Sun. Dec 15th, 2019

LAIKA’s ‘Missing Link’ – What if David Lean directed ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ starring Laurel and Hardy?

Writer/Director Chris Butler (Courtesy of LAIKA Studios and Annapurna Pictures)

Writer/director Chris Butler’s vision for MISSING LINK challenged LAIKA’s award-winning team of artists to produce the biggest and most complicated stop-motion animated film in history

Chris Butler wore multiple hats on Missing Link: writer, director, character designer and storyboard artist. “When I was really young, I didn’t even know that it was possible to create things like films for a living.  I was not surrounded by artists or creatives.  To have had the incredibly good fortune to find myself at LAIKA, a place where a community of diverse but like-minded artists from all over the world comes together to make magic, is often unfathomable to me.”  

Butler’s pitch for his next LAIKA movie after 2012’s Oscar-nominated ParaNorman went something like this: “What if David Lean directed Around the World in Eighty Days starring Laurel and Hardy?” The idea appealed to LAIKA President & CEO Travis Knight on many levels. “Fundamentally, the film is about connectivity,” he says. “It’s about empathy and moving from isolation to connection. It has a really potent emotional story at the core, and yet on the top of it we put this beautiful veneer of an incredibly exciting swashbuckling adventure and comedy that harkens back to Jules Verne and Indiana Jones. It’s a really cool turn-of-century tale with monsters. I thought that was a really exciting story to tell in animation.” 

Butler was clearly influenced by his favorite movie of all time, Raiders of the Lost Ark but also by a whole slew of other films and works of literature. “There’s the whole Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes canon and everything that Jules Verne wrote had an enormous impact on me,” he says. “The original 1956 film adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days resonated in my brain with its luscious, almost lurid, vibrant color palette, the scope of adventure and big comedy moments.”

“I’ve always been interested in pushing the boundaries of the stop motion medium,” Butler says. “Before LAIKA came along, the scope of a traditional stop motion movie was always quite small and there are plenty of practical reasons for that. There are physical puppets being moved on physical sets and that’s incredibly hard and that often resulted in a rather small universe in which to tell stories.”

In Butler’s mind, there are indisputable elements in creating a crackling good comedic action/adventure yarn. A period setting; a bold and passionate hero; big adventure set pieces; and exotic locales. 

“LAIKA doesn’t recognize the normal boundaries that stop motion has been governed by for almost a century,” he says. “So, we set out to do everything that could be done in a live action movie, but in miniature.”

To achieve a solid foundation for his vision, Butler relied on all his department heads, including Annie Award-winning Production Designer Nelson Lowry and Costume Designer Deborah Cook, who was the first costume designer on an animated film ever nominated for the coveted Costume Designers Guild award.

Costume Designer Deborah Cook (Courtesy of LAIKA Studios and Annapurna Pictures)

Cook felt a keen mandate to enhance Chris Butler’s vision through the film’s costuming.  “Looking at the characters, the dialogue, the heart and the comedy in Chris’ story, my job was to find components in costume that would really support that vision and bring out our characters individual personalities. For example, Mr. Link steals a suit from someone in the Pacific Northwest logging town.  Being wedged into that suit is going to contribute to the comedy factor given how it fits around those lovable curves. It’s very pinched under the armpits and the front of the vest is extremely tight, fur tufts are poking through in areas and the legs and arms are too short. It grips around that wobbly belly. That provided a comedic aspect to this costume. Finding those elements of the silly factor and the essential nods that support the narrative was imperative and a very rewarding process.”

Sir Lionel’s suit is another example of how costume reveals character.  “The shaping of the hounds tooth pattern in his suit is very sharp, very elegant,” Cook says. “It’s tailored and sleek.  It’s kind of pinched and pointed in its pattern and that supports Lionel’s personality, but also gives a formality and a ‘city gent’ aspect to his clothing.” Both suit fabrics were created at the studio from the ground up with LAIKA’s own technique. 

“Adelina’s costumes reveal that she is a rebellious woman,” Cook says. “When we first see her, she’s wearing a mourning dress following her husband’s death.  But the color of the dress is vivid fuchsia. It’s not the Victorian dusky gray, navy or black that would traditionally be used for a mourning dress.  The audience registers there’s something underlying in the choice of color in that dress that propels the story forward but also gives you a clue to her personality.  And then there is Adelina’s adventure suit.  She’s wearing a swan-bill corset which is super sucked in and tight, very curvaceous and a little racy and a very liberating progression from a Victorian corset or bustle which was very constricting, big and bulky, and hid the female form. She wanted to wear those pants. They’re big, voluminous and agile.

“Not only is she a female,” adds Butler. “She’s a widow, and she’s an immigrant.  That was by no means an accident and Deborah’s costumes reinforce that.  I wanted her to be an outsider.  When she talks to Lionel in the ice pit and he’s sulking about wanting to be accepted by the snobby Optimates Club of adventurers, he tells her she could never understand what he feels.  She rolls her eyes because she is an immigrant woman in Victorian times.” 

Production Designer Nelson Lowry (Courtesy of LAIKA Studios and Annapurna Pictures)

The production design on Missing Link can best be described as “epic”, “colorful” and “highly stylized.” Lowry found inspiration in Victorian patterning such as elaborate wallpapers and textiles. These patterns occur throughout the film, from the roof tiling to the leaves of trees. Another design influence was the photography of National Geographic magazine, which brought vibrancy, adventure and new cultures into homes. The film heightens this unique, almost exaggerated color (with the exception of the somewhat neutral Optimates Club, which is stuck in its very definitive ‘black and white’ world view).

“There’s no resting on our laurels with this film,” Lowry adds.  “We created 110 sets and 65 unique locations.  We go from one location to the other, an average of one new environment every 5 minutes. We never get to ‘establish’ a setting.  We have to start from scratch on each and every location from a design perspective because we’re traversing different countries, different cultures, and different geographic situations: from urban London to the Pacific Northwest to the ocean to the jungles of India and the snowy landscape of Shangri-La. Each moment of the film is completely unique and fresh. And the scale was an enormous challenge with big locations.  We sometimes built a small section of location and then in order for the audience to infer what is outside of that, we leaned on the VFX Department.

Lowry sums it up this way: “When I think of all the parts that go into putting a film like this together, I think of seeing an oil painting in a museum.  It’s astounding.  The light, the character, the story that it’s telling, the contrast, the perspective.  And at some point, I find myself thinking.  ‘This came from little dabs of paint on a brush.  Someone actually took those dabs of color and created a whole world which is now giving me a profound experience.  In a way, we do that same thing. We just use a lot of different materials and there are a lot of people doing it. But, essentially, we’re creating a whole world, a whole story out of nothing.  We take yards of fabric, plywood, paper, paint and we create a setting for great voice actors and animators to bring the story to life.  It’s what I love about our films.” 

Perhaps Hugh Jackman, who voiced Sir Lionel, sums up LAIKA’s ambitious undertaking best. “When I toured the LAIKA studio I was just amazed,” Jackman recalls. “First of all, the size of it, the number of artists involved, the amount of time it takes to make one frame: 24 frames a second! The years it takes and the level of artistry to make these films.  It’s a mixture of the size of the operation, the hours they put in, and the people!  If you’re going to spend that much time over the course of years, you have to love it… and they all love it.”

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