We offer you a glimpse at a legendary creature, lost in time. Neither ape nor man, but a giant. He wears his heart not on his sleeve but his face. His grin stretches the entire width of his figure-eight-shaped head surrounded by a ball of bright orange mixed fur. His eyes hang at the top, pinched tightly together but still capable of darting, pointing, inquiring, and absorbing his surroundings. Resting right above his lip is a pink pig nose, almost as wide and open as his smile. You can’t shrink in fear from a beast with such a snout. Your only impulse is to nuzzle him, and yet, all he has known is scorn.
He has many names: Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Devil Monkey, Mister Link. He prefers Susan, taken from a young prospector who tried their luck on the high mountain rivers only to discover the mythical beast and offered a smile rather than a scream. He’s searched his entire life for a family as warm and welcoming as that fleeting woman, but mostly all that he encounters is anger, disgust, and hatred. Susan loves his forest home in the Pacific Northwest, and yet he is compelled to seek a clan of cousins on the other side of the world. Whispers of Yetis have reached his ears, but who will guide him to their acceptance?
Missing Link, the latest stop-motion parade from Laika Studios, is the globe-trotting saga of Susan (Zach Galifianakis) and his glory hound guide Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman). Desperate for the attention of his famous adventurer peers, Frost refuses to settle for one Bigfoot discovery when he could claim a whole armada of lost cryptozoological wonders. Together they travel across America’s wild west, over the pond to Europe, and through the treacherous paths of the Himalayas. Along the way, they collect the widow of a former colleague, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), who holds the key to Frost’s fame and fortune as well as his bitter heart that resulted from long ago romantic rejection.
Written and directed by Chris Butler, Missing Link is the first Laika Studios production not to feature a child as the protagonist. This allows for a broader range of emotional experience and a grander canvas of threat to propel their heroes upon. Butler has been with Laika since the beginning, working as a storyboard supervisor and character designer on Coraline. He was the writer/director on ParaNorman, and the co-screenwriter of Kubo and the Two Strings. Talk to anyone on the production and they will confirm that Missing Link is his baby, driven by his 2D designs and a force of will that never wavered since conception began five years ago.
While Laika was putting the finishing touches on the film’s title credits, I and several other journalists flew to Hillsboro, Oregon to visit their massive studio headquarters. We entered through a rather ordinary studio lobby surrounded by white walls covered in production art, character designs, and the Witchy Wieners restaurant sign from ParaNorman. We were met by our guide Dan Pascal who offered us a conference room to drop off our bags, and he inevitably had to rip us away from obsessing over Coraline’s popcorn composed cherry blossoms that flanked the coffee maker. He assured us that if we appreciated those props, we would lose our minds over what they had in store for the rest of the tour.
Once you get beyond the office space setting, Laika headquarters is a gargantuan, cavernous dwelling. The warehouse carries an echo like an airport hanger, encouraging guests to keep their volume to a whimper. Sectioned off by long drapes of black cloth that hang from the ceiling, each location-set perfectly hidden from curious eyes. We were first steered to a display of Missing Link’s puppets and wardrobe but also told that behind several of these curtains was another not-yet-announced production still in-progress. The compulsion to penetrate the secrecy was intense, and only my staunch professionalism kept me in check. That and abject fear of being denied the marvels I had only just so far glimpsed.
Laika’s puppet department equals about 20,000 square feet of their studio space. According to Puppet Fabrication Supervisor John Craney, they can accommodate up to “100ish” artists, and Missing Link practically maxed them out with 86. This includes a variety of disciplines and skill sets including jewelers, illustrators, engineers, textile experts, hairdressers, and potters. The first step to bringing the characters to life before the cameras are to transform Chris Butler’s 2D designs into physical 3D sculpts. This is achieved by model maker Kent Melton, who has accomplished the task since Coraline. Once Kent’s maquettes are approved by the director, the puppet team must realize the mechanics of movement.
Craney huddled us around the Susan puppet. We all scooched in, each wanting the best possible view of our new friend. “What’s the worst case scenario for a character puppet?” Craney asked rhetorically. “Well, a large, husky character covered in hair and fur, and over a foot tall. And so we have our Mr. Link here.” After they generated the maquettes, they passed them down to every department of production for scrutiny. When Craney met Susan, he was challenged. “Okay, well it’s a beautiful, beautiful design,” he recognized. “We need to stick to this design, but we also need to create a performance tool for animation. And sometimes there’s a conflict with anatomy.” One look at Susan’s bulbous, brutish body and you understood that some form of biological wizardry was required to accomplish movement.
“Maintaining this form was one our first challenges, and keeping this shape robust,” explained Craney. “So we break this character down, we look at the pivot points, and we take a second sculpt.” Their department model maker then reconstructs the design, minus the fur and costume. “We drop the arms down, we bring the forearms in, and we drop the knees, and what it does is it gives us a neutral position.” The puppets are made from silicone urethane which allows them to stretch without tearing, folding, or buckling. At this point, the armaturists enter their arena and construct the puppet skeleton.
The armature is the foundation of performance. “What we’re really building is a tool for the actors,” said Craney. “Our animators, by proxy, create the illusion of life.” Birthing a character from paper to maquette to puppet to animator normally takes around nine months. Susan took a little bit longer because of his enormous size requiring more than 250 components. With the science of design mastered, duplication becomes necessary. In Missing Link there are eleven naked Susans and twelve clothed Susans.
Missing Link is set in the era of 1890 – 1910. Costume designer Deborah Cook thought it crucial to dress the characters in the fashion and the cloth of that time period. She studied the various sewing and fabricating techniques that were used then and drew inspiration from the artists of that day. “There were a lot of evolvements in dyeing techniques, ” she said, “instead of using natural pigments, where Victorians would have worn dusty grays in their suits, they started dyeing things with synthetic dyes, and really vivid fuchsias, like Adelina’s dress, and the bright, vivid turquoise of Lionel’s cravat and his suit.”
Machine Age dress was very fashion-forward and experimental which gave Cook permission to populate her costumes with radical colors to match the globetrotting adventure. “It’s a bit of a heady combination between Lionel and Adelina’s costumes, which fitted the uptempo color we wanted for this movie,” she continued. “For Lionel’s suit, we had to find a way of creating houndstooth, which is notoriously awful to shoot digitally.” When working in miniature Cook could not simply run off to the fabric shop. “We had to work out how to get the size of these squares to trick our pixels in our digital camera, and for one color not to stand prouder than the other on the screen.” Only through trial and error did Cook solve the problem of houndstooth, creating their own tiny pattern of interlocking star shapes. And that’s just one piece of one outfit.
Susan is crammed into a small man’s plaid coat. If he and Lionel expect to survive their journey, they will have to adopt a clandestine personality. Susan snatches the costume off an unconscious customer after an opportune barroom brawl. “So it doesn’t fit him,” said Cook. “It’s very pinched, it’s very tight, but we can control this pinching and stretch around his body, and the shaping by the digital embroidering.” The outfit is sewn flat, and only appears under tension. “Where we put that line work, and how we do the embroidering, gives the impression it’s very, very tall on his body, but it isn’t,” she explained the trickery. “It’s just the way we’ve controlled the stitching, worked with the pattern, cutting around his shape. So [Susan’s outfit] is very, very spread, and not a regular kind of plaid that you would find, and we’re able to control that with how we built his suit.”
Of course, conjuring the actors of the piece is only one element of production. Creating the world for them to populate fell on production designer Nelson Lowry. This is the third Laika production where he is responsible for the look and the feel, and his second time working directly for Chris Butler. Their conversation on Missing Link began with several key visual elements as their reference. “One was National Geographic Magazine, back from the 50s and 60s, ” he said. “They were bringing the world into view in a lot of peoples’ homes, and there was a certain kind of printing quality back then, very rich saturated colors.”
As was the case with Deborah Cook, Lowry immersed himself into the era of the film. “[Butler] loved the patterning of the Victorian Era,” he said. Forget the boorish browns of textbooks and PBS documentaries; this was a time of technological revolution that spawned great gusts of artistic passion. “Sometimes we think of the Victorian Era as Dickensian art; sort of sepia or washed out, but of course back then it wasn’t. It was bright and colorful and new.”
The sets began life as nearly 300 slabs of production art. As designs started to trickle in from Butler, Lowry had to imagine the rooms, halls, and landscapes they might inhabit. “They’re very stylized,” he stated the obvious. “You kind of don’t notice it because they’re almost recognizable as characters. Hopefully, when you watched the footage, you felt like you kind of knew those people. Sir Lionel is really an absurd abstraction of a person. He has a tube for a head with a triangle nose. Our job is to make the world reflect all those flexibilities. If he walked in here right now, he would look like a monster. If a human being walked into one of these sets, they would feel very out of place. We got to make them feel like they go together.”
Wandering in and out of the Missing Link sets is like Dorothy swinging open the door of her Kansas home and finding Oz on the other side. I did not want to leave. I wanted to be left alone. Please leave me with the puppets so I may treat them like my G.I. Joes and Transformers. Laika is a wonderland cared for by a squadron of like-minded playful artists. Although, one essential aspect of the whole process is that the idea of an army of visualists is a bit of a fallacy.
Missing Link only had four concept artists, including Lowry, working on the production. When this knowledge landed, our jaws dropped, much to the pleasure of Lowry. “Thank you!” he exclaimed. “Because it is a lot of work. There are pros and cons to that. Cons are that we do more work ourselves. I watch all these other movies and watch them go by, and I go, ‘Oh wow…’ Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, I just saw a blanket of it. They did an excellent job.”
Lowery would rather cherrypick his team. The work gets passed between several folks so that the final product never feels artistically repetitive. Therefore, Missing Link is processed in fewer iterations because the vision is only filtered through a handful of folks that ultimately answer to one director. “I prefer the small teams,” Lowry said. “I think it is more creative…for a lot of the new artists…I tell them at the beginning that your drawing is going to be on screen. They see that and the sense of satisfaction that they have is intense and noteworthy.”
When talking to the various heads of department at Laika, there is a clear sense of pride. They devote years stacked atop years for each film, giving their very being to the narratives that call them. Then it’s over. On to the next film. Or, as we already know, while the artists wind down on Missing Link they’re already in the weeds of another movie. The hero puppets are maintained, making their way behind glass displays of their traveling museum roadshow, and a few of the more spectacular sets are entered within Laika’s massive Raiders of the Lost Ark classified hangar. Where they forever live is up there, on the screen — captured where they’re meant to be.
Missing Link opens in theaters on April 12th.