Welcome to another Film Frame Friday! Last week George Sohng wrote about Your Name. I decided it was my turn to talk about an animation, so I picked another film that released in the same year. Note this is our last Film Frame Friday before we kick off Criterion Month
The film’s synopsis reads as follows: “Young Kubo’s (Art Parkinson) peaceful existence comes crashing down when he accidentally summons a vengeful spirit from the past. Now on the run, Kubo joins forces with Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) to unlock a secret legacy. Armed with a magical instrument, Kubo must battle the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and other gods and monsters to save his family and solve the mystery of his fallen father, the greatest samurai warrior the world has ever known.”
Some would argue there are vastly superior animated films than Kubo and the Two Strings released in 2016, and for the most part, I agree. Despite that, Kubo and the Two Strings is the animated film I keep coming back to. Not only is it a marvel to watch in motion, but the actual development is fascinating. Now let’s get down to the fun stuff!
Kubo: If you must blink, do it now.
The main draw of Kubo and the Two Strings is no secret. Japanese storytelling is largely ingrained in the film and is the reason this film has some of the best visuals to ever grace 3-D Stop motion. Origami, ink wash painting, and ukiyo-e are the main inspirations for the film, the latter of which I will talk about in detail, but first let’s talk about the amazing use of stop motion.
Stop Motion, 3-D Printing, and Puppetry
What you are seeing above is the use of stop motion. Stop motion is an animation technique in which objects are slightly moved physically while being individually photographed. The frames are then played back in a fast motion, making everything come to life. There are 24 frames for every one second of film. To paint a picture of what stop motion is, try to think of a flipbook.
The use of thousands of facial expressions brought these puppets to life and gave them personality.
Of course, there were hardships in making all the set pieces by hand.
The Studio would make history when they built a 16 foot, 400-pound stop-motion figure. This behemoth sets the record for not only the largest but most complicated stop motion puppet ever to be used in a film. Here is a quote on how they managed to move this massive puppet.
You have this puppet that, because it was so big, we had to develop a piece of technology to support the weight and be able to move it. We made this thing called “the hexapod,” which supported the torso, which is essentially the same kind of thing that you see on a flight simulator or on a virtual reality ride at a theme park. And what it allowed us to do was to support the massive weight of the puppet, but also be able to move it at pretty much any angle. -Travis Knight
The Art of Origami and Ukiyo-e and Its Effect on the Film
Origami is the art of paper folding. It is often used to make creatures, objects and even characters based on popular media. Kubo and the Two Strings is the first 3-D animated film to expand on the concept of origami as not only a visual spectacle but as a plot point as well—Kubo’s main power in the film is his ability to bring origami to life.
Even the Origami figures were 3-D printed and handmade.
Ukiyo-e is another form of Japanese influence on the film, and the key factor in how the world of Kubo and the Two Strings was shaped. According to wiki:
“Ukiyo-e is a genre of Japanese art which flourished from the 17th through 19th centuries. Its artists produced woodblock prints and paintings of such subjects as female beauties; kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers; scenes from history and folk tales; travel scenes and landscapes; flora and fauna; and erotica. The term ukiyo-e (浮世絵, /u.ki.yo.e/) translates as “picture[s] of the floating world.”
0400.0080.photo.jptaszek.0001 Animator Gabe Sprenger works with Kubo and Kameyo on the Kubo’s Village set for animation studio LAIKA’s epic action-adventure KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jason Ptaszek | Laika Studios / Focus Features
However, the look of the film was influenced largely by one woodblock artist specifically: Japanese woodblock print artist Kiyoshi Saito.
“Kiyoshi Saito was the key stylistic influence that was the unifying design element throughout the entire movie,” Kubo director and LAIKA President and CEO Travis Knight tells The Creators Project. The artist’s influence is evident in every aspect of the film, from the costumes and sets to the framing of the camera. Saito’s poetic view of the rich history of rural Japan struck a note with me. “His artwork was a great place to start in the development of Kubo,” adds production designer Nelson Lowry. “Our characters are stylized. The world they travel through needed to support that. During the development process, we started adding some of this texture into set pieces and clothing. Rather than depicting every grain of sand and snowflake, we used a woodblock-like texture across most of the surfaces in the film to imply detail. The technique gave the film a slightly grainy look evocative of Saito’s work.”-From Creators interview with Travis Knight
The ukiyo-e inspirations keep bringing me back to this film almost two years after its release.
There is something majestic about the world and how these puppets interact with the stages. Kubo and the Two Strings deserves more attention for the risks it takes. I hope this article helps paint a picture of how the film was made, how beautiful it is and how much care and crafting went in to the making of it.