"If you must blink, do it now... Pay careful attention to everything you see..." urges Kubo, the Hero of Laika's latest Stop Motion Animation feature film: Kubo And The Two Strings. And if you follow his advice, not only will you be transported into his enchanting journey and story, but you will also be left with wonderment at the creative and technical works that supported this beautiful animation.
Laika is a pioneer in using 3D printing in Stop Motion Animation, and their approach has enabled a brand new appreciation for this form of animation. We were so fortunate and grateful to have a conversation with the force driving this artistic and technical evolution, Brian McLean, Director Rapid Prototyping at Laika, who received a Scientific And Engineering Award (Academy Plaque) from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his work. Brian works everyday at the intersection of art and technology, but always letting the creative side drive the technical side, and making sure everything is rooted in the practical. We are excited to share a summary of the Q&A we had with him:
Cyant: As a "traditional artist", what brought you to 3D Printing and how did you introduce the connection between 3D Printing and animation?
Brian: From a young age, I was very drawn to arts and sculpting. When I got out of college I actually did not know how to write an email. I had worked on traditional model making and sculpting, and computers felt very intimidating, just like 3D Printing can be intimidating today. And I rebelled against it, I wanted nothing to do with the computer. I focused on traditional model making, and was introduced to people who'd made a name for themselves doing practical things. And that was at a time where most of the studios were moving to digital. My wife enrolled into an industrial design degree, and as I helped her learn some of the required digital tools, I became more comfortable with the technology. Fast forward two years, I was teaching a class on traditional model making and I was exposed to a 3D printer. Thanks to Yves Behar's leadership, The California College Of The Arts was investing into Polyjet technology, which could offer fine details and dimensional accuracy. I was put in charge of researching and buying the 3D printing equipment, teaching it and bringing it to the curriculum for the industrial design and architecture students. Because of the exposure to that very type of 3D printing technology, I called an old colleague, Martin Meunier, to take a look and give his thoughts. We started to ask: "Could it be possible to do stop motion animation?" with this technology, which could yield objects almost as smooth as you could expect from mold and cast. We submitted the idea to Laika and they accepted it. If we had known how hard it was going to be we may never have done it! But we were naive and eager, and very focused on the practical, physical objects we could hold in our hands, which were beautiful. And it quickly grew and grew from there.
Cyant: Your department unites arts and technology and is a true “Cyantists” department! Could you please describe how you assembled your team, and how this diversity has been working well to produce a film like Kubo And The Two Strings?
Brian: Throughout most of Coraline, what made it successful is that the people we brought in had practical, art backgrounds, they were not "computer people". Coraline was the first stop motion film shot in US in over a decade. But the fact that we were coming with a practical background helped showcase to the community that this could help the field, not hurt it. So we were hiring people with practical skills and teaching them technical skills. For follow on films, Paranorman, The Boxtrolls and Kubo And The Two Strings, which were getting more complex, we had to bring in people with more computer skills and teach them the practical side of things. It turns out it was difficult to do in this way around: they were computer geniuses but were missing the practical and physical experience on how objects fit together. So the balance has been hard to achieve. However, we have definitely found over the years a whole group of people who were mostly working in the physical domain to start with, but had transitioned to digital over time. And it's those people who have that passion for the practical who really make it work.
Cyant: So for Kubo, what had to be created to make this movie so visually and artistically stunning, and elegantly showcase the beautiful storyline, while seamlessly blending several technical elements including Computer Generated effects?
Brian: Starting Paranorman, Laika started doing "hybrid film making", that is we were focused on the story to be told, and creating the world we needed to create to do that, without letting ourselves be limited by the media of stop motion animation. We always try to have everything we do rooted in the practical. So we try to figure out how to do things in the real world first and then determine if it needs to be transitioned to CG. For example, Oliver Jones and the team at the rigging department had to prototype crashing waves with a black plastic bag on an undulating grid and filming it frame by frame, or taking chunks of cut out paper also on undulating grid system, and animate it frame by frame. Then once we'd figured out what that needed to look like, we transitioned it to Steve Emerson at the visual effects department, so they could recreate the effect and rebuild the scene while keeping it rooted in our original world because that CG effect was going to have to live side-by-side with it. It is the attention and dedication to that process that has allowed us to make it invisible to the audience members. And throughout our process, it is amazing how often the creative side drives the technology use.
Cyant: What has 3D Printing specifically enabled and what envelop did you push to make each movie and Kubo And The Two Strings in particular?
Brian: With Coraline, we were using Polyjet technology with hand painting. We moved to ZPrint technology for Paranorman, and were able to print faces in color. And with this shift, we had to develop a number of post processing techniques and make sure we were achieving the necessary consistency. One of the limitations of ZPrint technology is its dimensional accuracy and fine feature details. For Kubo, we had to produce really detailed characters, and the technology that had been the backbone of the two previous films was no longer going to be sufficient. So we were able to leverage the reputation that Laika had acquired, and work with the 3D Printing company Stratasys to obtain one of their early technologies, the Connex3. This technology allows 3 color 3D printing but does not make it possible to print gradients. We worked in partnership with them to co-develop our own software and texture mapped color assignment, and we worked very closely Jon Hiller, independent software developer, to take his AMF software and tweak it for our production needs. Still again, the creative and physical requirements of how the characters should look were driving the final decision making. Thankfully our technical strategy paid off and the 3D printed faces, Monkey in particular, were approved. So what had held Stop Motion Animation back and we were able to solve with our technology development over time, is keeping the audience fully engrossed in the movie and characters, and maintaining the emotional connection, through fine details and facial expressions. This was something that Computer Generated Animation had addressed because it could bring that additional resemblance to real life. But we were able to solve this with 3D printing because we could obtain a dynamic range of subtle and precise facial expressions. To put this in perspective, traditionally, there are several techniques for Stop Motion Animation: claymation which can be messy, and with which the work is more visible; mechanical animation, which uses silicon skin that is pushed around as need be, but is not the best technique for broad expressions and changes; replacement animation, which uses hand sculpted expressions, but is ultimately not good for subtlety because of the variations between each sculpt. So 3D printing has allowed us to obtain the same type of subtlety that can be expected with Computer Animation, and combine it with replacement animation to enable greater expressiveness.
Cyant: What words of advice do you have for parents, and young Cyantists, who are inspired by your work and might one day want to work at the intersection of 3D printing and stop motion animation / storytelling? Are there skills they need to acquire? How can they cultivate their creativity?
Brian: I can speak as someone who from an early age on, was drawn to the arts. Creativity can manifest itself in many different ways and you can find the connection really unexpectedly. Being able to encourage kids to be creative and artistic and allowing them to explore fields that may not seem like opening a career, is hard to do, but I think it’s necessary. Looking back at my journey, if I had not had the support from my family I may have had to choose another career. Arts and creativity are so important in our culture and our communities, and it is important for parents to find ways through which kids can feel supported in those fields. And as kids grow as students, there may be zigzags, and exposure to different people and different techniques, but it is part of the journey and learning who you need to be. The more tools they will have under their tool belts, the more they will be able to solve problems. And twenty years ago, the drive to find that art-meets-tech connection was not obvious: you were either art or tech. But there was never this idea that they could come together. Thanks to recent technology changes, such as smart phones, app development, building things really quickly in software or with 3D printing, the art-meets-tech connection has been brought back to the forefront. And we benefit from that everyday, that is a perfect blend of artists, technicians and computer geniuses that come together to solve a common problem.
Again we are grateful to Brian McLean for this Q&A, and Laika Publicist, Maggie Begley, for permission to use the images shown in this post. We leave you with a featurette that recounts the crafting of Kubo's magical journey, under the vision of Travis Knight, Laika's CEO.