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It was "Kubo" 's moments of stillness - rather than that movie's big action sequences - which really challenged the animators at LAIKA

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It was "Kubo" 's moments of stillness - rather than that movie's big action sequences - which really challenged the animators at LAIKA

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What was the biggest challenge the team that animated "Kubo and the Two Strings" faced during production?

Copyright LAIKA / Focus Features. All rights reserved

Was it this film's battle in the Hall of Bones, which made use of the largest stop motion puppet ever made (a 16-feet tall articulated skeleton that weighed in at a whopping 400 pounds)? Or was it "Kubo" ''s ambitious opening sequence, which drew its inspiration from that famous Japanese woodblock print, Hokusai's Great Wave off Kanagawa?

Could it possibly be Monkey's fierce fight with Sister, which took place on a boat that was made out of 250,000 laser-cut leaves which is then tossed about by a raging storm at sea? Or perhaps it was Kubo's final showdown with the Moon Beast, a flying glowing monster which was LAIKA's first fully 3D-printed puppet and featured 881 moving parts.

To hear Travis Knight (who not only directed "Kubo" but also serves as CEO of LAIKA) talk, the real challenge that he and his animators faced wasn't this movie's action sequences. But - rather - those moments in this motion picture that called for stillness & quiet.

Travis Knight and the title character for Laika Entertainment's "Kubo and the Two
Strings." Photo by Steve Wong Jr. Copyright LAIKA / Focus Features.
All rights reserved

"People get that doing spectacle in a stop motion movie - especially when you're working in a medium where you can only shoot a frame at a time on a table top - must be hard to do," Knight said in a phone interview. "But what they don't understand is that it's actually the quieter moments in your film, those instances where your characters don't move all that much but they still manage to connect with the audience. Where your characters go from being these assemblages of steel & silicon & cloth & plastic to becoming what the audience sees as living, breathing creatures with hopes & dreams & aspirations ... That's the stuff that's incredibly hard to pull off in stop motion."

"Which - I know - sounds kind of bizarre. Because the obvious way to get characters to be still & quiet in a stop motion movie is to just stop animating them. But it's these exact moments in your movie - when the animator has to show some real restraint, pick just the right moment to move their character in just the right way - that then allow the audience to make an emotional connection to that character," Travis continued. "And if your audience isn't able to make that sort of connection with your characters, if they aren't able to emotionally invest in your story ... Well, then you don't have a movie."

This is why "Kubo and the Two Strings" had an incredibly long gestation period. Five years total. During which Travis & his team genuinely struggled to get a handle with their story, which - even though it was set in 300 B.C. Japan - still had to resonate with today's moviegoers.

Photo by Jason Ptaszek. Copyright LAIKA / Focus Features. All rights reserved

"The first couple of years, we primarily concentrated on developing the world of 'Kubo.' Trying to figure out what our characters needed to do, where exactly they needed to go within that world in order to best tell the story that we were trying to tell here. Given that LAIKA is an independent animation house, we have to be extremely mindful about how we allot our resources. Because once you move past visual development into set construction and figure fabrication, that's when the big dollars start kicking in," Knight stated.

But once Travis and his team realized the sort of film that "Kubo and the Two Strings" was really going to be (i.e., this big sweeping epic that - at its heart of hearts - was actually a very intimate story about this little makeshift family), they fully committed to this project. Making sure that while all of this motion picture's big action sequences were artfully designed and full of these kinetic camera moves, sufficient screen time was still set aside for all of "Kubo" 's quieter moments. Which then allowed this story to breathe / gave the audience sufficient time to bond with these characters.

"And once we knew what sort of movie we were making, that didn't change. We were like 'This is the story that we're telling and these are the kind of rhythms that it has.' Because as exciting as all those action scenes are, what really makes this movie work are  those quiet character-driven moments. The meals that Kubo, Monkey & Beetle share together. The shared revelations. Those sorts of things that Kubo would have experienced had he grown up with a regular family," Knight explained.

Copyright LAIKA / Focus Features. All rights reserved

"Because - when you get right down to it - that's what 'Kubo and the Two Strings' is really all about. This is a story about a boy crossing that Rubicon between childhood & adulthood and then realizing that - while we do gain some wonderful things when we become an adult - there are also a lot of things that we leave behind," Travis continued. "It's that bittersweet quality to life that we really wanted to explore with this movie. That's why we worked so hard to get 'Kubo' 's quieter moments right. Make sure that they were as authentic as possible so that the audience could then forge a strong emotional connection with these characters."

And clearly given how well "Kubo and the Two Strings" has done over this past awards season (i.e., taking home three Annies, one for Best Character Animation in a Feature Production, another for Outstanding Achievement in the Production Design of an Animated Feature and a third for Best Editing. Not to mention the BAFTA for Best Animated Feature as well as its Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature & Best Visual Effects), it's clear that all of the extra time & effort that Knight and his team put into this project really paid off.

"That people have responded as positively as they have to 'Kubo and the Two Strings' really does mean a lot of us. Here at LAIKA, we do really put our hearts & souls into these things. Of course, what's kind of ironic about that is - the more personal you make a movie like this - the more universal it becomes," Travis said.

Travis Knight and the three characters that make up the "Two Strings" makeshift
family: Kubo, Beetle & Monkey. Copyright LAIKA / Focus Features.
All rights reserved

"I've been doing this for 20 years now. And even though I know that there's a mathematical component to stop motion, that you have to move this body part so many millimeters in order to get this sort of performance out of a figure, whenever I see that stuff spring to life on the screen, it's the closest thing to magic that I know of in this world," Knight concluded. "That's why I'm so proud of all of the still moments in 'Kubo. 'There's an organic quality to those scenes where the characters really do feel like they're living & breathing things. Which is why I think that the animation in this movie is better than anything else that this studio has ever done before."

This story was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, February 21, 2017

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