Originally published on The National Student on 16/01/17.
We sat down with one of the geniuses behind Laika’s animated masterpiece and talked all things stop-motion, from how it’s done, to how to get involved.
In a positively shocking turn of events, the latest kid-friendly adventure tale from the studio behind Coraline and ParaNorman, last year’s Kubo and the Two Strings, was really rather brilliant. So good in fact, that it made our best films of the year list.
And a major part of what made it such a standout, especially in a banner year for animation, was the incredible texture of its classical stop-motion style. We already took a peak at some of the film’s incredible concept art but animation itself can vary so wildly.
So to find out more we rang up the film’s supervisor of ‘puppet fabrication’ Georgina Hayns and bombarded her with questions that she was lovely enough to answer.
Kicking things off first by talking about her role at Laika, where she’s been a permanent fixture for the past ten years, Hayns clarifies exactly what it is that she does: “I set up the puppet department; my job is basically to give all the information that is needed to a team of amazing puppet makers – about 70 artists and craftspeople that come together to build the puppets – and I’m the conduit between them and the director and head of animation.”
“You’re essentially taking a three dimensional image of a character and you’ve got to deconstruct that in order to then reconstruct it into a stop motion puppet. So there’s a lot of planning that has to go on and there’s a lot of communication that has to happen, to make sure that at the end of the day, when you put the head on the puppet’s body, it actually fits.”
Any kind of filmmaking obviously needs planning, but it seems that stop-motion is another beast entirely. Not only is it about making sure the puppets in question work as they are needed to, but also, as Hayns adds, that everything “stays on style” with the ever-evolving “design library” which dictates the overall look of the movie.
The road to such an awesome-sounding job wasn’t necessarily an easy one, as Hayns admits, moving from a rather “dysfunctional” time at school focussed more around art than academia. But thanks to a pair of very supportive parents who encouraged her to “follow her dream”, she eventually narrowed down her love of art to puppetry, thanks to a weird obsession with “scary Victorian dolls”.
“Puppetry was almost like an artistic version of doll-making, so I was at art college trying to convince a bunch of Fine Art lecturers that I was going to make a living for myself.”
The animation side of things came a little later, when Hayns decided to move away from Jim Henson-style puppetry into armature making and puppet sculpting on everything from Bob the Builder to Corpse Bride.
“Basically if you’re an odd artist that doesn’t fit in anywhere, then you’re made for stop-motion animation!”
Where stop-motion starts to differ and improve on the digital models of rival studios like Pixar though is, according to Hayns, all in the “texture”. “What I think will always grab the hearts of people is that you’re watching a real, tactile object that’s on the screen being filmed in a real space, and there’s something quite magical about that on all levels… Computers make things so perfect that sometimes it’s hard to relate to that, being a human being. That’s what’s so magical about stop-motion: you’re looking at something on the screen, and it might have a hair out of place, just like you’ve got a hair out of place. It brings a reality, and a comfort, that a lot of the time we’re losing in this day and age.”
This isn’t to say Laika completely ignore digital effects altogether though, as Hayns quickly adds “We’re not scared of digital, we use it to enhance our stories… It helps us tell a bigger story in a more believable world.”
Kubo itself is very much a culmination of all of Laika’s efforts to date, demanding everything from huge sets to 16-foot tall puppets, which was no easy feat for the studio, but was helped along, Hayns insists, by a lot of good old fashioned teamwork between several very dedicated departments. And of course, they’re not stopping here.
“It was a daunting task leaving Kubo behind and moving on to the next project… But I can tell you that there’s more spectacles to come. [laughs] Nothing stops us from moving forward!”
Talking finally about encouraging young people and students into the world of stop-motion and puppetry, Hayns concluded that she got involved purely through “an absolute love of making things and having an engineering and creative mind” which helps to make sense of the many different skills and brain power needed to make puppets work the way they do.
“I think the one thing that really combines everyone in my department is that they all came with a really amazing eye for detail and quality in craftsmanship… It’s all about seeing something that is highly designed and executed in a very, not precise, but detailed way.”
So whilst it seems that Laika won’t be back with their much-teased new feature until 2018, there’s still never been a better time to jump on the stop-motion bandwagon.
Kubo and the Two Strings is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK from today.