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Interview with “Kubo and the Two Strings” VFX Supervisor Steve Emerson: Part 1

Laika is a stop-motion animation studio honoring the 120 year-old artform by pushing boundaries. “Kubo and the Two Strings” is only Laika’s fourth film, but garnered their fourth Academy-Award nomination in the Best Animated Film category. They previously were nominated with “Coraline,” “Para-Norman,” and “The Box Trolls.” It is also only the second animated film to get nominated in the Best Visual Effects category. The first film was “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” which lost to “Jurassic Park.” We had the opportunity to interview  Steve Emerson, Laika’s Visual Effects Supervisor on “Kubo and the Two Strings.”

Catherine: How did it feel when you heard the news about your nomination, and do you have a speech prepared?

Steve Emerson / Credit: Laika Studios
Steve Emerson / Credit: Laika Studios

Steve: Oh, wow! I do not have a speech prepared. It’s been so busy the past couple of weeks and exciting that I haven’t even had a moment to start thinking about that. It was 5 o’clock in the morning–I was watching the streaming with my wife and my son and we’re sitting on the couch drinking coffee and we found out the nomination happened.  It’s been a long process making these films: they take a long time to make and take an incredible amount of dedication of all the artists involved because you put years and years of your life into these things. I would say that it all hit me at once, I broke down a little bit and started to cry and unbeknownst to me, my wife took a picture of me crying and immediately posted it on Facebook.

In terms of the nomination, it’s important to realize that Laika is small independent stop-motion studio that is up in the Pacific Northwest working out of a warehouse. We have a visual effects team that is probably the size of the lighting team on the majority of other films. To be given this level of recognition alongside incredibly talented filmmakers–it’s overwhelming. “Dr. Strange” blew my mind, “Deepwater Horizon” in terms of the visual effects work, was one of my favorite films this year. It feels like I cut an album playing a bassoon in the basement and now I’m up for a Grammy with Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan. It’s incredible, it’s really incredible.

Catherine: What were the inspiration, technique, and challenges with the paper animation origami and bringing it to life in a realistic manner?

1700.0180.still.laika.0002 Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is swept up by origami wings in animation studio LAIKA’s epic action-adventure KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Laika Studios/Focus Features
Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is swept up by origami wings in animation studio. Credit: Laika Studios/Focus Features

Steve: The paper animation was done primarily in camera and hand animated. There were a few instances where we came in and added some digital components like the flock of origami birds. I know it was an extremely difficult exercise for the animators and the art department to be able to create all those effects. If you think about the way you make stop-motion animation, you’re talking about animators on set with big greasy fingers animating three seconds of animation per week, five if we’re really lucky, and on top of that you got the moving pieces of paper around. The paper itself would start to break down but they did a great deal of testing with a lot of different types of materials in order to find what might work for the origami animation. In the end they ended up using Tyvech, a denser rigid type of paper that was durable and it looked and performed like paper. It would hold up over the course of days, weeks or months when the stop-motion animators are out there bringing those elements to life.

0400.0390.still.laika.0003 Kubo’s story brings magic to life as Little Hanzo takes center stage in animation studio LAIKA’s epic action-adventure KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Laika Studios/Focus Features
Kubo’s story brings magic to life as Little Hanzo. Credit: Laika Studios/Focus Features

What got you interested in stop-motion animation? You previously had been working in live-action visual effects work?

Steve: I had spent a longtime working in live-action visual effects down in Los Angeles. My family and I were looking for a change and decided to relocate to Portland, Oregon. We were just going to make it work. I spent the better part of the year commuting between Portland and Los Angeles picking up jobs. It wasn’t an ideal situation, because I had young children and then I happened to hear from a friend that there was this studio called Laika that was working on “Coraline” and that I should look into it. I was fortunate enough to go to a “Look at Laika” night and I introduced myself to some people and got hired within a couple of weeks to contribute to “Coraline.” I had very little to no experience with stop-motion animation production. I did have a great deal of experience working with stereo and 3-D films and with live-action visual effects.

When a lot of people think about animation, they think 2D drawings and CG, but stop-motion is all real world. We have actors that we shoot on sets and the difference is they happen to be very small actors that are brought to life one frame at a time. We take those performances and we add effects. We never deal with realism, so if you’re making a photo real feature, like a superhero film and you need an ocean, you can get yourself Houdini and start working with the ocean toolkit. On our side, we need oceans that feel like they are handcrafted and hand animated and heavily designed. I can’t just deliver a photo real ocean, I need to deliver an ocean that feels like it was made out of garbage bags and woodblock patterning and hand animated by a hungover animator that’s out on the stages of Portland. I can’t just give them fire, it has to be fire that looks like it was possibly created by cheese crop which is being deflected through shower glass and lit in a very specific way. The process is extremely complex and is entirely live-action visual effects but we’re fortunate that the majority of the artists at Laika have been here since the “Coraline” days. We’ve all learned together, grown together and made mistakes together and we just know how to do it now and do it efficiently.

Could you elaborate on the puppet skeleton and the way it was brought to life?

2100.0400.still.laika.0004_R Monkey (voiced by Academy Award winner Charlize Theron) finds herself struggling against the grip of the Giant Skeleton to protect Kubo in animation studio LAIKA’s epic action-adventure KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Laika Studios/Focus Features
Monkey (voiced by Academy Award winner Charlize Theron) finds herself struggling against the grip of the Giant Skeleton to protect Kubo. 
Credit: Laika Studios/Focus Features

Steve: As a studio, we are honoring the art of stop-motion animation and special effects artists like Ray Harryhousen, Willis O’Brien, Jim Danforth that were incredible innovators of the past and truly laid the foundation for the visual effects industry. We had a giant skeleton who needed to perform within this film. There’s a couple of ways we could’ve gone. We could have built a computer-generated skeleton. We could have built a smaller scale skeleton or could have moved forward and built the largest stop-motion puppet that has ever performed in a feature film. We  said okay, we have the opportunity to do something that no one has ever done before. This particular puppet needed to be 100-feet tall if it was in the real world, so if  in the puppet world, we’re looking at something that’s roughly 16-feet tall which is massive. So much larger than anything we had done previously but that’s what I love so much about this studio because we looked at that and said this is so far beyond anything we have ever done before, let’s do it!

So we dived in and figured it out and in the end we created this massive puppet that weighed over 400 pounds with a wingspan of over 20 feet. The animator was able to get a roughly a second a week of animated performance out of it, climbing on scaffolding and ladders. It was an incredible challenge and no reasonable film production would’ve ever done it that way. The reason we did it that way is because, as a studio, we honor the art of stop-motion animation and the work of artists before us and we choose to do it the hard way in order to create distinctive visuals that no one else would be crazy enough to do. That’s why I love being a part of this.

The 89th Academy Awards airs live on February 26, 2017, 5:30 PM PST on ABC. Follow us on Twitter for our live tweeting! 

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