Visiting the Set of The Boxtrolls (Part 1)

An animator’s hands working on the delicate process of the puppet’s movement during production of The Boxtrolls. Image: LAIKA, Inc.

Back in April, I had the chance to visit LAIKA’s studios (here in the Portland area) to get an up-close look at the making of The Boxtrolls, their upcoming film. LAIKA is known for the films Coraline and ParaNorman, which have been pushing the boundaries of stop-motion animation. The animation is still done the old-fashioned way, painstakingly moving everything frame by frame, but LAIKA also incorporates digital effects and new technology to achieve stunning results.

They pioneered the use of 3D printing to make replacement faces for the characters, and even that technology has made great strides from film to film. In Coraline, the faces were printed on a 3D printer, which enabled animators a much wider range of expressions than if they’d sculpted each face by hand. However, the faces were still painted individually by hand, which meant there couldn’t be too many details or else the coloration would shift around when animated. For ParaNorman, they were able to print the colors directly onto the faces, but still kept to mostly realistic skin tones (for the living people, anyway). Now, in The Boxtrolls, the characters—humans and boxtrolls alike—have very stylized colors, with dark creases and lots of blues and reds that would have been unthinkable two films ago.

The Boxtrolls are a community of quirky, mischievous creatures in LAIKA and Focus Features’ family event movie THE BOXTROLLS, opening nationwide September 26th. Image: LAIKA, Inc.

I’ve always loved stop-motion animation. As a kid I experimented with our huge VHS camcorder, making clunky films using toys or clay figures with crude armatures inside. In college I managed to take an animation class where we explored several types of animation, but stop-motion was always my favorite. The fact that those things on the screen actually exist in the physical world, that somebody stood there and moved every arm and leg and blinking eye frame by frame, just makes it seem more magical when you see them come to life.

Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photos during the tour, so I’m using these images provided by LAIKA, but it was fun to meet many of the folks involved in the film, and getting to see the sets and models and the huge idea boards for character design was a real treat. By the time we were there, most of the filming was already complete. At the height of filming, there were about 30 animators shooting various scenes at the same time, but by the time I visited there were only a couple shooting the last couple of scenes.

Boxtrolls Travis Knight
Voice talent Isaac Hempstead-Wright visits with LAIKA CEO and Lead Animator Travis Knight during production of The Boxtrolls. Photo: LAIKA, Inc.

One of those was Travis Knight, the CEO of LAIKA, who also happens to be the lead animator for The Boxtrolls. He was working on the final scene of the movie, a 45-second shot that involved some 1,100 frames. Two characters stood on an empty street, talking to each other, as the camera pulled away, revealing their surroundings. Even though by the end of the scene the characters would be tiny in the distance, Knight still had to animate every part of them, using a huge tray of replacement faces and a dialogue chart to make sure that their mouths were moving in sync with the voices. A large camera crane had its movement pre-programmed so that it would move automatically after each frame was shot.

Knight quipped that stop-motion is “the worst possible way to make a film. But there’s something magical about stop-motion animation.” It’s tedious and requires a lot of attention to detail, but it’s “akin to magic.” And when you see the final results on screen in September, I think you’ll agree that it’s worth it.

I’ll share a little more about my visit to LAIKA later on. In the meantime, watch this behind-the-scenes trailer again, because it’s so much fun to see these little glimpses of how the film was made:

The Boxtrolls opens September 26, 2014. Click here for Part 2 of my set visit.

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