×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

New 3D-Printing Technology Was ‘Missing Link’ for Laika’s Latest Stop-Motion Project

For the upcoming animated comedy adventure “Missing Link,” stop-motion studio Laika set the bar very high. To execute the designs created by director and writer Chris Butler, artists would have to speed up their 3D printing of character faces — and those faces would have to be the most complex they’d ever created.

Missing Link” centers on Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman), a self-styled investigator of myths and monsters whose skill is not acknowledged by his small-minded high-society peers. So Frost travels to the Pacific Northwest to prove the existence of the legendary Missing Link (voiced by Zach Galifianakis). Other voice actors include Zoe Saldana, Timothy Olyphant and Emma Thompson.

Laika, based in Portland, Ore., brought to “Link” its signature handcrafted stop-motion animation, which it couldn’t have developed without the speed of 3D-printing technology. While the concepts of hand crafting and digital printing may seem at odds with each other, their combination is the main ingredient of Laika’s creative secret sauce.

The studio began the process of 3D printing of faces to painstakingly fashion expressions for the stop-motion characters in 2009’s “Coraline.” That project was completed with about 20,000 unique faces. For 2016’s “Kubo and the Two Strings” the number of expressions jumped to 64,000. “Missing Link,” to be released April 12, will feature a whopping 106,000.

“In the past, a lot of our process was based on reusing facial expressions,” says Brian McLean, director of rapid prototyping at Laika. “Now, with this technology and everything that we’ve learned, we’ve gotten to the point where we actually could be producing shot-specific animation.”

The process requires several steps, notes McLean. “A CG animator sits at a computer working in Maya [software], listening to a line of dialogue that the director has approved. They’re seeing the storyboards and exactly what the action needs to be, and they’re building a customized facial performance in the computer. It gets sent to editorial, where the director will review it and give specific notes. CG will then go in and change the performance. And when the director approves it, we take that CG performance and we export the geometry to the 3D printer.”

Even though dialing in the geometry created by a CG artist made it possible to create highly specific expressions, some designs were still hard on the printers — specifically those for Lionel.

“When it came time to try to figure out a way to print Lionel’s nose — this pointy little triangle — we knew this technology was not going to suffice,” explains McLean. But Laika had a long relationship with 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys dating back to “Coraline.” “Stratasys had just started to play around with color resin, and they let us have a new printer about a year before it was available to the public,” McLean says. “The hardware was amazing, but the software was pretty limited. So we had to take hardware from one company and software from another.”

McLean and his team selected Cuttlefish software that could handle the high demands of 3D color printing, and the new cutting-edge printer was able to make Lionel’s nose a reality. 

Says McLean of the requirements in meeting both the demands for specialty work and the sheer number of more than 100,000 expressions: “It’s scary and exciting to get to solve these challenges.” 

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • Camerimage includes 'Joker' in Main Competition.

    Camerimage Main Competition includes ‘Ford v Ferrari,’ ‘Joker’ and ‘The Irishman’

    Several awards season contenders — including “Ford v Ferrari” (pictured), “Joker” and “the Irishman” — will screen in the main competition at Camerimage, the cinematography-oriented film festival that will take place in Torun, Poland, on Nov. 9-16. In alphabetical order, the selected films are: “Amundsen” (Norway); director: by Espen Sandberg: cinematographer: Pål Ulvik Rokseth “Bolden” [...]

  • First still from the set of

    How the 'Jojo Rabbit' Production Team Created a Child's View of Nazi Germany

    When picturing Nazi Germany during World War II, most people think of black-and-white or sepia-toned images of drab cities. For the cinematographer and production designer of “Jojo Rabbit,” a film set squarely in that time and place, it became clear that the color palette of the era was far more varied than they could have [...]

  • National Theatre Live Midsummer's Night Dream

    National Theatre Live Marks Decade of Stage-to-Screen With Immersive ‘Midsummer’

    National Theatre Live has filmed nearly eight dozen theatrical productions over the last decade, bringing theater to the cinema using top technologies and talents in the videography space. This month, on the eve of its 10th anniversary, its production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is challenging the technical producers and crew with an immersive stage [...]

  • 180423_A24_Day_03B_0897.jpg

    How Bright Bulbs Enabled 'The Lighthouse's' Tough Black-and-White Shoot

    Early in development on “The Lighthouse,” writer-director Robert Eggers asked cinematographer Jarin Blaschke if he thought they could capture the look they were going for digitally. Blaschke answered no: Digital wouldn’t let them achieve the texture they had in mind — “what we photography nerds would call ‘micro-contrast.’ [The look] was never going to be [...]

  • Advanced Imaging Society Honors 10 Women

    AIS Honors 10 Women in Tech

    Celebrating 10 years of achievement in entertainment technology, the Advanced Imaging Society today named 10 female industry innovators who will receive the organization’s 2019 Distinguished Leadership Awards at the its 10th annual Entertainment Technology Awards ceremony on October 28 in Beverly Hills. The individuals were selected by an awards committee for being significant “entertainment industry [...]

  • Will Smith Gemini Man Special Effects

    How the 'Gemini Man' VFX Team Digitally Created a Younger Version of Will Smith

    More human than human — yes, that’s a “Blade Runner” reference — yet it sounds like an unattainable standard when it comes to creating believable, photorealistic, digital human characters. But the visual effects team on Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” set its sights on something even more difficult: creating a digital version of young Will Smith [...]

  • Jest to Impress Cartoon Network Virtual

    New In-House VR Program Helps Cartoon Network Artists Add a Virtual Dimension

    Teams of animators and artists from across Cartoon Network’s numerous properties are getting the chance to expand into virtual reality storytelling via the company’s pilot program, Journeys VR. The work of the first three teams — including experiences based on action, nature and comedy — was unveiled to global audiences Oct. 1 on Steam and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content