In only ten years, the Portland-based studio LAIKA has become a foremost voice in feature film animation. Founded in 2005, the studio released its first stop-motion feature, the Henry Selick-directed Coraline, in 2009 to rave reviews. Then came ParaNorman in 2012, followed by The Boxtrolls in 2014, all three of which were nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar. Along the way, the studio has emerged as an industry pioneer, inventing new technologies to refine their art and overcome obstacles as they arise — a tendency that earned them a technical Oscar earlier this year for their innovations in 3D printing. Now, they’re set to release their most ambitious film yet with Kubo and the Two Strings, the epic fantasy adventure and directorial debut from company CEO and former lead animator, Travis Knight.
Set in a fantastical Japan, Kubo follows the titular hero — a young boy who possesses the power to bring origami to life with the music of his shamisen — on an epic journey to unlock the secrets of his legacy and reunite his family. Set in sweeping landscapes and loaded with action-set-pieces, Kubo and the Two Strings features an all-star voice cast including Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, and Matthew McConaughey, and is a tremendously impressive display of craftsmanship, even from a studio who has rapidly established itself as a force of artistic innovation.
With the film arriving in theaters on August 19th, I recently visited the stages just outside of Portland, Oregon where I got an up-close look Kubo‘s puppets, sets, costumes, and props, and had an opportunity to speak with the creative team tasked with bringing the film’s ambitious fantasy world to life, one frame at a time. For an in-depth interview with Knight and producer Arianne Sutner, click here, or check out the impressive sights of the studio, from the cast of puppet characters, their intricate costumes, and the ornate sets they inhabit, all in the images below.
But first, here are a few interesting factoids we learned on the sets:
- LAIKA uses a hybrid animation technique that honors the traditions of stop-motion animation while incorporating the advantages of computer animation. However, aside from greenscreen and puppet cosmetics, most digital effects are first tested with hands-on practical effects.
- In fact, they’re all about blending the low-tech with the modern. For the creature seen in the Garden of Eyes (the one that looks like a giant eyeball at the end of a centipede), they essentially used a bowling ball trackpad to control the eye’s movements.
- For Kubo, the team created the largest stop-motion puppet of all time, a 25-foot skeleton that had to be filmed in operated in separate pieces.
- They consider this their most difficult film yet thanks to the enormous action and fantasy set-pieces and the wide variety of natural landscapes, from torrential seas to gleaming ice structures.
- Kubo has been in development for half a decade, since they were working on ParaNorman.
- The Boxtrolls composer Dario Marianelli returns for Kubo, but with a much greater challenge — not only is he composing the score, but the music Kubo himself plays, which is limited by the nature of his three-stringed instrument.
- Brian McLean, director of the rapid prototyping department (who just took home that technical oscar), explained that there are 66,000 faces printed for the characters in Kubo. However, since each face is constructed in two interchangeable parts — the brow and the mouth — Kubo alone is capable of 48 million facial expressions.
Now, without further ado, take a tour of LAIKA’s stunning production in the images below.