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Immersed in Movies: 'The Boxtrolls' Set Visit: Laika Embraces Victorian Steampunk

Features
by Bill Desowitz
July 9, 2014 2:00 PM
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Florian Perinelle works with the Lord Portley-Rind puppet during production of LAIKA and Focus Features' family event movie THE BOXTROLLS, opening nationwide September 26th. John Leonhardt / LAIKA, Inc.

With The Boxtrolls (Sept. 26), Laika tackles its first period piece -- Victorian Steampunk -- as well as its first creature-oriented tale about an orphan boy, Eggs, raised underground by cave-dwelling trash collectors. The result is a more stylized, theatrical look along with more ambitious storytelling. And judging by my set visit last year in Portland and footage screened last month, The Boxtrolls is sure to be one of the year's best animated features and a prime Oscar contender.

Anthony Stacchi (Open Season) directs with Graham Annable (story artist on Coraline and ParaNorman). David Ichioka produces with Laika president/CEO/lead artist Travis Knight. And the script (adapted from Alan Snow's Here Be Monsters!) is by Adam Pava and Irena Brignull.

The voice cast is led by Issac Hempstead-Wright (Eggs, the boy) Ben Kingsley (the lowly Snatcher, who wants to destroy the Boxtrolls and join high society), Elle Fanning (Winnie, Eggs' friend), Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, and Tracy Morgan.

Directors Anthony Stacchi (left) and Graham Annable (right)

"We aspire to make films that are bold, emotionally resonant, and a wee bit subversive, explains Knight, who takes time out from shooting a scene with the mechanically intricate Boxtrolls. He explains that the movie is a metaphor for Laika's passion for stop-motion and the Boxtrolls' hand-crafted tinkering. "Coraline was a modern fairy tale and ParaNorman was rooted in an '80s Amblin-style adventure. But they were contemporary American stories with a glaze of the supernatural on top of them. The Boxtrolls is an absurdist, Dickensian, coming of age fable. Above all, and at its core, it shares qualities with all Laika films in that it's a moving and human story [about fear, greed, prejudice, and family diversity]."

Stacchi, who hails from 2D and CG, enjoyed tinkering with stop-motion and marveled at the beautiful hybrid that Laika has evolved. "There is an inherent quality to the imagery of this movie that lends itself to stop-motion. There are no constraints here. We go to the horizon [with greater use of set extensions and greenscreen]. There is subsurface scattering on the faces because of the subtlety of the 3D printing. The CG is better. But we still use practical effects.

An animator’s hands working on the delicate process of the puppet’s movement during production

"But there was a line quality introduced early on to the design process that was brought to the buildings besides wrought iron fences. Clouds retain that hand-crafted look so they made some practically to guide the CG department when they made flowing clouds that move. So they started as fabric up in the sky."

Tonally, Laika crossed Roald Dahl with Monty Python in depicting the disparity between the complacent Victorian aristocracy above ground obsessed with status and cheese, and the misunderstood misfits below that have created a happy and harmonious community. "Graham has this whole other existence online with his comics and characters that don't speak so he perfectly captured the pantomime performance," Stacchi notes.

The story challenge was honing this Moby Dick of Steampunk into an animated feature because Snow likes writing himself into a corner and the only way out is by adding new characters and creatures. "Because anachronisms are great for us and we enjoy using them, we can make electricity in our underground cavern during Victorian times," adds producer Ichioka. "It's fitting because if anything is a contradiction, it's great with us. And if you think about it, stop-motion is a contradiction. "Boxtrolls" took three years to make with a team of 350 (including 28 animators); 55 sets; and more than 20,000 hand-made props (including 55 different cheese sculpts). 


Michael Hollenbeck works on one of the Red Hat puppets

The animation challenge was enlarging the scope with the cobble-stoned Cheesebridge town and elaborate cavern; adopting a colorful visual style that evokes German Expressionism and the Russian Ballet (or ballet russe); using washy flesh tones and accentuating lines on the face, yet still retaining an essential naturalism in the lighting; and figuring out the mechanics of the Boxtrolls so their heads, hands, and legs are retractable.

"The fabrication of the costumes were enhanced with the addition of a laser cutter that was brought into the art department to help with the big set pieces and wooden filigree," suggests Georgina Hayns (creative supervisor, puppet fabrication). "We realized that the laser could also cut fabric and on a small scale so they used it for the aristocracies' costumes and the red hats. We also realized that the laser cutter could etch the surface of the velvet.

"The boxes were made of silicon (molded in hard plastic). But with Fish, the lead Boxtroll, the box needed to have more movement at the waist, so extra care was taken to make it bend while still appearing believable as cardboard. Labels are printed on a fabric backing and attached. For Eggs, they created an embroidery knitwear program that replicates the pen and ink line drawing feel of the production design. You've got thin and thick threading that's very illustrative. For the ballroom scene with large, flowing dresses, we referenced Gone With the Wind. There are lots of twists and follow through for animators to manipulate with a riser that goes up and down. We created a hoop skirt inside the dresses but with joints and metal rings. The crazy basket woven wigs were made of hemp."

(L to R) Creative Supervisor of Puppet Fabrication Georgina Haynes explains the background on one of the puppets to voice talent Isaac Hempstead-Wright while Director of Rapid Prototype Brian McLean listens in during production.

According to Brian McLean, director of rapid prototype, "On Boxtrolls, we're pushing performance, creating the most subtle facial animation ever for stop-motion and we're advancing color and design. The crazy thing is the size of the characters. Eggs' face size is much smaller than Norman's. When Boxtrolls are rummaging through the city at night, they have glowing eyes. But they didn't want to do that as a CG effect in post. We incorporated little LEDs and wires to have them subtly glow in a diffuse way. But we still could move the eyeballs around."  

Laika uses hand-drawings, Maya, and Photoshop for texture painting, creating a library of 47,000 faces. Facial specialists create a series of poses and there are 80 different poses just to convey Snatcher having an allergic reaction to cheese, with the addition of lip gloss to make his face look even more grotesque.

Knight says the riggers are stop-motion ninjas, but John Ashlee, who started as an animator before becoming a cinematographer, came up with a sumptuous and baroque aesthetic (the use of LEDS throughout provide greater control and multiple colors). "The seismic leap from Caroline to ParaNorman with more realistic facial textures has led to a more stylistic flourish on Boxtrolls. We have these really insane paint jobs. You wouldn't think they'd work in motion but they look beautiful. And all of those ideas are reinforced by the paint job you see in the environments so it really has a unified point of view."

Amid the mansion and ballroom and cavern and market square was the glorious sight of a practical water effect shown off by Ashlee. "It's a moire water effect with circles traveling in opposite directions and projecting caustics against a wall, using pre-programmed, motion-controlled cameras for slow, repeatable movement. And in VFX they added god rays and dust and volumetric fog. They've added grain to the movie to give it more of a film look. There's also a flashback sequence in black-and-white."

Practical water in the cavern is achieved with a moire effect with circles traveling in opposite directions and projecting caustics against a wall.

Then there's the large Mecha-Drill, the device used by Snatcher to destroy the Boxtrolls. Art director Curt Enderle says it looks like a giant Boxtroll (nearly 60 inches tall) made out of junk just like they would scavenger objects together. It's asymmetrical, like the production design of the buildings, and comprised of a few hundred pieces meshed together. Meanwhile, the stop-motion flames “burning” in the furnace of the Mecha-Drill are courtesy of a working iPad displaying a loop video inside the “mouth” of the device.

"The joy of animation for a lot of people who get into it is you get to hone a performance," Stacchi summarizes. "In 2D, you slowly build a performance and as it accumulates it gets better; in CG it's even easier: you sit at your desk and you tweak the timing forever. In stop-motion you get three times to make it better: one's a block... then you get to break-down that block into smaller increments as a rehearsal, and the next one is done for real and is literally a performance. It's a live-action shoot, except you only have one take and it takes a week. But you can build anything you need. For a scene requiring a paper mache Boxtrolls mask that Eggs has to wear while parading in the square, we had no trouble finding an animator that specializes in paper mache." 

With The Boxtrolls, Laika has definitely gone to weirder places.

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