Chris Butler, Oscar-nominated for the 2012 animated “ParaNorman,” is back in the race again with Laika’s “Missing Link,” a beautiful and sweet tale of friendship told in stop-motion. Butler says: “When people learn what I do, their reaction is ‘Fun!’ It is fun, but it’s also extremely hard.” He adds with a laugh, “In this job, you can have intense arguments over the design of a fork.”
That points up one of the key differences between live- action and stop-motion: In Butler’s world everything has to be created from scratch. The production designer can’t work with existing locations, and costume designers can’t stock up at thrift shops or use standard fabrics. Even the forks have to be invented.
In “Missing Link,” set in the late 19th century, Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman) travels around the world, trying to help Mr. Link (Zack Galifianakis) discover whether there are other creatures like him.
“Lionel is 13 inches, which is the optimum size for a puppet,” says Butler. “If it’s bigger than that, it becomes a wrestling match for the animator. You don’t want the puppet too big, or it becomes unmanageable; but it’s hard to get smaller, since you have mechanics that go inside the head, to get the eyelids to blink, the face to move. If we went smaller than 13 inches, we couldn’t have achieved all the mechanics we need for a complex performance.”
Butler began in 2D animation on such fare as “Tarzan 2” and “The Tigger Movie,” fulfilling a dream of working for Disney. “As a storyboard artist, it’s basically just you at your desk. Stop-motion was such an epiphany. It works like a live-action movie. You have all these departments — costume people, carpentry department — they’re all working together.”
He worked on the 2005 “Corpse Bride,” where he met Deborah Cook, a puppet modeler. “Missing Link” marks her fourth job as a costume designer for Laika films.
Butler sings her praises, saying “Designing costumes for stop-motion, it’s not just designing an aesthetic, you’re engineering it as well. That costume has to function one frame at a time. If you’re designing Sir Lionel’s jacket in ‘Missing Link,’ it’s a beautiful suit and has to fit on a little body that’s out of proportion. And when Lionel is running, that suit is flapping behind him, so the suit needs an engineered wire mesh, which allows the animator to adjust it frame by frame.
“People who work on costume in stop motion are not just designing things that look good, they’re engineering geniuses. Deborah is always finding fabrics that have the correct scale on camera. If you want a suit to look like wool, you have to find a fabric for that in miniature — and real wool probably won’t work.”
“Missing Link” took five years of work, including two years of production. That’s ambitious, but it challenged Butler and his team of 450 in ways they liked.
His first encounter with the “Corpse Bride” sets was “inspirational.” The physical sets and the puppets were a new world. “When I started directing, I had to figure out where could the camera go, what shot follows what shot. I learned to embrace the limitations rather than be turned off by them. It opened my eyes to animation as filmmaking, not ‘just’ animation.”
With a big smile, he says: Stop-motion is proper movie magic.”