While attending WonderCon late last month, I had the immense pleasure of attending LAIKA’S MISSING LINK: Adventure Awaits panel along with interviewing the team responsible for bringing this incredible story to life.
MISSING LINK tells the story of Mr. Link, who recruits explorer Sir Lionel Frost to help find his long-lost relatives in the fabled valley of Shangri-La. ALong with adventurer Adelina Fortnight, this trio of explorers travel the world to help their new friend.
During the convention, I sat down with writer/director Chris Butler, head of productions Arianne Sutner, puppet fabrication supervisor John Craney, and production designer Nelson Lowry where we discussed everything from the challenges in making the puppets to creating their most ambitious film to date.
Why did you decide to have MISSING LINK be the next Laika film?
Arianne Sutner: We try to make each of our films different from the previous ones. The director [Chris Butler] pitched us several film ideas and we fell in love with this one. We loved that it was something different, very ambitious, but also it felt like the right time to make this film.
The scene where the ocean liner is battling a huge storm at sea looked like a very ambitious scene to create in stop motion. Is that an example of the types of challenges you look for when deciding to choose your next project?
Arianne Sutner: We always like to say that every new movie we make is our most ambitious film to date. We couldn’t have done the ocean liner scene as effectively as we did if we hadn’t done the four previous movies. We are not necessarily looking for technical challenges, we like to be ambitious with the stories first and then come up with innovative ways to make it happen.
John Craney: We spend a lot of time in research and development between films. Laika really pushes for us to come with in-camera practical solutions instead of relying on CGI.
Were there any puppets that you created that were challenging to make?
John Craney: There’s a scene with an elephant puppet and it was a challenge to make it look flexible. What we ended up doing was putting stylized bones in its legs and thighs so that when it moved you could see the weight shift with each step. Adding that touch gave the puppet a lot more integrity.
When it comes to the puppets, how do you determine their sizes? Do they vary from film to film?
Arianne Sutner: They do vary from film to film. On this film, I was really pushing for the puppets to be smaller in scale than our previous films. As a producer who has been around the block a few times, I know that the bigger the scale, the larger the sets need to be and then you take over more space. You need more people and you need more equipment and it’s just a lot to handle. I think the sweet spot for an animator is for the puppet to be between 11 and 13 inches. On this film, we wanted to make the faces smaller than we had in the past because not only does that help the animators, it also helps with any CG work that needs to be done.
John Craney: There were 106,000 different faces created for the MISSING LINK characters. That gives us pretty much an infinite range of expression.
Are you planning to have a shared universe between the characters from all the different Laika films?
Arianne Sutner: That would be a fun idea but we make an effort to make the characters in each film look unique. If you put them all side by side they wouldn’t make sense design wise. We have humans that look very different from one another.
Were the main characters in the film written with Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, and Zach Galifianakis in mind?
Chris Butler: There was a certain amount of them being in mind. When I was writing dialogue it helped to have an actor’s voice in your head. I must admit, Hugh Jackman was my first choice because his character needs to lead the film, but he’s flawed throughout most of it. Hugh is so effortlessly charming that you can’t help but to like his character, even when he is acting badly. We made up a list of actors that we wanted and lucked out by getting almost every single one to sign on.
The past Laika films have had a very dark and spooky look and this film is very bright and colorful. Why did you decide to go in that direction?
Nelson Lowry: That was decided very early on in pre-production and it was a welcome change. It was so fun to do a bright, colorful film. I was influenced by the look of the early National Geographic Magazines. The whole film is very bright and there’s not a lot of nighttime scenes, which was a welcome change for us.
Chris Butler: We wanted it to be a kaleidoscopic travelogue, we wanted it to be the biggest, brightest thing that we’ve done. We wanted to make this look like nothing we have done before.
What was it that inspired you to want to work in stop motion animation?
Chris Butler: I originally started out as a 2D animator but it was working as a storyboard artist on Corpse Bride that really changed my mind. It was very inspiring while I was doing my work to visit the actual sets and visualize where the camera was going to be, you don’t get to do that in 2D animation. I think it made me a much better filmmaker because I’m always thinking about what exactly the camera is seeing. Since Corpse Bride, I’ve only done stop-motion films.
Nelson Lowry: I come from a family of builders and miniature makers so it was kind of a natural thing for me. I started my film career in other mediums but once I got introduced to stop-frame, it brought the control freak out of me. I like to control the look of everything and since we are building these worlds from scratch, it gave me the opportunity to do that.
Are there any hidden “easter eggs” from other Laika films in MISSING LINK that we should be keeping our eyes out for?
Chris Butler: The film is riddled with them, in fact, there are some that I don’t even know about because we have so many people working on the set that things tend to creep in without me noticing. I personally put some hidden things in Lionel’s study such as when he opens a drawer you can see an item from Kubo and the Two Strings, the fairytale book from ParaNorman and a newspaper with a box troll on it. I also did a bunch of stuff that no one is ever going to notice or know what it is. For example, the books in Lionel’s study are references to the literature I was reading when I was writing the film such as a book by a character from Sherlock Holmes who wrote about apes.
MISSING LINK is now in theaters.