Interview with “Kubo and the Two Strings” VFX Supervisor Steve Emerson: Part 2

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.” Read part one of our interview here.

Steve Emerson / Credit: Laika Studios

Steve Emerson / Credit: Laika Studios

What is it visually with stop-motion that you find intriguing and do you think that eventually a renaissance of traditional animation styles will occur?

Steve: I hope so. For me, in terms of what makes it distinctive and special is there’s something about stop-motion animation when I see it and performances being realized that are inanimate objects being brought to life with human hands in real world lighting that take me back to sitting criss-cross applesauce on my grandparents family room floor watching a tube television set of “Jason and the Argonauts” or “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” and there was such a magical component to it that myself as a child it felt like they were bringing my toys to life.

We’ve all heard the term “movie magic” kicked around a lot and movie magic to me was going to a film seeing a particular visual, walking out afterwards and talking with your friends and family and figuring out how they did that. A lot of that has been lost since a technology came into the fold. When people see something that is particularly dynamic they tend to dismiss it to computers and technology Laika is finding creative in-camera solutions to be able to deliver these distinct visuals unlike anything else you’re seeing in the live entertainment industry.

2700.0040.still.laika.00014 (l-r.) Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) gets a lift from his new friend and ally Beetle (Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey) 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) gets a lift from his new friend and ally Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) Credit: Laika Studios/Focus Features

What was your inspiration to become a designer in film, your mentors and how did you decide to go on this unique path of art?

Steve: When I graduated from film school, I wasn’t necessarily looking to become a visual effects supervisor. I wanted to be a filmmaker and wanted to be a storyteller. I started in post-production and in all honesty because I was going to try and make some independent films. If I was going to be making indie films, I was going to be working at the post-production house to save money because I was going to have a lot of friends that could help me out. I was a person that always loved computers and always loved film, and I always had an affinity for art and there was this opportunity to pursue this career out of a fusion of those three things and so I pursued that as steadfastly as I possibly could.

1800.0580.still.laika.0003 Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) and Monkey (voiced by Academy Award winner Charlize Theron) look on as Beetle (voiced by Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey) demonstrates his numerous ‘indispensabilities’ 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) and Monkey (voiced by  Charlize Theron) look on as Beetle (voiced by  Matthew McConaughey) demonstrates his numerous ‘indispensabilities.’ Credit: Laika Studios/Focus Features

I put myself through some technical training skills, I introduced myself to the people who were doing the type of work that I was driven to eventually be able to do and then it just takes a lot of time until you get those opportunities and when they come you seize them and you leverage the work you’ve done and studying you’ve done in order to capitalize on them. I went to see “E.T.” when I was a pre-teen and I remember being inspired and moved and remember crying in the theatre. If I had to say the people who inspired me in the past certainly it’s been the “Star Wars” universe, it’s been Steven Spielberg with the work he did with “E.T” because he created empathy with a puppet and that’s certainly what we’re trying to do here at Laika.

2500.0080.still.laika.0001 Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) plays his shamisen as Monkey tells a story by the campfire 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) plays his shamisen as Monkey tells a story by the campfire. Credit: Laika Studios/Focus Features

How involved are you in the script and story telling process?

Steve: Once there is a script, I will step in and start to do a breakdown in terms of what I suspect the work is going to be. Then we start dialogue with the producers, how many shots we’re looking at, the types of artists we’re going to need in order to realize a particular script. The work really starts once there are storyboards and animatics, which are animated storyboards. At that point, all the heads of departments at Laika will sit down in the room, look at the animatics and talk about how we’re going to create each and every visual for a film. When we do that the rule is we always start in-camera. We want to get as much true as physical camera lens using real world elements. But then if there’s a resource issue, a tech issue, if there’s a need for visual effects to come into the mix to extend environments add background characters, create water, fire things that are extremely difficult to get in-camera, then that conversation opens up.

We start talking about what is that we can do digitally to enable these directors to tell the stories they want to tell and how are we going to go about that in a way that is responsible and ultimately honors stop-motion animation. We  want to realize the full potential of stop-motion animation — this stuff is really hard to and because everything needs to be built, needs to be hand animated, often times animators are told to make concessions. In a lot of classic stop-motion animation films you don’t see a lot of characters, you don’t see a lot of environments, you certainly don’t see a lot of big time Hollywood effects. We want to be able to let storytellers tell whatever story they want to tell without concessions and we’re going to do that using technology and a way that is respectful to the art of stop-motion animation.

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