'Missing Link' director reveals the astonishing amount of work needed for just 63-seconds of footage

Tom Butler
Senior Editor
Hugh Jackman's Lionel Frost sizes up The Missing Link. (Lionsgate)

LAIKA’s dazzlingly gorgeous Missing Link is now available to watch at home on digital ahead of its DVD and Blu-ray release on Monday, 5 August.

Starring Hugh Jackman as explorer Lionel Frost and Zach Galifianakis as Mr. Link, a living remnant of man’s primitive ancestry, it’s an utterly charming animated romp, and another jewel in the crown for the Oregon-based stop motion studio that also brought us Kubo and the Two Strings, The Boxtrolls, ParaNorman, and Coraline.

The film is five-year labour of love for British-born director Chris Butler, who claims it could be the most ambitious stop motion film ever made. To get a sense of the huge amount of work that went into making the 94-minute movie, Butler talked us through a 63-second scene, frame by frame, explaining how it was made.

The scene in question sees Lionel meeting Link for the first time - a homage to Henry Morton Stanley tracking down Dr. David Livingstone in Tanzania in 1871 - and can be watched in full below.

Yahoo Movies UK: This is the first time Lionel sees Mr. Link: what can you tell us about the setting?

Chris Butler: I knew that this had to have a certain amount of mystery. We’re playing this part of the movie fairly straight. We're in this mysterious place. If you've ever been to the Pacific Northwest, you know the woods that are almost primal.

They're so old, these giant trees. So I wanted to evoke some of that sense of mystery and untouched nature.

A gif will never do a LAIKA film justice, but here we are. (Lionsgate)

It was important for me to have that initial contrast between Link and Lionel. Lionel is the epitome of civilisation in his Savile Row suit and his walking cane. He does not fit into this place, and Link has to be the opposite of that.

Read more: Hugh Jackman ‘wasted three years of his life’

He is entirely wild, he's never set foot in a civilised place. So the set is just this huge, untouched meadow. And it is a physical set, this giant, giant set.

And how tall are the character models?

Lionel is 13 inches. And you base the scale of the movie around your main character, because there's an optimum size for a [stop motion] puppet. If it gets too big, then it's difficult to animate. If it gets too small, then you can't get all the mechanisms that you need into it.

On this movie, it allowed us to have overall a smaller scale. Because if you're basing the whole movie around your main character, this is the first time our main character was an adult; In the past, it's been kids. Our size, overall, is two thirds smaller than Kubo.

Having said that we've got twice as many locations. So it doesn't help. But it does mean that you're building to the size of your main character.

Is the set all physical, or is there some digital extension on this?

There is digital extension. Well, actually a lot of what you're seeing there is real. But some of these trees as you get further back or not three dimensional trees, eventually become cutouts, stuff like that.

But then a lot of this stuff is manipulation after the fact like those light shafts coming through the branches: that's digital. So a lot of the times what the digital stuff is doing is is making the physical stuff fit together or look prettier.

How is the flying paper achieved?

It would be easy to assume this letter was done using CGI modelling. But it was all stop motion. (Lionsgate)

That was physical. So that shot where it flies across the clearing, that was rigged to a giant long snake of metal. And you work it out beforehand, you work out the trajectory that it’s going to follow. But then some poor animator has got to move that thing, and the camera’s following him along, it's almost like a mini paper roller coaster. And then [it flies] into the hand.

And what is the paper made of?

So usually, with paper if it has to animate, you have a mesh underneath the surface, so you can bend it and manipulate it. You use different techniques, because often that can make it look very thick. So you've got to be very careful.

You gotta be careful how light falls through it. So again, there's a lot of digital manipulation, but that was all hand animated.

Read more: The Lion King’s only truly live action shot revealed

There’s a certain expectation you have about what a yeti will look and behave like, but by casting Zach Galifianakis, you’re subverting that. Is that what you were looking for?

He's the heart of the movie. And you’ve just got to like him instantly. He is a true innocent.

Zach Galifianakis poses with a costumed character from the film at the premiere of "Missing Link". (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Zach has this very warm voice. And he's very funny. But there is a vulnerability to his humour. There is this sense of displacement. Like he doesn't quite fit into any situation that he's in. And there's an awkwardness that comes with that.

And that was just perfect for this character, because he's setting foot out of the woods for the first time. And and coming across civilisation. And not only does he physically not fit in, but mentally he doesn't.

He has read books. But that's the extent of what he knows about the world. So Zach's kind of otherworldliness was perfect for this character, and just very funny.

His introduction through the cough is genius: was that always in the script?

It's not the cough that carries you off, it's the coffin they carry you off in. (Lionsgate)

That was always there. I wanted it to be like the Livingston moment, but then [have Link] completely ruin it. When I was working with Hugh and Zach, I asked them to play this as if it was almost like a blind date.

Especially for Zach because he's put Lionel this pedestal, he's like a fanboy of Lionel. He's read about him. So he's kind of shy and awkward and full of anxiety. So it offered a really interesting dynamic.

Looking at the fur here - you’re casting this in silicon?

Yeah.

But when you see the fur move, does that mean it's a different cast?

No. So on Kubo they rigged the monkey puppet so that physically the hair was moving in the blizzard. And it just became an impossibility. We just couldn't do it.

He’s in most of the movie. And there are so many scenes where he's in like a storm or a blizzard. And we tried… we explore all avenues. But we tried individually rigging this hair, and we would never have made the movie.

So this is an instance where we came up with a solution where we had physical puppet, and we actually UV painted tips of all those tufts of hair.

Read more: New Wallace & Gromit in development

And then you do a UV pass in the camera. That gets given to our VFX department and they come up with a system where they use the UV paint to subtly manipulate the hair.

So that's like the dots that you see on the motion capture suit?

Yeah, except when you see the UV version of this, you see lots of little triangles. Although most of the movement here is natural movement of the puppet.

Would one animator do this whole scene on their own?

The scene takes place in a clearing, in a location very familiar to the director who lives in the Pacific Northwest. (Lionsgate)

Not necessarily, but you try to do that. Because what you want is an animator to inhabit a scene, they're an actor, they really are, they are coming up with a performance that is supposed to convey emotion, and feeling. So you want them to be invested in it.

Read more: The 10 best Studio Ghibli animations

If you can give an animator a whole scene, then they can really get their head into it. Because you never want to think of a shot as a story in itself. That's a danger. If you make every shot its own thing, then it doesn't fit together very well. You don't want to make every shot feel as important as the last. You know what I mean?

Because then it becomes less of a piece of the jigsaw puzzle?

Exactly. So ideally, you'd have one animator do it all because then they understand the progression through the scene. I mean, occasionally, you have to break that rule and bring in other people just because of scheduling.

Timothy Olyphant, Zoe Saldana, director Chris Butler, Zack Galifinakis and Hugh Jackman attend the "Missing Link" New York City Premiere, 2019. (Photo by Anthony Behar/Sipa USA)

At the height of production, you could maybe get somewhere between and minute and a minute and a half of footage a week. And that's from everyone. If you get a minute and half, you are lucky. That a great week.

And so how long roughly to make this scene?

This section? I don't know. This is [an] interesting [scene], because it's two characters. There's a lot of very subtle acting going on here. So in some ways, it's very challenging. Actually, in a lot of ways, it's very challenging. Because it's all about performance.

Missing Link's animation is incredibly subtle and nuanced, but speaks volumes. (Lionsgate)

We have more technically challenging scenes where you've got eight, nine, ten characters, and that is difficult in a different way. We had scenes that were animating for almost the entirety of the two years.

Certainly, Ian Whitlock who animated a lot of the initial Link-Lionel meeting stuff, that's all he worked on while he was on the movie. All this stuff in the cave and quite a few shots in this scene: that's all he did; that there for two years.

We had one guy on ParaNorman who was animating a ghost in the toilet. He was in the toilet for two years nearly.

LAIKA’s Missing Link is out on Digital Download now and on DVD & Blu-ray™ from 5 August.