How 'Missing Link' Filmmakers Blew Up an Ice Bridge in Stop-Motion Animation

Combining its animation prowess, custom-made technical rigs and digital wizardry, Laika created a complex showdown inspired by Indiana Jones, involving explorers and a yeti in the Himalayas.
Laika Studios/Annapurna Pictures
(From left) Scene from 'Missing Link.' Stop-motion animator Dobrin Yanev on set.

Oregon-based Laika already undertakes a mountainous task with each film it makes; the stop-motion animation and digital effects house is known for painstakingly creating its puppets and miniature sets by hand. But when it came to its latest film, Missing Link, the studio was faced with one of the most daunting scenes it has ever executed — a chase across a crumbling ice bridge.

Missing Link is a globe-trotting adventure that follows explorer Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), who encounters a yeti named Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis) and agrees to help him find his relatives in the Himalayas and the fabled Shangri-La. It's the fifth film from Laika, following Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls and Kubo and the Two Strings — all of which received Oscar nominations.

The new movie features numerous moments that required the filmmakers to flex their muscles — one scene with Mr. Link's pants ripping at the derriere involved a specialty rig that pulled the seams apart and pushed the yeti's fur through the tear. And for the film's climax in the mountains, the filmmakers wanted to portray Frost and Mr. Link, along with adventurer Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), balanced precariously on an ice bridge with the villains in hot pursuit.

Writer-director Chris Butler says he aimed to give the scene a live-action dynamic, and turned to one of film's most iconic chase sequences — Indiana Jones speeding across the desert toward the Nazis with the stolen artifact in Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark. "It has a narrative and a rhythm," Butler says of Raiders. "I wanted to approach the sequence in the same way, including shots that are really short, quick cuts. You get that in a live-action movie because there's shot coverage."

But coverage is not typical in a movie meticulously planned frame by frame, where even the fastest animators might produce just a couple of seconds of animation in a day. Says Butler, "That's hard to justify on a stop-motion schedule, but I felt having quick cuts gave it a different feeling."

VFX supervisor Steve Emerson adds that there are roughly 200 shots in the six minutes of action.

The sequence starts with an encounter on the bridge that was shot mostly in camera with puppets and full-scale components of the bridge built on a soundstage (one of roughly 110 miniature sets, including a full miniature bridge, that were constructed for the movie). The bridge was built of clear casting urethane resin in order to achieve the look of the ice without its turning yellow, explains production designer Nelson Lowry.

As the pursuit heats up, the bridge collapses. There were 64 individually rigged ice blocks that could be independently controlled for the shot in which the bridge begins to break. The actual destruction of the bridge was digitally created in the computer, and the puppets were composited into the action. Before it's over, some are dangling from a rope, trying to gain safe footing. Butler says this was one of the toughest scenes Laika has ever tackled, and the artistry and heart-racing story have garnered Laika a slew of nominations, including multiple Annie Awards and a Golden Globe.
 

For the backdrop of the mountain range and the valley below, Emerson says, the filmmakers created "environmental maquettes" — they built miniature sets, scanned them into the computer and added these digital elements in the completed shots.

Lowry explains that starting out with sets built from scratch "imbues that handmade quality that's also in the puppets."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.