We take a peek behind the curtain at Laika, a movie studio dedicated to fusing high tech 3D printing techniques with the time-honored art of stop motion animation. Laika’s latest film, Missing Link, is its most wildly ambitious to date.
Hitting theaters on April 12, Missing Link follows its characters on whirlwind journey around the globe — a feat that required Laika’s costumers, animators and artists at to expand their creative vision into something truly expansive and unique.
During our tour, we viewed about 25 minutes worth of footage from the upcoming film. The worlds were impressively colorful and detailed and the characters full of life, but just watching Laika’s film doesn’t give you a sense of the full scale of its latest undertaking. Like any successful creative project, the movie looks to be more than the sum of its part — but those parts are what makes the whole thing really, really impressive.
“It’s definitely our most ambitious movie,” Missing Link Director Chris Butler told the screening audience. “We always say that and it’s always true.”
Butler describes the film as a mashup between Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes and Around the World in Eighty Days — “with monsters.” That description felt pretty spot on, as Missing Link’s titular yeti paired up with an intrepid-ish English explorer to track down Link’s elusive peers, an adventure that takes them to the Himalayas, undoubtedly one of the coolest sets Laika built out for the film.
Missing Link made for a five year-plus undertaking and the result is an order of magnitude more ambitious than Laika’s already pathologically ambitious projects, including 2016’s critically acclaimed Kubo and the Two Strings. But the studio won’t be resting on its laurels — apparently Laika is already deep into production on their unannounced sixth film.
Apart from Missing Link’s vast and varied sets, through a bespoke new 3D printing technique its characters will also convey a degree of lifelike emotion that hasn’t ever been pulled off before in stop animation. Butler describes how in one shot, the character Lionel’s lips kind of stick together, like he has dry mouth. The moment was so subtle that Laika’s VFX team actually erased the effect because they assumed it was a mistake (it was added back in).
That level of sophistication requires an army of small masks, each depicting a subtle shift in facial expression. During shoots, these masks are actually popped off and swapped out by puppeteers over and over. The result is a flow of realistic facial expressions that pair with voice acting bring a character to life.
To achieve that level of detail, Laika actually fused a then-in-beta Stratasys J750 six color 3D resin printer with custom driver software known as Cuttlefish, made by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research. That combination allowed Laika to get closer to its vision for extremely smooth, mixed color — a challenge for even the most modern 3D printers.
“Literally no one else in the world had the sophistication,” Laika’s Director of Rapid Prototyping explained.
With colorful natural settings ranging from the lush forests of the Cascade range to an icily imagined Tibet, Missing Link does Laika’s impossibly intricate craft justice in a way that even the studio’s previous films didn’t fully convey. Unfortunately for us, words don’t really do it justice either.