How A Maine Artist Brings Characters To Life In New Animated Film 'Missing Link'

Apr 12, 2019

The new animated movie "Missing Link" opens nationally and in Maine today. It tells the tale of a big foot-like character trying to find missing relatives. The film features the voices of Hollywood stars like Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, and Zach Galifianakis. But one of the films animators, Adam Fisher, is originally from Maine and recently left the West Coast to teach animation at the Maine College of Art.  Fisher spoke with Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz about the film and his work.

GRATZ: Now, of course, we're on radio so you won't be able to see it right now, but I want to play you a little audio clip. This is from the film in which some characters are trapped in a pit and trying to get free.

Audio clip from film: “Throw me out of the pit.” “I think it might be a little too heavy.” “No. Now. Give it all you've got it.” “It's hard to know whose fault that was.”

So, how do you approach trying to make each character have their own individualized traits?

FISHER: You know, there's a lot you pull from the voice actors - the character, the characterizations and stuff that you can hear in the voices.

So, in making this particular film, at least, you have the actors read their parts before you started to shoot?

That's right. Yeah, that's very normal for animation because, if you think about it, the voice - like they're following the script, they're reading the lines, and then we're building the performance around that. The film is essentially edited before we even start animating. So, you have the drawings to go off of, you have the voice actors’ lines to go off of, and there's often other scratch audio. And we’ll typically - with all that information and a few words from the directors - then go off on our own and act out a shot. You know, you know that character needs to get from A to B, they need to pick something up, they need to deliver a line. But how that actually unfolds is a huge piece to the personality and emotional state of a character. So that's kind of our job, to nail that.

A lot of times we do think about animation in terms of things that tend to amuse us. Is there one particular goofiest thing that you've done to try to find the right movement?

During “Missing Link” one of the shots that I had to animate involved the Sasquatch character hanging on the bottom of a giant icicle, trying to cling on and not drop, you know, thousands of feet down into this valley. So, I'm sitting there scratching my head trying to figure out how am I going to animate this shot. We don't have any giant icicles in the studio that I can hang off of. So, I went walking around the building and I found some giant posts, like support posts, that were probably a foot-and-a-half to two-feet wide, square in shape so very difficult to grab onto, which was kind of perfect. Set up a camera and I just jumped on it, tried to cling on. I would slide down. It was very difficult. I think I pulled a muscle maybe and woke up a little sore the next day. But I did learn a lot about trying to hang on to something that's tricky. It was useful footage.

Because then, essentially, you can take it and you can try to imitate it with your characters.

Exactly. Yeah. It doesn't always translate exactly but you can get a lot of ideas from it. You can see the struggle, you can see the expression on the face. You know, there's a lot of little ideas you can pull out of the performance.

Maine is a relatively rural state not really defined by its digital art community. Why does it matter to work on projects like this, or have Mainers working in this field?

It's something that, growing up, I never even thought was an option for me, right? You know, I grew up in rural Down East Maine. We had art classes that were fantastic, but nothing ever touched on animation or film. I didn't discover it till I was in my early 20s and had to kind of play catch up, I think. And, for me, that's one reason why I wanted to come back to Maine to teach - is to be able to share this possibility with all the students here and, you know, kind of just spread the word that there's all these other art mediums out there that students can investigate and work in, and animation happens to be one where you can actually get paid pretty well.

What does it mean to you personally to have contributed to a project like “Missing Link”.

Oh, it's huge. I mean, like a place like Laika [Laika Studios] has the best stop motion animators in the world working for it, and to be able to kind of work my way up and get that opportunity to animate alongside those people, it's a dream come true. And I feel very proud to have had the opportunity to do that.

Animator Adam Fisher. The new movie is called “Missing Link.” Thank you, sir.

Thank you very much.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.