Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a little tale about a trip to Portland to see some trolls. No, not in a Kevin Smith internet revenge way, but in a stop motion cuteness way.
This was not my first trip to Laika. I was lucky enough to have gone once before to check out the production of ParaNorman (click here to read that story), so I'm an old hat at visiting these masterful stop-frame animation experts.
There's nothing like Laika. It's almost a commune of artists with the craziest work ethic ever. To make one of their movies it takes over 300 employees (animators, costumers, puppet builders, etc) three years from prep to delivery, capturing less than 4 seconds of animation a week.
Think about that for a second. The shooting schedule on The Boxtrolls was 74 weeks. The way they do these films is to have 30 different animators simultaneously filming little pieces in one gigantic warehouse. And I do mean gigantic. Black curtains line walkways and inside each is a different set being shot. The mere paperwork associated with the logistics involved in keeping all these different plates in the air blows my fragile little mind.
Based in part on Alan Snow's Here Be Monsters, The Boxtrolls is a tale set in Victorian era England focusing on a human boy who is raised in the sewers by trash-collecting trolls. The polite society types above ground are scared of these little guys and the local politicians even hire a kind of exterminator to catch them with these vacuum suction cars.
These Boxtrolls are called that because... well, they wear boxes for clothing. Their whole culture is based upon using stuff everybody else throws out, which I guess includes the little human boy called Eggs. His adoptive troll father is Fish. The characters in the troll world are named after the boxes they wear and Eggs wears an egg box, his step-daddy's box says Fish, etc.
Game of Thrones' Isaac Hempstead Wright voices Eggs. Sadly, Hodor didn't come along, so don't get your hopes up.
Let's talk a little about the design of these little guys, shall we? We were walked through the puppet building and fixing department and were shown some of the hero puppets. They thought they were going to have an easier time after the difficult process on ParaNorman... their main characters were half boxes, right? That's half the job of animating covered up! Nope. They soon realized that rigid cardboard would not work at all because it didn't look right and was so restrictive that they couldn't animate their characters properly.
Boxtrolls duck their heads inside their boxes when they're scared or hiding, much like a turtle, so the animators needed to get into there easily. That meant a whole new designing problem that they worked for months to fix.
There's also the little matter of the Boxtrolls' eyes. They light up, you see, and directors Graham Annable and Anthonly Stacchi wanted that to be a practical effect, which meant that every bit of free space afforded by the boxes were taken up with electrical gizmos (my highly technical term, not theirs).
I got a look inside one of the Troll's boxes (get your mind out of the gutter) and it looked like a Guillermo del Toro style clockwork all up in there. The idea is that the glowing eyes would look so much better if done for real in the puppet itself than it would if they CG'd it later.
The design process is much the same as it was on ParaNorman. They designed by sculpting a maquette and then scanned it and resculpted it in the computer since the 3D printout for the faces would have artifacts from that process.
If you didn't take a look at my last Laika visit report, how they achieve the facial movements one frame at a time is they essentially design hundreds of face shapes for every possible scenario, lips forming every possible word spoken, etc. They have 3D printers that print (in color) these faces, which are logged and stored by a complicated number system. They figure out what they need for a shot and a sheet breaking down which frame they need to swap out faces is made and the animator does his or her thing.
If the trolls weren't complicated enough, the human characters also presented a bit of a challenge. There's a big ball sequence and when you're talking about dozens of puppets dancing one frame at a time in Victorian era dresses things start to get dodgy.
There's also the character of Snatcher (voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley), the big bad guy of the story. He has a little bit of a cheese allergy, which under normal circumstances wouldn't be all that hard to deal with, but the town featured in the story is called Cheesebridge. They like their cheese and Snatcher is a bit of a politician that doesn't want to admit he can't eat cheese, which leads to some... disfigurations.
The swollen, puffy Elephant Man style face had to be done special and the puppet itself had to be built knowing that it would have to hold a much larger, swollen version of the character.
Eggs himself was simpler, but since he was the hero of the movie they had to make many more puppets that could film simultaneously, work in stunts, etc. Twenty-eight Eggs were eventually made.
One stop on the tour was the art department where we got to see a lot of wardrobe and design influences for the characters. For instance, Snatcher's board had Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York and Timothy Spall from Sweeney Todd on it, Egg had the title character from Oliver and a bunch of vintage photos of Depression-era vagabond children and Winnie (voiced by Elle Fanning) had a lot of Shirley Temple.
One of the things that sets Laika apart from most companies is that its CEO, Travis Knight, is also its head animator. He did the zombies coming to life and busting out of the ground sequence in ParaNorman and has a reputation for taking on the most difficult chunks of each of Laika's films.
We got a chance to talk to him on this visit while he was wrapping up one of those sequences involving a giant set and Eggs in a cage.
He told us a little bit about the process of working in stop-motion and the rigs they use. It's their norm to shoot with still digital cameras on a motion control rig. The rig is programmed with the motion of the shot (so you can have dynamic camera movements instead of a simple locked off camera like what stop motion used to require) and there's also a little device the camera sits in that moves the single camera with each captured frame so it takes a second frame from a few inches away. That allows them to release the film in 3D (one frame for each eye, you see).
Knight was very proud of the camerawork being done on this particular project. He promised a quasi-handheld feel, which isn't something that is typical for stop motion pictures.
He also clarified the adaptation process a bit. I have not read Snow's Here Be Monsters yet, but I actually did buy a copy at the world famous Powell's Books before I left Portland. My understanding is that the book is more of an encyclopedia of monsters in this universe and they focused on one particular group and made that basis of The Boxtrolls.
Knight confirmed that and said that he was drawn to the book initially because it had a Roald Dahl vibe. They have been developing it for a while, trying to find the hook before they settled on the Boxtrolls. Knight made it very clear that after doing Coraline and ParaNorman he wanted to do something dramatically very different because he didn't want Laika to have too much of a “house style.”
I asked him about Laika development slate and plans for the future. Knight said that ultimately he'd like Laika to have one film out a year, which is a hell of a goal since these things take so long to make. As a result they have a few projects in development at all times and the next Laika film will start production this year... probably close to the time Boxtrolls will be in theaters.
He didn't say what that project will be, but he did say that one of the projects they're developing is based on a book they've optioned called Wildwood by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis and that he he has no idea how in the hell they're going to pull it off. Before you get worried Laika's losing their edge, that's the exact same feeling they've had before all the films they've done and they take it as a sign that they're on the right track.
Next stop on the tour was to their screening room to check out some footage. I always love seeing work-in-progress stuff on any type of animated film because I'm the guy that loves to see the process on display. In the old days of cel animation there were early cuts that were mixtures of finished color cels and black and white sketches. Stop motion is even cooler because you still see the rods and the lines on the faces of the puppets before they're digitally removed from the frame.
Even in this early stage the attention to character was evident. My favorite moment came early in the footage where we see baby Eggs interact with his adopted daddy. First, Fish looks all over the impressive sewer system set for Eggs. The trolls built up a big city out of junk and it has a rundown, but warm steampunk-y vibe. When he finally finds him there's a ridiculously cute, dialogue-free communication between the baby and the troll in which Fish makes him a little music box.
It's the kind of moment that's guaranteed to get huge “awwwww”s from audiences when it comes out.
Another highlight was Snatcher taking a bite of cheese against the strong warnings of from his henchmen. He takes just a sliver of a bite, they hold their breath and everything seems to be fine. They breathe and then his lip starts bloating, his face starting to sag. One henchmen whispers to the other, “Quickly, quietly, get the leeches.” It was grotesque and really, really funny.
One of my absolutely favorite parts of this particular trip was visiting one of the many working sets that had a practical effect that blew my mind a little bit. It's another sewer set, a curving brick wall with a rusty, crooked ladder leading up to a manhole. The set itself was impressive because of its size (easily 12-ish feet high and as much wide) and the high level of detail, but what got me was the water effect. Here's a picture of it:
Since they're filming one frame at a time using real water is out of the question. It's uncontrollable and would instantly shatter the illusion when it doesn't match from frame to frame. So they devised a rig that had two ridged plastic plates that were stacked on top of each other with a few inches in-between. The bottom plate was motorized to slowly spin like a record. They shined some LED lights (that looked like Christmas lights) up from below the bottom plate and broke up the light with strips of translucent yellow and clear tape strips so it gives the the look of light from the rippling water being reflected onto the sewer walls.
They showed us the footage from this shot and it was incredible how much that effect worked. Looked like real water!
Little bits and pieces like that are what make these trips so rewarding for me. This is true movie magic stuff.
On our way out we stopped by the model/prop shop and saw some cool bits and pieces from a market sequence.
This department was responsible for over 22,000 hand painted original miniature props and set dec. Of great interest here was a bunch of cheese blocks for sale, including one booth that was a reference to the book Boxtrolls is based on. “Here Be Muensters.”
And with that, we departed and left the magic of Laika behind.
There's something magic about Laika. Pixar and Weta Workshop are the only other two places I've been to that have a similar creative energy. You can tell that despite the constant pressure that's on every single employee that they still take pride in their work and give it their all day in and day out. The proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes. The movies they've put out aren't your typical children's fare and each have their own distinct personalities. From what I saw of The Boxtrolls that tradition looks to be going strong.
Naturally, we can't fully tell that until we see the finished product come September, but if it doesn't come together it won't be for lack of craftsmanship, I can guarantee that much.
I'm going to leave you with a series of behind the scenes photos that give you a better understanding of the scale of the sets, the detail of the puppets and a hint at the amount of hard work that goes into a movie like this. The first two images are exclusively debuted here at AICN. Enjoy!