Thursday, 6 April 2017

World Animation: America - Kubo and the Two Strings

The amount of time and effort that goes into making films - especially animated films - is often underestimated and undervalued. People often forget that animated films do not simply appear. There are a number of different types of animation including 2D drawn animation (traditional or digital) and 3D animation (CGI, Stop-Motion). Stop-motion animation is arguably the most difficult yet beautiful forms of animation due to the human aspect of it, each frame is painstakingly set up and photographed and any errors can potentially ruin an entire scene. This form of animation has largely been labelled as obsolete by animation studios such as Pixar, Disney or DreamWorks. However, Laika (a film studio in Oregon), is not only revitalising stop-motion but is also hybridising the art form with CGI and 3D printing. This technique has been used in Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014).

Fig 1. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

However, Travis Knight's Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) is one of Laika's most ambitious and beautiful films yet. "'If you must blink, do it now,'...It's a bold way to begin one's film, but then again, the stop-motion geniuses have been crafting their own way since Coraline...Kubo's curiosity soon leads him beyond the realms of safety and his adventure is kicked into a tenser gear even Pixar would struggle to match," (Stolworthy, 2016). It is clear how much hard work and passion was poured into the creation of this film as the movie plays out. The smallest details in the environment's design, small facial changes, the flowing hair and fabric on the characters are all proof of this even before watching any 'behind the scenes' footage. However, it's only when you watch any behind the scenes footage that the amount of innovation and creativity of the studio becomes apparent.

It is uncommon for a studio to go against the grain like Laika has. Through interviews with its various creators and departments it becomes clear how they refuse to be limited to the technology available to them...they will keep pushing on anyway. For example, they used their position in the 3D printing industry to push forward a method of 3D printing that hasn't yet really been done before. In all of their previous films they used coloured 3D printing with resin, while with Kubo, they pushed coloured 3D printing using plastic. They continuously push to solve problems to achieve they look they want rather than shy away from it or settle - as Brain Mclean (Laika's Director of Rapid Prototyping) explains, "We never allow the technology to dictate what we can do...whenever we would see a challenge or whenever we would see a character design... we had a group of really talented artists and technicians and wizards that were willing to accept it and figure it out," (Stop-motion animation goes high tech at Laika, 2016). This determination to persevere through problems and interact with all the different departments to figure out these problems has allowed the studio to create the magically detailed and innovative Kubo.

Fig 2. 3D Printed Facial Expressions
Interestingly, this film is not as child-oriented as one might believe at first. It is rather different and much more complex in comparison to other children's animated films, "Bless Laika, really, for continuing to make films this singular, which reject any known formulae of children's animation and drive creatively each time into uncharted cosmos. Travis Knight's directing debut feels like an injunction against bland spectacle, putting up a fight against ADHD cartoons that just wash over you," (Robey, 2016). Once again, this studio proves that film can be different and experimental...and perhaps more importantly, that the audience (adult or child) is intelligent enough to not be spoon-fed everything. It is nice to see a film studio actually having faith in their viewer's maturity and intelligence. Unlike many children's animations that do not always allow the viewers to think for themselves (for example, having a relatively open ending).

It is refreshing to see a studio and a group of people wanting to experiment with new technologies, old techniques, and a combination of the two. Even with the labor-intensive creation process in terms of design, model-building, CGI, animation, post-production, and so on...the film itself is rich in its content including its characters, story and themes. It is clear that Laika did not skimp out on any part of the process, even the voice acting felt spot-on. "The resonance of the performances from its excellent voice cast gives it an immediate emotional punch...Charlize Theron does beautiful voice work as Kubo's no-nonsense protector; she brings deadpan humour as the much-needed voice of reason," (Lemire, 2016). All of the voice actors feel like they fit with their characters perfectly which allows them to feel more real so the audience can connect with them.

Fig 3. Monkey (Charlize Theron) & Kubo (Art Parkinson)
Overall, this film is a delight to watch for various reasons. The story is gripping, containing action, horror, love, and magic all together. It has some darker themes to it, but keeps everything balanced with dashes of lighter humour. On top of the engaging story and characters, the film is just gorgeous to look at and after watching some behind the scenes footage - makes one wonder how any of these films even get finished. Kubo and the Two Strings is an example of how film is an art form that can be used to push forward technology, experimentation, and creativity.

Ide, W. (2016) Kubo and the Two Strings review - lyrical stop-motion tale At: Accessed on: 6/4/2017
Lemire, C. (2016) Kubo And The Two Strings At: Accessed on: 6/4/2017
Pile, J. (2016) Kubo And The Two Strings Review At: Accessed on: 6/4/2017
Robey, T. (2016) Kubo and the Two Strings is Laika's profound, ravishing riposte to ADHD cartoons - review At: Accessed on: 6/4/2017
Stolworthy, J. (2016) Kubo and the Two Strings, review: 'A marvellous adventure for both adults and children' At: Accessed on: 6/4/2017
Stop-motion animation goes high tech at Laika [YouTube Interview] The Verge (2016) 9 mins At: Accessed on: 6/4/2017

Illustration List:
Figure 1. Kubo and the Two Strings [Poster] At: Accessed on: 6/4/2017
Figure 2. 3D Printed Facial Expressions [Photo] At: Accessed on: 6/4/2017
Figure 3. Monkey (Charlize Theron) & Kubo (Art Parkinson) [Film Still] At: Accessed on: 6/4/2017

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