Aug 31, 2016 | By Tess

When we heard that Laika Studios’ latest animated film Kubo and the Two Strings was taking the box office by storm and receiving high praise from critics and audiences alike, we here at 3Ders were anything but surprised. Not only has the Oregon-based animation studio made a name for itself with its original, inspiring, and on the whole extremely charming films, which include Coraline (2009), Paranorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014), but they have also become recognized for their unique hybrid animation technique, which combines traditional stop-motion (made all the more excellent with the help of 3D printing) and digital CG technologies. Kubo and the Two Strings, for its part, has taken Laika’s animation to a whole new level, with such features as a fully 3D printed character and a 16-foot tall stop-motion skeleton puppet–possibly the largest stop-motion puppet ever made.

To avoid any spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film yet, let’s just say that the terrifying skeleton character is not a friend of Kubo and his companions. Fortunately, the narrative purpose of the character is not what we’re most excited about, as we want to take a look at how the impressively large character prop was actually made. Initially, the studio intended to make a smaller scale version of the skeleton and Kubo and his friends, but having such a tiny version of the lead characters (the scaled puppets would be only about an inch and half tall) would be extremely limiting in terms of their mobility and expressions. The only solution then was to create a physical full-scale version of the skeleton character.

If you’re wondering why the studio didn’t just simply opt for CG-ing the skeleton, Laika’s visual effects supervisor Steve Emerson explained why in an interview with Cartoon Brew. He says: “Time and again I am amazing by the solutions that the rigging, camera, and animation teams would present. Absolutely the skeleton could have been CG. But when you’re in a room surrounded by artists that you love and respect and there is an overwhelming enthusiasm about the idea of building the largest stop motion puppet that has ever been created–and everyone is convinced we can pull it off–I want to support that spirit and enthusiasm in whatever way I can.”

The talented team then had to figure out how exactly they’d made the humongous prop. Traditionally, Laika’s character puppets are made using 3D printing technologies, which allows them to make a wide variety of intricately designed facial expressions for the characters. For the skeleton, however, the rigging department took the lead, as the focus was not so much on creating small precisely made pieces, but on getting a 400-pound, 16-foot tall prop to both look great, and move. Ultimately, however, the team did find a use for 3D printing, as they found a company that could 3D print and cut high-density industrial foam into virtually any shape. This provided a both detailed and lightweight solution for the rigging team, which used the 3D printed foam parts for the creation of the skeleton’s ribs. For the rest of the skeleton, the team relied primarily on techniques such as papier-mâché.

Once all the pieces of the skeleton were made (and expertly painted by the studio’s art department), they were attached to each other by a system of magnets rather than more traditional ball and socket joints. From there, the studio had to figure out the best way to actually animate the large skeleton and finally settled on a motion base system, also known as a hexapod, which is normally used in amusement parks or in films to move large props such as boats etc. The system, a custom made six-axis actuator, was what finally worked to move the skeleton’s torso in a controlled and precise way. For the skeleton’s smaller parts, such as the hands and arms, the studio controlled them with a cable and pulley support system, which itself was controlled above the stage by a robot-operated stepper motor. Its facial features were controlled by hand.

Of course, with the skeleton built and equipped to move, there left the issue of the setting, which is where CG animation came in. Essentially, Laika captured the skeleton’s scene (which accounts for 49 seconds total in the film), in front of a green screen, which allowed them to easily put in a digitally animated background of the Hall of Bones. The result, which you’ll have to see for yourself in the film, are truly astonishing. For the meantime, however, feast your eyes on some more photos and time-lapses:



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