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OSCAR WATCH: An In-depth Q&A with Kubo and the Two Strings Animator Jeff Riley

by | Feb 22, 2017

Jeff Riley, Kubo and the Two Strings

While stop motion animation is, in many ways, a completely different world, there are actually some surprising similarities with 3D animation as well! Still we had some questions, and Jeff Riley—animator for LAIKA’s Annie- and BAFTA-Award-winning, Oscar-nominated Kubo and the Two Strings—was kind enough to give us an in-depth behind-the-scenes peek at what it’s like to work in stop motion animation. Whew, that was a mouth-full list of awards. Go Kubo!

-The Animation Mentor Crew

Animation Mentor: What are the main challenges unique to stop motion animation vs. other types of animation?

Jeff Riley: I think the biggest difference is not having the same chances to refine your work. In stop motion feature animation it’s typical to get to do one rehearsal, (shot on 2’s or 3’s, so shooting 2 or 3 pictures for each position), and then you do the final shot. On a complex shot, or one with a camera move, you may get to do a blocking pass (on 4’s and 6’s.)

The goal of all stop motion animators is to get that rehearsal looking as good as possible so that you have a minimum number of changes going into the shot. Sometimes that may mean no changes from rehearsal to final shot. Other times it means throwing it all away and going in for the final shot blind.

The animator and the director have to look at the rehearsal very closely and decide every little change that will make the shot better. This is our only chance to sweeten a pose, perfect the timing, or clarify the choreography.

I’m envious of CG animators’ and 2D animators’ ability to play with the timing and spacing, experimenting with different options and being able to finesse little details at any point in the process. It’s just about impossible to finish a shot in stop motion and not see some small mistakes or details that could have been better. Not being able to go back and fix them can be PAINFUL!

However, I’ve heard many CG animators complain of overworking a shot to death or having someone else tweak their shots later in production, which are things I’m glad not to worry about, as we do the shot once and live with the results.

Jeff Riley Working Kubo Laika

Jeff Riley working hard on Kubo and the Two Strings © LAIKA Studios

Some other unique challenges? Gravity. If something is up in the air, you need to find a way to hold it up, frame-by-frame.

Another is when two characters are touching, because moving one puppet moves the other. A typical frame in this case would be: move character #1 into place, move character #2 into place, double check character #1 (who is now out of place). Repeat.

Also, animating multiple characters at once can be tricky. Say it’s 15 characters, each character needs to be in character and unique—that’s 150 fingers to think about. If they have hair to animate…I don’t even want to think about that.

AM: What’s your favorite thing about being a stop motion animator?

Jeff: It’s hard for me to narrow down all the things I love about being a stop motion animator to one specific thing. I love walking down the hallways in the huge warehouse that we work in and seeing all the new sets come to life. Same with seeing a finished puppet for the first time. The amount of amazing artistry that goes into making each facet of a stop motion film, especially a LAIKA film, blows my mind every time.

Jeff Riley, Kubo and the Two Strings Time Lapse Animation © LAIKA Studios

I also love the struggle that goes into every shot. Nothing goes exactly as planned. Ever. Without fail, every shot I’ve ever worked on will reach a point where it’s on the verge of complete disaster, where I’m close to screaming and smashing everything, and starting over. Maybe I’ve veered off course from my rehearsal slightly, and I’m not sure how I could possibly make my next focus mark or pose. Or, perhaps something I planned will just not be working, and I’ll need to do a big change on the fly.

Sometimes a few accidents will combine at once to present a wonderful gift to the shot and you have to decide whether to go for a new idea or stay with the original plan, perhaps risking the shot for this glorious new idea. At these moments the shot may surprise even the animator and create a performance that could never be repeated again as the puppet, the light, and the camera all meet at the perfect moment in time.

Pulling off a special frame that puts the shot back on track or creates a special moment can be exhilarating, even though it will pass by the audience in the blink of an eye.

AM: What is it like working with tactile rigs—do they break? Do they wear out or require maintenance?

Jeff: Working with a tactile rig, the puppet, can be challenging. The puppet needs to be built strong enough to hold its own weight. The joints inside have to be tight enough to bend the bulk of the puppet material and costume but still subtle enough to get a nuanced performance. Often it’s difficult to find the sweet spot where you can get that micro movement and have the joint hold its position.

Clothes and hair might become the hardest thing to animate on your shot and might limit where you can even touch the puppet. On a puppet like Monkey from Kubo, we had to devise key spots where we could stick a t-bar into the puppet because touching the actual puppet would lead to all kinds of hair chatter.

Jeff Riley Working Hair Kubo Laika

Jeff Riley finessing Kubo’s Hair © LAIKA Studios

Every few shots you can run into some pretty major problems, like a joint working its way loose, a finger breaking, or silicone skin ripping. In most cases, someone from the puppet hospital can come to your set and do a delicate surgical repair.

AM: What are the main differences in your acting approach with stop motion vs. 3D animation?

Jeff: Overall, I think 3D animators and stop motion animators approach acting in a similar way. The principles of animation and quality acting apply the same to both. Likewise, the desired end result of both mediums is the same. At LAIKA, we typically try to shoot live action reference of ourselves to work out some ideas before shooting. This also sounds similar to a lot of computer animation workflow.

I think a difference between the two is how difficult certain things can be in each medium. A super subtle moving hold is relatively easy in computer animation and probably can be achieved quickly with the manipulation of a few keys frames. In stop motion, trying to move the puppet in that so-small-you-can’t-even-see-it increment is just about the hardest thing you can do, especially if the stop motion animator moves the puppet a little too far and has to try and get back to the right spot. An entire day could be spent on a super subtle moving hold.

Another challenge for the stop motion animator is hair and clothes. Kubo, for instance, had about 20 strands of hair to be moved in each frame with his simplest hair wig, much more than that with some of his stunt wigs. Hair in most shots is a secondary part of the performance. You don’t want to draw the audience’s eyes to it, but it still needs to be just right. Animating 20 wire strands of hair and bending them with little tools like an X-ACTO knife takes an enormous amount of time and concentration with each frame.

Clothes can be similar. Animating the wind blowing through Kubo’s kimono is a nice detail and needs to look right, but it may mean coaxing the kimono here and there with your fingertips for 5 or 10 minutes straight.

While spending all your time with the hair and clothes, it can be easy to lose focus on the overall acting of a shot (head, eyes, body) which is much more important for the performance. The more characters in the shot, the more complex this becomes! In computer animation you can do hair and clothes on a separate pass and really focus on one thing at a time.

AM: What characters/scenes did you work on in Kubo and the Two Strings? What were your favorites?

Beware: Spoilers

Jeff: I have spent most of my time on Kubo and the Two Strings animating the three main characters (Kubo, Monkey and Beetle) on the leaf boat from after Kubo made it until the fight began. At LAIKA we’re privileged to get big chunks of shots in a row, which really lets you get deep into the acting choices in a sequence. The boat scene had a lot of subtle emotions and shifts in the characters’ relationships so I was really happy to be assigned to it.

Kubo and the Two Strings © LAIKA Studios

My favorite part to animate was the bow and arrow lesson. It’s essentially a scene between a father and son, and as a father and as a son I had a lot of real-life experiences to draw upon.

It was really fun to spend my weeks on that part of the sequence thinking of happy moments from my childhood, as well as happy moments with my own kids, and trying to infuse those feelings into the puppets.

It was also just really fun trying to come up with the choreography of all of Beetle’s arms.

AM: What was the most challenging part of working on Kubo and the Two Strings? Why?

Jeff: The most challenging part of working on Kubo for me was some of the more serious acting moments on the boat. As Kubo gets more comfortable with Monkey and Beetle, he starts opening up to them and telling them about his past. The dialogue gets surprisingly serious and heartfelt, and I felt a great responsibility to make sure Kubo’s acting was sincere as well as realistic for a young kid. These shots were the heart of the sequence and I knew they had to be just right to make that scene work.

Thanks, Jeff! We’re all going to watch Kubo, and Coraline, and every other stop motion movie we can think of and geek out now.

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