How 'Kubo and the Two Strings' Combines Origami, Digital Effects and a 16-Foot Puppet

Director Travis Knight calls Laika Entertainment's ambitious new animated movie a "miniature David Lean film."
Focus Features

A 16-foot stop-motion puppet and unprecedented numbers of possible facial expressions made Kubo and the Two Strings, which Focus Features releases today, the most ambitious film yet from Oregon-based stop-motion studio Laika Entertainment.

“We were trying to do a Kurosawan myth and miniature David Lean film,” says first-time director Travis Knight, who is also the president and CEO of Laika. “In stop-motion we are building worlds, and nothing comes for free. I tried to tell the biggest, richest, most evocative story we could tell. [But] we were shooting on a tabletop in a warehouse and making it look like a majestic vista. This really challenged the crew.”

Fortunately these artists thrive on challenges.

Kubo is the studio’s fourth stop-motion animated feature, the prior three being Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, all of which earned the respect of the animation community and Oscar nominations. Laika's latest — which has a 95 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and took five years to develop and make — is a Japan-set fantasy that follows young Kubo (Art Parkinson), who accidentally summons a spirit from his past. He joins forces with Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) to defeat the vengeful Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and evil twin sisters (Rooney Mara).

While built around stop-motion, Kubo is effectively a hybrid film, bridging the century-old stop-motion process with the latest digital tools and visual effects to tell its story.

To create the expressive characters, Laika used modern computing and 3D-printing technology to design many, many parts of each character's face digitally — such as different eye or mouth positions — and those designs then were printed out using a color 3D printer. They were then swapped out on each puppet's face, frame by frame, to create different expressions in stop-motion. This clever approach — which Laika also applied to all of its previous films — was recognized with a scientific and engineering award earlier this year at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Scientific and Technical Awards.

With the use of this technique, the title character in 2009’s Coraline had 6,333 total faces printed, which could be combined into 207,000 possible facial expressions. For 2012's ParaNorman — the first time a color printer was used — Norman’s face had 9,121 parts printed, amounting to 1.5 million possible facial expressions.

Laika extended the range of emotions for Kubo, with 11,007 unique mouth expressions, 4,429 unique brow expressions and a total of 23,187 faces printed for more than 48 million possible expressions.

But that was just the beginning of how the Laika artists pushed themselves with Kubo. The film’s Moon King is Laika’s first fully 3D-printed puppet, made up of roughly 881 individual parts, 130 of which are color 3D-printed and 751 of which are a combination of metal body and leg armature components, as well as other internal pieces. The look was based on a prehistoric fish.

A giant skeleton that Kubo must face is Laika’s largest stop-motion puppet yet, weighing 400 pounds and standing 16 feet high from head to toe (the lower and upper half were filmed separately in most shots), with a 23-foot wingspan. The arms were controlled by rigs suspended from the ceiling and counter-weighted like an enormous marionette.

This skeleton is also Knight’s tip of the hat to legendary animator Ray Harryhausen and his iconic stop-motion skeleton battle in 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts.

Japanese art also inspired the new work. The paper-folding art of origami is part of both the story and the film’s aesthetic.

More subtle is the influence of woodblock printing. The film’s opening scene, set on the sea, includes a nod to Katsushika Hokusai, an artist and printmaker from the Edo period, and his famous work The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

The team also found inspiration in the work of woodblock master Kiyoshi Saito. “We incorporated Saito’s beautiful wood finishes all through the film,” says Knight.

Knight was a lead animator on Laika's prior films, and though this time his primary role was that of director, he admits he had a hand in animating a couple of scenes on Kubo, "primarily the film's prologue, when Kubo's mom is on the beach, crawling through the sand."

"I didn't think, when I committed to this, that you have all the tiny little grains of sand and mud," he says. "It’s a nightmare to keep track of all that stuff [in stop-motion]. And the worst thing was, I needed time. I bit off way more than I could chew. I figured, I can animate, direct and run the company. But I couldn’t handle it; it was too much. The main thing that I had to give was animating. I still did; it just took forever. I would come in the morning before anyone showed up and crank out a few frames before the day would begin. And at the end of the day, I'd go back on set and crank out a few more frames. As an animator, it's frustrating to work that way. But I love it, I can't not do it."

“I’m worn out,” he admits. “But I can’t wait to do another.”

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