Animation has always held a special place in my heart. Growing up, I was fascinated by the artistic gifts giving to animators and as I grew older I watched as the animation landscape began to shift from 2D to 3D, followed by a resurgence of stop-motion animation. There have been many examples of stop-motion animation in the US since the 50’s but as of recent, one of the most noticeable studios at the forefront of this style of animation has been that of Laika’s studio. Recently, I had the chance to go to Portland and visit Laika studios in preparation for the release of their upcoming animated film, MISSING LINK, and let me tell you, it was a dream come true.
For those who may not be familiar with MISSING LINK, it tells the story of Mr. Link, who is 8 ft tall, 630 lbs, and covered in fur. But don’t let his appearance fool you… he is funny, sweet, and adorably literal, making him the world’s most lovable legend at the heart of MISSING LINK. Tired of living a solitary life in the Pacific Northwest, Mr. Link recruits fearless explorer Sir Lionel Frost to guide him on a journey to find his long-lost relatives in the fabled valley of Shangri-La. Along with adventurer Adelina Fortnight, our fearless trio of explorers encounter more than their fair share of peril as they travel to the far reaches of the world to help their new friend. Through it all, the three learn that sometimes you can find a family in the places you least expect.
Laika Studios has captured my heart with each of their films, starting with 2009’s Coraline (based on the book of the same name by Neil Gaiman). Since their inception, they have gone on to release 2012’s family-friendly horror film ParaNorman, 2014’s severely underrated The Boxtrolls, and what I consider to be one of the best animated films of all time, 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings. For 2019’s MISSING LINK, we spoke with writer/director Chris Butler and Producer Arianne Sutner about Laika’s latest film. “When I first started writing [MISSING LINK],” Chris starts, “it was more than fifteen years ago, but that’s a bit of a cheat because it’s an idea that I had a long time ago and [would] occasionally get back into it.”
Chris goes on to explain that they started developing the film about five years ago where it then spent a year in development and another year in pre-production. “Shooting usually takes about two years give or take,” says Producer Arianne Sutner, “that’s just full production of all our sets. Once the puppets are ready we are out there on the stages shooting but with no sound and we shoot one frame at a time.” Chris explains that it is sort of like live-action, but in miniature form, with all the lights and camera, no sound, and everything moving at a glacial pace.
Since Chris Butler also directed ParaNorman, I was curious to find out if any horror influences, outside of bigfoot, would be creeping into MISSING LINK. “There are some other monsters thrown into [the film],” Butler remarks, “I think there’s this thing about stop motion that it is the creepiest medium, [but] I don’t think that’s all that stop motion can be. This was definitely an attempt to step out of the shadows and it’s a bit more playful. It’s supposed to be fun, a roller-coaster ride of a movie and I think horror movies are fun too. [This] was something I wanted to do because I felt like I had done the horror thing. It’s less so of the creepy side though there’s still some irreverence. There are stakes for sure and I’ve still got monsters.”
Producer Arianne Sutner continued by saying, “I feel so confident that there’s a lot for everyone in this movie. The horror of it [could be seen] in some of our humans and their behavior in the beginning.” Though the movie may not have zombies and ghosts, it still has mythical creatures that are beloved by many. The legend of Bigfoot (Yeti, Sasquatch, etc) has been a tale that has spanned all throughout the world throughout all time periods and is one that is still relevant today. Diving into the origin of these creatures the question was asked if Mr. Link (and the accompanying Yeti’s) was based on how the Pacific Northwest views the creatures or if it was based on other cultural yetis. Butler stated that some of the other Yeti’s in the film are based on different cultures, but in terms of Mr. Link? “This guy is the Pacific Northwest guy,” states Butler. Arianne follows this by stating, “Yes, this is from our home. When you see the movie, hopefully you’ll see that.”
As the conversation continued on, we got to hear a little bit more about the process of how the story came together. When asked if the ideas come to him fully formed or if it started with the idea of the character, Chris responded, “It was the story. I grew up loving Indiana Jones and Star Wars and all that. I always wanted to do a Raiders of the Lost Ark but in stop-motion with Sherlock Holmes and maybe a little bit of Mighty Joe Young. Basically, you have this Victorian adventurer trying to find Bigfoot and then actually helping Bigfoot find his long lost family. It was a lot of elements from stuff that I grew up loving and that was all really a grab bag of that.” Chris further expanded on the character of Mr. Link by stating, “It became pretty apparent quite quickly that Link, as a character, was going to be a cornerstone. I did this rough drawing many years ago which was basically like a hairy avocado with legs and everyone who saw it loved it. So, I was like, this guy, there’s something here. And I think where we got to with Zach Galifianakis’ as well, I think he’s definitely the heart of the movie.”
Speaking of Zach Galifianakis, the rest of the cast is rounded out with performances by Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Timothy Olyphant, and Emma Thompson. When speaking with Chris and Adrienne, the question arose as to the process of casting for the roles and if the actors come in before the animation begins. Chris confirmed that it was always done before as they are the ones that provide the performance. He went on to say, “They will bring all kinds of nuance and their own ideas to the character that you want to get into the animation. The movie will partly exist in storyboard form at that point and you just keep building it up.” As for the casting itself, he stated, “When I’m writing I have an idea of types [in regards] to whom might this character be played by. In the case of Sir Lionel Frost, the main character, I definitely had Hugh Jackman in mind.”
Arianne further went on to explain the process by saying, “There’s a practical concern in everything Chris has said but also we’re animating really specific mouth shapes, so if we were to record afterwards it would be like the cart before the horse. So it’s really specific to their performance. Like, if you have a British accent, you may shape your vowels, your mouth shape might be different from an American, so that’s something that we are very serious about in getting the performance first. And, as Chris said, he’s doing an entire round of storyboards. We do scratch first and then we replace that with the real actors and that brings a whole other level.”
“There have been on occasion, just for a split second, where I caught myself believing that these characters were living things,” says Chris. “You know, just for a second, I was into it. I was like ‘Of course, they are not. Don’t be ridiculous.’ But that’s the hope. That’s what I want the audience to feel. I want them to be in it. I want them to be taken on this journey with these characters and be compelled and hopefully be entranced by them.” If Chris’ earlier work at Laikia is any indication, audience members will feel that emotional tug as they immerse themselves in the environment that Chris and the animators have created with MISSING LINK.
Now that Chris has tackled family-friendly horror and adventure seeking legends, we were curious to know if the world of sci-fi could be an option for an upcoming Laika film. “Yes, I’ve pitched three projects, all very different,” Chris remarks, “and we went with [MISSING LINK], but one of the others was a sci-fi.” Arianne also agreed saying, “Yes. You can imagine the kinds of people here: the makers, the stop-motion aficionados, the experts within this community, there are a lot of sci-fi fans and horror fans. We really want to make every kind of movie in every genre here at Laikia. We’d like to do a musical, a sci-fi, a western, a romantic comedy…” Chris also agreed with this sentiment stating, “Yeah, all of them together. People often mistaken animation as genre, it’s not. It’s a medium. There’s nothing off the table with this studio. Who knows what we’ll be making next.”
MISSING LINK arrives in theaters April 12th. Stay tuned as we release more behind-the-scenes goodies of our time at Laika Studios.