Laika Studios’ stop-motion animation film “Missing Link,” with Hugh Jackman and Zach Galifianakis voicing the main characters, hasn’t gone blockbuster at the box office, but has drawn rave reviews for the technology behind the film.
Laika gives much of the credit for the next generation of stop-motion animation to Stratasys, which is jointly based in Eden Prairie and Israel.
The new printing technology “really sent a shock wave with how stop-motion films had been previously achieved,” said Laika Rapid Prototype Director Brian McLean.
Reviews have called the animation technology “game-changing” and “cutting edge” and the movie “gorgeous,” despite some plot shortcomings. The movie is getting Oscar buzz similar to the Portland, Ore., studio’s prior three stop-motion films — “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” and “Kubo & the Two Strings.”
The 3-D technology was first used in “Coraline” in 2009 but the Stratasys printers used for “Missing Link” provided a new level of technology and realism. “Stratasys allowed us to do something unprecedented” with the blending of colors, textures and material variations that could exist in a single 3-D printed face, he said.
Stratasys printers paired with Oregon-based Laika Studios’ software to create the rich, realistic characters and motion of Mr. Link, aka Susan (Galifianakis); Sir Lionel Frost (Jackman); and Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana). Thanks to advances in technology, the plastic actors come alive in this 95-minute adventure about an 8-foot beast searching the globe for more of his kind.
Stratasys’ 3-D printing “has enabled Laika to start to make these movies with a really unprecedented level of realism and detail. It gives a good example of how far the technology has come over the last decade,” said Stratasys Americas President Richard Garrity. “When you watch the film, you would never know this was a stop-motion film. You would never know it’s made with such miniature [characters]. To see how they bring this to life on a movie screen is pretty amazing.”
“Missing Link” is Laika’s first film where every character’s face and each expression is manufactured using a Stratasys 3-D printer. To do this, the studio bought six of Stratasys’ advanced J750 printers, at a cost of roughly $349,000 each.
“We started testing the J750 in early 2015. The technology was amazing. It was mind-blowing what it could do,” Laika’s McLean told hundreds of Stratasys employees gathered in Minnetonka last Monday to see a movie demonstration and to meet the movie’s 16-inch “stars.”
While Stratasys’ flagship technology is mostly used to make auto, aircraft and factory parts, it instantly gave Laika’s 450-member film crew the ability to print “pristine” character faces and bodies using 500,000 color variations in different textures and plastics — without first sanding and painting.
Characters could simply go from their birthplace inside the color 3-D printer to the animator’s movie set and photo shoot. That saved lots of time, especially since the studio not only designed each creature, but painstakingly used stop-motion photography to make the characters move on film.
To create “Missing Link,” Laika ran Stratasys’ machines practically 24/7 to print 106,000 character faces (each with a different expression).
The new printers also created 250,000 body parts and set props, which the animators switched out, manipulated and shot frame by frame. Laika’s 30 animators shot 24 frames to capture each second of motion — be it a smile, a wince, a raised eyebrow or a footstep, McLean said.
Stratasys’ co-founder and interim CEO Scott Crump looked on in awe as McLean showed the audience lapse-motion videos made on miniature movie sets.
Older 3-D printing models printed one to three colors at a time and couldn’t mix plastics, waxes or rubber, McLean said.
Today, each printer uses six color jets and can print 36 different facial expressions for one character in a single print session, even when they have blue eyes, pink cheeks and lots of shades of brown fur.
That ability created so much excitement within Laika that the film studio ordered Stratasys’ first five J750 machines straight off the assembly line.
When the machines arrived at the Laika studio three years ago, “I was like a kid on Christmas morning. I uncrated it, and just sat and looked at it,” said McLean, who just welcomed his seventh J750 machine two months ago.
That ability to print mixed materials — sometimes requiring 80 components per character face — helped create an animated movie with realistic motion that “is totally amazing,” said Crump, the former computer programmer who in 1992 experimented with a hot glue gun and an ink jet printer to make his first 3-D printer in his kitchen. “I saw the movie last night and it’s mind-boggling.”
Stratasys, which has grown to a $663 million company, and Laika first teamed up 10 years ago.
Back then, the studio used simpler 3-D printers that spit out 20,000 blank faces for each of its film characters. Artists then sanded and hand painted in facial expressions.
That old process had color and art inconsistencies that made for jerky films, said Jenna Schneider, Stratasys’ key customer leader.
The new machines and Laika’s software changed that, said Dan Sarto, co-founder of Animation World Network.
“With each film, Laika implemented a more sophisticated version of 3-D printing,” Sarto said. “The new system is much less fragile with color. [“Missing Link”] is the first film where they literally created replacement [faces] for every single movement on film and for every piece of dialogue for each of the main characters. That’s so exacting. It’s crazy.”
The technology buzz around the movie bodes well for Stratasys, which has struggled.
Revenue hit $663 million in 2018 but the company still lost $11 million. That’s a long way from the $120 million lost in 2014, but still not in the black.
Stratasys officials are cautiously optimistic their success in the niche stop-motion movie industry could bolster growth.
“Missing Link” created a “growing buzz from companies that have not bought from Stratasys in the past,” Garrity said. “With this movie they can get an idea of what they can do with this multicolor and multiple-material technology. We do expect to see a strong uptick on the adoption of this technology.”