Feature

LAIKA's Deborah Cook takes us behind the scenes of 'Missing Link'

Since the release of their debut feature, “Coraline,” in 2009, the Portland LAIKA has proven itself as the little studio that could, delivering captivating narratives that are as intricately hand crafted as they are timeless. Following “ParaNorman,” “The Boxtrolls” and “Kubo and the Two Strings,” LAIKA is now delivering their fifth adventure, the globe trotting adventure “Missing Link”. Of course, each film’s artistic success is owed to the talent and devotion of some incredible individuals, not the least of which is costume designer Deborah Cook. A vital part of the studio since its origins a little more than a decade ago, Cook is responsible for each film’s dazzling display of miniature habiliments.

“[The idea for “Missing Link”] had been bubbling away with Chris Butler for a while,” Cook tells Moviebill. “He’s always writing multiple different things at the same time. He’s in and out of things. My actual active part starts when I get the first script. Initially, I’ll read it for story and then I’ll go through and take it apart completely, making a list for each character. What is their personality? What is their role? …Are they very rambunctious? Do they get involved or do they just sit around talking? That dictates the kinds of costumes and whether they’re flexible or not flexible.”

(L to R) Sir Lionel Frost voiced by Hugh Jackman, Mr. Link voiced by Zach Galifianakis and Adelina Fortnight voiced by Zoe Saldana in director Chris Butler’s MISSING LINK, a Laika Studios Production and Annapurna Pictures release. Credit : Laika Studios / Annapurna PictureSince every inch of “Missing Link” is built from the ground up, there’s a lot of crossover between creative departments as the look and feel of the overall film comes together. A miniature handbag, for instance, may technically fall to the prop department, but the fabric from which its constructed originates with costume. That usually begins with the lead character who, in this case, happens to be a friendly sasquatch named Susan.

“The lead character’s costume always takes longer evolve,” Cook explains, “They really become something that’s representational of the movie. The linework of the movie. The color of the movie. That gives us elements of the formula that we can then use in the next costume.

Even though Susan technically enters the story without a costume, Cook and her team paid close attention to the character’s “natural” fur.

“The design for Susan’s fur really came from our original research,” Cook explains. “We looked at a lot of Victorian etchings and linework and a lot of images of fur growth… We looked at old research for Sasquatch or Bigfoot and all those historical points where people have imagery or expectations in their mind of what the character’s fur might look like. It’s very much part of the same research body. That’s also true for environments as well and what goes into the texture and into the landscapes. When the environments change, the fabric will change along with that.”

Even though “Missing Link” is on one level a fantasy adventure, real world accuracy becomes incredibly important in terms of making the bigger than life believable.

Sir Lionel Frost (left) voiced by Hugh Jackman and Mr. Link (right) voiced by Zach Galifianakis in director Chris Butler’s MISSING LINK, a Laika Studios Production and Annapurna Pictures release. Credit : Laika Studios / Annapurna Pictures“I love that aspect,” Cook continues. “Being able to transport someone is one of my favorite things to do… I love research. I love to find the very core .of where something originated, going back through the period. Finding out what the source was and who created it. What region it was from. What was it inspired by? Who created it? Using those notes of authenticity, you want to give the audience some resonance of that. For example, there’s Victorians clothing as opposed to something someone might be wearing during the middle age or that the Yetis might be wearing. It’s about putting all those things together to create a new world and a new environment.”

One of the biggest changes for LAIKA over the last decade has been in terms of the number of skilled craftspeople working at the studio. On “Coraline,” Cook worked with a small team that included four other customers. Now the costume department has more than two dozen artists. Some, who are still learning the techniques, will primarily focus on duplication of existing costumes. More experienced talent will move on to become lead fabricators.

“It’s quite hard to find someone who can do all of that already and just come to LAIKA with all of that skill,” says Cook. “It’s pretty much something that’s learned on site in our studios and in our costume workshop. It’s very much a learning process and it’s shared. It’s a very collaborative process.”

Another big improvement is the studio’s move towards self sufficiency. Instead of having to depend on existing fabrics, LAIKA has started replicating material in-house.

“When you’re buying material off the shelf, there’s alway a clammy moment where you realize that if you need to buy more, you’re not going to find it,” Cook explains. “If it’s years later, it may be out of season or a different manufacturer and the fabric is different… It has been an incredible journey and very, very exciting.”

Featuring the voice talents of  Zach GalifianakisHugh JackmanZoe Saldana, Timothy Olyphant, David Walliams, Emma Thompson, Matt Lucas, Ching Valdes-Aran, Stephen Fry and Amrita Acharia, “Missing Link” is in theaters this weekend.


Silas Lesnick is the Senior Editor of Moviebill. He has been covering entertainment news out of Los Angeles for more than a decade. You can reach him via e-mail or on Twitter.