Last month I had the pleasure of being invited to Portland to visit costume designer, Deborah Cook, on the set for Kubo and the Two Strings, an upcoming stop-motion animation movie coming to theaters August 19. From the first time I saw Coraline, I knew these films took an army to create but I had no idea how extreme stop-motion actually was. Being amazed was an absolute understatement! Here, I will give you an inside look on what it’s like on an animated, feature film set. From costuming, 3D printing to set building, you are going to be blown away.
It was such a beautiful day in Portland the morning of our set visit. I got up bright and early, extremely eager to get to LAIKA studios. A few weeks prior to this visit I had actually seen a sneak preview of Kubo and told Grayson, “We HAVE to go see this movie!!” And then to get the email inviting me to interview the costume designer and take a tour was an absolute honor! Being a wardrobe stylist I felt this was such an amazing opportunity to see how the other side of styling and costume design works.
Most of y’all have seen Coraline, right?? And most people have no idea that the movie was 100% stop-motion. I know I didn’t when I first saw it. It looked like regular ole’ animation to me, but I will never make that mistake again after seeing the time and amount of intricate detail that goes into every shot, character, set, etc.
Let’s start out with the amazing costume design. I had the pleasure of talking with costume designer, Deborah Cook, about her phenomenal work on Kubo. Most of y’all know Deborah’s work from Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline, Corpse Bride, Paranorman, and now Kubo. When I first saw these films I had no idea why they would need a costume designer since everything is done in CGI… and man, was I wrong. Get ready for this, because y’all will be amazed. Every single character in each of these movies is a PUPPET! A handmade puppet. Just think of all of the scenes in movies and all of the characters. Yep, they are ALL puppets.
With each and every puppet multiple outfits will have to be created for them and each of the scenes they are in. This takes months and months of planning and research, especially if a movie is being set in a specific time period, or like Kubo, with a specific cultural background. I got to tour Deborah’s studio and experience her design process first hand. There are multiple books and boards with fabric swatches, materials, mechanics, photos, etc. all laid out for easy viewing.
When we think of costume design, most of us think of movies; like a western or something that wardrobe has to be created and pieced together. Creating wardrobe for puppets is like nothing you have ever seen before. And this type of work is so rare, there are only a couple people in the entire world that do this type of costume design. Each and every puppet’s wardrobe has to be created from scratch. There are no patterns for these types of puppets and you can’t just grab Barbie clothes and throw them on. Deborah has to source fabrics to create each piece of an outfit. The main issue is the costume’s scale. You have to think about how each detail will look on screen and it all has to be readable to the audience. Say, you need a pair of jeans for a 6 inch puppet; our denim is too large of a scale for that tiny puppet. She essentially has to create a tiny pair of jeans from scratch to look as if it was made for this specific puppet and scene. Just think of knitting a super tiny sweater for a doll, over and over with minuscule details that will be life sized on the big screen.
It was amazing getting to chat with Deborah a bit before the rest of the set visit and gain more insight on her career as a costume designer for stop-motion. Since there are so few people with this role, it was amazing to get a first hand look at what goes into a film like this. Here are a few of the questions I was able to fit in!
What are some of the things you have to do to prepare costumes that most people wouldn’t know about? Combatting shine, hotspots, etc. is tough! Each piece can be airbrushed or even sanded to age them appropriately so they look realistic. Almost every costume has a certain degree of internal engineering to control where the garments will crease. I found this was important when there are duplicate costumes and they all need to crease in the same exact place for each shot. They are weighted with small weights to give a feel of natural gravity. I have shown some examples of the feather cape.
Do you create every item of clothing or is there anything you can purchase already made? There are absolutely no purchased garments. Doll clothes are far too big and wouldn’t fit the characters or have as much attention to detail in the scale of fabric.
How many times do you make changes or scrap a characters wardrobe? This happens quite frequently. Each costume goes through many stages and if the team isn’t feeling a costume we remove it. Deborah did say she loves some of the costumes she created so much she tries to save them and use them in another film!
Now, on to more Kubo details! We next met with Georgina Hayns, Puppet Fabrication Supervisor. You definitely know some of Georgina’s work – Bob the Builder, Boxtrolls, ParaNorman and Coraline. Here, we were able to get up close and personal with each puppet on the film. Check out the detail on Monkey and the intricate detail on the cape. The sister was my absolutely favorite character and costume. I mean, she just looks like a total badass! Let’s take a moment to focus on this amazing cape. It is 100% handmade and even has mechanics underneath for easy movement in the film.
We then moved on to chat with Brian McLean who is the Rapid Prototype supervisor. This guy blew me away with what his team does to create each character’s facial expression. MIND.BLOWN. Ok, so I’m sure most of you are wondering what rapid prototyping is. Brian’s team creates everything that goes in to 3D printing every facial expression imaginable for each film. This method allowed LAIKA to create millions of unique expressions per character. If you notice in the below photo, there are a ton of Kubo faces. Each of these pieces, eyeballs included, were printed on a 3D printer and are all interchangeable. You can see how the character’s face is removable, so every time the character is talking or blinking, a new face plate is placed on the puppet. If they need to move the eye balls, they stick an X-acto blade in the eye and manipulate them as needed for the shot. INSANE.
As the set visit continued we met with Oliver Jones who is the Animation Rigging Supervisor. This was one of the coolest, life-sized creations I have ever seen. His team created the Garden of Eyes, as you will see in the movie. Each of these massive eye creatures were created from scratch and are fully functioning. They are all human operated to manipulate the most minuscule movements.
We were then led into multiple stages where we could see each set that the movie was shot on. Again, mind blow. The detailing on each set was so intricate as you can see in these photos. Even the shots on my iPhone looked so real!
So, I’m sure you’re wondering how all of these fits together to create one feature film. After each team creates their individual pieces, from costuming, set building, the mechanics, design, 3D printing, creating all over new technology, the filming begins. Just the prep work takes months, if not over a year to develop. I’m sure you can imagine how long a film like this actually takes to create! With 1 week of filming equaling 4 seconds of footage. They have a few animators working non-stop to create a mind-blowing finished project. Some of these animators can be working on one scene for an entire year!
Kubo took over FIVE years to create and perfect, and it’s almost ready to hit the big screen!
Every time I see previews for this movie I get the chills! Just looking at every single frame, knowing how much work went into each second is truly amazing. Just think of every single movement you see, someone was moving each piece of every puppet you see to get one shot and then continued that painstaking detail to create an entire feature film. I hope after this post people will realize what actually goes into stop-motion films. It’s not just CGI… It’s a team that is made up of some of the most rare talents in the world.
If you haven’t seen previews for Kubo, check it out below! AMAZING!!! And when you go see the movie, August 19, look out for the chicken! So freaking funny!!