Crafting the Epic World of Kubo: A Conversation with Laika’s Animation Supervisor Brad Schiff

HFPA_tour_0080 Animation Supervisor Brad Schiff stands on the scaffolding needed to work on the Giant Skeleton, the largest stop-motion puppet ever built for animation studio LAIKA’s epic action-adventure KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Steven Wong Jr | Laika Studios / Focus Features

Animation Supervisor Brad Schiff stands on the scaffolding needed to work on the Giant Skeleton

Brad Schiff is the Animation Supervisor on LAIKA’s latest feature film, Kubo and the Two Strings. After almost twenty years in stop motion, Brad’s worked on some of the most memorable stop motion projects of our generation. Upon graduating from film school in 1995, Brad moved to San Fransisco to be in what was then the hub of the stop motion animation scene. James and the Giant Peach was wrapping production, Disney had just bought ABC, and cancelled Bump in the Night. Those were the two biggest stop motion projects happening at the time, and it seemed like he had just missed the wave. It wasn’t until 1998 that he landed his first gig in New York on Celebrity Death Match.

Six months later, he moved to Portland to work on The PJ’s. Shortly after he moved onto Gary and Mike, for which he won an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in 2001. Brad got his first opportunity to work on a feature film in 2004 with Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. “I went to London to work on that. That was a blast, a group of incredible artists who had all been dying to work on a stop motion feature. It was mayhem, and a lot of fun. That film started this incredible string of stop motion features, which was Corpse Bride, Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox…” Brad rose to Animation Supervisor on LAIKA’s ParaNorman, and has been there ever since, on The Boxtrolls and now Kubo and the Two Strings. Ahead of the film’s release today, we sat down with Brad to talk about the challenges of bringing the epic fantasy to the screen.

Daniel: Every studio has a slightly different definition of what an animation supervisor is. Can you tell us what you were responsible for on Kubo and give us a glimpse into your day to day on the project?

Brad: Essentially I’m responsible for the development of the movement and character performance in the film. The day to day responsibilities change depending on what phase of production we’re in. In pre-production, I’ll sit down with the director, in this case Travis Knight, and talk about what we want to do animation wise. We kind of have a studio style set as a shorthand, which we’re both in tune with, but we’ll get into character specifics. Does he have any actors in mind when we talk about reference for a particular character? I will pull tons of live-action reference of actors, and we’ll sit down and go over what we like and whether any of the people sing to him as far as what he wants to see in one of the characters. How does the character act, walk, and run? Once we start to narrow that down a bit, it becomes the first part of these extensive character bibles that we do for the animators on each character.

travis_knight Director and animator Travis Knight working with Kubo on the Kubo's Village set for animation studio LAIKA’s epic action-adventure KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Steve Wong Jr | Laika Studios / Universal Pictures International

Travis Knight, Laika’s CEO and the film’s Director, animates Kubo

After that, I’ll meet with Georgina Hayes, our Head of Puppets, and her team. We talk about how the armature is going to be made, what we want the puppet to be able to do, and make sure that it’s built in a fashion that gives the animator the ability to perform the way that Travis is expecting and hoping to see. Both of these relationships carry over to animation testing. Once the puppets are built, we’ll get the armature, and we’ll do animation tests to make sure it moves the way we want. If it doesn’t, we send it back for tweaks. And then once the puppet gets its silicon skin, we’ll do more testing.

When the puppet gets all the clothing applied, we’ll do more tests. It always has to go back after that phase. Your naked puppet is the most glorious thing. It can move every which way you want it to move. Once you get the clothes on, as beautiful as they are, they wind up inhibiting the movement a little bit. So we ask, “What can we do with the clothes to give us a wider range of movement here?” So it’s just test, after test, after test, until we nail down what we’re looking for. Often times we’ve started to shoot before we completely nail it down, and we end up developing it as we go. The reality is, we’ve got to get this train moving, and we’ll have to figure it out.

Another responsibility I have is working with Facial Animation. I work very closely with them. Facial Animation all starts with Dave Vandervoort’s 2D drawings. We start with designs and lines of dialogue. If we haven’t recorded the dialogue yet, like with Matthew McConaughey, once we know we have him for Beetle, our 2D Department will do a line of dialogue, which we’ll take from Mud or another of his films, so we can make sure that the shapes we create feel like they’re coming from his voice. It’s my job to make sure the movement of the 3D face is what we’re looking to achieve. We’re really trying to push the facial animation here to ensure we get the subtle and nuanced performances that we want. We do that by looking at tons of reference of not just the actor, but other characters as well. It’s interesting, looking at reference, because oftentimes it’s a different actor than the one cast whose facial expressions you gravitate to.

In the three films that I’ve worked on at LAIKA, only once have we found an actor that was the basis for a character completely. That was the kid who was Sam in Freaks and Geeks. Chris Butler insisted, “He IS Norman”. So we pulled so much reference from Freaks and Geeks, and our character bible for Norman was essentially that kid.

For Beetle, there are subtleties and performance ticks that Matthew McConaughey does that we wanted to bring into the character, but he’s not built like Beetle. Strangely enough, we had one of our camera guys who is built like a brick shit house. I saw him in the gym once doing inclined situps with two eighty pound dumbbells. When you watch him walk, you’re like, “He is Beetle!” His walk is Beetle.

At one point we talked about this bravado that he needed to have. We thought about sticking his chest out when he walked, kinda cliche, but one of our camera team was a hulk of a human being, and there was such confidence and strength in the way that he moved. And it wasn’t about sticking his chest out; it’s just the way he moved. So we really broke down his movement, got him on a treadmill, we’d use him all the time. He wound up being the basis of Beetle’s walk. It was much stronger than the cliche arms wide, stick your chest out type walk that we originally talked about.

For Monkey, we looked at a lot of Snow Monkey reference. First off, they’re not that big, and she was supposed to be large. And they walk like a cat or dog or most other quadruped animals that you’ve seen. It doesn’t feel like a primate at all. So we started to look at Chimpanzees and Gorillas, and Orangutans. We used a mesh of different primates to make her feel bigger. Because most people don’t really know what a Snow Monkey looks like or moves like, we were fine mixing movements of various primates. We didn’t want her to feel like a cat or dog, which she kind of did in the earlier tests.

My main responsibility once we start shooting literally supervise the actual animation. I sit in every edit session with the director and the animator. I’m there to discuss and brainstorm about the animation with the director before the animator comes into the room at which point, I’m just a fly on the wall listening and taking notes as he gives directions to the animator. After that, I just make sure that the team is delivering what the director — in this case Travis — was looking for, and that everyone stays on specific character and general studio style.

Daniel: How long was the animation process from start to finish on this film and roughly how many animators worked on it in the various animation departments (stop motion, effects, facial, 2D)?

At our peak we were up to thirty two stop motion animators. We hope to get five to six seconds a week out of our animators. Previous films have been just under five. But Kubo, with all of the complexity, we were at about 3.5 seconds a week. We had about ten facial animators. Our 2D Department is very small, I think we had just two. We really need to get more 2D talent. We also had four VFX Character Animators.

kubo-and-the-two-strings-partners-with-discover-the-forest-11-HR

Daniel: The acting performances become more subtle and nuanced with each feature Laika completes. I imagine this a result of improvements in the technology along with a desire to keep pushing forward and breaking new ground for the medium, but I’m curious how this affects the animator’s workflow. Do you spend more time planning shots and nailing down the performance with acting reference now than in features past?

Yeah, totally. On Coraline, really nobody used reference. I think we had one guy, Ian Whitlock, who came from Aardman. He would shoot reference. At the time Henry Selick wanted us to shoot more, but we’re all a bunch of shy, quiet, introverts, self-conscious about being on camera. So, nobody did. On ParaNorman we brought in Jason Stalman, who I worked with on Corpse Bride and Fantastic Mr. Fox. He shoots a ton of reference. He loved using it while animating for Wes Anderson on Fox. He kind of brought that to the studio with him. He’s an incredible animator as is, but he would shoot reference for his shots, and his work got so much better. His rate of improvement was heads and shoulders above everybody else. We started encouraging everybody else to start using reference. And then you’d start to see it. Those that were using reference, their animation was looking more naturalistic. The characters were feeling more alive.

On Boxtrolls probably 90% of the team was using live-action reference. We call them LAVS (live action videos). I feel like we got that from Wes. It got to the point where you could tell who wasn’t using reference. The few animators that weren’t using it, their work was standing out as being different from everybody else’s. So once we hit Kubo it was mandatory. Everybody is shooting reference. By shooting reference, everyone’s animation was really jiving with what we want to do as a studio. And you know as an animator, that with reference, there’s what you think of, and then there’s what you see. How you think things move versus what you see in your reference are often two different things.

A great example of that is on Kubo. There’s a shot in the beginning when he’s in the cave and he’s picking up the pieces of paper. He’s picks up one, and the next one he kind of misses. He doesn’t quite get it, and he reaches back down to pick it up. That was directly from the reference we got. Jason missed the piece of paper, and there was something so real and human about that. It instantly made the character feel more believable. All of a sudden he doesn’t feel like a puppet, he feels like a boy. And that’s really what we want to do.

I don’t want anyone to ever be reminded that they’re watching a stop motion feature. I want people to get completely immersed in the story. If they’re reminded that they’re watching stop motion because it’s jerky, they’ve been pulled out of the story. If this happens, I feel that we’ve failed. I think using reference has put us on this path, not just for shooting beautiful stop-motion animation, but also, allowing people to get immersed in the story, which to me is the most important thing.

Daniel: It sounds like it’s getting very similar to the workflow of a CG Animator.

I think so, yeah. It’s funny to talk about reference to you, because I know CG Animators have been using it forever, and it’s a new thing for us. It’s a skill being able to use it as reference, and not rotoscope it. You have to pick out those pieces that you want to add to your performance. And I’m sure it’s the same way in CG too, but some guys you don’t want shooting their own reference. None of us are really actors in front of the camera, but some are certainly way better than others. Some guys will act, and they’re really stiff. We’ll say, “Let’s get somebody else to act that out for you.” Everybody did give it a shot, and it’s fun for people. If someone’s a little stockier, and they’re working on a Kubo shot, they’ll go and grab one of our other animators that’s proportioned more like Kubo. Kevin Parry kind of became our go-to Kubo for LAVS. Poor Kevin, getting pulled off of his set all the time to act out shots for everybody else.

Daniel: Do you set specific goals for character animation at the start of each project to push your craft, or do these improvements come about naturally as a result of the studio exploring more ambitious stories with larger and more varied environments?

With Coraline, we thought the animation was really good. And there were things when I stepped in to supervise animation on ParaNorman that I felt I could do to make the animation better, more consistent, and have individual styles disappear. The way they used to animate these films was you would animate whatever shot was given to you. Sometimes you’d have ten different animators animating ten shots in a row. I think that mix of style sort of drew the viewer’s eye, and it was one of the reasons you knew you were watching a stop motion film.

You’d have a top guy animating one shot, and a guy with very little experience animating the next. We didn’t want to do that anymore. As an animator, I craved owning my own chunk of the film. Not only is it more interesting as an artist but as an animator I could get more immersed in the characters. Approaching casting this way started to make individual styles disappear. You didn’t have a mix of three or four or five animators working on one character within a sequence. You had one set of hands and the team was into it. It still happens from time to time, but we try to do it in the more frenetic sequences where it’s easier to hide styles.

That was the big shift from Coraline to ParaNorman. Boxtrolls was a natural evolution of improvement. With Kubo, it was about the acting. We hadn’t had a film that was this subtle in the acting. It was interesting to see how that was going to go. It’s more of a challenge to not move a puppet and keep things subtle. It was about getting everyone’s heads around that. I felt if we could do it, than we would push the animation to another level. While it doesn’t seem as fun, the rewards of what we’ll get in the end will really push the medium further. These characters will really feel alive, believable and relatable if everyone can sort of restrain themselves and animate more subtly.

I don’t know where we go from here. I say that after every film. Another reason I think our work keeps getting better is because we’re the only studio doing film after film. Historically stop motion projects, with the exception of Aardman, are kind of satellite operations. You set it up, everybody comes together to bang it out, and then everybody leaves. While that can be fun, at the end of a project everyone goes away with the things that they learned, but they also walk away with their bad habits, which they just bring to the next job. As a studio doing film after film, we really have an opportunity to grow as artists. We can review our work when we’re done. We can applaud our work, but we can also talk about what didn’t work. What can we improve on as individuals? We can limit our bad habits. I think that’s what allows us to keep pushing the medium forward. Everyone grows as an artist in a way that’s never really been possible historically.

Daniel: So do you have a post mortem interview at the end of each project?

Yes, we get together as a group. Once we let some interns sit in on one of these meetings. We were ripping each other’s work apart. These kids were sitting there clueless to what we were talking about. They were looking at the best stop motion they’ve ever seen, and here we are tearing it apart.

Daniel: There’s a tremendous amount of cloth, fur, and hair on these characters. How do the animators handle all of that overlap technically?

It was a nightmare! It was so hard! [Laughs] I remember when the designs came out and we were breaking the puppets down. Everyone had all these baggy clothes. There’s a reason why every stop-motion puppet in history up to this point has tight fitted clothing. It’s a pain in the butt. On Boxtrolls we had a couple characters with tails. On ParaNorman we had the judge with the cape. All of a sudden here we are with characters with kimono’s with baggy sleeves, long hair, multiple sets of arms, capes, and so on. That’s why we only wound up doing 3.5 seconds a week. It was so time consuming. Each character became two, three, four characters in one. And in stop-motion there’s no hair or cloth simulation. It’s all done by hand by an animator.

Daniel: 100%? All of it?

99.999999% The only time we used any sim at all was Kubo’s hair in a few underwater shots in the garden of eyes sequence. That was it though. The cloth was all hand animated. That was it. Everything else was done by the stop motion animator. The first underwater animation test that the animator did included animating the hair and it looked great, but it took him a week to do. So we decided to stick with the CG sim.

But all the other hair’s wired. All the costumes are foiled or wired. The sleeves on the kimonos had an inner rig. The costumes are like a shell over another armature to allow us to get the movement that we want to get out of it. The sleeves needed to have weight, but the costume is so small. How do you create weight out of that? So we would have a couple sets of joints that would attach to the character’s tricep. It would attach to the cloth, and we could pull it so it would come down and feel like it was hanging with weight. It was easier to animate that way.

Daniel: You’re fast approaching the subtlety of the CG spline. It seems to be the only advantage CG has over stop motion and traditional animation, and the gap is quickly closing.

It’s interesting. For years everyone talked about how CG is going to take over stop motion. It’ll replace it. Stop motion is dead. Of course, this is a number of years ago now. Since then it seems like stop motion is coming closer to looking like CG than the other way around. Part of that is just an evolution of an art form. Stop motion is getting smoother because animators just keep getting better.

Daniel: What was the CG department responsible for on Kubo?

Nick Craven and his team would do all the background characters. Like in the market square we’d have one to five stop motion characters and the rest would be CG to fill out the world. That’s what is making these films feel bigger and why we’re doing a hybrid thing now. Typically you’re limited to how many puppets one animator can animate or how many puppets your puppet department can build. With the use of visual effects, we can make these worlds as big as we want. We can have a village with three hundred people. We can then use the practical puppets as lighting reference, and texture reference. They’re doing a great job at making them feel like our stop motion characters.

Some of that even goes into the rigging of the characters. I remember the rigging of the cloth. We did some early CG tests of the background characters, and some of the long garments. They were beautiful. But I knew that a stop motion animator could never get that amount of articulation in these costumes. We would shoot a quick test or physically show them what we could do with a stop motion puppet, and they would go back and change the rigging. Simplify it, and get rid of a lot of those points of articulation to make sure that when they moved, they moved like our stop motion puppets move.

Monkey, voiced by Academy Award winner Charlize Theron, gets trapped in the Hall of Bones and caught in the grip of the Giant Skeleton

Monkey, voiced by Academy Award winner Charlize Theron, gets trapped in the Hall of Bones and caught in the grip of the Giant Skeleton

Daniel: How challenging was it to animate the skeleton in the hall of bones? Is this the largest stop motion puppet ever animated?

I haven’t heard back from Guinness yet, but It’s certainly the biggest stop motion puppet we’ve ever done. I don’t know of one that’s been done anywhere else that’s bigger. I’ve worked on a lot of projects, and everything is essentially the same scale. The puppets get better, the art direction gets more beautiful, sometimes the sets get really big, but the puppets are generally always the same scale. We decided in a breakdown meeting that we were going to build him to scale just to avoid having to composite the other character on him. There was so much interaction, it just made sense to try to build it to scale. We didn’t know how we were going to do it, but we were going to build it to scale. I remember the first time I saw him; I felt like a little kid. For the first time I really felt like we were making a big epic movie. It was cool.

As far as how we were going to do it, our Rigging Department worked with our Motion Control Department, and they came up with this hexapod. It’s very similar to what they have on flight simulators and amusement park rides. The puppet weighs four or five hundred pounds. We were never going to get an animator to be able to move that thing at all, much less in the subtle increments that we needed to do it in. It was controlled with a jog box. You could control the twist, tilt, the side to side, and front and back of his torso. With that were able to get the subtle body movements. Some of that was blocked and programmed. So every time the animator recorded a frame, the coordinates were captured in the Kuper System.

Giant Skeleton animator Charles Greenfield, Animation Supervisor Brad Schiff and Director/Producer/Animator Travis Knight discuss the animation of the Giant Skeleton.

Giant Skeleton animator Charles Greenfield, Animation Supervisor Brad Schiff and Director/Producer/Animator Travis Knight discuss the animation of the Giant Skeleton.

The thing about the hexapod is you have these five actuators. As it moved around, it would max out. So if you’re twisting the character, and a little bit forward, and also to the right, some of them would max out, and then you’re stuck. You’re totally locked. So we built a meter system so we could visually see when we were about to max out. A lot of the gross movement Charles Greenfield would do in the blocking and rehearsal, so that by the time they did the shot, the body motion was in the Cooper System. That ended up being programmed based on what he did in his blocking. And the rest of the body would then be animated by hand.

Daniel: So essentially it’s a pose to pose workflow. Defining your goal posts and working within them when you do the final performance.

Yes, but just in the torso of this character, because of the limitations of the hexapod.

Daniel: The effects animation in Kubo is very impressive. I’m curious how much of it was CG and how much was hand crafted with stop motion? Can you talk about animating the construction of the origami boat?

Almost everything is informed by practical elements. For the water our head of rigging came up with this wire grid system that undulated like water, and he would put a trash bag over it, and shoot some tests. We would shoot all these tests to see what kind of a look we could get. Travis would decide what was successful, and what he liked. We always try to accomplish as much as we can practically. With the type of water we wanted, you just can’t. You want to make sure you get the nuances of the current and the waves. But all of the reference would go to the visual effects team, and they would use that as a design for the water. We were fortunate that when Rhythm & Hues shut down, we were able to land David Horsley. He is amazing.

For the boat we shot stuff on set. We had two halves of a boat. We had a mast, a piece of sail, little railing pieces, and we did a miniature test on set. That became the basis for that shot. We liked the way it looked, and they wound up doing a match move in visual effects for the boat. Then we worked with previz, and took the data they used based on the first practical test, and put that data into the Kuper System, and the two halves of the boat went together based on that CG data. A stop motion animator then animated the mast coming up, the railing on the side, a couple pieces getting sucked into the boat, and then CG embellished with all the smaller pieces like the leaves and dripping water. So that shot ended up being a big hybrid of both stop motion and CG.

We’ll always do practical elements. Whether it’s the Moon Beast crashing through the village or Beetle getting thrown through one of the buildings, the bigger pieces always end up being animated by hand as practical pieces. When Kubo’s mother is crawling on the beach, there’s the water, but we also have the interaction with her hand on the sand, which is all done practically with the pebbles. Everything small is enhanced with vfx…the destruction of a building or with dust and so forth. We haven’t figured out how to do stop-mo dust practically yet. The more stuff we can do practically, the more we can inform the Visual Effects Department with lighting reference and the better everything looks.

Daniel: What’s the process like when animating characters on the green screen sets?

Probably 90% of the time it’s because we’re going to have visual effects in the shot or rig removal. We always shoot the character on the set, and rehearse it on set. But sometimes we’ll put a card behind that character because there’s going to be atmosphere behind them. It’s very rare that we just take a character out of context and just put him on a green screen. Sometimes we’ll do that at the end of a production just because of the reality of trying to get these things done. So we’ll shoot a plate of the set, and using Dragonframe we’re able to bring it in as a background element, animate the character on green screen, and still see them on set.

The really complex one in this movie was the Moon Beast. He went up on green. He’s a different scale. We never would have been able to make him in scale. It was a challenge to animate that character. He had to be rigged in the side, floating in space, he was on green so there were zero points of reference to track your movement, and he was really difficult to get your head around. I ended up animating one of those shots, and it was so hard. You just didn’t know where you were or where you were going. On a regular set, you always have points of reference. With him you always knew where you’re starting, but it was next to impossible to know where you’re going to end up.

Daniel: What was the most challenging character to animate from an acting performance standpoint?

It depends who you talk to. Each one was it’s own challenge because of the cloth and hair. The sister had a cape and hair, but she was also often suspended twelve feet in the air on a rig because she’s flying above Monkey on a boat. We wound up shooting that practically. So the animator’s on a ladder or scaffolding, having to climb up twelve feet every frame and move her, and wait for her to stop shaking before he can record a frame. She was difficult in that way.

I think the most complicated, maybe not as much technically, but mentally trying to get your head around it, I think was the Moon Beast. Because of the lack of reference points, and not knowing where you were in frame. How do you get from A to B? Any one of these puppets over any of our last films would have been a big deal, but we had them all in one film. Which goes back to our 3.5 seconds a week. I love Production, they’re great. They have their role, but they’re always on you. You’ve got your numbers and your quota. I explained to them that the animators were working harder than they’ve ever worked on any movie. We need to stop talking about moving slow. They’re not moving slow, the process is moving slow because of the complexity of all of this stuff. It’s Monkey with her hair, and Beetle with his four arms, and he’s on a rig every time because his ankles are so small that he just can’t support himself.

Every single one of them was its own challenge. I played around with a lot of them. The hardest was the Moon Beast, but in a way that’s different than any of the characters. The design of it was kind of diamond shaped, and it had goose neck running through it, which is what you would use for a posable lamp. If you wanted to bend it up, down, left, or right it would work really well. But as soon as you wanted to implement any sort of twist, the range of motion was minimized considerably. It was really complex. At the end of the day, I’m really proud how it turned out given what it was. It’s one of those things that I wonder if we were to do it again knowing what we now know, would we have used different materials or even done it practically at all. But I think looking at the final result, you would never know it was a pain in the ass.

Daniel: What are some of your favorite moments from working on this project?

My first is what I told you about the skeleton. Seeing that thing being put together, I was just really geeking out like a kid seeing it for the first time. I’m always really into these projects, but that was the first one that really brought me back to being a seven year old. The other moments that I always find the most satisfying are the times that we cracked the code of things. I remember for a long time in development Kubo’s kimono wasn’t working. We wondered how we were going to animate this thing. The sleeves were these giant tubes and we needed to bend the wires in a particular way to pose them. I was looking at them thinking this isn’t going to work. It has to look the same regardless of the animator. One animator might be able to do it beautifully, and another is going to struggle immensely with it.

I remember grabbing Deborah Cook, our Head of Costume, and Nelson Lowry, our Production Designer, and we talked about it. I said, “Every time he puts his arms down or raises his arms, it should do the same thing, regardless of which animator is touching it.” They suggested making one out of paper, actually taking an origami approach to his kimono. We did some animation tests, and the result was perfect. Immediately it was like, “That’s it!” It looked great and felt more in tune with the Japanese design, and the way that garments really work. That’s one of my favorite moments because I really didn’t know how we were going to do it. Kubo was needed out on set and we had to make the main character as manageable as possible because everyone was going to have to animate that puppet at some point. Almost all my favorite moments involved cracking the code.

Possibly the largest stop motion character ever created.

Possibly the largest stop motion character ever created.

Daniel: How does working at Laika differ from other studios you’ve worked at?

It’s one of the most satisfying places I’ve ever worked. Laika challenges you as an artist in a way that I’ve never been challenged before. I think part of that is due to that satellite operation thing I mentioned before. Laika is a place doing film after film, so you have to figure out how we’re going to improve over what we did on the last project. Some of it’s an evolution, and some of it’s a conscious, “This is what we need to do.” It’s inspiring. The talent that we have here is unlike any other place I’ve been to in stop motion. It’s hard, but it’s incredibly rewarding to see what we do. I love it here, but I feel like it’s not for the meek.

Daniel: How often do you see a traditional or CG animator, with little to no experience in stop motion, make the jump to stop motion? How well does that translate?

I’ve only seen it once with one of our Facial Animators. It doesn’t happen a lot, but he decided he wanted to animate on stage. He took the initiative. We got him a test unit, and his tests were incredible right off the bat. He animated with us a little bit on ParaNorman and Boxtrolls. We wanted to get him on Kubo, but we were too swamped with facial animation.

I’d like to see it more, it’s something that we’re trying to do more of. We just expanded, and I know some people here want to try it out. I’m excited to see what people can do, but we haven’t been able to provide the opportunity to get people the time out on set with a puppet to animate. I’d like to see it because the stop motion pool is not that big. There’s still not a ton of stop motion animators out there. We need to create more by giving people the opportunity to cross mediums and give it a shot.

The challenge for us is down time, space, and resources. It just happened to work out that when he wanted to do it, we had a unit available. We had the camera equipment available. We had an extra puppet available that he was able to take and keep out there for a couple of weeks. He was able to get to it after work and on the weekends. We still have more desire for that. The problem with stop motion is people love the idea of doing it until they actually get out there and do it, and then they’re like, “Oh my god, this sucks!” because it’s so hard. It takes forever. But it’s something I want to see a lot more of.

Daniel: I’m interested in stop motion for many reasons, but one of them is to strengthen my understanding of the craft. As a CG Animator I feel that traditional animators have sense of timing, putting things on exposure sheets, that CG Animators don’t have. Stop Motion Animators have a sense of movement and how things will work out in motion that CG Animators don’t have. And that’s just because CG Animators can lean on the convenience of the craft. We can instantly see the timing. Well, if you can instantly see the timing, then you never really get a good sense of timing, at least not right away. I’m a bit of purist, I love the 2D stuff, and I work in a 2D way when I animate in CG. So I would be interested in trying it because I’m a perfectionist, and I would hate it in the beginning, but I wouldn’t give up. And once I’ve figured it out, going back to CG, I feel like it could completely change the way I animate, in a positive way.

I bet you would. It’s interesting, I have a lot of stop motion guys that have worked in CG, but I don’t see a lot of CG guys that work in stop motion. Ian Whitlock is one of our animators, he’s done a lot of CG, he worked on Flushed Away. Gabe Springer, during down time used to work on CG commercials. Travis Knight would go work on commercials, and worked on Moon Girl with Henry Selick. I’ve seen it a lot from the stop motion to the CG side.

Daniel: Where do you want to see stop motion go that it hasn’t yet?

More than where I want to see it go, I think it’s the excitement for what’s coming next. What we don’t know. I think about it all the time. What got me thinking about it is some of the young guys that are coming in from college. We get them straight out of university. They’re so good. I used to think that the only way that someone could work up to this is by working on television shows, and doing it all the time. But you have some of these kids coming out of school and they’re just mind-blowingly good.

I have to attribute that to what’s inspired them, be it Coraline and ParaNorman, as opposed to what inspired us, which was still amazing; People like Harryhausen and Tippett, and Will Vinton. While that stuff is great, it’s very different from what we’re doing today. I look at what we’re doing today versus what inspired us, and the thought of what the people that we’re inspiring today are going to do when they step into it, I don’t even know what that is, but it just excites me. I don’t know what the next thing is. I think we’ll just keep getting better. I think each film will present something that we know we’ll be able to do that we haven’t been able to do before.