ByElise Jost, writer at
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Elise Jost

Judging from the nominees in the Best Animated Feature category at the , has had a pretty good year: From Zootopia to The Red Turtle, each of the five nominees is an absolute delight, both in terms of story and visuals. But none can match the craft behind Kubo and the Two Strings, 's latest stunner in stop-motion.

In fact, the unbelievable work behind a movie such as Kubo deserves its very own award. The amount of detail and patience required to make the movie is almost impossible to imagine, so high is the number of tiny elements used to put the characters and sets together. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Kubo is also an expertly told and incredibly touching story, but let's marvel for a moment at the technical achievement that it represents.

Stop-Motion Essentially Takes A Lot Of Patience

'Kubo and the Two Strings' [Credit: Laika Entertainment]
'Kubo and the Two Strings' [Credit: Laika Entertainment]

For those non-familiar with stop-motion, the technique essentially consists of building each frame not on a computer, but in real life. The characters are made as little figurines; each set is built in a size that's neither too big to make nor too small to handle. Then each figurine is moved a fraction of an inch by a fraction of an inch — the movement is decomposed into singular frames that require a person to move the elements between each frame, take a picture after every change they've made, and assemble the pictures together to create continuous movement.

Of course, CGI is used by Laika to add texture, or smooth over the movements, but the true difficulty of the work lies in the nearly infinite amount of shots that have to be made. On average, a stop-motion animator at Laika will get 4.3 seconds of a scene done not by the end of the day, but by the end of the week.

Behind-the-scenes time lapse of 'Kubo and the Two Strings' [Credit: ScreenSlam]
Behind-the-scenes time lapse of 'Kubo and the Two Strings' [Credit: ScreenSlam]

Are you already gasping in disbelief? Not only are the animators moving elements frame by frame to amount to a total of 1 hour and 42 minutes of film, they've used separate pieces to depict the characters' facial expressions. While lots of the costumes and decorations are handmade, that's where technology comes in useful: Instead of painting different faces, Laika now uses 3D printing to produce an array of expressions that they can easily put onto the figurines' head.

Kubo Has 48 Million Possible Facial Expressions

To make Kubo, that involves a 9-inch puppet — so far so good — with 23,187 different faces. Think that's an impossibly huge number? Add the 11,007 mouth positions and the 4,429 brow versions, and you've got a total of 48 million possible facial expressions. And Kubo might be the main character in the movie, but he's not the only one that has to be moved around. Monkey, voiced by Charlize Theron, has 30 million expressions that can be put on her face — but that's just her face.

Behind the scenes of 'Kubo and the Two Strings' [Credit: BBC]
Behind the scenes of 'Kubo and the Two Strings' [Credit: BBC]

Then comes the body and the costumes. Take Kubo's samurai jacket, inherited from his father. To make a garment with such strong symbolical value, costume designer Deborah Cook didn't just cut a tiny square of red fabric — she immersed herself in Japanese culture and style:

"I did an in-depth study not only of the culture and costumes of ancient Japan in the Jamon era — about 300 B.C. — but also present-day high fashion and vintage Japanese clothing."

As for Monkey, the team had to come up with a way of making her fur look and act like fur, whether dry or in snow or in water, eventually settling for silicon.

See also:

Building The World Of Kubo

'Kubo and the Two Strings' [Credit: Laika Entertainment]
'Kubo and the Two Strings' [Credit: Laika Entertainment]

So much attention to detail might be mind-boggling, but it's definitely what gives Laika productions that additional touch of pure magic. Obviously, it doesn't stop at the characters. If you thought the sets were kept simple to allow the movie to be made in a decent amount of time, think again.

Take the boat, for example, on which Kubo and his friends decide to navigate the lake they have to cross to find a precious piece of armor. I won't spoil the scene for you, but at one point the boat cracks in two, sort of like an origami Titanic. Now, you might think the scenes on the intact boat were filmed first, then the whole contraption was broken down into two pieces, but that probably would have been too easy.

Behind-the-scenes time lapse of 'Kubo and the Two Strings' [Credit: ScreenSlam]
Behind-the-scenes time lapse of 'Kubo and the Two Strings' [Credit: ScreenSlam]

Instead, the team set out to build two boats, one pre-storm and one post-storm, and had to make sure they were identical. That doesn't sound too bad if we're talking about a boat made out of three or four pieces of cardboard, but in this case we're looking at a 12 ft.-long, 14-ft.-high boat covered in 250,000 3D-printed laser-cut leaves that were pasted one by one onto the structure. Twice. In the exact same spot. I'll repeat: Those leaves the size of a fingernail had to be in the exact same spot on both versions of the boat, for consistency.

Is it too much? You might find that this level of effort and precision is unnecessary, but there's an unmistakable feeling to Laika's masterpieces, from Coraline to Kubo, that simply doesn't shine through in fully digital creations. The very tangible existence of Kubo as a puppet, the perfect feel of the real-life materials used in the movie all contribute to giving the movie its touching and delicate humanity. As CEO Travis Knight puts it:

"Making this movie wore me out. I can't wait to do another."

You can read more about in our special fanzine over here, or watch our interview with Laika CEO and Kubo director Travis Knight below:

Did you watch Kubo and the Two Strings? What's your favorite movie by Laika Entertainment?

(Sources: Rolling Stone, The Hollywood Reporter, The Verge)


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