Missing Link is the latest film released by Laika Studios, a stop-motion animation company based in Portland, Ore. In just ten years the studio has established itself as a major player in the animation world. Their films Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and Kubo and the Two Strings each impressed critics, won over fans, and made loads of cash at the box office.
Missing Link is Laika’s most ambitious project yet. It tells the story of a globe-trotting monster hunter named Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) who comes across a lonely Sasquatch dubbed Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis). Missing Link’s writer-director Chris Butler’s (ParaNorman) goal was to make a stop-motion movie that feels “Truly cinematic.” And he describes his vision for Missing Link as if “David Lean made Around the World in 80 Days starring Laurel and Hardy.”
Having watched the movie, I can vouch for his pitch. The film features a very cinematic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, a number of meticulously crafted sets, and loads of physical comedy.
Butler passed through Toronto while promoting Missing Link, and That Shelf took advantage of the opportunity to sit down with him and discuss his new film.
An interview with Missing Link’s writer-director Chris Butler
Can you talk about the origins of Missing Link’s and why you had to tell this particular story?
Chris Butler: The origins go back 15-years or so. I thought it would be cool if stop-motion had its own kind of hero, like an Indiana Jones type hero. As a kid, well actually, not as a kid; now, all my life, Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favourite movie of all time, and I wanted to play in that world, this big bold adventure. It’s also influenced by Sherlock Holmes. I threw them into a pot and stirred it up with some Ray Harryhausen creatures. That’s essentially how the movie started. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we had this adventure story about a guy who chases legendary beasts?
After I finished ParaNorman, Travis Knight (Laika President and CEO) said to me, ‘What do you want to do next?’ And I had a couple of options. But it felt like the right time to do this movie. As an artist I didn’t want to repeat myself, I didn’t want to do another movie that was kind of, you know, horror, or dark, creepy, no zombies, [I’ve] done zombies. So I wanted to do something that was the polar opposite of that. Something more playful, more colourful, brighter. And I wanted to do a period piece as well. So it seemed like it was the right decision to make. It was also the right time to make this because the size, the scope, and the scale of this movie, we couldn’t have made this before now. Ten years ago we wouldn’t have been able to make this movie.
Could you talk about how stop-motion technology has evolved since you started and where do you see it going?
Since I started in the industry, the innovations have been huge. I think the key thing for me is that it always serves what’s right about stop-motion – real light, real objects. Innovations, I would say the biggest one in terms of the digital technology is just how it has increased the size of the canvas that you can paint on. You can now tell any story in this medium.
I think you could play in any genre now with this medium. It’s simple things you know? It’s as simple as compositing, it’s as simple as cleanup on a puppet or removal of a rig. But then it’s also set extensions. It’s CG characters in crowd scenes. I think a big one for me is the facial animation. We were the first ones to use 3D printers to create facial animation on Coraline, and we’ve been evolving that ever since. We changed out the printers that we’ve used many times now. We’ve printed in colour, in resin and it has allowed us to get an increasingly nuanced performance in these faces.
I’m not a purist by any means. I love the medium, but I also think, if you work in a medium you should be working to keep it vital. And I think that means you’re constantly looking at how you can innovate and how you can move it forward. I think there’s a danger, if you think of stop-motion as this nostalgic, old-fashioned thing, there’s a danger it could die out. I think any film medium or any art needs to move forward, or at least it needs to adapt or use what’s around it to keep it vital.