One of the nicer surprises of Tuesday’s Oscar nominations was a second nomination for the gorgeous animated feature Kubo and the Two Strings. Laika’s combination stop-motion and computer-animated film landed, as expected, in Best Animated Feature, but it also joined the nominees for Best Visual Effects. It’s the first animated movie to place in that category since 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Naysayers might doubt it has a place among such effects extravaganzas as Rogue One and The Jungle Book, but Kubo’s nomination is well-earned. And it may have landed that nod thanks to a secret weapon that no other film under consideration possessed.
Kubo’s technical wizardry extends beyond what moviegoers typically think of as “animation.” As this interview with the film’s VFX coordinator Steve Emerson makes clear, Laika spends enormous time and resources developing innovative techniques, both high-tech and low-, to create the remarkable images on screen, most of which combine practical puppets with complex computer animation and digital matte painting. Just read Emerson’s description of the artistry behind Kubo’s water, stylized to reflect the aesthetic influence of Japanese woodblock printing. The company’s goal wasn’t to make photo-realistic water; it was to make water that looked right for the film, which led to nearly a year of odd practical tests:
Now in the case of the water systems, again, we were given very specific artwork and our task at the onset was, “Let’s take this piece of artwork and realize it as literally as possible. How are we gonna do that?” Before VFX even gets into the mix, we go out on the stages and put the animation and rigging teams to work. They ended up creating these really amazing water systems using different types of materials, from garbage bags to shower curtains along with this iron mesh that would undulate and roll like an ocean. …
At that point, it’s about iterating, adding style, figuring out everything from churn to spray to white caps. For every element that would eventually make up that water system, each had to be designed ultimately to suit the style of the film and feel like they belonged in Kubo’s world. Also, for all of those elements, we needed physical reference. So the art department created water churn for us out of paper and showed us what that looked like. We’d take an element like that and again, create another photorealistic interpretation and fold that into our water system until we finally landed on something that felt different, that felt like it belonged in that world, that was exciting and distinctive.
While some of the film’s VFX team were out on a stage rippling garbage bags, others were finalizing a complex 3-D printing system that has revolutionized the way characters are created in stop-motion animation. Laika’s “rapid prototyping” process allows the company to quickly 3-D–print complicated facial expressions for its characters, allowing Kubo and the other characters to feel far more emotionally expressive than stop-motion characters typically do. The academy has already announced that Laika staffers will receive Scientific and Technical Awards for the rapid prototyping process.
But noncompetition awards often replace official nominations for outside-the-box films. (Witness John Lasseter’s “special achievement award” for 1995’s Toy Story, in lieu of Visual Effects or Best Director nominations.) How did Laika convince Oscar voters that an animated film deserved a spot in a traditionally nonanimated category? Over at IndieWire, Bill Desowitz points to the film’s terrific showing in the academy’s early-January “bake-off,” in which the 10 finalists for nominations present short highlight reels of shots from their films and explain the challenges and innovations involved. Kubo, through luck of the draw, went last at the bake-off, which may have helped, but the movie’s real secret weapon was the “making-of” footage that accompanied the film’s theatrical credits. That meant that, unlike every other finalist, Kubo’s bake-off presentation included behind-the-scenes shots of the film’s VFX artists making magic on screen.
Hats off to the academy’s visual-effects branch for recognizing artistry and innovation in an unexpected place. Here’s hoping other branches follow suit. Indeed, Kubo likely came close to breaking another barrier this year: The film’s remarkable costumes, designed by Deborah Cook, were nominated for a Costume Designers Guild Award, a first for an animated film.