Missing Link’s Chris Butler on the evolution of stop-motion

January 31, 2020 Danny Munso

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this preview with Missing Link writer/director Chris Butler from Issue 41 – our Oscar issue – of Backstory.


If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

The Nominees: Missing Link
Writer-director Chris Butler on the challenges—both writing and technical—of creating his stop-motion Best Animated Film contender.
By Danny Munso

Last year marked the end of the first decade for Laika, the Portland-based stop-motion animation studio that has released five films since 2009’s Coraline and has seen every one of them garner nominations—with one win—for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. In a category and medium dominated by Pixar and Disney Animation, there is clearly a new powerhouse to be reckoned with. One of Laika’s most vital filmmakers is Chris Butler, who started as a storyboard artist on Coraline, wrote and co-directed the studio’s 2012 follow-up film, ParaNorman, and co-penned the studio’s 2016 massive hit Kubo and the Two Strings. So it’s fitting that Laika’s latest film and nominee is one Butler wrote and directed: the hilariously exhilarating Missing Link.

Butler has been toying with the inklings of this story for some 15 years, when he dreamed up an explorer named Sir Lionel Frost. “I’ve got a bunch of notebooks that I keep all my ideas and drawings in, and for the longest time I had this desire to make an action-adventure-comedy that was like Indiana Jones meets Sherlock Holmes meets Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” Butler says with a laugh. “I always knew it would center on this monster-hunting explorer.” After helming ParaNorman, he went back to his notebook and pulled out three ideas to present to Laika studio head—and Kubo director—Travis Knight as a pitch for the studio’s next project. He wrote the first acts to all three ideas and was hoping Knight would go for the same one he wanted to do: the tale of Sir Lionel and his adventures. And that’s precisely what Knight did. “I think the reason he went for Missing Link is because it felt like such a departure from what we’ve done before. We’d just come off Kubo, which is a dark fable so we wanted something that was a bit more playful and a bit brighter. The other thing was it would be our first movie to feature adult protagonists. We’ve done all these films about anguished kids, and we thought it was time for some anguished adults as well. This was the project that screamed out this is where we should go next.”

The story centers on Sir Lionel (voiced by Hugh Jackman) discovering the oft-rumored Bigfoot, who turns out to be the genial, kind-hearted and English-speaking Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis). Mr. Link has read about Sir Lionel in the papers and requests his help in finding the Yeti utopia Shangri-La, where the lonely Mr. Link would be reunited with other members of his species. Along the way they team up with Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), the Latina widow and former romantic interest of Sir Lionel who aids them on their journey. Though Butler wanted to craft a fun action yarn on a scale that had not been done in stop-motion animation, he made something much deeper than that. Missing Link is about outsiders wanting to connect with a world that doesn’t seem to have a place for them. The script also touches on themes that have an even stronger meaning today than when Butler wrote the script a few years ago. Halfway through the film, Mr. Link asks to be called by the name of Susan. It’s a character making a choice for himself, and it’s never played for laughs. Furthermore, one engine of the plot is Sir Lionel’s desire to join an explorer’s club in England run by stodgy old white men who have no interest in anything different from them.

You don’t need to strain too hard to draw parallels to many organizations—or governments—like that. “Unfortunately, those kinds of things don’t go away,” Butler says. “They’ve become more pertinent, and I didn’t realize how timely it would all be. I didn’t realize how personal some of it would be, but back when I started writing it, the truth is the world was still full of white men calling the shots. That really hasn’t changed. You try and pick on themes you hope people can resonate with. It’s unfortunate, to be honest. I don’t want things to be this way, but that’s where we are.” That’s not to say Missing Link takes place in present day. From the very germ of the idea for the film, Butler always envisioned it in the Victorian Era. “It’s always what I saw for the film because it made so much sense for what I was trying to do thematically. A lot of this film is about exploring new places in the world and about yourself. Today we have access to every bit of information at all times, so it didn’t make sense to make this a contemporary story. It felt right to set it in a time when there were still mysteries in the world. It seemed very evocative of the kind of journey and quest I wanted the characters to go on.”

The goal of throughout the film is to get Mr. Link to Shangri-La, only when they finally arrive Butler has a surprise in store for the audience: The other Yetis don’t want him there. He is from the woods and they are from the snow, and therefore they don’t see him as one of their own. It’s heartbreaking for Mr. Link and mirrors Sir Lionel’s disappointment at not being accepted earlier in the film. “Your third act should be a reward for the audience, but it should also be a surprise,” Butler says. “Shangri-La is a mirror image of the explorer’s club that starts the movie. Sir Lionel wants to belong to this club for all the wrong reasons. He wants to belong to a place that doesn’t want him, and I wanted that to happen to Mr. Link as well.” To hammer this point home, Butler and his team designed the sets of both the club and Shangri-La to have a similar architecture. “It was something that felt thematically correct, to have these characters believing they belonged in the wrong place, and really where they belong was in each other’s company. Along the way, they find this friendship, and ultimately their place is with each other.” There’s also something deeper that can be gleaned from this conclusion in Butler’s mind: “I don’t think kids’ entertainment should be about, If you wish hard enough for what you want, you’ll get it. I’m not part of that. You don’t always get what you want—that’s life. But you can get something potentially better. That was important to me to get across.”

As the heroes of are escaping Shangri-La, they have to cross a giant ice bridge which of course begins to collapse as they try to leave. The animation is so seamless it can take a beat to realize we are watching a genuinely thrilling action sequence in a stop-motion film. Predictably, Butler says it was the most technically challenging aspect of the movie, and as he details the number of filmmaking techniques required to pull it off, note that Laika used much more than stop-motion to bring its films to life. “The ice bridge sequence required every trick in the book,” Butler says. “We were using practical elements like the giant physical bridge we built, but we were also using a miniature replica of the bridge in some shots. There were also a lot of CG elements, like the actual bridge collapse.” He notes how painful it was for the animator to have to stand on a ladder and make the intricate changes required by stop-motion for Sir Lionel, Mr. Link and Adeline as they hung from a rope over a crevice. With stop-motion, every aspect of the character must be changed to shoot each frame. This complicated matters as Butler was planning the sequence with his storyboard team. “I wanted to approach the action scenes in this movie like a live-action movie, where you have a lot of quick edits. But in stop-motion, those quick cuts are normally the first thing to go because I had several shots planned that were only eight to ten frames long. Yet those still take two to three days to set up, so it’s very hard to justify those kind of shots and usually you end up cutting them for the sake of the schedule. But I hung onto them and aggressively pursued that way of shooting for the action sequences, and I think it paid off.”

Another action scene that took a lot of technical wizardry was a massive mid-film bar brawl, but this was a problem of sheer volume. Because there were so many characters in a small set, precise planning was needed to pull off the sequence. This included many real stop-motion puppets as well as some that were added later digitally. “We also didn’t always have the puppets shooting at the same time, so we used a lot of green screen over the course of two years,” Butler says. “We might shoot one element of a shot a year apart from another element of the same shot, so just keeping a handle on all that—the lighting, the continuity—was a huge feat.” Butler the writer doesn’t like to inhibit himself but admits that sometimes he has Butler the director in mind during the scripting phase. “When I write, I’m encouraged not to worry about how we will realize things technically, but because I know the process, sometimes I’ll be writing and thinking, Oh, dear, should I be writing this? The ice bridge sequence was one of those. I knew it would be difficult, but that didn’t stop me. If it’s vital to the story, we’ll figure out a way to do it.”

Stop-motion animation is one of the oldest forms of storytelling we have, but it’s far from set in stone, and no studio is pushing the boundaries of what can be done more than Laika. “There’s a tendency to think about stop-motion as this nostalgic novelty,” Butler says. “I love stop-motion. I love the way it looks and I love what’s unique about it, which is it is real light on real objects. But I’m not a purist and I don’t think the medium should stay still. There are a lot of people who think it should remain as it was 40 or 50 years ago, but I’m not one of them. I love black-and-white movies but that doesn’t mean I don’t like color. I feel like every medium in film is evolving. CG is evolving, 2D animation is evolving, live action is always evolving—so stop-motion should, too. As far as I’m concerned, ultimately what I’m trying to do is put the best possible image on the screen, and so I will embrace every technological innovation in order to do that.”

Butler points out that each technological step made at Laika was done because it allowed filmmakers to tell a story in a way that hadn’t been possible. Every film uses some new technology that pushes the medium forward, most notably the use of a 3D printer to create the various facial expressions for their characters that can simply pop on and off each stop-motion figure with extreme ease. “What I like about the innovations at the studio is it has allowed us to paint on a bigger tapestry,” he says. “We’ve been able to tell bigger stories that traditionally you wouldn’t be able to do with stop-motion. You’re always limited by the size of your sets and where you fit the camera, and now we’re not limited by that because of digital set extensions and things like that. We can tell any kind of story we want in this medium.” As for what’s ahead, Butler will only say he’s writing something new for Laika, though he admits he’ll be doing a little decompressing after the rigorous awards season wraps. Would he ever move on from the studio he has called home for over a decade? “I found my voice at Laika, and that has a lot to do with Travis, who gave me a chance to creatively march to the beat of my own drum. I can never repay that. Creatively, I’ve got everything I want from the studio, and it’s been a real treat to have worked there all this time and to have seen the studio evolve. I’m very proud of what we’ve done.”

If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

For more info about all the other amazing articles in issue 41, view our Table of Contents.