Zach Galifianakis: The Art of Voicing Puppets

“Missing Link" star talks about breathing life into a 3D-printed puppet for Laika Studios’ newest adventure
Zach Galifianakis voices Mr. Link in Laika Studios’ “Missing Link". Photo Credit: Laika Studios / Annapurna Pictures

Arturo Hilario

El Observador

“Missing Link” is a new stop-motion film starring Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana,and Zach Galifianakis. The story revolves around an 8-foot-tall, 630 lbs. creature from deep in the Pacific Northwestern woods named Mr. Link, (voiced by Galifianakis) who wants to find his common ancestors in the mystical and harmonious land of Shangri La.

Over the years Laika Studios, based in Portland Oregon, has developed and refined a technically advanced process in order to create one of the oldest forms of animation on screen. The studio 3D-prints its puppets and hand sews all the clothing and fabrics, as well as builds the sets in their studio. A week’s worth of work results in 2.5 to 3 seconds of footage.

Recently Galifianakis answered some of our questions regarding the film from the studio that brought stop-motion animation into the mainstream movie viewing audience with 2009’s “Coraline”, and most recently, the visual feast that was “Kubo and the Two Strings”.

Galifianakis’ starring role in “Missing Link” isn’t his first voice acting role but it did bring him a different perspective because of the type of work that he saw being made, different from other major animation studios in the world.

Galifianakis reflects on his time working on the film below.

Hey Zach thank you for the time. To start off I wanted to know how you “found” the voice of your character Mr. Link? How’d you figure out what he would sound like?

Well with these animated things you have to ask a lot of questions. I think what we kind of concluded was, the attitude of the voice is more important to the director than me changing or giving a weird accent or something like that. It’s the attitude of the voice that we talked about. And, this is a character that lives in the woods, and he’s really not been affected by the outside world.

I think if we as humans had never left the woods, we’d probably be sweet and innocent – and wide-eyed a lot of times. I think that’s just how I went with it. [Mr. Link] didn’t have a lot of negativity around him because he was in the woods so we wanted him to be a very nice creature.

Could you tell me where we find your character at the start of the film, and what his motivations are to essentially start the story?

What happens is he wants to know what it’s like outside of the woods and so there’s this letter written to Sir Lionel Frost, who is played by Hugh Jackman, and that’s kind of the initial storyline.

We’re going to see this guy [as] a fish out of water. This movie is a lot of things but one thing is the fish out of water, which is always a nice device. So yeah, you have this character who yearns to find creatures like himself and in that journey we kind of learn that you can find family anywhere.

When doing the voice acting for a stop motion film, where they begin the puppeteering filming process after the voices are done. So how long did you spend on the project in total?

Probably three and a half to four years doing just the voice stuff. And it’s not a lot, they didn’t call me in, it was sporadic through those years. The tricky thing is trying to remember how you did it. The voicing for it is all out of order, again you just have to ask a lot of questions to try to get caught up to [Laika Studios], because they have been doing a ton of work since you’re last recording session. There’s hundreds of people that are working on this film and you drive away after you’ve done your two sets.

Then you come back a month later and they’ve done a ton of work. Then you start seeing the animation, it becomes more layered, it becomes more detailed. Then they show you these puppets and you start to see this magic happen from your voice, and the true remarkable feat about places like Laika that has a real richness to it. You know a lot of these computer animated movies are cold, they don’t have that depth to them like this movie.

So, I think the way they do their movies adds a more artistic bend to it. You have to consider that when doing the voice, it’s not just jokes. You need to have a little bit of depth there, and warmth, because the animation is warm and deep.

 How would you differentiate the acting involved in animation and live-action? Is there a difference in how you approach it?

It’s just different. One is not harder for me than the other. It’s just a different way of doing it. You use your Imagination a lot more. “Okay, so where am I? Are there trees nearby? How far are the other characters from me when I’m talking to them? Is the wind blowing?”

So you don’t have the physical space that you do when you’re doing a live-action thing, so you just have to use your mind and paint that picture while you’re doing the voice. Or, just ask a lot of questions like I do. Or do both. I just try to do a lot of imagining and sometimes I’m wrong, and the director has to tell me “No, no, no, that’s not where we are right now.” It’s just a lot of back and forth, and being able to communicate what is needed on that day.

Going back to the differences between digital and physical stop motion animation, there are giant stages at Laika with intricately modeled sets for “Missing Link” with the puppets themselves being crafted with such detail and scrutiny. What do you have to say about this studio and seeing your character come to life with such a process?

The work they’re doing is interesting. I think because of the time that’s passed – [I] work on it a couple hours, then six months go by,  you work on it a few more hours then like I said earlier you get to see the real work that’s being done. There’s hundreds of people working on this while I’m not thinking about it, because I’m not working on it right now. So that’s an interesting thing, to see this kind of complete movie where you’ve added your voice to but then it’s so much more than just the voices to me. To me the voices are second class citizens! It’s the animation to me.

What ultimately did you enjoy the most about working on “Missing Link”?

Chris the director, he’s got a wit about him that I enjoy, and i just like that these are artists, and not just “hollywood folk”. You know they’re in Portland, they’re real artists and you don’t see that a lot in the movie-making process. You see people that know how to do computer stuff, but you don’t see a lot of art. So there’s a lot of art in this picture and i think that’s missing in a lot of films – the actual art part, so I’m very proud of it.

Why should folks go watch “Missing Link”?

My whole feeling of how people walk from the theater to their cars after they see the movie is I just want people to be in a better mood. I think people should go see this movie because it’s a really artful, beautifully filmed move that has a story i think we could all relate to.

“Missing Link” is in theaters now.