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‘Missing Link’ Director Chris Butler on Flawed Characters, Spielbergian Setpieces, and 3D Printing

Written by on April 11, 2019 

Missing Link, the fifth feature film from Laika, is another wondrously detailed animation feat and certainly their most epic outing with its globe-trotting story of mythic proportions. Returning to the director’s chair after ParaNorman, Chris Butler switches up his palette with a buoyantly colorful design and flawed characters which buck the trend of most family animations.

We spoke with the director about the influences behind his grand adventure, nesting important themes into the story, crafting the epic action setpieces, advancing 3D printing technology, 10 years of Laika, what he thought of Travis Knight’s Bumblebee, and more.

The Film Stage: I wanted to start out by discussing your approach to color in this film. It’s such a grand adventure and with that also comes this beautiful palette. Can you talk about how early on in the process you knew you wanted that color scheme?

Chris Butler: Well, at the end of ParaNorman, which was a long time ago, I knew that the next thing that I wanted to do needed to be radically different. I’m not interested in repeating myself and I thought: How can I step out of the shadows? ParaNorman was a pastiche of 80s horror movies, and it took place at night time, and I thought I had done the “dark: thing. So, it was a purposeful choice I picked a project that had the opportunity for us to explore a much bolder, more colorful palette. It’s a journey around the world, so I knew it needed to be this big, bright travelogue. I said to Travis [Knight] originally I wanted to do if David Lean directed Around the World in Eighty Days, starring Laurel and Hardy. That was the original idea. I knew it was going to be a more playful movie, so that was also a reason to explore a more vibrant color palette, and one of the big inspirations at the very start of the movie was National Geographic photography. And then we started pulling reference from mid-century National Genographic photographs. The striking colors were one of the things that me and the production designer was very keen on getting into the movie. Because we are traveling a lot in the movie, we wanted these locations to have their own color signature. So, for example, the woods and the Pacific Northwest are not just green, they’re kind of blue-green. But then the jungle in India, it’s kind of a yellow-green. So, each location on this journey has a signature that carries you through.

Speaking of your influences, have you seen James Gray’s The Lost City of Z? At least the set-up of this film reminded me of it.

Yes, I have, and I think I was obviously influenced by a ton of Victorian-set adventures. Lost City of Z is in there, but I think there’s a lot of Jules Verne in there, a lot of [Arthur] Conan Doyle. There’s this subgenre of adventure movie and they’re all about these robust, barrel-chested males exploring the world. I kind of wanted to poke fun at that a little with Lionel whose such an interesting character.

There’s this playful, funny adventure, but you do nest themes of the dangers of colonialism and protecting the environment if you want to look deeper. How important is it to have a foundational backbone of these more important issues?

I think it’s vital, personally. I think you can have something to say in a movie, whether it’s a kids movie, a family movie, an adult movie, whatever. I think it’s good to have something to say. You should never be didactic. You shouldn’t shove it into people’s faces, but I think it adds layers to a story that just makes it more compelling. For me as well, I think it’s good that kids movies have some kind of message. That’s certainly the kids movies, the animated movies that I grew up with, that had the biggest impact on me in my life, they all had something to say. I’ve never been fond of animation as just as a babysitting device. You know, something you can just plop the kids in front of and walk away. I want there to be a little more to it. And for me, this movie, I want kids and adults to get something out of it; not just the laughs and the fun of it, but also something to even talk about or think about after they’ve left.

Hugh Jackman’s Frost is not your typical family film adventure lead. He’s not the most likable character. He doesn’t have this huge arc where he completely becomes less self-centered. He’s a little bit of an asshole in the beginning–

[Laughs]

Which I loved, you just don’t see that a lot in animated films. Were you met with any kind of resistance to that, or that idea of a character?

For me, the most interesting protagonists are the ones that are flawed. If I look at the big influence on Sir Lionel which was Sherlock Holmes, who is eccentric and borderline sociopathic, he’s compelling because he’s an awkward fit. When you have this character who’s lacking certain social graces and you put him into conversations with another character, you immediately have an interesting dynamic. I always found those characters more interesting. I think the key for Lionel was that he remains entertaining. Like, he does a lot of bad things. He’s certainly selfish, but I think that’s why Hugh [Jackman] was so important, because I still wanted the audience to go along with him on this ride, and I think he does have redeeming features.

I remember it was a similar thing there where at the end of ParaNorman, the world isn’t completely changed; there are still assholes in it, but maybe a few people have changed. That’s important to me. It’s not a light switch. You don’t flick a switch and then suddenly, he’s 100% a great guy, but he’s trying. He’s working on it. And I think that’s important, is that he’s recognized that he is flawed and he’s trying to be a better person, and I think that is more relatable.

The setpieces are pretty incredibly conceived and executed, there’s a midway sequence with an Inception meets The Perfect Storm feeling. Can you talk about pulling it off? My mind was kind of racing how you actually animated it.

Well, I must admit when I was writing it, I was at times thinking, “I’m not sure we can do this.” But we’ve always liked a challenge. I think in terms of the genre here, I knew it needed big action setpieces, and I was very much influenced by the Spielbergian school of having an action sequence with a narrative to it. It’s got a shape. It’s got a beginning, a middle, and end, and there are events within that sequence. There’s jokes, dramatic moments, but it’s almost like a mini story. I wasn’t interested in it just being some chaotic fight montage. I wanted it to have more narrative interest and that was very much influenced by the Indiana Jones movies.

When you start writing something like that, the fact that we’re doing it in animation is that you don’t just do a regular chase. You have to find something bigger than that–something that’s more unusual, more absurd, that makes it worth animating. And that’s where the Inception thing came from. Technically, it does blow your mind, but you start off with storyboarding very early on, you talk through it. You’ve got your camera guys, you’ve got your VFX guys. We’re all in the room at the very start, talking about these things, and trying to break down how we set it up. And we will use every trick in the book.

The truth is it’s always going to be difficult for the animator, and that particular sequence was incredibly difficult. We had a guy who is really good at action stuff but all of that moving corridor thing, we couldn’t physically move the set. So, we had to move the camera to create that sensation, which meant that the animator was faking this movement just in his puppet performance. And it’s hugely difficult to do, but this our fifth movie and I think we’ve been refining our skills and we’ve been innovating, so it felt like now we have the talent to do a movie like this, we could achieve this movie.

It has been ten years of Laika feature films, and you are definitely setting the bar in terms of the level of beauty and wonder in animation. I’m curious as animators, where do you look towards for inspiration?

A bunch of different things, but I always say that I am an animation fan. I love all animation in all its forms. I will greedily drink in all of the stuff that’s put out by the other studios. I will like some of it, I will love some of it. I think what’s important is that there is diversity in this movie, and I think that is where we’re special. I want to do stuff that’s different. I want us to have our own voice, and part of that comes with the look as well. I don’t want to make movies that look like animated movies, other animated movies. So I think we draw inspiration where we can, from other things, like photography or live action movies or illustrators. There is such a vast world of influence out there that can be tapped into and I think it’s only right that we try to do something that you can’t see somewhere else. I think that’s what it comes down to in the end is that every time we make a movie, it’s gonna look different from the last. And I think that’s important to us as a brand.

It made a lot of headlines when Travis Knight signed on for Bumblebee, but I’m just curious if you saw that film and your thoughts on how he was able to help reinvent that franchise, and if you had any interest yourself in going a live-action route.

I mean I love live action, so who knows? I mean I’ve only just finished this movie so I don’t know exactly what’s next, but I loved that movie. I loved what he did. I grew up with those toys, so it felt truer to my childhood idea of what Transformers were. I thought it was a gleefully good time. Travis is a polymath; he is just able to do stuff and succeed at it. He’s a fantastic animator, he’s a great director, he’s just one of those annoying people who’s really good at anything he puts his mind to.

Going back to the more technical aspect of your film, I was reading that there was this 3D printing technology you guys helped develop with this film. Could you talk more about it from maybe a layman’s point of view and the logistics of integrating that into your work process?

So way back on Coraline, we wanted to pursue this replacement face idea. So, the puppet is on set and it’s manipulated by the animator, but we wanted more out of our facial performances. And that’s difficult if the face of the puppet is just armatured, which means it’s manipulated by the animator on stage. So, Coraline is the first one where we used the 3D printer, and it enabled us to open up that world where you can create a performance in the computer, and then print that out, and then each individual face is plugged on top it for every frame of the movie.

Now, over the years, we’ve continued to push this idea. It had never been done before. We went from the black and white printed photos–they would have to be founded and hand-painted. We went to natural color prints in Paranorman. And each time we’re using new prints, and we’re advancing the technology. I think the difference on Missing Link was that in the past, we created kits; thousands and thousands of little faces, and we would construct dialogue or performance almost out of a library of faces–and we didn’t do that on this movie. Every single shot is bespoke. Every single shot is animated purely for that shot, so there was no reusing the faces. What that allowed us to do, I think, is achieve a level of nuance and sophistication in the facial performances that’s never been done before. It’s certainly the best we’ve ever done. That’s what I’m after–I want people to watch these movies and not think that they’re watching a cool puppet, but think that they’re watching a living, breathing character. And the more we push these technologies, the closer we get to that.

When you go to watch the final film, can you kind of sit back and relax and enjoy the adventure it takes you on, or are you kind of overwhelmed by all the work that went into it and thinking about every little frame?

[Laughs] It’s a little bit of both. There’s still stuff that I would change or redo. I still see little faults. I don’t think you ever really finish a movie. I mean it finishes you, probably. I think what was always important to me over the last five years was being able to watch the movie and enjoy it. Most weekends I would take a version of the movie home with me and watch it and that’s going back to when it was all storyboards. I would watch every movie, and just being able to sit back and look at it as a piece of entertainment and enjoy it was very important to me. So yeah, I can watch it and I can enjoy it, but I don’t think I’ll ever be done with it.

Missing Link opens on April 12.


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