppets to make, and they don’t always happen on schedule. We could have a scene in the bar with seven characters, but Mister Link’s puppet isn’t available. We ended up shooting a lot of greenscreens because one day we had three puppets, and the other day we had four puppets so we shot that scene separately.

This was over two years and over multiple units. That barroom set was probably on different units all over the studio. We’re trying to make sure that when you cut it together that it makes sense so the lighting has to be accurate. Everything has to be planned to that degree so that you don’t notice the seams. It’s one of the most challenging sequences because of the number of characters interacting in a very violent way. There are props: glasses on the bar and the coins. We built all of those. If it’s a digital character interacting, we have to take them off the set and replace them with “scanned versions.”

Creating The Storm at Sea:

It’s another big action sequence. I was very much influenced by that Spielberg approach to action sequences where the whole narrative is within the sequence and it’s not a connecting montage of stuff. There’s an actual story that runs through it.

You have a beginning, middle and end. You have comedic beats and you have cliffhanger beats. I wanted to structure the action sequences that way. When I was working on the storyboards, I was asking them to storyboard like an action movie. When we were cutting the storyboards, we had shots that were eight frames long. Those in stop-motion are the first one to go. Every shot you set up takes at least two days, if you’re asking the production to allow a two-day set up for seven frames of a movie, it starts to seem like a ridiculous idea. I really held on to this idea like, “Let’s approach it like we have multiple takes and coverage so we can cut the best action sequence together.”

I was a little influenced by “Inception.” If I’m going to have an action sequence on a ship in a storm, in animation, then I have no excuse to push it. You expect more from animation and I take it as my responsibility to achieve that.

I’m really proud of that sequence, and a lot of that is to do with the animation. We can’t move the set, so a lot of that ocean movement was done in camera and by moving the camera. It involved a lot of camera tests. We had to make sure everything was working. On top of that, you have to remember the animator is animating imbalance on an unmoving set. The animator is having to create the feeling of imbalance in the characters even though it doesn’t exist.

In the sequence, we cut to the exterior of the ship, and you see them battling these giant waves. That’s where our digital department really comes in. They proved what they could do with the water in “Kubo and the Two Strings.” I think with this, there was so much more of it. We wanted the water to look different here, so there’s an awful lot of explorations work that combines the art department and the VFX department to find a look that fits our movie. If I’m dipping into a six-minute sequence, I wanted the water to feel like water. I wanted the waves to feel like they could crush the ship.

We did that through patterns and shape language. The foam on the water in the storm is using the same patterning that you’ll see in the grain on the floorboards of the bar. It’s beautiful because it brings the whole movie together in a way that you may not notice, but you will feel it. That same pattern is used in clouds and smoke. It has this quality of binding the aesthetic of the movie. You never feel like you step outside of this world.