Advancements in 3D printing and computer-generated imagery technologies open new doors for animators and their lifelike creations.
A frightened woman crosses a storm-swept sea in a tiny canoe as black strands of windblown hair hit her face. Rain pours down her kimono as her fingers clutch a three-stringed Japanese shamisen. A massive wave looms over her canoe, impressing on the viewer how small and human she looks. The woman strums the shamisen, conjuring a magic flame that cuts clean through the wave.
The opening scene in the stop-motion film Kubo and the Two Strings — created by animation studio Laika and released in August — demonstrates what is possible when creators combine puppeteering with 3D printing and computer-generated imagery (CGI) to transport viewers into a surreal fantasy world.
Kubo and the Two Strings follows a young boy — Kubo — on his quest to find a magical suit of armor worn by his late father. The armor is the only thing that can help him defeat a vengeful spirit from the past. The story comes to life thanks to incredibly detailed visuals that are possible because of Laika’s ability to fuse state-of-the-art technologies with 120-year-old stop-motion filmmaking techniques.
“In our 10 years, we’ve learned not only are we filmmakers, we’re engineers, city planners, electricians and adventurers,” said Travis Knight, president and CEO of Hillsboro, Oregon-based Laika.
“We’re a passionate group of artists who believe that the smallest details help tell the bigger story,” he said.
Laika’s artistic skills and maker-movement determination netted them three consecutive Best Animated Feature Film Oscar nominations for Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012) and The Boxtrolls (2014). While the only other stop-motion film to win an Oscar was Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), Kubo and the Two Strings is a strong contender for the 2017 animation Oscar.
To create a stop-motion film, dolls or puppets and objects must be physically moved in small increments between individually photographed frames. This creates the illusion of movement when the photographs are strung together in a sequence. The technique dates back to the late-1800s. Stop-motion animation has since evolved into the age of digital computer animation while maintaining much of its genesis.
Laika leveraged a range of digital technologies to bring its latest stop-motion film to life. Digital compositing, for example, helped blend practical and CG elements together. Fully digital water and sky effects, and computer-generated extras — scanned from real-world models — fill out crowd scenes.
Handcrafted puppets made of plastic or clay can now be created with the help of 3D modeling and 3D printers. CGI has become increasingly affordable and can more easily augment physical set designs.
According to Maija Burnett, director of CalArts’ character animation program, the advent of CGI and 3D printing is precisely what has kept stop-motion alive. Not only has it encouraged filmmakers to get more creative with props and sets, she said, it also gives the creators the ability to animate characters and objects more precisely.
“It allows studios like Laika to create films that, for lack of a better word, can ‘compete’ with films produced by the likes of Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks — while still maintaining and promoting the craft of stop motion,” Burnett said.
By adapting technologies and developing new skillsets, Laika is taking stop-motion filmmaking into the digital age, according to Brian McLean, director of rapid prototyping.
“I was the technical guy bringing this cutting-edge 3D printing technology into this hundred-year-old art form of stop motion,” said McLean, who joined Laika to help make Coraline in 2009 and was in charge of spearheading the film’s revolutionary use of 3D printing for facial animation. Not everyone was on board with moving into the Digital Age right away.
The new technologies caused anxiety among animators and puppeteers because they saw how the advent of CGI replaced many stage jobs in the early 2000s. McLean eventually convinced colleagues that 3D printing wasn’t a threat. Instead, it was a way to keep stop-motion relevant in the digital age and push its storytelling methods forward.
Tackling Challenges with Trusted Tricks and New Technology
According to McLean, one of the biggest misconceptions is that digital effects make stop-motion “easier” to do. On the contrary, one of the most difficult aspects of the film, especially in its opening sequence, was blending the real world objects naturally with the CGI elements into a cohesive world.
“When practical effects are impossible or don’t give us the final performance that we want, only then do we look at CGI, and even then, the effects are always rooted in the physical,” said McLean, describing how Laika augments traditional craft with new technology.
It’s impossible to capture real-life fluids like water with stop-motion, for example, since animators can’t position and reposition liquids as they would a puppet in between shots. Laika’s digital animation team set to making the impossible possible, turning to puppeteering techniques for inspiration.
“The water is actually based off the art department photographing black garbage bags with a grid structure underneath them to make it look like it was actual, physical and frame-by-frame controlled water,” McLean explained.
The Future of Stop Motion Storytelling
Stop-motion animation fans have a growing list of favorites, from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Chicken Run (2000) to Anomalisa (2015).
New technologies helped stop-motion to not only survive but thrive. The rise of cloud computing, including services like Amazon Web Services, is instrumental in giving animators access to enormous amounts of computing power to render their creations.
For Kubo, Laika had to find a way to realize character designs with detail far finer than the animators had ever worked with before. With the help of Stratasys’ new Connex3 printer, they brought characters like Monkey, with her intricate snow-covered fur, and the centipede-like Moon Beast, their first fully 3D-printed character, to life.
3D Printing Moves Stop Motion into the Future
Kubo isn’t the only recent movie that focused on the latest tech. Duke Johnson, co-director of Anomalisa, also found 3D printing to be the only possible method for his quieter, more subtle stop-motion film.
Anomalisa is an adaptation of co-director Charlie Kaufman’s abstract stage play, where the actors sat in chairs and delivered their lines, leaving the rest up to the audience’s imagination. Stop-motion wasn’t a natural fit necessarily, but Johnson and his team weren’t intimidated.
“Since the play’s story wasn’t previously visualized, we thought that opened it up to adding our own twist to it,” Johnson explained.
That twist is that the protagonist sees everyone in the world as the same plain white guy puppet with the same voice, until he meets one woman who quite literally stands out from the crowd.
Johnson said that doing justice to the actors’ “incredible, nuanced performances” led the film naturally to 3D printing. They tried other options, like clay, but found that 3D printing the puppets’ faces allowed for the most facial movement.
Similarly, Laika used 3D printing to refine Kubo’s facial performances, too. While the titular protagonist in their first movie, Coraline, had 200,000 possible facial expressions, the character Kubo has almost 50 million.
Stop Motion for the Masses
Even as advanced 3D printers become the norm in stop-motion, McLean believes tech can also make stop motion more accessible to amateurs.
“You don’t need to have huge fancy expensive cameras or 3D printers,” he said.
“If somebody wants to be an animator,” McLean said, “I recommend they sit and bring something to life — not just make it move, but give it personality. Give it character.”
Stop motion requires time, focus and dedication. It takes diligence and ingenuity. According to McLean, each of Laika’s animators work 40 hours a week to produce just four seconds of amazing footage.
Advancements in computing technologies mean tools like 3D printing, CGI, and cloud rendering are increasingly more affordable, accessible and capable. With these tools and what’s to come, anyone pioneering the century-old craft of stop-motion storytelling is just scratching the surface.