Laika Laika 'Kubo and the Two Strings,' the latest feature film from Laika, leveraged 3D printing to create the intricately expressive faces of its characters. (Photo: Laika)

How 3D printing brought life to 'Kubo and the Two Strings'

To create the fluid, lifelike puppets for its new film, stop-motion studio Laika pioneered a new Oscar-winning technology.

The most amazing takeaway from the trailers for "Kubo and the Two Strings," a new fantasy adventure featuring the voices of Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey, isn't the gorgeous Japanese scenery, the fluid action or the witty dialogue. It's the fact that what you're witnessing is nearly all done with real, stop-motion characters – an animation technique first pioneered in the late 19th century.

Such dedication to a timeless craft largely supplanted today by computer animation is the underlying foundation of Laika, the U.S. film studio behind such recent stop-motion classics as "Coraline," "ParaNorman" and "The Boxtrolls."

"I think it's a primal thing that's evocative of being a kid," Laika CEO Travis Knight told The Verge in 2014. "Playing with your action figures and your dolls, the playthings come to life. Stop motion is a recorded version of that: a kid's imagination as they're playing with their toy."

Despite its old-school connotations, stop-motion cinematography in the 21st century benefits substantially from advancements in technology. With every subsequent film, Laika has found new ways to increase the subtle movements of its puppets and the expressions of their faces. The secret to their success? None other than 3D printing or, as they've coined it, "rapid-prototype face replacement."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMuaQRGelbk

Working with Stratasys, a firm that specializes in manufacturing 3D printers from its dual headquarters in America and Israel, Laika was able to mass-produce the expressive faces of its characters in "Kubo" with detail never before seen in a stop-motion film. The process, which earned the studio a technical achievement Oscar earlier this year, involves an artist crafting a face digitally and then sending it to be created, layer by layer, to an advanced 3D printer. The filmmakers then take each face and apply it to their puppets to make their reactions come to life frame by frame.

“We reached out to Stratasys and collaborated with their R&D in Israel," Brian McLean, Laika's director of rapid prototyping, told IndieWire. "With access to new software and hardware, we reached a [greater] level of color and sophistication in a plastic-printed 3D part.”

By leveraging Stratasys' cutting-edge 3D printing, used today in everything from healthcare to aviation, Laika was able to boost their characters' possible facial expressions from a previous high of 1.5 million combinations to a remarkable 22 million. The technology even allowed them to create their first-ever 3D-printed puppet. Named Moonbeast, the stunning 3-foot-long creature is made of 850 individual exterior pieces and an internal armature of 250 parts.

Laika MoonbeastThe Moonbeast, Laika's first-ever fully 3D printed puppet, features over 850 individual exterior pieces. (Photo: Blastr/YouTube)

As for what's next, McLean says that with 3D printing in its infancy, the rapid evolution of the technology is having a dramatic impact from film to film.

"I would love to see new material compositions come out that are better for color, and getting a better resolution with more refined printing," he told CartoonBrew. "I want to be able to talk to you three years from now and not have there be any limitation between the subtlety that we can put into a face and our ability to get the most out of a character.”

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How 3D printing brought life to 'Kubo and the Two Strings'
To create the fluid, lifelike puppets for its new animated film, U.S.-based stop-motion studio Laika pioneered a new Oscar-winning technology.