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How a Japanese Printmaker Influenced 'Kubo,' the Biggest Stop-Motion Film Ever

'Kubo and the Two Strings' is one of 2016's most innovative film, but it drips with inspiration from a 20th century printmaker.
Images courtesy LAIKA Studios

The DNA of a Japanese woodblock printing master runs through the veins of Kubo and the Two Strings, which is shaping up to be year's biggest animated film (sorry, Sausage Party).

Boasting groundbreaking 3D printing technology, hybrid CGI innovations, and an 18' tall stop-motion puppet, LAIKA Studios' latest film is a behemoth. Like their previous films Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls, Kubo is a mix of larger-than-life action sequences and mature themes. In a setting electrified by Studio Ghibli-esque magical realism, young Kubo (Art Parkinson) deals with both exhilarating conflict and debilitating loss. Oh, and it doesn't hurt that the rest of the voice talent roster includes Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, George Takei, and Ralph Fiennes—or that the whole affair has received a media blitz that included everything from custom sneakers to custom Snapchat filters.


As part of that campaign, LAIKA invited me to visit their studio in Portland, Oregon where I got to see a mammoth skeleton called the "Hall of Bones," the robotic eye of an underwater monster, and a Smart car-sized model ship made from autumn leaves. But amidst all the film's visual delights, in talking to the creatives behind Kubo, one name was all but unavoidable: that of Japanese woodblock print artist Kiyoshi Saito.

Kiyoshi Saito, Village With Persimmon Tree. "'Village With Persimmon Tree’ resonated with me," says Lowry. "It had a distinctive shape language and lovely textures within those shapes. Saito uses texture and color to suggest detail rather than slavishly rendering them. We saw this as a way to illustrate the world of Kubo."

Early Saito-inspired concept art by texture artist Dan Casey

"Kiyoshi Saito was the key stylistic influence that was the unifying design element throughout the entire movie," Kubo director and LAIKA President and CEO Travis Knight tells The Creators Project. The artist's influence is evident in every aspect of the film, from the costumes and sets, to the framing of the camera.

"Saito's poetic view of the rich history of rural Japan struck a note with me. His artwork was a great place to start in the development of Kubo," adds production designer Nelson Lowry. "Our characters are stylized. The world they travel through needed to support that. During the development process we started adding some of this texture into set pieces and clothing. Rather than depicting every grain of sand and snowflake we used a woodblock like texture across most of the surfaces in the film to imply detail. The technique gave the film a slightly grainy look evocative of Saito's work."

Later concepts by texture artist Dan Casey

Even the CGI is inundated with Saito's woodblock print aesthetic. As VFX supervisor Steve Emerson explains in a presentation during the studio tour, "One of the signatures of the work he does is paying attention to the economy of space and simplicity. We knew that was something we were going to want to fold into the water system." While LAIKA goes to great lengths to keep their films as physical as possible, some problems needed to be solved with computer graphics. Two scenes that could not have been shot with practical set pieces—though LAIKA designers tried—were the massive wave from Kubo's eye-grabbing initial teasers, and an epic swordfight in a rainstorm at sea. Saito's textural qualities tie all the digital elements into the 'look' and 'feel' painstakingly crafted by LAIKA's production designers. "In the final water system for Kubo, if you were to stop the frame and zoom in, you would see the Japanese woodblock Saito texture patterning in every one of these rain drops," says Emerson.


"[Saito's] artwork is just so potent," Lowry says. "He had a wonderful way of organizing nature into distinctive shapes. We needed to do the same. The story of Kubo required us to world-build on an epic scale. Rivers, mountains and distant wheat fields needed to feel organized, understandable. Studying Saito's stylized approach to illustrating both natural and architectural subjects helped us do this, too."

Kubo and the Two Strings is in theaters now. Learn more about LAIKA Studios on their website.


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