LAIKA’s Brian McLean shares his story and some secrets of making Missing Link
Brian McLean is LAIKA’s Oscar-nominated Director of Rapid Prototype, bringing 3D printing technology to stop-motion films like Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, Kubo and the Two Strings, and most recently Missing Link. Fresh off LAIKA’s Golden Globe win for best animated motion picture and new Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature for Missing Link, he joined Jenna Schneider, Consumer Products Customer Leader, for a sit-down to talk about how he got into the business and the magic LAIKA is creating at the movies with the help of Stratasys J750 3D printers.
Jenna: How did you get into this rather unconventional line of business?
Brian: It started with sculpting –I fell in love with claymation animated films as a kid. That ultimately led to me pursuing a bachelor’s degree in traditional sculpting.
Jenna: That sounds a long way from 3D printing!
Brian: Well, after I graduated I spent time in Las Vegas, Arizona and San Francisco, where I was introduced to a whole new side of the art world, commercial art. I had jobs sculpting fake rocks, trees, Halloween masks, and modelmaking by hand toy prototypes and props. In 2004, I was working at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts), running the school’s model shop and I was introduced to 3D printing. I was told at the time that we were the first school west of the Mississippi to get a Polyjet 3D printer.
Jenna: And you fell in love with it?
Brian: Yes, that was the first time I realized there could be a connection between the tangible, physical world and the digital one.
Jenna: How did you get the opportunity to bring the technology to stop-motion film?
Brian: During my time in SF working as a sculptor and modelmaker I got to meet a lot of experienced and amazingly talented people. One of those individuals was Martin Meunier. It was Martin who took one look at the 3D printer and said, “Do you think we could use this for stop-motion animation?” Well, one thing led to another, we did some tests and in 2005 pitched the idea to LAIKA. At the time we thought we would need one printer and a few people to do the whole movie. In reality, it was multiple times that. With that said, the results were amazing and far exceeded anyone’s expectations. After Coraline we knew we had tapped into a concept that had limitless potential, and with each LAIKA film we continue to find a way to raise the bar of what is considered possible in stop-motion animation.
Jenna: Why do you think LAIKA and 3D printing are a such a perfect fit?
Brian: Quite simply, we don’t shy away from using technology. Stop motion animation has a wonderful look and ageless quality to it. We’re all about still achieving that stop-motion feel but making it the very best it can be and attempting to make each frame of film a work of art.
There are other ways to do this besides 3D printing, but the fact LAIKA has chosen to fully embrace this technology means we can tell stories with more advanced character performances and emotional connections than we previously thought the medium was capable of.
Jenna: Were there new learnings you discovered from doing Missing Link?
Brian: Well, the biggest challenge was the Link (Susan) character himself. We wanted him to have a Chaplin-esque comedic quality along with a tenderness and subtle expressiveness. He was the most human character in the film, yet his design was the least human of them all. The Puppet, RP department, and animation department embarked on more than 18 months of prototype testing before we settled on a construction plan that would achieve Chris Butler’s (the director’s) vision. We are excited to announce that Link/Susan just won the Visual Effects Society’s award for Best Animated Character in an Animated Feature Film!
Jenna: Are there unique challenges to working with such small pieces?
Brian: Many – the lenses, the camera movements, the fabrics we choose are all about tricking the brain. All our movies have been filmed natively in 3D. There is something amazing about seeing stop motion like Missing Link in 3D. When filming a life action film in 3D, you need two cameras spaced about an inch apart, which is the inner ocular distance between your left eye and right eye. However, when shooting puppets in 3D, you need to fool the viewer’s brain into thinking they are seeing one of our puppets as a full-scale creature. To do so, you have to space cameras as far apart as a puppet’s eye. For puppet scale, that is maybe a quarter inch. Yet it’s impossible to get two cameras that close together. Because we are shooting in stop motion, we are essentially “freezing time,” which means we use one camera to shoot from one eye perspective and then move that same camera over a quarter inch to shoot the other eye.
Jenna: It must be amazing to finally watch the movie in the theater after working on it for so many years, frame by frame!
Brian: Yes, you spend so many years working on a movie and not being able to talk about it. It is an amazing experience to finally be able to share it with friends and family and see all of your hard work on the big screen.
Jenna: What’s next?
Brian: We can’t talk about our next film, but we’re using the same 3D printing technology so now we’re looking at really honing in on the process. We expect more out of the technology than ever before, and that expectation across the board is neat to see – but it is also daunting. At the end of the day, everything we’re doing is driven by the creative desires of the new film, and we’re going to be relying on Stratasys and the J750.