Sunday, June 24, 2018
  • Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017
Bucking The Oscar Nomination Norm: "Kubo and the Two Strings"
“Kubo and the Two Strings” (photo courtesy of Laika, LLC)
Also breaking new ground is the VR animated short "Pearl" 
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The long and short of it when it comes to the unconventional in Oscar nominations can be found in the animated film categories. On the former score, Kubo and the Two Strings (Laika/Focus Features) scored a pair of nominations--for Best Animated Feature Film and for Achievement in Visual Effects. Meanwhile scoring a Best Animated Short Film nod was Pearl (A Google Spotlight Stories and Evil Eye Pictures Production). Both Kubo and Pearl depart from the Academy Awards nomination norm in different respects.

Kubo and the Two Strings is the first animated feature nominated in the VFX category since 1994 when director Henry Selick’s stop-motion The Nightmare Before Christmas earned that distinction. Kubo is a hybrid animated film meshing stop motion and computer animation. Laika’s Steve Emerson, VFX supervisor on Kubo, noted that the film in terms of deploying different disciplines is akin to others produced by his studio--Coraline in 2009, ParaNorman in 2012 and The Boxtrolls in 2014, all of which earned Best Animated Feature Oscar nominations.

“There’s a misunderstanding about the kind of work our studio does,” related Emerson. “People think of stop motion animation when it comes to our work, which is true, but they don’t think of it as live action and visual effects, which also are part of our workflow. We’re shooting real environments, sets, actors with green screen. We are extending sets and bringing actors’ performances to life one frame at a time over the course of weeks, even months. Much of the software we use is the same you would for creating visual effects for a Marvel superhero film. Our workflow is extremely similar to those kinds of films.”

As for why Academy voters recognized the VFX achievements in Kubo as opposed to prior nominated Laika films, Emerson conjectured. “Kubo is certainly distinct in terms of the scope of the film, with far more environments than any previous Laika film. We dealt with crowds of characters, fast-paced action sequences, giant monsters, a snow blizzard, rain storms, long-haired characters with flowing robes, underwater and origami dream sequences, wide expansive 'Kurosawa-esque' vistas. The fact that Kubo went so far beyond anything we had previously done may have played into our also being recognized for visual effects.”

Emerson added that the art of stop motion itself is a special effect. “Every single frame is a visual effect,” he affirmed, noting that Kubo is a product of putting stop motion in concert with live action and effects. Underscoring that fact are the Laika artists named in the VFX nomination: Emerson, Oliver Jones, Brad Schiff and Brian McLean. Animation supervisor Schiff was responsible for all of the puppet performances in the film. Director of rapid prototyping McLean oversaw all 3D printing technology and facial performances, facilitating replacement animation, using faces that have been generated by a 3D printer. As animation rigging supervisor, Jones made sure animators, who were driving performances for the puppets, had the necessary rigging to help realize those performances. 

Additionally Jones did all of the in-camera animation testing that was used to ultimately drive postproduction VFX. These tests--of such elements as inventive contraptions to help simulate water and fire--paved the way for photo-real interpretations of what’s needed, with iterations fashioned on the digital side. The tests laid the foundation for digital effects, explained Emerson.

Kubo and the Two Strings marks the directorial debut of Travis Knight (president/CEO of Laika), who is nominated for Best Animated Feature along with producer Arianne Sutner. Kubo tells the story of a boy (voiced by Art Parkinson) named Kubo who must locate a magical suit of armor worn by his late father, a famous samurai warrior, in order to defeat a vengeful spirit from the past. Along the way the lad picks up sidekicks, a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and a beetle (Matthew McConaughey).

For Emerson, the two nominations for Kubo and the Two Strings are especially gratifying. “We are a small independent studio based in Portland [Ore.], working in a warehouse, taking years to make a film with a group of artists and technicians passionate about stop-motion animation. Kubo is an homage to Japanese culture and to woodblock artists including Kiyoshi Saito as well as visual effects artists like Ray Harryhausen, Willis O’Brien and Jim Danforth--all the innovative artists who came before us and laid the groundwork. The way we go about things at Laika is we honor stop-motion animation. We honor in-camera effects as part of our workflow and try to innovate on top of those. This can be a difficult, cumbersome way to make a film but we do it because we love it. I think back to when I was a child going to films before computers came into the mix. There was a sense of movie magic, wondering how did they do that. Over the course of the last 20 years that’s largely been lost. But when you look at these visuals [in Kubo and the Two Strings], that sense of movie magic comes back. Being a visual effects supervisor here working in a hybrid way, starting to create computer elements to flesh out these worlds, it’s important never to lose as part of the process the wonderful art forms handed down to us.

“The sentimentality I have for the people who came before us, who laid the foundation, is strong,” Emerson continued. “I’m not the only one who feels this. There is a sense across the industry that this art form that was established at the dawn of filmmaking is something we don’t want to let go of. And getting recognition of this in the form of Oscar nominations is important.”

Director Patrick Osborne won the Best Animated Short Oscar in 2015 for Disney’s Feast. Now he is again in the running for the same honor on the strength of Pearl, a virtual reality piece which takes us into a father-daughter relationship over the years, centered on their time together on the road in a car.

The VR dynamic breaks new Oscar nomination ground. However, to be eligible for motion picture Academy consideration, the short required a Los Angeles theater run--at which a non-VR cinema version was screened. So there’s a question whether Academy members have seen just the cinema rendition or if they are also familiar with the VR version. The cinema short contains four more scenes than its VR counterpart. And whereas there are some 80 cuts in the theatrical short, the VR piece has only 30 or so edits, and of course is a more immersive experience, enabling viewers to divert their attention to various perspectives such as looking out the car window or even the sunroof if they so desire. Either way--as a theatrical or VR piece--the short struck a responsive chord with Academy voters as reflected in the nomination.

In Pearl we see the girl Sarah grow before our eyes largely within the confines of the car which is eventually handed down to her. Also passed on to Sarah is her dad’s love for the arts as she becomes a musician/performer like--and in some respects exceeding--her dad. Osborne observed that as a VR piece Pearl required him to adjust his filmmaking lens. He noted that relinquishing control of the camera to the audience is contrary to what an animator is accustomed to, which is to be in control of everything. To gain back a measure of that control in the VR space, Osborne chose the setting of a car since it’s a finite environment with which people are familiar. 

For Osborne, the story of Pearl has personal roots. He liked playing up the emotional connection we have with the family automobile and noted that his dad was a toy designer at Kenner in Cincinnati. When Kenner closed in Cincy and its product line merged into Hasbro, the elder Osborne decided to stay in town, and continue pursuing his design/creation passion--a love that was passed onto the next generation as son Patrick delved into the arts, making Pearl in a sense a musical version of his story. 

“In college I thought if I could make animated short films forever, that would be an amazing career,” recalled Osborne. “But that wasn’t happening much outside of the National Film Board of Canada. Thankfully the technology revolution has allowed for more short content. People are becoming accustomed to shorts, which is very cool. I jumped and ran with it at Disney [with Feast]. We are now seeing technology companies experimenting and funding the arts. Google Stories, for example, is continuing to support artists and directors doing personal work.”

Osborne sees much potential in the VR world. “I think it will be primarily in short content for awhile because the equipment is heavy and people aren’t used to wearing it. Headsets are not made to sweat in. But the creative filmmaking prospects ahead are tremendous.”

This is the 13th of a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards. The Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 26, 2017, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live by the ABC Television Network. The Oscar presentation also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

Credits for ScreenWork: 


A Laika Production/Focus Features

Oscar nominees:

Travis Knight, director

Arianne Sutner,  producer

Steve Emerson, VFX supervisor

Brad Schiff, animation supervisor

Oliver Jones, animation rigging supervisor

Brikan McLean, director of rapid prototyping, overseing 3D printing technology and facial performances



Credits for ScreenWork: 

A Google Spotlight Stories and Evil Eye Pictures Production

Patrick Osborne, director