Kudos to Kubo: The Film Earns Dual Oscar Nominations for Animation & VFX
Karen Moltenbrey
February 13, 2017

Kudos to Kubo: The Film Earns Dual Oscar Nominations for Animation & VFX

Studios, directors, actors, composers, editors, cinematographers…just about everyone connected to the film industry had been on edge recently, waiting with bated breath for the 2017 Academy Awards nominations to be announced. When the list was released, the group at Laika had reason to celebrate: The studio’s fourth stop-motion feature film, Kubo and the Two Strings (released in 2016),   received an Oscar nomination in the Best Animated Feature category – as was the case for its first, second, and third features, Coraline (2009),  ParaNorman  (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014), respectively.  

In fact, the group was doubly excited about the news. That’s because the film is not only vying for gold in Animation, but in a first-of-its-kind situation, is also a contender in the Best Visual Effects category. 

So, what kind of film is Kubo, exactly? Animation? Or, a film filled with amazing, jaw-dropping visual effects of the highest level? The answer is, both!

Only one other animated feature film has ever made the Academy’s Visual Effects final list, and that was The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), which lost to Jurassic Park , in 1994. However, Nightmare failed to make the Animated Feature list that year – because that category didn’t exist at the time. The Oscar was first awarded for Best Animated Feature in 2001. 

Animated films can be nominated in multiple categories, but this rarely happens. Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture, while Up and Toy Story also received Best Picture nominations after the Academy expanded the number of nominees. Waltz with Bashir (2008) is the only animated picture ever nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, though, like Nightmare, did not earn a nomination in the Best Animated Feature category that year. (But unlike Nightmare, the category did exist at the time.) 

Laika’s Coraline was considered in both the Animated Feature and Visual Effects categories, but it never made the final list for the latter. 

An article on The Film Experience website in the fall of 2012 sums up how difficult of a feat such a dual nomination is. “Visual effects nominations for an animated film will probably never happen again. Stop-motion animated titles like ParaNorman or Frankenweenie will find it nigh on impossible to do battle with the likes of The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Life of Pi, and so on in this or any other year from now on. We joke about “here lies…” at the start of each of these Oscar Horror pieces, and yet one could very truthfully write a eulogy for the possibility of animated films ever reaching the visual effects race ever again. Even when a WALL•E makes the nomination long list, that final hurdle of far more obvious, in-your-face effects proves too high to overcome.”

So, what is so special about Kubo? For those in this industry, it should be apparent – just read the in-depth story “Myth in Miniature” in the November.December 2016 issue of CGW, which details Laika’s efforts, inventions, and processes required to bring this film to life in terms of animation and VFX. 

Here, Laika’s Steve Emerson, Oliver Jones, Brian McLean, and Brad Schiff, Academy Award nominees for Achievement in Visual Effects for Kubo, talk with CGW Chief Editor Karen Moltenbrey about this unique dual honor.

(After just receiving the news of the nominations a few hours before the interview) How does it feel to get a nomination in both the Animated Feature and Visual Effects categories?

McLean: We are very excited. It's a huge day for us here.

Emerson: Making stories with stop animation is a long, difficult, arduous process that requires the efforts of a lot of dedicated and passionate people, and the people here are very passionate about stop animation and are crazy enough to use it to tell these types of stories. To get this level of acknowledgment makes that struggle, which took years, so worth it. We are excited for the many the artists here, like us, who worked hard to create these visuals. We are proud of all those teams and their level of commitment. 

McLean: We are so honored to represent the amazing crew that made this possible – collectively there are 400 to 450 people who worked on Kubo. I think what stood out for the Academy is how unique our approach to filmmaking really is, resurrecting the 100-year-old technique of stop motion and using it with 21 st century computers and 3D printers and other technology. 

What did you say in your VFX pitch during the bakeoff?

McLean: The idea behind the presentation was to let them know that as much as Kubo is a tribute to Japanese culture and woodblock artists like Kiyoshi Saito, it is also a tribute to special effects pioneers Ray Harryhausen, Willis O'Brien, Jim Danforth, and the many innovative FX artists who tell stories using in-camera effects, puppets, and human hands. We do stop-motion animation, and in-camera special effects is a big part of what we are doing here at Laika. 

You have been doing amazing effects with your animation for a while. What made this year the year that the Academy took notice beyond the animation work? 

McLean: Laika, by being up in Portland, Oregon, already puts us at a disadvantage because we are not at the epicenter of filmmaking in LA. But for the past 10 years, our films have spoken for themselves, starting with Coraline. Coraline did actually make one of the early rounds for Visual Effects but no further. When we started doing what we do with stop motion at Laika, we slowly started to become known to many different groups and professionals within the industry. I think a lot comes down to the culmination of us working as a team here at the studio and across the board, pushing our techniques, from stop motion to integrating visual effects, to the subtlety of performance, to the 3D printing, the mechanical and engineering of the rigging department .... All of that helps tell the story of Kubo – which is a wonderful, moving story – in such a way that the effects become invisible. I think a lot of people watching the movie didn't realize what went into making it. Many people just assumed it was done another way, and when they educated themselves on the processes, they suddenly realized what we were doing was something special. 

Schiff: It is interesting that we are witnessing the evolution of an art form right before our eyes. What our animation team can do with puppets now , utilizing the technology we have , is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. The performances are so naturalistic that people are forgetting they are watching puppets. When they realize that, it is a very powerful thing. When you take stop motion and fuse it with state-of-the-art visual effects, it really makes what we are doing stand out and different from anything else you see.

Emerson: Certainly part of the message we sent at the bakeoff is that when people think about animated films, they don't think visual effects. That was something we certainly wanted to get across, that we are very much a live-action VFX workflow here at the studio. We have actors who we photograph against greenscreen , but they just happen to be very small actors. And their performances come to life one frame at a time with human hands. We also have sets that are full sets, and we have to do visual effects just like all the other films. But the difference is that these are handcrafted, highly stylized universes, so if we are building an ocean of water, we can’t just use water. We have to make water out of garbage bags. And if we are building clouds, they just can’t be clouds, they have to be clouds made out of tulle fabric or ballerina tutus. If we are making raindrops, we need to make sure there is woodblock texture on those raindrops. So there is an added level of complexity to the works. So if you go out and buy off-the-shelf software, like Houdini, it comes with CG plug-ins that handle this stuff. We are blessed with a group of very talented visual effects artists and the team across the board at Laika that, over the course of the last 10 years, has been able to build upon what we have learned and build upon and tell these enormous epic stories.

You are in some very good company among the nominees in the Visual Effects category this year. Do you think this is the year voters will think outside the traditional box?  

McLean: I hope so. It’s been 23 years since an animated film has received a VFX nomination, and that was Nightmare Before Christmas, and that year it was up against Jurassic Park. That was during the dawn of computer -generated imagery. It was the beginning of CGI having a monopoly on the Visual Effects category. And what we have done here over the past few years and what Kubo represents is a resurgence in keeping alive or resurrecting stop-motion animation and doing it in a way that looks to the past and respects what our predecessors have done. It is also is very forward-thinking process that continues to evolve and improve this medium. So when the branch looks at all the other nominees, we are at a disadvantage because we are so different – but that can also be an advantage if people actually look at how we make our films and watch some of the behind-the-scenes and realize what we are doing is combining many different types of effects – computer graphics, practical. Everything you see on screen is an effect. If people do educate themselves and do a deep look, a deep dive into how we are doing things, we have a chance. 

Is it easier for a stop-motion film to get a Visual Effects nomination than a purely CG animated film? 

McLean: It certainly feels that way given that stop-motion animation is as old as special effects themselves and uses more special effects than a CG animated film. And with Star Wars trying to embrace more practical effects, it feels like the timing of this makes sense. 

Emerson: There are many types of ways we create these visuals. There are certainly a number of computer-generated images, multi-scale photography using miniatures, stop-motion photography and performances. There are so many techniques that went into creating Kubo that there was a level of appreciation for that well, for the complexity of using all those different methods to create the images. 

McLean: We’ve had to pioneer our own techniques to create our films, as Steve [Emerson] said earlier. We don’t have the ability of grabbing software packages that exist, we have to forge our own way. Just last year, the way we animate faces was nominated and received a Sci-Tech Oscar for pioneering a whole new way for creating facial animation using stop motion. And if you look at any of our puppets or any of our sets, oftentimes there are a half dozen inventions or things that we could have patented that go into making these puppets. It is just a combination of what the puppets need to do, how they need to perform, what their design is. There is nowhere we can go to see it being done because it hasn't been done before in most instances. So we have this really talented group of people who put their heads together and invent a way to do it. 

Will having a nomination in both the Visual Effects and Animation categories hurt your chances in one or the other? 

Emerson: I certainly hope not. The film as a whole, independent of the visual effects work – the storytelling, the direction – I think speaks for itself. 

McLean: It goes back to what I was saying earlier about academy members and them educating themselves on what they are voting on. Being nominated in the Animated Feature category for all four of our films certainly helped make a name for ourselves. But the fact that we are unique in the Visual Effects category, I think most of the Academy members are going to scratch their heads and ask what is going on with this Kubo film and wonder what we are doing, and hopefully that will help us in both categories.

Could this be a future trend, or is it a one-time thing, as it was for The Nightmare Before Christmas

Emerson: Nightmare came at a time when it was still very early in terms of using computer graphics for visual effects. We are at a place now where computer-driven effects are dominating the work. When I first joined Laika 10 years ago and was working on Coraline, we were making that film almost entirely in-camera. It brought me back to when I went to the movies as a child. It was, ‘How’d they do that?’  Today there is less of that. Yet the Executive Branch and visual effects community, thankfully, are ready to acknowledge this type of work again, and, hopefully, this will continue. 

McLean: Our films have a unique ability to have that multi-magical moment, when people leave the theater and are not quite sure of what they just witnessed. What techniques were used to achieve what they had just seen? I think it’s sad that most kids today think that things done on the computer are easy, because they have grown up with computers – with word processing, Photoshop, and so on. So they come out of a flashy visual effects film and think it was easy to do just because it was done on the computer. They don't realize it literally took decades of artists and technicians building those computer programs to make it possible. However, there is something different about stop motion. Kids or even adults coming out of our films have this sense of awe of the movie magic. Steve, in his presentation at the bakeoff, hinted at that. He talked about what they were seeing truly is movie magic. 

Schiff: Nightmare was a satellite operation, a one-off film, though they stayed together to do one more, James and the Giant Peach, and then there wasn't really a stop-motion film of that caliber for another decade, until Corpse Bride. Here at Laika, we are in production on our fifth feature film (which I cannot discuss at this time), and we just keep trying to build bigger and better stories, and hopefully this is just the beginning of a trend, as we produce more and more stop-motion feature films. 

Jones: We have been at Laika for the last 10 years together, and collectively it’s great to collaborate and push the medium forward. We have taken on many technical challenges, and the studio likes to take risks and has supported us in our endeavors, which is a testament to the culture at Laika – taking risks and seeing what comes out at the end of it. And we are really proud of the whole thing.