Every new film project by Laika begins with a challenge. “We never want to repeat ourselves,” says producer Arianne Sutner. “Our goal with every movie is to create a unique world and tell a brand new story.”
It’s a call to action that everyone within the company takes very much to heart, with each department pushing themselves to greater creative heights. And you’ll see that most readily in their modeling department. It’s there that each puppet and set is conceived, designed, and built, with each small, innovative step bringing them closer to another dazzling and exciting film.
For Kubo & The Two Strings, the scale and breadth of the story presented the crew with some pretty sizeable hurdles to try and clear. They had to construct everything from a welcoming Japanese marketplace to a lush bamboo forest and a frigid, snow-covered landscape. There were dozens of puppets to clothe and animate as well, each one requiring its own intricate wardrobe and facial expressions (including up 20,000 different microexpressions for young hero Kubo alone).
But nowhere is the sheer effort and brainpower required for such an endeavor better represented than with the creation of a giant skeleton puppet that lives in The Hall of Bones.
Built for one of three eye-popping battle sequences that mark Kubo’s quest to collect the three magical pieces of armor left behind by his samurai father, the character is based on a creature from Japanese folklore that is made up of the bones of people who have starved to death and goes out seeking revenge for its ill fate. True to those mythological tales claiming that it is 15 times larger than a normal human, the creepy orange beast dreamed up by Laika measures in at 16 feet tall and 400 pounds, making it the world’s largest properly articulate stop-motion character ever made.
“We said that on The Boxtrolls with our five-foot-tall Mecha-drill,” says motion control engineer Steve Switaj, one of the men responsible for the creation of the giant skeleton. “We got a lot of pushback from people saying the AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back were taller or the Jaguar Shark from The Life Aquatic was bigger. They can all bite me because this was this biggest one by far.”
There’s no use arguing the point either when you get in the same room with the skeleton. Though the puppet has been separated from its bottom half, which was filmed separately, the top part is massive and imposing. The arms, held aloft by metal wires and balanced out by counterweights, have an impressive wingspan of 22 feet. And the skull, with its jagged teeth, bright yellow eyes, and dozens of swords stuck in the top, stares down with a strange combination of menace and glee.
Perhaps the most daunting aspect of this puppet’s creation was how to make it appear to not be a puppet at all. Almost all the other creations dreamed up for Kubo are built around metal armatures that you never see because they are covered by clothes, fur or, in the case of Beetle, plates of armor. With this particular beast, there was no simple way to hide the skeleton within the skeleton.
Instead, the team behind its construction (Switaj, lead model maker Raul Martinez, and animation rigger Jerry Svoboda) had to build a bendable metal armature that they could fit inside the visible skeleton. And while the faces and appendages of the other puppets could be produced using 3D printers, that wasn’t an option for much of the giant skeleton due its sheer size. Instead, the crew had the pieces molded from lightweight foam that is most often used for architectural projects.
“I remember walking by the rigging shop,” recalls Switaj, “and seeing them pulling out these eight-foot-long bones and this skull the size of a beach ball.”
The other trick was how to make this beast moveable so that animator Charles Greenfield could bend him into place and then keep him perfectly still for each frame to be shot. For that, the team had to use a number of keen tricks and a bit of mechanical engineering.
To get the torso to move, they took a full month to build a hexapod motion base (much like the one that sits underneath virtual reality rides at amusement parks) that allowed Greenfield to make it pitch and roll. The arms, meanwhile, were moved by the marionette-like rigging, and kept locked into the shoulder by a cluster of high-powered magnets. They even had to use automobile brake pads to help lock the elbow joint in place. It says a lot about how much work went into the filming of this sequence that they went through three sets of the pads before shooting wrapped.
All told, from the initial design to the first day of filming, it took the team a full year to complete this creation. Once you see it in action, however, you’ll realize how worthwhile their efforts were. The giant "Hall of Bones Skeleton" moves, well, just like a skeleton should, with smooth, fluid sweeps of the arms and legs, easily plucking the characters up in his bony fingers. If you’re caught up in the action, it’s easy to worry for the safety of Kubo and his companions.
Not to say everything worked completely as planned. To realize the full range of motion that they needed for the skeleton, little bits of the bone structure had to be sawed off or removed for certain shots, and then replaced for others. As they were making their initial camera tests, they also realized that the weight of an extra puppet in one of the skeleton's hands made it difficult for the animator to move its wrist around.
“Rather than setting up extra rigging to attach to the arms and wrists to get that advantage,” Svoboda recalls, “we had to build a couple of different sets of mechanical joints, with one nested inside the other, to be able to give it that full range of motion.”
Therein lies the agony and ecstasy of making movies in the way that Laika does. It can take upwards of 12 months to piece together a huge skeleton puppet or a few weeks to figure out how to ensure that the costumes that each character is wearing move in a particular way. But everyone that is working on the solutions to these problems is ready to roll up their sleeves and find a way to make it work.
“That’s the beauty and the fear of it: having to figure it out,” says production manager Dan Pascall. “There are much easier ways to make films, but we enjoy the challenge of it. Something like the giant skeleton is a doozy but we had to look each other in the eye and decide to do it.”