Interview: Steve Emerson, Visual Effects Supervisor for Kubo and the Two Strings

An Interview with Steve Emerson, Visual Effects Supervisor for Kubo and the Two Strings
By Elizabeth Walker for Creative Media Times

(l to r) Monkey (voiced by Academy Award winner Charlize Theron), Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) and Beetle (voiced by Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey) are on a thrilling quest to unlock the secret of Kubo’s legacy in animation studio LAIKA’s epic action-adventure KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Laika Studios/Focus Features

Some films seemed destined to land among the contenders for best visual effects – like those big-budget offerings from Marvel or the Star Wars franchise. This year, along with Dr. Strange and Rogue One, Kubo and the Two Strings has earned a nomination for Best Visual Effects.

Also nominated for Best Animated Feature, Kubo is the first animated film to be nominated for Best Visual Effects in decades, and the production has received widespread recognition for its use of stop motion animation. Steve Emerson, visual effects supervisor for the film, spoke to reporters by phone from his home base in Portland, Oregon.

This is Emerson’s first Oscar nomination, but he says he has not had a moment to think about a speech. He describes for the group the moment he found out:

It was five in the morning, woke up and was drinking coffee, watching the streaming with my wife and my son.

It’s been a long process, years and years of your life put into these things, and you’re intensely connected to the films and the vision Travis and I have had for this studio. When they announced the nomination, it all hit me at once, and I broke down a little bit. I started to cry. My wife took a picture of me crying and immediately posted it on Facebook.

We are a small, independent stop motion studio working out of a warehouse in Portland. To be given this level of recognition alongside these filmmakers…just blew my mind. It feels like I cut an album playing a bassoon in my basement and now I am up for a Grammy with Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan.

If Emerson sounds a bit emotional, it’s because he is, as well as honored. Emerson is quick to list his heroes, which include the champions of stop motion animation. After he referenced iconic films, I asked him where he saw his place in the cultural landscape.

Kubo and the Two Strings is an homage to Japanese culture, but also, it is a tribute to special effects to Harryhausen, O’Brien, and Danforth. What my impact might eventually be is that I will continue to work to honor the techniques that the people before us laid the foundation for this industry with. Stop motion animation is an art that deserves to be innovated upon, and not forgotten for the sake of technology or because there is a different way to tell stories.

Whether or not we create a renaissance in that medium, I have no idea, but what I can say is that I love stop motion animation, I’m committed to honoring the art of stop motion animation, and we are going to work to tell the best stories we can.

Kubo and the Two Strings is available on DVD. The 89th Annual Academy Awards airs Sunday, February 26th.