Perfect Imperfections: ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’

kubo
The claymation character Kubo from the film.
(Free image courtesy of Wallpaper.in.)

Thursday, October 13, 2016 (Issue #1)
by Britta Kallstrom, Arts and Entertainment Editor

.   .   .

Laika’s latest masterpiece brings stop-motion animation to life in amazing new ways, with technology you have to see to believe:

PG, 1hr. 42min. (Animated, Family.)

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If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you read here, no matter how unusual it may seem. If you stop reading, even for an instant, then your understanding of this movie, as well as its hero, may perish.

Focus Features and Laika Entertainment have, in earlier years, brought us Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014). Their latest film, Kubo and the Two Strings, tells the story of the epic quest of a young boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson), a kindhearted, fun-loving, and clever shamisen (a magical musical instrument) player, who can make his origami creations come to life and tell stories when he plays.

Since losing his eye as a baby, Kubo and his mother, Sariatu, have lived quietly in a cave on the outskirts of a seaside village. But after staying out past sundown, two wicked sisters— his mother’s sisters—find him and attempt to take his only remaining eye. Kubo’s mother spares him by helping him flee her sisters, but this in turn directs Kubo’s aunts’ vengeance towards him and his family. Kubo learns that, in order to save his family, he must go on a journey to find the pieces of a legendary, powerful suit of armor, which will give him the power to do battle with his evil aunts (Rooney Mara) and an angry god, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). On his quest he joins forces with Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), and together they set out to help him find the armor and uncover the secrets of his past. Chief among these mysteries is the fact that Kubo’s fallen father, Hanzo, was the greatest samurai warrior the world had ever seen.

Travis Knight, director of the film, as well as the president, CEO, and lead animator for Laika Entertainment, noted that the production effort for Kubo was larger and more complex than for any of their past projects. However, he also emphasized that Kubo still maintains the same kind of wholesomeness and originality their past films have demonstrated.

“We always want to tell original stories and dive into new genres to explore different aspects of what it means to be human, and we do it in a strange way,” Knight said in a behind-the-scenes interview for the movie. “In our style, we have a way of making our films in a convergence of art, craft, science, and technology,”

Knight’s collaboration with the film’s assistant art director, Phil Brotherton, enabled them both to better envision what they could make happen: how certain changes would look on screen, how much those changes would cost to pull off, whether or not they would be fitting given the story-line, and so forth. Beyond these collaborative alterations, it is the director’s sole decision to make any other changes.

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A clay character from Kubo’s village.
(Photo courtesy of Phase9 Entertainment.)

One of the things that makes this film more complex in terms of production than any of Laika’s past movies is their use of more sophisticated, and previously unincorporated, technology.

A notable example is the biggest claymation puppet Laika has ever made: a giant skeleton warrior with swords embedded in its skull. Oliver Jones, the Animation Rigging Supervisor for the film, rigged this massive claymation character to move by using actual puppetry, rather than computer graphics, making use of a series of wires and pulleys, some automated and some hand-pulled.

Georgina Hayns, the film’s puppet fabrication supervisor, and Brian McLean, director of rapid prototyping, worked with Knight to establish his vision of the film in the form of the movie’s characters, as well as bring his interpretation of those characters to their respective figurines—giving them and their personalities life.

On part of this trio—Hayns, Knight, and McLean—one achievement that really stands out is the making of characters’ hair, fur, and clothing. For example, Monkey’s fur was made of actual fur fibers, covered in silicon rubber, just as the hairs on characters like Kubo and his mother were human hair also covered in silicon rubber. This technique was employed so that it would be easier to position the characters’ figurines for shots, and to make them look more authentic.

As for the characters’ clothing, Hayns and her team made their outfits with wires and small weights on the inside, so that the clothing would fit the figurines’ poses in every shot.

Despite the movie’s  complex production methods, replete with hi-tech approaches, it is by no means a perfect film. But that is exactly why Kubo’s story is told best in this unique way. Travis Knight shared his thoughts on how the quality of stop motion animation portrays this story just right:

“We always strive to be as good as we can. We always strive in our heart to be perfect. To make these things as beautiful, as powerful as they can. But we are human after all and we always fail. The entire film is filled with all different kinds of imperfections and failings and it’s something you have to come to terms with and I think there is something beautiful about that, I think that it’s one of the things that make stop motion so unique. It’s crafted by human hands, so it has that raw human quality. It’s frustrating and sometimes maddening to work in this medium because of the imperfections but I think that’s one of the things that makes it inherently beautiful and so we really embrace that side of it because it makes these things human.”

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An animation artist sculpts a clay Monkey figurine.
(Free photo courtesy of iamag.co.)

In the film, we witness how the Moon King stole Kubo’s left eye when he was a baby so that he could blind him to all the “ugliness” and “suffering” and “imperfections” on earth, and, furthermore, so that he could become immortal and join him in the heavens,  where it’s cold and dark and infinite and “perfect”. Yet, despite the allure of life as an immortal, Kubo chooses to remain human: To be flawed, and to have a story with an end. And even though Kubo’s family, and really everything he once loved, is gone, and even if his grandfather took his other eye to completely blind him from the world and the souls of other people, he still has his memories, and those make for the most powerful magic. More importantly, it’s in those memories that the stories of everyone he knows or once knew live on.

So it’s not just human flaw that makes the display of the film beautiful; it makes the story of it beautiful as well.

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