Kubo and the Art of Stop Motion Animation

November 22, 2016 | By Roshni Thyagrajan

Since 1900, stop-motion animation has been a pillar of cinema. Today, it is dying out.

The technique has been integrated into movies for decades, including scenes like the battle of Hoth in Star Wars’ “The Empire Strikes Back” or in King Kong’s iconic climb up the Empire State Building.

However, since the onset of computer animation, stop-motion has seen little use. 

Every movement must be shot one frame at a time. This means every hand shake, step and smile is created by compiling dozens of step-by-step motions and frames. The sheer difficulty of this meticulous and time consuming technique is a deterrence for producers. 


Photo courtesy of Laika

Luckily, Laika Entertainment, a Portland-based animation studio, does not waste any time. Laika, credited for Oscar-nominated films such as Paranorman and Coraline, has a history of producing beautiful stop-motion animation. The studio takes on the intricacy of stop-motion puppetry in all of its releases. The result, films filled with hidden gems.

Its newest release, “Kubo and the Two Strings”, is no exception. The film chronicles the journey of Kubo, a young boy who has the power to bring origami to life with his shamisen—a traditional Japanese string instrument. He is on the run from the ominous Moon King, a mysterious deity out to rob Kubo of his eyes.

Based in Feudal Japan, it is clear that the animators of “Kubo” put plenty of consideration into everything from costume design, setting and music.  

The film featured 72 different settings, that vary from a Japanese graveyard to the inside of a whale carcass. Each set was custom designed and handmade. The animators constructed each set using materials that allowed the characters to interact with their environment. 

For example, the opening scene shows Kubo’s mother crawling on a beach, desperately reaching out to save her son. Instead of appearing like a puppet on an rubbery artificial environment, individual grains of sand were adjustable to mimic the motion of a body shifting on the sand.

The puppets itself were built to perform different motions. Each puppet had a wired frame of steel, with layers of clay and paint over it. Their faces were 3D printed with silicone and attached to the frames with magnets. Each character had hundreds of individually designed faces, creating an expansive expression library to depict an array of emotions.

The clothing was designed for Feudal Era Japan and consisted mainly of stylized kimonos. They were laser cut into fabric and threaded with thin wires to hold its shape. 

These techniques illustrated an approach that makes Laika so successful—combining the intricacy of handiwork with the capabilities of technology. It is this combination that allowed the distinction of “Kubo and the Two Strings” from other stop-motion animations. It’s imagery even matched that of fully digitalized works. 

“We are constantly trying to re-define what we think is possible for the stop motion medium,” said Brian McLean, the director of rapid prototyping at Laika, in an interview with The Verge.

The closing credits of “Kubo” offered a behind-the-scenes look on how animators created one of the main villains, a giant skeleton monster. Even though the sequence was sped up, the efforts taken by the animation crew were clear. It was a brief glance into the technique of stop-motion that considerably appreciated the medium. 

Laika’s efforts through the years have resulted in a small stop-motion revival within the film industry. In 2015, “Anomalisa” was released as a stop-motion geared toward adult audiences. The film snagged nominations in both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. 

In the same year, a stop-motion adaptation of the children’s book “The Little Prince” was produced in France. It premiered at Cannes Film Festival, where critics gave it highly acclaimed reviews. The film went on to gross more than $100 million worldwide, exposing the international audience to stop-motion animation. 

If Laika follows this path, there will be more outstanding movies out of Portland in the years to come. 

“Kubo and the Two Strings” pushed boundaries. Every second of “Kubo” is filled with hours of meticulous work. Hence, the film opened with a simple message to its viewers, “If you must blink, do it now.”