Original-Cin Q&A: The director of Missing Link talks physical comedy, stop-motion and British colonial villains

By Jim Slotek

In 2011, when Chris Butler, the writer/director of the stop-motion animation feature Missing Link was making ParaNorman, I visited Laika, the hip Portland animation studio that’s breathed new life into the genre of models and armatures, with films like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings.

Portland lived up to expectations, raining every day, and, as per the song from the sitcom Portlandia, the ‘90s survived (there was a vinyl store, a used bookstore and a video arcade within a block of my hotel).

Mr. Link (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) in Pixar’s Missing Link.

Mr. Link (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) in Pixar’s Missing Link.

But what blew my mind was my first exposure to a 3-D printer, which Laika animators used to create thousands of possible permutations of expressions digitally and render them solid.

I spoke with the British-born Butler on his promotional visit to Toronto this week, about Missing Link, in which Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis and Zoe Saldana voice the story of two 19th Century Brits who escort a lonely Sasquatch to the Himalayas to meet up with his Yeti cousins. And we talked about the past and future of stop-motion.

ORIGINAL-CIN: What I liked about this movie was the fluidity of the motion, and how it played into the comedy, with physicality and slapstick. I’m going to say this is the funniest Laika film.

CHRIS BUTLER:“I’m glad you think so. That was the hope. But when you work on a joke 300 or 400 times, you’re like, ‘I don’t know, is it still funny?’

Missing Link director Chris Butler

Missing Link director Chris Butler

“For that kind of brand of humour, I was influenced by the silent movies. I looked at a lot of Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, initially when I was talking about the movie at the studio. I was saying my intention was to do, ‘David Lean directs Around the World in 80 Days starring Laurel and Hardy.’ That was the ambition. So, I looked at a lot of vaudevillian inspired physicality, the very tableau style of playing out a joke in a really elegantly physical way.”

OC: The colonial British setting is interesting. I liked the line (by the villain Lord Piggot-Dunceby, voiced by Stephen Fry) about the British Empire bringing “good table manners” to the world, or words to that effect.

BUTLER:(Laughs) “I don’t remember the exact line either.”

OC:I’m guessing in these days of enhanced social consciousness, there might be somebody saying, ‘How can you joke about colonialism?’ 

BUTLER: “Well, I think it makes sense to poke fun of that (colonial) mindset. As soon as this guy appears onscreen, he is loathsome. You know he’s the villain. There’s something a little bit pantomimey in this movie in that I didn’t want there to be shades of grey

“As soon as you see Pigott-Dunceby, I wanted boos and hisses, like an old-school villain. And what better old-school villain is there than a colonial Brit?”

OC: I read from your bio that some of your earliest work was on Corpse Bride with Tim Burton. Was that the first time working with him?

BUTLER:Yes, it was.”

OC: He’s done a lot for the stop-motion genre. I visited the San Francisco studio when he was making The Nightmare Before Christmas, and a lot of the veteran guys had worked with Art Clokey on Gumby.

BUTLER: “I was still in school (when he made Nightmare).”

OC: Well, that’s how old I am.

BUTLER: (Laughs). “We didn’t have Gumby in England. Although we did have a rich tradition of stop motion, like pre-school shows and TV shows. There was a company called Cosgrove Hall that made a ton of stuff when I was growing up.” (That company made The Wind in the Willows series)

OC: And Aardman, who did Wallace and Gromit.

BUTLER:“Wallace & Gromit came a little later, but that company was doing stuff. And there were the Rankin/Bass holiday movies (the most famous being Frosty the Snowman) that were a part of my childhood as well. 

OC: You’re the biggest company making stop-motion features now. But stop-motion is still kind of a niche genre that people love. Does it need a Pixar/Toy Story level hit with a billion-dollar box office to take it to the next level?

BUTLER: “Well, y’know, people talk about 2D the same way. As long as there are people passionate about it, it won’t die. And that was important to Travis (Knight, Laika’s founder, and the son of its owner, Nike CEO Phil Knight). It was all about this beautiful art and the desire to keep it going and moving forward. That’s why we use so many technical innovations. We want to keep it vital, we want to keep it being made. And I think, of course, it’d be nice to have a billion-dollar hit. But that’s not what keeps something going.

“I mean, there are people who say 2D’s dead, but there are people all over making beautiful artwork with 2D animation. So, I think it comes down to the artist and people who are in love with it.”

OC: Is it more labour intensive than, say, a CG film?

BUTLER: “When we’re in the middle of these productions, that’s 450 people. That’s a lot of people. But any animated movie has a cast of hundreds. They’re all labour intensive and take a long time.

OC: One difference would be, I’m guessing, that there’s a smaller pool of people who know their way around stop-motion.

BUTLER: “That’s the big difference, when you’re looking for people to work on these things, it is a shallower pool of talent. Certainly it was at the start of Laika, when we were looking for people to work on Coraline. We were building from the ground up. There are pockets of people all over the world who are skilled at stop motion.

“England has a very strong stop motion culture, Russia, Denmark. And you find you have to reach out to these people, because there isn’t a huge lot of them around.”

OC: Are schools teaching it? 

BUTLER: “They do teach it, yeah. On this tour, I’ve spoken to a few schools where they have stop motion students coming in. England, and also here, there were a couple of stop-motion animation students when I spoke (at Sheridan College).

“We get a lot of young people into the studio, because you do want to nurture that talent. The interns become junior animators and it’s a career.”