Lost and Found: 'Missing Link'
December 10, 2019

Lost and Found: 'Missing Link'

Chris Butler, writer/director, discusses his most recent project, Laika’s Missing Link, a stop-motion film about Mr. Link, the lovable title character in this globe-trotting comedy-adventure. Then there is Sir Lionel Frost, a dashing adventurer who meets Mr. Link while traveling America’s Pacific Northwest in search of the legendary creature The Missing Link. Mr. Link is lonely, being an endangered species and all, and believes Mr. Frost can help him find his long-lost relatives in the fabled valley of Shangri-La.

Editor’s note: Chris Butler, writer/director, provides insight into his passion for filmmaking and his latest passion project, Laika’s  Missing Link. This is followed by a Q&A conducted by  CGW Chief Editor Karen Moltenbrey with the creative and technical geniuses who brought this film, and Butler’s vision, to life.

There are movies that we watched over and over again as kids. Not because we didn’t understand them the first time, but because we loved them so much. These are the films that became part of the vocabulary of our childhood and have stayed with us forever. When I left the theater after seeing these films, I knew I wanted to make worlds like that. I knew I wanted to make films...and animated films in particular .

Now, I’m not one for hyperbole, but categorically, without a doubt, hands down, beyond question, the best movie ever made in the history of the universe is Raiders of the Lost Ark . It was certainly a defining movie during my childhood, with its swashbuckling derring-do; its deft dance between history and mythology; its larger-than-life characters running the gamut from drama to romance to comedy... well, it pretty much shook my percolating creative mind into a big frothy mess of fantastical possibilities.

And when I wasn't discovering the cinematic delights of whip-cracking archeologists, I was eagerly reading about the exploits of a very different kind of hero, one whose popularity has not waned in over 130 years. As he probed the darkest mysteries of the Victorian Age, eccentric genius Sherlock Holmes had me equally thrilled and tantalized. 

So, on numerous occasions throughout my career , I found myself thinking ‘animation needs a new kind of hero . ’ A little bit Indiana Jones, a little bit Sherlock Holmes. Someone passionate and idiosyncratic and ready to surmount any obstacle in pursuit of his prize. Thus , Sir Lionel Frost was born. And what better pursuit for this dashing animated hero than the search for mythical creatures? Basically, I figured if I was going to throw all of my childhood inspirations into a pot, the stew was going to be seasoned with cool Harryhausen-esque beasts. 

And that brings us to the yang to Sir Lionel's yin. If Sir Lionel is a nod to Sherlock Holmes, then Mr. Link, or Susan as he renames himself in our film, is his very hairy Watson. He’s our titular Missing Link. A Sasquatch. And he's the beating heart of our story. He's basically what you'd get if you crossed John Candy from Planes, Trains and Automobiles with Mighty Joe Young . Stop - motion animation has a rich history of soulful primates (perennially popular King Kong, of course, being the granddaddy of them all), so it seemed the perfect medium with which to realize our hirsute hero.

Everyone has heard legends of the Missing Link...a solitary creature roaming the forests of North America. It turns out he’s a little too solitary. He’s the last of his kind, and he’s lonely. He enlists the help of renowned explorer and investigator of myths, Sir Lionel Frost, to guide him on a quest halfway around the world to the mountains of the Himalayas to find his long - lost relatives, the Yeti. 

The intention was to tell a story that was equal parts ripping yarn and buddy movie. The key to this adventure was not the ‘X marks the spot , ’ but the journey itself, and the relationship that forms between these characters. Sir Lionel and Link are an odd couple on a kaleidoscopic roller - coaster ride spanning the globe. It’s Around The World In 80,000 Frames. (Actually, it’s not, but Around The World In 139,680 Frames isn't a very good play on words.) 

Spectacle aside, I wanted all the action and funny business to be rooted to a genuinely heartfelt theme, in this case: fellowship. Walking in someone else’s footsteps (and in Link's case, they're pretty big footsteps!) can take us on a more rewarding journey. Where we belong in this life isn't about place. It's about people. 

What made this film so different from Laika’s previous stop-motion films?

Steve Emerson, VFX Supervisor: The scope. It was huge. When we began the process, Chris Butler asked us to imagine if David Lean directed “Around the World in 80 Days” starring Laurel and Hardy. It was a globe-trotting adventure, which meant many locations. In total, we built 110 sets for 65 unique locations.

Which set was the most challenging, and why? 

Steve Emerson, VFX Supervisor: It was McVities, the saloon where the bar brawl sequence takes place. One of the biggest challenges with making these films is scheduling. Since animators are capturing performances at a clip of about five seconds per week, we need to have many stages and a lot of animators working simultaneously in order to get these films done within a two-year production period. At peak production, we had 91 units humming – that’s 50 percent more than any of our previous films.

There are never enough puppets and sets to go around, so we’ll oftentimes shoot animation in multiple passes. That happened a lot in McVities. About halfway through the brawl, there’s a high wide shot of Mister Link in the center of the chaos, watching the melee. There are 18 animated performances in that shot. Half are puppets, half are digital characters. We received the stage animation as single puppet performances or in small groups on partial sets. The first puppet performance dropped in February of 2018 and stages delivered the final stage animation three months later.

The problem is, when you’re shooting over a time period that long, sets shift, gels bleach out, and if a greenscreen is used to matte out an area, you get just enough green spill to throw the floor color off. Then when you have all the pieces, you try to puzzle it all together. It’s a huge challenge.

We’ve been using [Foundry’s] Nuke since ParaNorman , and their Furnace Align tool is very helpful in correcting subtle differences in perspective. Also, everything is captured in native stereo, so we end up leveraging The Foundry’s Ocula to correct the many inevitable issues with 3D versions of shots. Lastly, we had a very strong compositing team with great eyes for detail and color. They, and the rotoscoping team, pulled off many miracles in that sequence.

What were the biggest technical achievements in the film?

Brian McLean, Director of Rapid Prototyping: For the Rapid Prototyping department, it was the move to a brand-new and cutting-edge color voxel 3D printing technology. It was the first time since Laika pioneered the use of 3D printing for facial animation on its first film Coraline, that studio elected to use a single 3D printing technology. The move to voxel printing was a huge undertaking and required that most of the studio’s award-winning facial animation pipeline needed to be rewritten. Although voxel color printing had huge potential benefits for color and precision in the early days it was unproven and unpredictable.

Steve Emerson, VFX Supervisor: Prior to Missing Link, we were using [Pixar’s] RenderMan Reyes rendering system for the CG work. Missing Link is our first full show to capitalize on the RIS renderer. It was a difficult transition for our shading team as we had invested so much time into Reyes and practically everything needed to redone. But the benefits were incredible. We were able to review lighting deskside during shot production, as opposed to sending shots to the render farm and having to wait until the next morning to see the results. If you have to wait, chances are there isn’t enough time to fix it in lighting, and you have to work through problems downstream in compositing. I think the quality of our digital work took a big leap with this film, and much of that was due to the interactivity that RIS provided us.

John Craney, Puppet Fabrication Supervisor: For the puppet team, this would be the Link puppet. In order to meet the performance expectations and achieve the physical range of Link’s character, the armature team developed intricate and robust micro internal mechanisms, which enabled Link’s puppet to breathe, stretch, and shift his substantial gait. These internal assemblies represent the most profound and advanced level of engineering built into a Laika character to date. Through skillful and precise manipulation of these mechanical effectors, the animation team were able to find a greater emotional range and insert a beating heart into the performance. 

How much CGI was used, and for what? Why use CGI at all?

Steve Emerson, VFX Supervisor: Making stop-motion films is really difficult. The entire world needs to be built up from nothing. And once you build that world, you still need to bring it to life one frame at a time. This means that stop-motion filmmakers are often asked to simplify or make concessions. That’s why you don’t see big crowds or lots of locations or wardrobe changes in classic stop-motion films. The idea at Laika was to do away with that by enabling filmmakers to tell the stories that they wanted to tell without concessions by leveraging technology.

What’s important to realize is that the digital work on our films is not done in a vacuum. The visual effects team is a part of the process from the beginning of pre-production. Everything is incredibly collaborative, and all of the departments are working together over the course of years. The collaboration is critical to the process. It’s a big part of the reason why we do not outsource any of the visual effects work.

For example, if we’re making a digital background puppet, it’s happening through collaboration with the puppet team. They’re providing physical materials to us and consulting on the nuances of the puppet builds. For instance, how the pieces of hair are woven together to create a specific puppet hair groom and the types of material that is being used for each strand. We then replicate their process, solicit feedback, and work with them until we all feel comfortable that the digital puppet has the same physicality and nuanced characteristics of the stop-motion puppets on the stages.

We endeavor to get everything in-camera, but if a director is calling for an image and there are not enough physical elements or puppets to realize the shot, we’re not afraid to integrate CG. The only exception is the main characters. They’re always hand-animated puppets. We don’t break that rule.

With Missing Link, we were faced with creating a globe-trotting adventure that featured many real-world locations – London, the Pacific Northwest, Santa Ana, California, the American Southwest, New York, France, Switzerland, India…. With Kubo, we made a film that took place in a mythical Japan. So if you had a background character or a prop, that asset could be leveraged throughout the film. With Missing Link, we wanted to make sure that background characters and environments were authentic and respectful of their different cultures. To pull that off, we ended up building more than double the number of digital assets that were used on Kubo .

In total, we built 531 digital assets and 182 background puppets to realize Chris Butler’s vision and tell the story of Missing Link.  

What types of 3D printers were used? 

Brian McLean, Director of Rapid Prototyping: We have six Stratasys J750 3D printers combined with Cuttlefish slicing software, two Stratasys Connex 3 printers, and one Autodesk Ember printer.

What kind of printers did you use on your last film, Kubo?  

Brian McLean, Director of Rapid Prototyping: Nearly a year before filming began on Missing Link, Laika was testing brand-new, as-yet-released, color 3D printing technology called the J750 printer, made by Stratasys. Although Laika had been using 3D color printers since its second feature, ParaNorman, this new technology from Stratasys is revolutionary, allowing for unprecedented accuracy and detail. In order to precisely control each 3D pixel (voxel) Laika partnered with Fraunhofer, a German research facility, in their development of advanced 3D slicing software, Cuttlefish.

How was rapid prototyping used in the film? 

Brian McLean, Director of Rapid Prototyping: We have combined the age-old technique of replacement animation with 21st century 3D printing technology.

We first animate facial performances in [Autodesk’s] Maya, and then export each facial expression as OBJ geometry. The OBJs are sent to Cuttlefish, sliced into BMPs, and imported into Stratasys voxel printing software. Each facial expression is 3D printed in full color. We 3D print thousands of different expressions, sometimes 24 unique faces are need for one second of film.

Can you detail the “numbers” associated with Missing Link

Brian McLean, Director of Rapid Prototyping: We printed over 106,000 unique faces for Missing Link. More than any other film in history. Lionel alone had over 39,000 faces, and Link had 27,000. The Rapid Prototyping team printed more than just replacement faces; in total during the production of Missing Link ,we printed well over a quarter of a million parts.

There are a lot of different character types in the film. Which was the most difficult to create and why? 

Brian McLean, Director of Rapid Prototyping: Mr. Link (Susan) was by far the most complicated character the RP department has ever created. The silicone fur surrounding Mr. Link’s face was animated through replacement animation. By removing and replacing a 3D printed ‘ring,’ the fur would change shape. Each 3D printed ring was designed to make sure the fur properly matched the shape of all of his 3D printed faces.

John Craney, Puppet Fabrication Supervisor: Mr. Link’s puppet probably makes the top of the list. From the get-go, Link’s design had some clear and significant fabrication hurdles to overcome. Tall, plump, and weighty characters are always challenging from a puppet maker’s perspective. The addition of fur to Link’s design added further complexity. The journey from paper to stage for this character involved significant development in engineering, in materials research, and molding and casting techniques. It also included many rounds of testing prototype versions. About two-thirds into the development of Link, we had several carts loaded with little orange bodies, skins, and severed heads, somewhat like a miniature warzone and comically macabre. The horse and the elephant builds also had significant levels of complexity; we had established a rather ambitious brief. We wanted to give these creatures physical integrity, gravity, and weight. Our objective was to add visual depth to their performance. This involved the addition of bones and layers of stylized muscle groups built into and around the armature and underlying mechanisms, using strategic tethering, stretching, and positioning of super-soft silicone skins over these structures. After many arduous trials (wrestling with 20 kilos of elephant skin is no easy task), we finally succeeded in achieving the effect we were after. 


How did you create Mr. Link’s fur?

John Craney, Puppet Fabrication Supervisor: Our approach to creating Link’s fur was anchored firmly by a clear design brief. Link’s fur should have natural depth and echo the shifting anatomy of Link’s body. We had to consider several factors in our approach to constructing Link’s fur. We needed to create a fur surface that could be handled without the need for adjustment frame by frame, without surface boil or chatter – something evident in the style of stop-motion films, from Fantastic Mr. Fox to King Kong. An effect that has its own quality but is not the look we sought for Link. We landed on fur that was layered with a matrix of fur clusters that could shift and separate independently but be driven en masse by the articulation of Link’s body. Link’s body fur is a silicone composite skin, the fur pieces are cast in a silicone with the same firmness as, say, car tire rubber. These pieces are backed by a much softer, more elastic silicone membrane. When Link’s body twisted, stretched, and compressed, the backing skin would follow, pulling and separating the fur pieces. The fur clusters, being firmer, maintained their form without distorting, somewhat like attaching overlapping rows of clothes pegs to a sheet of lycra. Silicone also has an inherent memory, meaning the animators were able to handle the puppet and any disruption to the fur’s surface would rebound to its original position once released without causing unwanted boil or chatter. Simple, but effective.

Was the snow practical?

Steve Emerson, VFX Supervisor: When the puppets step into the snow and leave footprints behind, that’s all done practically. The stop-motion animators never cease to amaze me. There’s a moment at the beginning of the Shangri-la sequence where the camera begins in close-up on a bank of snow. Six or seven chunks of snow tumble past camera and leave tracks. This motivates a sweeping camera move that reveals the Shangri-la gateway. iI’s one of my favorite shots in the film.

The animation of the snow chunks was done in-camera. And when we shot it, we got these great spec highlight coming off the snow. Problem was, as the camera began to move – those little spec highlights began to dance around in a very unnatural and disruptive way. When you’re that close on that much detail with such delicate elements and everything is moving millimeters at a time, it happens.

Once the animation was completed, we went back and a shot plate, then our roto/paint team stepped in and calmed all the dancing highlights. 

What about some of the other elements, such as the grass, fog, clouds, ice? 

Steve Emerson, VFX Supervisor: For the meadow where Sir Lionel discovers Mr. Link, we shot all of the grass in-camera. That said, when the wind blows and the grass waves, we went back into the shots and replaced it. Initially we tried to get creative with distortion in 2D, but it just didn’t look right. Also, a big part of Chris Butler’s vision was having explicit patterning throughout the film, and he wanted the grass to reflect those patterns, so we needed more control. One of our lead compositors, Timur Khodzhaev, developed a particle system in Nuke to hit the look. 

Clouds were developed through collaboration with the art department. Joey Beckley, our senior VFX designer, spearheaded the skies and clouds using [Planetside Software’s] Terragen. It’s the case with all of these films. Clouds and skies are never reflections of reality with simple time-of-day adjustments; they have to reflect the film’s tenets of design in order feel like they belong in the universe of the movie. Terragen was able to give Joey that level of control. The show’s patterning and simple shape language – it’s in all of the clouds and skies.

One of the most challenging shots was the one that opens the movie. Chris Butler called for the camera to begin on the shores of Loch Ness and then soar low across the surface of the water while passing through banks of fog until finally the camera lands in close-up on Sir Lionel. The fog elements were generated in [SideFX’s] Houdini and passed to our compositors, who had a 2.5D setup. But it’s never as easy as dropping realistic fog performances into a comp and integrating them. Chris kept asking us to simplify the shape language and integrate more patterning. Those battles were waged in Houdini and Nuke. 

Were there any 2D effects?

Steve Emerson, VFX Supervisor: Effects were all done either in-camera, using Houdini, or using Nuke. 

What were some of the more unusual creation techniques you employed on the film, and for what?

Steve Emerson, VFX Supervisor: There are several sequences in Missing Link that take place in windy environments. For Mister Link’s fur movement, we treated his silicone fur with invisible UV paint. It’s a clear coat that when you expose it with UV light, it glows. We painted the fur denser at the tips and more transparent at the roots, and then on every frame, exposed the puppet first in the film lighting, then switched the lighting on the set to do another exposure in the same pose with UV light. We ended up with a separate animation pass where Link is covered in glowing colors. We then leveraged color channels in those passes as alphas to drive distortion. The effect ended up looking very natural. Chris loved it.

How did this film push the boundaries of stop motion?

Steve Emerson, VFX Supervisor: There is a big, cutty action sequence that takes place during the film’s climax in the ice bowl. Some of those shots are as short as six or seven frames. And you just don’t do that in stop-motion. The reason is that every shot – regardless of whether it is six frames or 60, requires the same amount of setup. You have to position the camera. Check lineup frames, go through multiple stages of approvals, block, rehearse, and then finally animate. Best case, you’re ready to start after a couple of days. Also, action gets complicated in stop-motion as there is no camera blur because you are exposing single images, so if things are moving really fast, you’ll end up with a strobing effect that is very distracting. We contended with the strobing by either having an animator do in-camera blurs on single frames, or applied camera blur or paint strokes in post-production. There are 1,486 shots in Missing Link, it’s the most we’ve ever done on any of our films, and it’s largely because of that scene.

This is your fifth feature, how do you continue innovating with each movie?

Brian McLean, Director of Rapid Prototyping: On each Laika film, the Rapid Prototyping department is responsible for he sculpture detail, sophisticated color, and the subtle acting ability of each character’s face. It is our responsibility to make sure that the technology we use compliments the film’s design aesthetic and story. With each new film, the studio is redefining what is possible with the medium of stop-motion animation. We let the creative demands be our barometer, and then we figure out what innovation needs to occur in order to fulfil the director’s and studio’s vision.  

Steve Emerson, VFX Supervisor: Every film has its own unique challenges. Part of the fun is overcoming them as a team. There’s so much talent at this studio, it’s inevitable that when you bring a problem to a room filled with people like that, you’re going to end up with a process and ultimately an image that looks distinct. Because chances are, it’s probably a solution that nobody has been crazy enough to chase before. I love that about this place. I remember reading that David Copperfield spent seven years developing a magic trick where he would fly around the stage independent of wires. That’s what we’re doing here, spending years creating magic, except we keep the wires in the shot -- then shoot a clean plate and paint them out in post.

John Craney, Puppet Fabrication Supervisor: I think many of us consider that stop motion is a technique, not a look. Preserving the physical performance of the stop-motion animator is at the core of what we do. We seek not to be fenced in by old school principles and techniques, we continue to embrace the hybrid CG practical approach. An infamous 2D animator once said there are tens of thousands of new worlds, new creatures, and new beings at the tip of a 2D pencil, and Laika takes every opportunity to explore new ideas, technology, and processes not unlike the philosophy at the tip of that pencil.