The American Society of Cinematographers

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Hero's Journey

Cinematographer Frank Passingham and a team of artists bring director Travis Knight’s stop-motion adventure Kubo and the Two Strings to life...

Photos by John Leonhardt, Jason Ptaszek, Steven Wong, Jr. and Amy Rivera, courtest of Laika Studios and Focus Features.

Violent waves crash and dissipate into the sea. Rain pours from threatening clouds. Flashes of lightning intermittently illuminate the stormy night, while the blue glow from the full moon accents the sky. In the midst of this natural chaos, a small fishing boat slices through a wave. A woman paddles furiously, hoping to glimpse dry land, when a massive swell rises in front of her boat. Thinking fast, she lifts her arm high and then, in one fell swoop, strokes down on her stringed shamisen instrument. A blinding light erupts from the sound and parts the storm-wracked sea in two, creating a clear path for her to follow.

So unfolds the opening sequence of Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest stop-motion feature from animation studio Laika. Set in a magic-infused ancient Japan, the swashbuckling fantasy follows the young Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) — whose mother wields the shamisen in the opening scene — as he teams with Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) to reclaim his samurai father's suit of armor and put an end to an age-old vendetta. AC visited the Laika crew at their studio outside Portland, Ore., toward the end of Kubo's 23-month shoot.

Travis Knight, Kubo's director and Laika's president and CEO, remembers reading the opening passage in the feature's script. "My first thought was, 'How the hell are we going to do this?'" he says, laughing. "That's not an unusual reaction here at Laika. Everything we do pushes the medium to its breaking point. Innovation and radical new thinking has guided us in every film we've done, and Kubo was no exception."

From the outset, Knight knew he wanted fellow stop-motion veteran Frank Passingham to serve as Kubo's cinematographer. "I've known Frank for nearly a decade," the director explains. "He was the [lighting cameraman] on a couple of sequences I animated on Coraline, and he was an utter joy to collaborate with. I was enormously impressed with Frank's keen eye, his superhuman work ethic and his encyclopedic knowledge of film. He demonstrated generosity and sensitivity to his crew and animators. He understands the ballet of light, camera and human performance that breathes life into a puppet."

Passingham supervised a team of lighting cameramen — a.k.a. "LCs" — comprising Mark Stewart, John Ashlee Prat, Chris Peterson and Dean Holmes, all of whom had worked on the earlier Laika productions Coraline (AC Feb. '09), ParaNorman (AC Sept. '12) and The Boxtrolls. Passingham also LC'd his own units.

With each LC, Passingham explains, "We would have an initial discussion of the direction of the key light throughout the sequence, and then it was over to him." The cinematographer would then view the lighting in an animated rehearsal and either approve or give notes for changes.

"As LC, I am allowed to have my own creative input after getting my notes from Frank," Stewart explains. "If Frank and the art department are happy with the look, we'll then show it to Travis. At that point, a sequence launch meeting will be scheduled with the key people involved to make sure we are all on the same page. The process is very collaborative."

Peterson adds, "Our long day would start out with the camera assistants checking all the units for shooting. We've got to sort out any issues they come up with, like a lighting or camera shift. We've been lucky on this show; there have been very few problems. We'll then watch rushes with Frank, and then editorial starts. We begin our work with editorial's notes — lighting it, submitting it, changing it [as needed]."

"A 'unit' was a set and a camera shooting part of a scene for the movie," Passingham notes. "At times there were over 50 units in the studio. Some of these were greenscreen units shooting puppets against green when the set was not available due to scheduling."

Ashlee relates, "There could be anywhere from eight to 12 units that any of the LCs would be handling at one time. Sometimes Dean would have more units, sometimes Chris had more. It ebbed and flowed depending on at least three variables: how many animators got assigned to the sequence, how many were scheduled to do certain shots, and how many units were shooting the same sequence."

Kubo was shot in native stereo with Canon EOS 5D Mark II and III DSLRs. Laika has used the Mark IIs since ParaNorman, and the crew continues to work with the 5Ds in large part due to the cameras' full-frame sensors and live-view feature. The cameras were primarily fitted with Nikon prime lenses; the 55mm was a favorite focal length. A Cooke 5:1 20-100mm (T3.1) zoom was used on occasion, and Canon tilt-shift 24mm and 35mm lenses were employed as well. The crew composed for a 2.39:1 release, while capturing full-frame 5760x3840 raw files and recording directly to a tethered local computer. Once a shot was completed, the images were "published" via the production's pipeline, thus delivering the footage to the relevant departments. The files were then converted to EXR for visual-effects work, which was supervised by Steve Emerson.

Dailies were viewed at 2K, which was also the chosen resolution for the digital grade — for which Technicolor colorist Mike Sowa worked with Autodesk's Lustre — and the movie's final output. For a brief period, the production considered shooting in anamorphic, delivering in 4K and having a stereo conversion later on. "I never liked the idea of the stereo being posted elsewhere and the construction of the stereo being out of my control," says Passingham, who also served as Kubo's stereographer.

The shooting methodology called for a single camera to get both the left- and right-eye views for each frame. The cameras were always mounted to 3D sliders, which remain similar to those used during the production of Coraline; for Kubo, some sliders required extra travel distance in order to accommodate a larger interocular (I/O) — the distance between the left and right "eyes" of the taking cameras — and all of the sliders have been made slightly more compact. Passingham notes that the sliders have a very fine pitch to enable the cameras to travel a fraction of a millimeter with extreme accuracy. "Sometimes [the camera] would be required to move between the left-eye and right-eye position for as many as six separate exposures for a single frame," he explains. "You can imagine the tens of thousands of left- and right-eye movements that were required from these stereo sliders throughout the duration of the production!"

To take full advantage of the 3D effect, the team would sometimes even "animate" the I/O and alignment. "Alignment and convergence are [essentially] the same thing in our world," Passingham clarifies, "although we shoot parallel and do not 'converge' our lenses as was done in films like Avatar. Our [alignment] is constructed after shooting our stereo and is something that is easily changed at the post stage."

As an example, Passingham offers, "There is a scene where Kubo discovers the armor underwater. As he puts the armor on, we increase the I/O and animate the alignment point farther back so he pops forward, in front of the screen plane, for an exaggerated 3D effect.

"Sometimes it's best to play down the most obvious 3D gags and to creep up on the audience," the cinematographer continues. "The effect does not have to be obvious, but it might have more of a psychological effect. I believe that playing with the transitory I/O and alignment effects is the best way of doing this. We've come a long way since the early Fifties when 3D was used in a much cruder and more sensationalist way. These days our approach is with far more subtlety and stealth. You can certainly have your big 3D moments, but it's [about] choosing when to unleash them."


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