A handful of 10-inch posable puppets in tailored costumes -- some in checked three-piece suits, others in floor-length gowns -- are lined up on a shelf, like a collection of Victorian-era action figures.
But what lies beneath those serene puppets is the stuff of nightmares.
"I'm going to take this wonderful puppet and rip his face off," says Brian McLean, director of rapid prototype at Laika, the stop-motion animation studio behind Westworld.and Coraline. The now faceless puppet, with its circuitlike innards, suddenly looks more like an from TV's
McLean is demonstrating one of the ways Laika has worked to make its puppets more lifelike than ever for its latest movie, the epic adventure. And it starts with replacing the puppets' faces, sometimes up to 24 times for one second of film.
The technique, called replacement animation, involves taking a picture of the puppet wearing one face and then swapping in another with a slightly different expression. The studio, based outside Portland, Oregon, has used the technique since its first film, 2009's Oscar-nominated Coraline, fusing it with 3D-printing tech to produce faces that pop on and off. But it's come a long way since then.
Director and writer Chris Butler describes Missing Link as "Indiana Jones meets Sherlock Holmes and Around the World in 80 Days -- with monsters in it." Set in the Victorian era, the movie follows Bigfoot, aka Mr. Link (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), as he travels with adventurer Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) across the globe in a search for the valley of Shangri-La and long-lost family.
"This was the first time our facial animation was bespoke," says Butler, who also co-wrote Kubo and the Two Strings and wrote and co-directed ParaNorman. He and the animators painstakingly planned the puppets' exact facial expressions for more nuanced performances.
"It's another level of acting really," he says. The facial expressions were so subtle at times that in at least one case, the visual effects team cleaned up what it thought was a mistake: a scene where a character's lips stick together as if his mouth is dry. "I was like 'Put it back, put it back,'" Butler says with a laugh.
To add to a puppet's humanlike performance, animators do something even more disturbing than popping off faces, McLean says. They stab a character's eyeballs and lids with an X-Acto blade to move them, giving its expression more subtlety. He happily demonstrates exactly how on a nearby, faceless Lionel.
Laika spends anywhere from six months to a year designing the internal components of a puppet's head -- like eye rigs and mechanisms that hold the ears -- to give animators as much control as possible.
"They're kind of like really fancy Mr. Potato Heads," McLean says.
In stop-motion filmmaking, animators carefully pose objects, take a still photo, move them ever so slightly, and take another still photo, repeating those steps. When all those images are shown in succession, the objects appear to move independently. Laika's 3D-printed replacement animation flips the usual stop-motion process on its head, McLean says. Normally, animators draw out a scene, get the body movement and the timing just right -- known as blocking -- and only at the end add the facial animation.
For Missing Link, the director and animators chose expressions for each performance months before shooting. On set, the animators decided how to position the puppets' bodies, costumes, hair, and even eyeballs and eyelids. But they had a box of 3D-printed faces ready, and they essentially followed a spreadsheet outlining which expressions to use for each frame.
Laika used a commercial 3D printer from Stratasys, which it started testing while still in beta, and Fraunhofer's Cuttlefish software to produce over 106,000 faces in color for Missing Link.
This was a huge leap from Coraline a decade earlier, when color wasn't an option. Instead, the 20,000 faces printed for that film had to be hand-painted.
In the years since, the studio tinkered with finding the right formula to print in color without trading precision and accuracy. For Missing Link, Laika was able to produce 3D-printed faces that "no one else in the world had the sophistication to do," McLean says.
No neck, no problem
Building a believable Link -- the lonely Sasquatch at the heart of the story -- was a challenge from the beginning, according to John Craney, puppet fabrication supervisor.
"What's the worst-case scenario when you're asked to fabricate a puppet?" asks Craney, standing in front of a naked Link. Turns out it looks a lot like the movie's star: a husky character shaped like an avocado, over a foot tall and covered in fur. But that's also what made it exciting, Craney says.
Creating a stage-ready puppet takes about nine months on average. That includes building a character's intricate, skeletal insides -- its armature -- which give it a humanlike range of movement. Link's armature contains over 250 components, says Craney, proudly pointing out the swivel in its forearms. Link also has a foam interior similar to a mattress, and a built-in belly mover to add to his jaunty character.
All those details are what help bring out the performance from within, Craney says. "I'm looking at structure underneath, so there's depth to these characters."
Another challenge was getting Link's body and head to move together in a natural way because he's got no neck. His facial animation needed to drive the fur around his head and the rest of his body, McLean says. It took about a year to come up with the answer: a 3D-printed plastic ring with magnets that attached to the lower part of the puppet's head and sat underneath the face. The ring, known as a driver, worked together with Link's cowl to push and pull the fur into shapes to complement his facial expressions.
Making hybrid movies
In Laika movies, the stop-motion puppets are the stars, but over the years digital visual effects have played an ever-growing supporting role. As well as computer-generated effects like smoke and water, Missing Link features CG characters when the story calls for, say, a long line of imposing Yeti guards or a digital extension of handmade sets such as a Himalayan ice bridge.
This combination of digital and practical effects goes back to Laika's second movie -- ParaNorman, about a boy who can talk to the dead -- when the studio started making what it calls hybrid films.
"When we brought technology into the mix, we wanted to do so in a way that was ultimately respectful, and honor the art of stop-motion animation," says Steve Emerson, visual effects supervisor.
The visual effects team is involved from the beginning, working alongside puppet makers to ensure the characters they create digitally have the same limitations the real ones do.
"In the end, hopefully … you can't really tell what's digital and what's not," Emerson says.
In post-production, the team also does cosmetic work -- for example, cleaning up the line created between a puppet's eyelids and face mask to give characters more of a humanlike quality.
"We're trying to get audiences to connect and empathize with 10-inch inanimate objects that are being pushed through space by human hands," Emerson says. "So, [we do] whatever we can do to help you forget that you're looking at a puppet."
Laika is already deep into work on its sixth film, but it's not sharing any details yet. Meanwhile, two other stop-motion movies are preparing to get underway in the Portland area. One is Wendell and Wild, directed by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline). The movie centers on two demon brothers who go up against a nun and a couple of goth teens, with voices by and . The other is Oscar-winning director , set during the rise of fascism in Italy. More fuel for your nightmares.
Missing Link comes out April 12 in the US. It was released April 5 in the UK and April 11 in Australia.
Originally published April 12, 5 a.m. PT.
Update, 2:35 p.m. PT: Added the video Inside the Magic of Laika.