Visiting the Set of The Boxtrolls (Part 2)

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Boxtrolls halls
Caitlin Pashalek works on the floors in Lord Portley-Rind’s house during production of The Boxtrolls. Photo: John Leonhardt / LAIKA, Inc.

Click here for Part 1 of my set visit.

The Boxtrolls is the biggest movie yet for LAIKA—literally. The sets for this movie are the largest they’ve built, at a 1:5 scale. In fact, some of the sets were so big that there are sections digitally assembled in the computer because they would have been too tall even for LAIKA’s warehouse ceilings. But as producer David Ichioka explained, everything is done for real first: everything existed in a tactile state first before it was ever digitized and manipulated in the computer.

That hands-on, tactile approach is what makes stop-motion movies so magical, and the blend of physical and digital animation is what sets LAIKA apart from most other movie studios. During my visit to LAIKA in April, Ichioka said that making a stop-motion movie involves developing a lot of technology. Both Coraline and ParaNorman inspired huge leaps in technology; there wasn’t necessarily new technology developed in the making of The Boxtrolls, but this time the team pushed it “way past the breaking point.” I mentioned the rapid prototyping for printing out character faces in my last post, but The Boxtrolls also featured huge crowd scenes and a lot of new effects.

Boxtrolls Carrots
A painter adds some green paint to carrot stocks during production of The Boxtrolls. Photo: John Leonhardt / LAIKA, Inc.

Any animated film takes a lot of design work—every single thing in the movie must be designed by an artist. For a stop-motion film, not only does everything need to be imagined and designed, but it has to be fabricated as well. Anything you see on screen actually existed in real life. During the set tour, we got to see a huge table of various artifacts from Cheesebridge: signs and tiny wheels of cheese and instruments and tools. So many of these things probably slide past on the screen so quickly that you barely glimpse them, but each one was painstakingly crafted. Even the little weeds growing out of the cracks in the sidewalk were hand-made—and there were 25 distinct types of weeds. They didn’t even re-use plants from previous movies, because they wanted The Boxtrolls to have its own distinct look.

Boxtrolls: Georgina Hayns
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. Photo: LAIKA, Inc.

Georgina Hayns, Creative Supervisor of Puppet Fabrication, showed us the huge idea boards that were covered with photo references used to design the various characters, plus initial sketches, color palettes, symbolism, and more. Each character’s costumes had to be created—they even created their own fabric in-house. Lace was created with embroidering sewing machines, and laser cutters were used to create ornamental patterns on fabric. And because many of the women in the movie wear large hoop skirts, LAIKA had to create new armatures specifically for the hoops so the skirts could be animated for a huge dance sequence.

For The Boxtrolls, there were 185 total puppets created, the highest number for a LAIKA film. 25 of them were Eggs, the main character—sometimes they needed to shoot multiple scenes simultaneously on different sets, or there might be some puppets that had a specific purpose. But also: the puppets break. It takes about 3 to 6 months to build a complex puppet and can involve up to 60 people.

The logistics of shooting a movie like this are mind-boggling, too. Because of the limited number of puppets and space, it was a constant juggling act to make sure the right puppets were on the right sets when needed. They had to take into account which scenes could be shot simultaneously because they didn’t have overlapping puppet needs—and if one scene took longer to shoot, it could throw off a whole chain of other shoots.

Boxtrolls. Kraev
Danail Kraev works on the Eggs puppet. Photo: John Leonhardt / LAIKA, Inc.

Even though LAIKA does use digital effects, they always love to do “practical” effects whenever possible. So instead of shooting characters in front of a green screen if they’re flying through the air, they use poseable armatures that hold them up (as seen above), and then digitally erase those afterward. To animate water pouring out of a bucket, they used several pieces of molded “water” that would be replaced frame by frame.

Boxtrolls sewer
Matias Liebrecht works on Eggs during production of The Boxtrolls. Photo: Jason Ptaszek / LAIKA, Inc.

One of the most impressive practical effects that we got to see was in a sewer scene (pictured above). They wanted to have light reflecting off rippling water as Eggs was standing down in the sewer. The solution involved a plate of mottled glass (like you’d have in a shower door), with another piece underneath with bits of masking tape on it, slowly rotating. When they projected light through the glass, it rippled and reflected. The final shot as it will appear in the movie may look like there were digital effects added, but it was shot entirely in-camera. It took a huge amount of R&D, and was used for only three shots in the movie.

Apparently at LAIKA the animators and fabricators are constantly trying to come up with crazy ideas like this—the director might toss out an idea, like, “Oh, and then one of the boxtrolls dips his toe in the water and it causes ripples to spread across the water!” without really considering how ridiculously difficult that would be to animate. And then, a few days later, the animators call him over to show them that they’ve actually managed to do it, using some MacGyver-esque ingenuity.

Ichioka made the comment, “We’ve often said we could stop making movies and just give tours.” Well, I’m glad LAIKA is still making movies, but the tour was a huge highlight. I think if more people were able to see the vast amount of work that goes into making a movie like The Boxtrolls, they would be even more excited to see it.

Click here to continue to Part 3 of my set visit.

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