'The Boxtrolls' Filmmakers Describe Their Process and Most Complex Stop-Motion Scene

Boxtrolls Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Laika

Boxtrolls Still - H 2014

When this season's Annie Award nominations for animation were announced, it was The Boxtrolls — the latest stop-motion animated feature from Portland, Ore.-based studio Laika and distributor Focus Features — that earned the most, 13, including best animated feature.

The announcement has helped turn a spotlight on Laika's lovingly crafted third feature, an adaptation of Alan Snow's fantasy adventure novel Here Be Monsters, which pushed the boundaries of the century-old stop-motion process of moving puppets frame by frame. Set in the Victorian era, The Boxtrolls — with a voice cast that includes Sir Ben Kingsley, Elle Fanning, Toni Collette and Tracy Morgan — follows an orphan boy who goes by the name of Eggs and was raised by the thought-to-be-dangerous Boxtrolls, who live beneath the village of Cheesebridge.

Laika CEO Travis Knight — who was a producer and lead animator on the film — said the aim was to explore what defines a family. "Whether it's a nuclear family or surrogate family, the thing that unites a family is love and commitment to each other and a desire to look after someone's well-being, even at a personal expense," he said, noting that additional themes include class structure and bigotry. "Bigotry thrives in darkness, and showcasing that people aren't scary because they are different … we think that's important to explore more broadly."

The studio created a style all its own with a "hybrid" production process that combined stop-motion with the latest digital techniques, involving use of a 3D printer and motion capture, as well as elements of hand-drawn animation. This process of blending techniques started with Laika's first two films, Coraline and ParaNorman (both of which received Oscar nominations). "We had some bumps [on the earlier films], but The Boxtrolls is where we refined the process," said co-visual effects supervisor Steve Emerson.

The scale of the work on The Boxtrolls exceeds Laika's prior films. It includes 190 puppets, 200 costumes, 70 sets and 20,000 props — all handmade, using materials such as fabric, plywood, foam and cotton balls. Artists again used a color 3D printer to create individual parts of faces (for instance, different positions for a mouth or eyebrow) so that when pieced together in different combinations, animators could produce a range of facial expressions. This film involved 3D-printing no less than 53,000 individual face parts.

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Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright) had roughly 1.4 million possible expressions, and the villain Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley) had nearly 1.18 million. "We wanted them to be realistic in their movement," said director of rapid prototyping Brian McLean. "This really adds to the story but would have been prohibitive a few years ago."

Arguably the most complex stop-motion sequence ever created, The Boxtrolls includes one where about a dozen couples waltz across the dance floor at a ball, and Snatcher tries to capture Eggs as they duck and weave among the dancers.

"It took all 18 months of the animation schedule to produce a little less than two minutes of footage for the dance sequence," said Anthony Stacchi (co-director of Sony Pictures Animation's Open Season), who co-directed the film with first-time helmer Graham Annable (storyboard artist on Coraline and ParaNorman). "We innocently added that to the story, and we didn't realize how difficult it would be," he commented, saying that everyone in the production meeting went silent when the sequence was first suggested.

As with all scenes, it started with storyboarding, and then Laika brought in choreographers and a team of dancers. They reproduced the waltz, and it was motion-captured and filmed for reference.

The schedule and complexity of the sequence would have made it effectively impossible to achieve entirely with stop-motion. In the end, they created Snatcher, Eggs and three lead couples using stop-motion. Additionally, anything that came into contact with the lead characters, such as the fabric from the ball gowns, involved stop-motion.

All the costumes for the ball had to be designed and handmade for the puppets, an effort led by costume designer Deborah Cook. Meanwhile Georgina Hayns, creative supervisor of puppet fabrication, explained that to allow Eggs or Snatcher to lift the skirts of the ball gowns, they had to create special rigs to move the fabric on the stop-motion set.

The background dancers were computer-animated by hand (meaning without using the motion-capture data) and had to be matched and composited into the stop-motion shots during postproduction.

The film also involved close work with the voice actors. Stacchi praised the cast and described Kingsley's unique method for creating Snatcher. "He saw the character design and wanted his voice to come out of that big belly," the director said. "For the first recording session, he said he wanted to recline in his chair to allow his voice 'to come out of my belly.' That's the opposite of how you want to record anyone because they will be constricted."

Stacchi confided, "He told me later that there was someone in his life that he based the character on but would never tell me who it was. He never wanted the person to find out."

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA