Director Chris Butler talks about discovering his Missing Link

by Andrew Parker

Writer, director, and stop motion animator Chris Butler has spent the better part of fifteen years working on his latest film, Missing Link (in theatres everywhere now), a labour of love about a sweet, naive primate and his friendship with an arrogant Victorian era adventurer that harkens back to the kinds of films he loved while growing up.

“I thought it would be cool if stop motion had its own kind of Indiana Jones style hero,” Butler says with an ear to ear grin during a recent promotional swing through Toronto. “All my life, Raiders of the Lost Ark has been my favourite movie, and I kinda wanted to play in that world of big, bold adventure. There’s also a bit of Sherlock Holmes influence, and I stirred those together in a pot with some Ray Harryhausen creatures. I thought it would be cool to do an adventure story about this adventurer who chases legendary beasts.”

The adventurer in question here is Sir Lionel Frost, voiced by Hugh Jackman, a hunter of monsters and myths that’s looked down upon by his fellow explorers and scientists. Sir Lionel receives a letter from an admirer in Washington state who claims they have information about the existence of the elusive sasquatch. Upon arriving in the Pacific Northwest, Sir Lionel meets the writer of the letter: an actual sasquatch, voiced by Zach Galifianakis. Lonely and wanting to know more about his lineage, the creature asks Sir Lionel if he might be able to help him learn more about his lineage via a trip to the Himalayas to track down the equally elusive Yeti, which might be the American monster’s closest known cousin. Sir Lionel, realizing that he can prove two previously unbelievable myths with one trip, agrees to go along with the sasquatch’s plan in exchange for some promotional appearances along the way. The pair hit off a fast, albeit one-sided friendship on their whirlwind tour around the globe, begrudgingly helped along the way by the widow of a former colleague of Sir Lionel’s (voiced by Zoe Saldana) who has the only know map to the Yeti’s magical homeland of Shangri-La. The trip proves dangerous when one of Sir Lionel’s biggest detractors and bullies (Stephen Fry) hires an assassin (Timothy Olyphant) to put a stop to the hero’s journey, fearing that proof of sasquatches and yetis would lead to a crumbling of intelligent design theories.

British born Butler has been working in animation for over twenty years – building off his college studies in folklore and fairytales – and is best known for his work with the American stop motion animation studio, Laika. With the company since their first feature, Coraline, Butler has also worked in a story capacity on company founder Travis Knight’s debut feature, Kubo and the Two Strings, and as a director on the 2012 film, ParaNorman. Despite the eight year gap between directing gigs for Laika, work on Missing Link started relatively soon after ParaNorman wrapped production.

“After I finished ParaNorman, Travis Knight asked me what I wanted to do next, and I had a couple of options, but it felt like the right time to do this movie,” Butler says about his desire to spread his wings as a filmmaker and attempt something a bit more comedy and action oriented. “As an artist, I didn’t want to do another movie that was horror based or dark and creepy. I wanted to do something that was the polar opposite of that; something more colourful and playful and brighter. And I also wanted to try my hand at a period piece. It was also the right time to do something like this, because the size, scope, and scale of this project was something we couldn’t have made before. Ten years ago, we never would’ve been able to make this movie.”

Missing Link is such a richly detailed visual delight that it’s even hard to believe that it could be made today, especially in the painstaking, labour intensive medium of stop motion animation. While there are some who might think that the idea of creating puppets and sculptures by hand and then moving them a tiny bit for hours on end sounds tedious and antiquated in the currently CG heavy animation world, Butler insists that there are some stories that can be told best through the tactile nature of stop motion.

“One of the things that I find most appealing about stop motion as a medium is that it’s real light falling on real objects. There’s something magical about that,” Butler enthuses about his love for his chosen favourite style of animation. “I think it taps into your childhood; when you imagine your toys coming to life. When you see a stop motion movie, and you see light hitting a puppet, you feel like it’s come to life, and you could reach into the screen and touch it. For me, embracing that fully is vital to the look of it all. You don’t want it to look fake.”

Set dresser Laura Savage working on the set of director Chris Butler’s Missing Link (Credit : Laika Studios / Annapurna Pictures)

While Butler admires what CG animators are capable of doing – and admits that Laika does use some small amount of computer graphics to enhance some of their more ambitious sequences – he also thinks that stop motion and old school filmmaking techniques can create images that technology can’t yet replicate through hundreds of lines of code. At the same time, Butler muses that it’s important that stop motion remain relevant and current with attitudes, styles, and technologies of the times. For him, stop motion isn’t something to be nostalgic about, but another artform that can continue to be elevated over the years.

“CG animators have been trying to replicate that feeling for years,” he continues from his previous thought, “and they keep getting closer and closer and closer, but for me, there’s something about the imperfection of real life that can’t be faked. No matter how good CG gets, there’s still an artifice to it. And when I talk about imperfection, I mean that when you look at every fibre on a costume and every handmade stitch, none of it will be perfect, and the way that light breaks off of that and shadows it has a bit of chaos in it. It’s hard to capture that in an entirely digital world. For me, it comes down to tactility; this feeling that an inanimate object has come to life. I think some stories lend themselves better to this medium. I wanted to make this in stop motion because there’s this history of soulful primates that have been constructed via stop motion, like King Kong, so it seemed correct to do my Bigfoot movie in this medium. You want to embrace the fact that it’s almost like live action, and particularly on this movie because I knew it was going to be taking place in so many big locations in the outdoors and around the world.”

“I wanted to make something truly cinematic. When I was talking about the project with Travis Knight in the early days, I pitched it by kind of saying, ‘What if David Lean made Around the World in 80 Days starring Laurel and Hardy?,’” Butler says about creating the look of the film, also adding that the visual style of Missing Link was also heavily informed by the work of National Geographic photographers from the past century, most notably the work of Steve McCurry.

Behind the scenes action on Missing Link. (Credit : Laika Studios / Annapurna Pictures)

“If that was the goal, then it had to clearly look like a huge epic. That’s why I chose the [widescreen] ratio that I did. I wanted to give this the appearance of a huge movie. You can see that in CG animation, but you don’t often see it in stop motion because it’s a medium that, for the longest time due to the nature of the real puppets and real sets, it had to be somewhat contained. There used to be limits to how you could fake the size of something when it came to stop motion. But because we’ve embraced digital technology as a way of pushing stop motion forward, it allowed us to create these epic vistas. It looks so grand that I think a lot of people will think it was all made using CG, but [in the closing credits] you can see how little of it we actually used, and how much of it was still done by hand. Even the CG that we do use is influenced by practical builds so it doesn’t look out of place with the rest of the film. If we’re in the Himalayas, and we need to use CG, those graphics started out as a digital matte painting that was based off a scale model that we built.”

A big part of the unique tactile appearance of Missing Link can be attributed to the story taking place in a different era, leading to an interesting bit of stop motion animating that often goes overlooked: the costuming. For help in his role as a character designer, Butler sings the praises of Laika’s longtime in-house costumer, Deborah Cook.

“She has such a big say in how these characters are, particularly in this movie,” Butler says about his partnership with Cook on Missing Link. “I met with her early on, and I said that I wanted the look of this thing to be big, bold, and colourful, and I was really interested in this dense aesthetic of patterning that was typical of the period. When people think of Victorian times, they think of blacks, browns, and grays, fog, and Jack the Ripper, and it’s all kind of dark and dingy. The truth of it was that it was actually a bright, vital era in terms of costuming. They were nuts about patterning. If you ever see photography from the era and you see their wallpapers, the upholstery, and the clothes, you can always see this dense patterning everywhere. I wanted to take that to the next level, and that was most of what my early and frequent conversations with Deborah were about. Ultimately, all of the costuming falls on her, and she’s an invaluable resource when it comes to historical research. We started pretty early on, and pretty soon she was coming up with everything.”

Head of puppet painting Josh Storey working on the set of Missing Link. (Credit : Laika Studios / Annapurna Pictures)

Despite the years of meticulous planning, construction, and character design, Missing Link is a buddy comedy at its big, beating heart, and the casting process often leads to unexpected changes. Before Laika approached any of its stars, the animators would do test animations of characters speaking lines actors delivered in other films, just to get a feel for how various voices would change the direction of the characters. It’s an intense process to go through before actors are even approached, but in the case of Jackman and Galifianakis, Butler was able to land the two actors the filmmaker thought were best for the roles from the start. And just like any filmmaking partnership, the actors were able to make their own impressions on Missing Link and change the film’s characters in subtle, welcome ways.

“It’s a constantly evolving process,” Butler says about how his leads impacted the direction of Missing Link. “Essentially, the story didn’t change much at all as we went along, but you’re always trying to find and refine the voices of these characters. I think it would’ve been very easy with this pairing to just make Link this clown-like sidekick, and I knew I needed him to be more than that because he’s the heart of the movie. That’s why I wanted to cast Zach in that role. His humour has this vulnerability to it. His humour is somewhat awkward and has this displaced feeling to it. I knew that would be right for Link. It’s a character who’s taking his first steps into the world, and the film isn’t solely about him tripping or banging his head. It’s a film about wanting to belong somewhere in the world, and that’s real emotion, and Zach was able to nail that.”

“From the start, Hugh Jackman was Sir Lionel to me. Some of the early drawings I did were based on Hugh Jackman, long before he said yes. When I’m writing, I often have an actor’s voice in my head to kind of inform the dialogue, even if you don’t always get them. Sometimes you get lucky, and in this case, I was because I held out until he was available. (laughs) Sometimes you think someone is going to right for the role, and it turns out that they aren’t, but in this case, I think I pretty much got all my top choices. I was really lucky because they’re all such busy people.”

“I think when you first start recording the voices, that’s a big step. Before that, these voices and characters just existed in my mind. Then suddenly you find yourself working with world class actors who bring their own perspective and their own voice to it, and it becomes something else. That’s thrilling to me, because it might inform me, and I’ll go back and re-write something. That’s what helps it all feel completely real. Towards the end of the project, both Zach and I would know exactly how Link would react to any situation. He’s become a real person to the both of us.”

Missing Link is now playing in theatres everywhere.

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