‘Kubo,’ ‘Coraline’ is the response to digital threatening to kill the stop-motion star

In Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest stop-motion feature from the makers of Coraline, the young hero must face off against a frightful and gorgeous creature called Moon Beast – a massive, serpent like creature that glows blue and green under the night moon.

That creature is marks a technical move forward for Laika: It”s the animation studio”s first fully 3D-printed character. Laika has used 3D printing in some capacity for puppets on all four of its features, each project a hybrid of traditional stop-motion techniques, new 3D printing techniques, and digital animation.

Moon Beast is just one beauty in the constantly stunning fantastical landscape of Kubo and the Two Strings, which opens in theaters today. The film is the feature directorial debut of Laika CEO Travis Knight, who told me that Kubo is “without a doubt the most rewarding creative experience of my entire career.”

Yesterday, I published some of my interview with Knight, that piece highlighting the filmmaker”s personal connection to Kubo and his story. Here I”ll share more of what he told me about the technical achievements of Kubo and about the future of Laika.

You can learn more about the fascinating making of Moon Beast here, then read on in this piece for more about how Laika has embraced digital filmmaking and what we can expect next from the studio.

HitFix: I have to start off by telling you that Moon Beast is one of my favorite things about this movie.

Travis Knight: Is that right? I don”t know what that says about you, Emily. I will say as an animation and a film geek, I think it”s an extraordinary creature. It really is an incredible design and engineering marvel. Every knight has to face off a dragon, and this is our version of a dragon. Kind of a classic Japanese dragon fused with a deep aquatic sea lion, a prehistoric fish, and constellations from the night sky to evoke where the god comes from.

Image credit: Focus Features

Moon Beast is your first fully printed 3D character, right?

That”s right, yeah.

Do you think there will be opportunities, reasons to do more of that in the future?

Potentially. This technology, right from the beginning of Laika – it”s been an odd convergence of art and craft and science and technology. When we began 10 years ago, that was really the reason. For people who had been working animation for years before, myself included, stop-motion was dying. People were about to pull the plug as an art form. People did not see stop motion as viable filmmaking anymore once the computer took over. At Laika, we essentially had to figure out how we would bring this medium into a new era. Otherwise we'd have to find other ways to make a living. Our solution was to, effectively, embrace the author of our demise. To take the infernal machine which was threatening to destroy our livelihood and to not only learn to live with it but to learn to love it.

We”re always looking for different ways that we can bring 3D printing into the mix. We've tried doing things like rapid prototype 3D printed armatures. That usually doesn”t work that well. [Armature, the frame innards of a stop-motion puppet, are typically made of metal.] We haven”t quite cracked that code yet, but we”ve tried it in a number of different ways. I love the construction of this particular creature using this method because it's something like 800 different parts that we used for this monster, and in the middle of it, the simplest armature we”ve ever built was – effectively, it”s a gooseneck armature. If you have one of those table lamps that are bendy, that”s what's inside that.

Image credit: Focus Features

In taking on the role of director, what most surprised you?

It”s interesting because I”ve been all around it for 20 years. I”ve been working in animation for 20 years now. I've done a lot of different things within animation…. Even still, I don”t know that I was fully prepared for it because it was exhausting. As the director, you are at the nexus of every single creative, artistic, and technical decision on a movie. There”s just a lot of stuff that you”ve got to keep track of, and it rides on your shoulders. Filmmaking is a collaborative medium, and it”s absolutely true in this movie that this film was made by a community, but in the end, a film needs one vision if it”s going to mean something, and on this film that was mine. The whole process was exhausting, but it was also exhilarating.

Image credit: Focus Features

I want to talk about what”s next for Laika. Is Wildwood still happening? 

Wildwood is absolutely still happening. I love that book [by The Decemberists singer-songwriter Colin Meloy]. I love Colin and Carson [Ellis, Meloy”s wife who illustrated the 2011 children”s fantasy novel]. They are Oregon royalty. From the moment I first read the early pages of that book before it was even published, I fell in love with it – for probably a lot of reasons that you”re divining from this call – how much it taps into that great classic fantasy, those fantasy motifs but then contemporizes it with a modern-day flavor. You will absolutely see a Wildwood film come out of Laika. I just can”t tell you when.

Image credit: Balzer + Bray

Can you tell me whether it”ll be your fifth feature, or will another Laika project hit theaters before Wildwood?

It will be one of them. We have about 10 projects at various stages of development at any given time. I know what our next film is. We”re already in production on it. We probably won”t announce it “til the end of the year, I would imagine. One of the things I love is that aesthetically it”s unlike anything we”ve ever done before. Tonally, it”s unlike anything we've ever done before. I”m really excited about it.

Is that one an adaptation or an original story?

I”m not saying anything else about it yet.

Ah alright. I”ll just have to wait patiently to learn more about it later this year.

I”m really excited about it. It”s the first time we”ve actually overlapped production on two films. We were still shooting Kubo when we began production on our next film. That was a real breakthrough for us, because we”d never been able to winnow down that period between films beforehand. We expanded our facility, which you probably saw when you came up to the studio, and it”s almost done. Once we have that, we”ll upgrade our shooting space and be able to more meaningfully overlap our films. There are so many stories that I want to tell, and I only have so many years on this planet. I want to make sure that I make it count.

Kubo and the Two Strings is now in theaters.