Toon Musings: Kubo’s Artful Stopping and Starting

kubo_and_the_two_stringsBack when I was working regularly in animation, we did things the Old Fashioned Way: pegbars, lightboxes, transparency sheets, drying racks, and lots and lots of cel vinyl paint. Now that Flash and Toonboom and other animation programs have proliferated, one seldom sees animation of the physical sort: actual pictures of actual objects, stitched together to make ‘em move.

As both a consumer and as a former practitioner, these developments leave me with mixed feelings. From a production standpoint, I miss the camaraderie of the ink & paint room, where we arty, cartoon-loving nerds would sit for hours listening to music and cracking wise, applying plastic paint to plastic paper, sliding each cel into a slot on the drying rack, planning which colors to paint when, making sure to time it so the edges of one area were dry enough to not bleed into the freshly painted area. Drying rack mishaps were common. In time, we became experts on paint consistency: too thick and the stuff clumps, too thin and the stuff pulls away from the edge and dries too transparent. Different colors behaved differently, too. Blues, greys and black were pretty forgiving, but reds, yellows, and oranges… I swear, they could be too thick and too thin at the same time. If you shook the paint to mix it, it would form a froth, so Bubble Management was another skill we developed; some of us were Blowers, some were Flickers, most of us were both. All of this effort and expertise was expended to produce a rather dumb outcome: as featureless a blob of color as possible so no one frame in the sequence stood out lest it ‘pop’, distracting the viewer.

Well, nothing does dumb like a computer. Cels were replaced by virtual layers in a program— click an area, and it’s filled with the color of your choice. No paint issues, no bubbles, no drying needed. Ink & Paint rooms emptied, occupants scattered to join the ranks of the obsolete with the buggy whip makers and the elevator operators, to pursue our own muses. Miss the fellowship, but don’t mourn the job. It’s so much quicker and easier and cheaper to make really decent cartoons now, and there are tricks and visual effects that would be horrifically difficult or prohibitively expensive to produce the old way.

I never did any 3D animation. The earliest incarnations were stop-motion animation, using puppets of  clay or carved wood; and like cel animation, they were labor-intensive affairs. Computers made their mark there, too. Blocks of plasticene were replaced by virtual wireframes and texture mapping, all accomplished in the guts of a thinking machine and spat out for human consumption as pixels on a screen.

But that old-timey stop-motion is still hanging in there. 3D animation is tricky, with some characters animated by computer looking too waxy in texture, too rubbery in motion, becoming unrecognizable from pose to pose, or venturing too close to looking humanish and tumbling into Uncanny Valley. In short, unless you’ve got some really observant and skilled animators who know the physical world (for example, that a dry, dead leaf is lighter and stiffer than a fresh, live one), know their anatomy, know how flesh over bone, and fabric, and hair moves, and know how human facial expressions work, things can get weird looking and deeply unsettling. Using actual puppets can defuse a lot of these issues, because physical objects impose some rules and strictures over size, shape and rigidity. I also think the viewer is apt to cut a puppet more slack than a CGI character, but that may be my own bias.

Laika Studios (formerly Will Vinton Studios) has been in the business of old-school stop-motion animation for some years. Their latest film, Kubo and the Two Strings, uses both puppet animation and green screen CGI animation to create a seamless depiction of a fanciful, feudal Japan where Kubo, a one-eyed boy, uses magical origami and a three-stringed shamisen to tell stories in his secluded seaside village. Living in a cave with his mother, he is in hiding from his grandfather, the Moon King, and his severely creepy aunts, who want his remaining eye. He ends up embarking on a quest to find his father’s armor with a couple of friends, a monkey and a beetle, that he meets along the way.

The production is absolutely gorgeous, with the characters, monsters, and closeup stuff being filmed in stop-motion (they animated the sand on the beach being tossed about by suspending the individual grains on bug pins and wires), and the backgrounds and TBS (the sparklies, or TinkerBelle Shit— industry term, I kid you not. Impress your friends!) created with computers.

When I was a lad, I had the privilege of living in what the natives call Chicagoland: the city of Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. The area was famous among those who care about such things as the premiere market for local children’s TV. Captain Kangaroo, Bozo’s Circus, Winchell-Mahoney Time, The Ray Raynor Show were some of the programs I gloried in. Primitive though it may seem, kids’ TV in those days generally consisted of a person, often funnily dressed, engaged in various humorous hijinks with a posse of puppets (There’s that puppet connection!). These bits of business were punctuated by the showing of animated shorts films, some featuring stop-motion puppets (!) often procured on the cheap from, I imagine, some eastern European source. My favorite show was Garfield Goose and Friends, wherin the goose puppet, who fancied himself King of the United States, and the rabbit puppet who was his translator, would haul up the Little Theatre Screen so the camera could zoom in and segue to some seasonal folk tale, lovingly animated for some faraway kids in some faraway land. It was like the animated film festivals that I paid cash money to go see only a couple of decades hence! Educational and enchanting!

Kubo and the Two Strings feels something like that. The story feels like an old folk tale, even if it isn’t one… yet; and the animation is fantastic enough to help a cynical old fart get lost in the story, just like when he was a little kid and didn’t care.

I don’t imagine old-fashioned 2D cel animation is going to make a comeback; what would be the point? Doing it in the computer is easier and cheaper, more tricks and techniques are possible, and the results are indistinguishable from the old way, except when they’re better. The distinctive look of stop-motion animation is its salvation. Give me Pixar, but give me also Wallace and Grommit, Jack Skellington, Coraline, and Hardrock, Coco and Joe!

Uncanny Valley

Laika Studios

Will Vinton Studios

Animating Kubo (so cool!)

Garfield Goose and Friends

UrbPoutPhil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring untrammeled wildernesses, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures.

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