While visiting LAIKA Studios for the upcoming release of their newest stop-motion animated film MISSING LINK, I had the chance to take part in a conversation with production designer Nelson Lowry. As our tour began, Lowry introduced himself and explained that as the production manager he works with the director and the head of the studio in describing the look and feel for a film. As he leads us to the makeshift sound stages, he turns to us and says, “It’s always refreshing bringing people around at the end of a show because I get to see it through other people’s eyes and I remember, ‘Oh yeah. This is really cool stuff we do.’”
Lowry’s role is one that starts early on with breaking down the script and thinking about all the locations. “I have to be cognizant of how big and how complex the build is going to be,” Lowry explains, “because if you are responsible for designing a film, that’s one thing, but if you’re responsible for actually designing a film that can be made, that’s another. It’s a bit trickier, so you want to design a film that can be finished because you have to be responsible for it.” In regards to MISSING LINK, this was definitely a challenge that the designers took head-on as it is one of their most demanding to date, especially in terms of locations. “This [film] takes place around the world. It’s particularly challenging in so much that most films you’d return to the same location, or say someone’s house. It was a pretty punishing design schedule,” remarks Lowry. “I tried to start off by designing a couple of really different sets so then I could spread out the sort of concept of the film across all of the sixty locations.” Lowry goes on to explain that once the locations are determined he then begins to pull references, and when time permits, they travel to the locations. However, since this film takes place at the turn of the century some of the places they were imagining didn’t exist. That’s when Lowry and a slew of other designers would start sketching out designs in hopes that they would mirror the time period in which MISSING LINK takes place.
Sketching is key and Lowry and his team usually amass over a hundred pieces of artwork to show. “Because we build a whole world from scratch, this artwork has to be very literal,” explains Lowry. “Meaning, it’s not going to be interpreted again once it goes into the workshops, it will be built this way and look this way because there are so many variables. We really try to have all of the artwork designs approved by the director and the head of the studio before we launch the builds into the workshop.” For Lowry though, it’s not just about the sketching as he is part of the entire process from working alongside the art director to check-ins with the digital effects, as well as being present during post-production. For him, he’s as hands-on as he can be.
So what does Lowry think of MISSING LINK? “I love this one. It was really fun to do a bright and colorful film,” Lowry says with a smile. “Also check out the color design, I’m proud of it, I think it’s somewhat unique.” He goes on to explain that each location has about three or four limited color palettes so that each location that is visited leaves a lasting and exciting visual feast for our eyes. This also coincides with the stylization of the characters. “You kind of have to stylize everything, you know? It can’t be too realistic, it can’t get too dollhouse-y.” Lowry continues by saying, “even though you may think some of the sets are that way, if you look closely, you’ll see that the proportions are really stretched and changed. We can’t buy anything off the shelf, so the angles and shapes are based on the same angles and shapes of the characters.”
The character of Link is a big part of those shapes in regards to those elongated limbs that he has. Lowry goes on to explain, “It comes from strong character design and I do believe these were really strong characters. Chris Butler [the director] also designed the characters. He’s a real all arounder. I started by taking the silhouettes of the characters and then looking for common shapes. I broke them down to tubes and circles and triangles and they did very neatly fall into those categories. I then took those proportions and tried to imbue them into all of the proportions… I mean, the furniture and things like that are obvious because I have to sit in them. Everything else has some taste of that, even the Statue of Liberty here has the odd simplification of the face and the triangle nose, so we have to always be thinking of that kind of stuff when building.”
Furthermore, when it came to anchoring the puppets to the floors of the surface, a tedious process that only the most patient of people have, Lowry goes on to describe how they consider that when creating the walkable surfaces. “We certainly have to know where they are going to walk. We discovered that through pop throughs, but the feet have to be tied down [because] the puppets are heavy and not balanced. They have threaded rods that go up through the steps so every time the animator has a character take a step, they have to undo it. As that character starts to descend, the animator has to start screwing it up and then they unscrew the other foot and then that lifts up. This makes holes in the floor and if you can’t tie it against something it won’t balance. A lot of stuff looks soft, but can be very hard.”
All this hard work, though, is worth it for the end result as MISSING LINK looks absolutely breathtaking. With beautiful, lush locations and some of the best animation you’ll ever see on screen, MISSING LINK is a reminder of the immense talent and devotion that these animators and designers at LAIKA possess. With all that said, prepare for a visual melody, unlike anything you’ve experienced when MISSING LINK arrives in theaters April 12, 2019.