Travis Knight explores how they did it — and why they’ve been nominated for animation and VFX Oscars.
If there’s any moment in “Kubo and the Two Strings” that best demonstrates why it’s been nominated for both animated feature and VFX Oscars, it’s the boat sequence (watch the video below). Monkey not only fights the evil sister, but Kubo and Beetle also get entangled underwater with sea monsters in the Garden of Eyes.
“It’s a distillation of the ambition and the insanity of the entire affair,” director and Laika president Travis Knight told IndieWire. “It’s at the mid-point of the film. There’s a raging storm at sea with a boat made out of hundreds of thousands of leaves — it’s a kinetic martial arts battle with action choreography and dynamic cinematography.”
“And then, because we’re masochists, we decided to go underwater as well with this enormous, hypnotic sea monster and this face off between Kubo and Beetle and this thing in the incredible Garden of Eyes. And we end the sequence with this really beautiful, subtle, tender moment between this makeshift family,” he added.
The sequence ran throughout the entire production and began with Monkey and Kubo in the boat on a stage in front of a green screen. Then the visual effects team built and animated the environment and put it all together.
“We did one shot of the boat coursing through the waves on a complex motion control rig,” Knight said, “with the help of a Hexapod (similar to a flight simulator), which allowed us to move the boat at any angle and to mimic the experience of a raging storm.”
As a warrior, Monkey was also required to be nimble and flexible, which flew in the face of ordinary stop-motion techniques. So Laika took inspiration from live-action and built a muscle suit on top of the armature, covered with a fluffy fur fabric suit with combed silicone. Fortunately, the two principal animators had martial arts backgrounds.
“But it was really challenging because, while Monkey fought on the deck of the boat, the sister puppet [comprised of both an armature and a cape made of nearly 500 feathers] floated in the air,” Knight added.
So to reach her, the animator was suspended 15-feet high on a scissor lift, and then came back down to shoot Monkey.
For the Garden of Eyes sequence, in which the monsters hypnotize their prey and drag them down to a watery grave, it became impractical to build a horde of them. Laika built a single puppet, shot from multiple angles, and then composited together.
“Were it not for the Skeleton puppet, the Eye monster would’ve been the largest puppet we’ve ever made,” Knight said. “It was around 11-feet tall and made of squishy foam material. It looked like something out of an ‘H.R. Pufnstuf’ fever dream. The eyeball was the size of a beach ball and it had these little LED lights inside of Bingo balls that projected light through these counter-rotating glass bowls, and we had this woven steel mesh to give it this hypnotic effect.”
“Then the monster’s tentacles were controlled by cables of fishing line, attached to this parallelogram frame,” he added. “But the animator never physically touched the puppet — he was actually across the set and worked from a remote interface.”
It was essentially a miniature, proxy puppet, with an array of encoders and a custom-built track ball using a bowling ball. “And so the animator would move a bowling ball and the parallelogram frame and the monster would essentially mimic what the animator was doing across the set,” Knight added. “And the core at the bottom of the monster was a big, nasty, gnarly maw, which owes a debt to the Sarlacc from ‘Star Wars.’”
To accomplish the wood-block look of the water, they took CG Houdini software and added carved wood with paper pressed against it.
Knight and his team found the extreme difficulty liberating. “To me, it basically means we can tell any kind of story in virtually any genre and that’s incredibly exciting to us as storytellers,” Knight said.
Laika’s soon to be announced fifth feature, currently in production, will be released May 18, 2018.