Chris Butler Interview: Missing Link
Chris Butler is a British storyboard artist, writer and director, known for his works at Laika, such as ParaNorman, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and as storyboard artist for such classics as Corpse Bride, The Tale of Despereaux and Coraline. His new film, Missing Link, evolves the stop motion animation art to new levels. He discusses the massive sets and the different forms of stop motion is this epic adventure, buddy film.
We are here at WonderCon 2019. I'm here with Chris Butler, director and writer of Missing Link. How are you, sir?
Chris Butler: I'm good.
Now this film, the trailer, it looks amazing and stop motion animation is something that I always find so fascinating because it is, I want to say it's almost like a lost art. You don't see a lot of these films anymore. So I gotta ask cause I was also know, Kubo was fantastic. How long does it take to do a film like this?
Chris Butler: A long time. This one, Missing Link took I think, close to five years. I think any animated movie takes a long time. They always take three to four years. It's a slow process. But this one was particularly ambitious and it was a long time coming.
So take me back to the beginning. What was the inspiration for this now? 'Cause I did read that as a young kid, you were inspired by one film in particular, Raiders of the Lost Ark. And you also found a fascination with Sherlock Holmes, so I'm assuming that had to drive a little bit of the inspiration for this, but what was, talk to me about the process of what really went behind creating this?
Chris Butler: I think anytime that, I'm writing something, I'm always leaning on stuff that I loved as a kid. t's certainly true with Paranorman, which was kind of like the John Hughes eighties movies and zombies. And pretty much everything that's left is in this movie. So Indiana Jones, yes. Sherlock Holmes, Ray Harryhausen creatures. That's a big part of this as well. And really I think it was probably about 15 years ago, I thought, wouldn't it be great if stop motion had its own Indiana Jones? And that's kind of the kernel that started this.
You've executed stop motion and I got to know that process because it doesn't seem easy, but I also feel that every film you do, you learn something new about it. So from your previous films into Missing Link, what did you learn new about doing this style of animation for this film?
Chris Butler: Oh, what did I learn. I learned that this movie was probably not supposed to be made in stop motion. Because it's so huge. The scope and scale of this one was something really different. And I think with every time we make one of these movies, we're trying to push the boundaries a little and try something new. This was our most ambitious project to date, mainly because of the locations. It takes place in numerous countries around the world. And traditionally that's the kind of story that you couldn't really tell in stop motion because of the limitations of the size of the puppet and the size of the sets. We don't really have those limitations anymore. And over the last four movies, we've been, you know, pushing those boundaries of how much digital effects we use. You know, CG characters, every trick in the book. And I think with all the stuff that we've learned over the last four movies, we were able to make something that is as bold and ambitious as this.
I want to talk about the look of this film actually, because a Victorian era was known or it's a misconception out there that it had a very specific look, but in reality, Victorian era was very colorful and beautiful. So talk to me about the look of this film in particular.
Chris Butler: Well, you know when you start any movie, you know, it's a blank canvas and I think every time we do one of these, we want to do something different that we, that looks different than what we've done before. And with this one, you know, you do a lot of research. I specifically was looking at a lot of National Geographic photography, which is so vibrant in it's colors. And then when I was researching the Victorian era, they were nuts about patterning and textures. And you get used to seeing like this drab gray, you know, it's foggy streets and really there was a lot of stuff going on. So we really leaned into that and try to make it as vibrant a movie as possible.
I know that you designed these characters from top to bottom. With you designing the characters, did you already know who you kind of wanted in your head to voice these characters?
Chris Butler: Yeah. I mean, when I'm writing the script and I'm writing dialogue, I tend to think of actors because it helps them form, you know, the speech. And I think I was pretty lucky on this one because when you're casting a movie you put a wishlist down of who you'd like to play the role. And this one it was a treat because pretty much everyone that I wanted, I got.
Hugh Jackman. Zachary Galifianakis. Zoey Saldana. I mean, it's a star-studded cast. 100%. But let's talk about about this in particular. Now, is this one of the puppets that was used?
Chris Butler: Yeah, I mean he's been prettied up a little bit because they tend to get very well worn by the animators' grubby hands. But yes, he is all moveable. I am not an animator, so I should not be doing this.
As the arm breaks off. So this is the size and scale of what you guys would work with live on set.
Chris Butler: Yeah. Of course you've got to remember that if your main character is this big, then if he's standing in a room, then that room, you know, the sets get pretty huge.
Now I saw a bunch of the production notes about some of the designs of the sets and other characters and other creatures and like the elephant or like the train. What was the most difficult part about creating this world?
Chris Butler: The size of it, I think. And also again, when I'm writing, I'm just writing stuff that I think is cool. And I'm trying not to think about whether we can do it or not. So I just wanted to write this like roller coaster ride of an adventure movie and some of the action sequences that I wrote are huge. And when I could see when other people at the studio started to read through the script, they were thinking, how, how are we going to do this? I mean there's the stuff in there, that we've got like this ice bridge that's miles up in the mountains and it collapses as the main characters are running for their lives and you know, it's just ridiculous stuff. And quit cutting as well. I wanted to have a live action sensibility. So we've got shots that maybe like 10 frames long, which you shouldn't do in stop motion because that shot still takes two days to set up.
It takes two days to set up?
Chris Butler: Yeah. Most shots take a couple of days to set up.
Chris Butler: Yeah, I know. We shouldn't really do it, but we did.
That's incredible. Now I want to talk particularly about the story, the story of this film. What really inspired you to even start sitting down and be like, Okay this is what I've done in the past. This is where I want to go next.
Chris Butler: I am always writing stuff. I mean I've got ideas that stretch back to my childhood and I've got notebooks full of like these scribbled ideas and sketches and I tend to kind of like dip in and out of them over the years. And this was one of those ones where I thought, you know, at some point I'm going to get the opportunity to do this. And I did. But at the start of it, I actually, after finishing Paranorman, I had three different scripts, all very, very different. And I gave the first act of each one to Travis Knight. And I said, what do you think? I had a favorite, but I didn't tell him which one it was. And it turned out he picked the right one. Yeah.
That's interesting. Talk to me about the creative process working with Travis Knight because I talked to him for Bumblebee. He's great with animation as well. but talk to me about the collaboration process between the two of you.
Chis Butler: Well I think it helps that we've got similar tastes. I think he's striving to tell interesting stories in the best way possible, the most sophisticated way possible. And I think that's why we're pushing the boundaries of this as a medium because when we're not looking at it as like this old fashioned or dead medium. We're trying to push it into the future and see what we can do with it, see how we can innovate, how we can tell different types of stories. And I think that is absolutely, that speaks to me as an artist and a creative and it, you know, it's always good when your boss is also a very talented artist.
I want to talk a little bit about animation just in general with you. 'Cause you obviously have a quite an extensive experience with it, but this past year we've seen two movies in particular that really, one was a throwback with Mary Poppins having an animated, a 2D animated scene, which to me was so, it seems so different even though it's something we had always seen in the past because the way that animation is now is completely different. And then Into the Spider-Verse, which was jaw droppingly beautiful and also completely different. Where do you see animation heading and do you think that some of this older retro style, like with 2D stuff in Mary Poppins, can make a return? Like those old Disney movies?
Chris Butler: My background was 2D animation. That's originally what I wanted to do and that's all there was. I mean, I'm that old. That's all it was. You know, I'm a fan of all animation. I lap it all up. I will watch any animated movie. What's thrilling is when you have diversity in the movies that are being made and not everything feels like it's cookie cutter or the same thing. So seeing something like Spider-Verse, absolutely. It's thrilling to me. It's exciting and there's clearly room for it. I think it's a mistake to say that 2D is dead because even though the biggest studio stopped doing it, there are so many people out there who were doing amazing stuff and it will never, none of this will ever truly die as long as there are artists and innovators who are, you know, working away to continue it as an art form.
Now obviously with this taking something like five years, it's a long dedication and a long process and you're involved with that story for quite a while. How easy is it to shift your mind into the next project when you're ready to do that?
Chris Butler: It's not easy. I'm not shifted yet. I'm still, I can't, I can't even think about what day is it? I don't know. I'm thinking about vacation.
That's the first thing. You've worked on this for five years, I think you deserve a little bit of vacation. So I mean obviously this film's going to come out literally within a week, I mean, about a week. Right around the corner. If you had to sum up Missing Link in a hashtag, what would that hashtag be?
Chris Butler: Oh I hate hashtags. In a hashtag what would it be? I don’t know, you tell me.
What? Uh, let's see hashtag. That’s a tough one.
Chris Butler: See, It’s not easy.
You can't flip it around on me. Hashtag, uh, hashtag. Hashtag Missing Link.
Chris Butler: Right. Excellent. Well done. Cut.
Cut here right. Now back to this animation process, you talked about this taking place in different worlds and you also talked about, and I read about the National Geographic being a huge source of inspiration. This isn't the only scale though, right? Because I believe that I read that there were two different scales of puppets. What were the other scales used for?
Chris Butler: It's the first time that we actually used puppet miniatures. I mean they're already miniature. But these puppets, like the Link one, is like this big and we haven't done that before because in the past it just doesn't hold up. But again we were always trying to push things and there was some technical wizardry went into creating these tiny little armature puppets that were fully posable. And we use those for a number of the really wide shots. I actually don't like talking about it because people don't notice it. And that's the great thing about it is that you can watch this movie and you don't realize that you're looking at a puppet this big and I don't want to ruin the illusion. But that was definitely something new for us on this movie. And of course we use numerous scales for the backgrounds. We use a lot of miniatures for wider shots and all kinds of different scales.
Now you've talked about some of the past movies you've worked on and I'm very curious about maybe stylistically, how does this movie different differ from the other films you've worked on?
Chris Butler: Well one of the key things for me, one of the reasons I was interested in making it in the first place, this is our first movie where the protagonist, the main character or characters are not children. It's pretty much a buddy movie. I used to describe this as kind of Indiana Jones meets Sherlock Holmes meets Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
That should have been your hashtag.
Chris Butler: That's a long hashtag. That was one of the noticeable differences cause there's gotta be something about it that's new for me that keeps me challenged. And I think the size of it as well. I mean, every time, I know, every time we make a movie we say this is the most ambitious movie we've ever made. And it's true every time. But this one we're like, really. We were aiming incredibly high. And I've said it before, that 10 years ago, we wouldn't have been able to make this movie in stop motion.
Well, that's what I love about watching your work is that you almost forget, sometimes you're watching a stop motion and you kind of just get involved into the film itself. And it seems like this is going to be that exactly where it's like, oh, I forgot this is all stop motion. You almost take it for granted when you're watching it on screen a little bit. I know that, it's five years for you and it's like two hours or an hour and a half for me. But I mean it's quite impressive with stop motion just in general because it's like patience. Having a lot of patience, I guess. Now with the voice acting process, that obviously comes after the film and when that's all done, obviously, when the actors are coming in to do their lines, do they have a point of reference with stuff that's already kind of pre-vised out?
Chris Butler: No, no, no, no, no. They come in first. We do all the voice recording first because if you think about it, in a live action movie, you have an actor performing a character, right? In animation, you have an actor performing a character with their voice and then the animator is also performing the character, but the animator needs something to base that performance on. So the animator works to the actor's voice. Because the, you know, especially when you're working with a cast this, they'll do things, they'll find nuances to the lines, to the dialogue that you maybe never even thought of. Or they'll change things around or throw in a joke or you know, they are making the role their own, they're finding the character and you want to utilize that. You want to base the performance on what they've done.
That's interesting that you say that. 'Cause I mean that leads to just a random question I have is how much of their performance inspired the characters either changing or shifting at all.
Chris Butler: They definitely evolve. As an example with Zach Galifianakis, the first record I did with him, the way he was reading the dialogue instantly. Like he was deconstructing the sentences and moving words around and it made me go back and rewrite everything. Because he made it his own and then it instantly informed the character. And so a lot of the times when in the records I was rewriting lines as, as we're recording.
Wow that's crazy. So they come in first and then we have this for the next four years. That's crazy. But Missing Link. I heard it's amazing. I can't wait to see it myself. I know you guys just recently had a screening and a panel, right? Panels here at WonderCon. But how's your WonderCon experience been so far?
Chris Butler: Good. I mean, I've mostly been seeing microphones and cameras, but so far so good. Hopefully I'll get a chance to walk around a little.
Well, I'm excited to see this film and thank you for bringing this in because this is up close and personal. I honestly thought this was a statue and then you moved it’s arm and I was like, Whoa, this is like the real deal.
Chris Butler: I'll freak you out.
Don’t break it. Whoa.
Chris Butler: These faces come off. That is the freakiest thing, but it's kind of cool.
Well, Chris, thank you so much for teaching me about stop motion animation. I can't wait to see the film and to see what you do next because it's amazing work my friend.