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On the Set of Laika’s ‘The Boxtrolls’

Go inside the world’s most technologically sophisticated and utterly endearing stop-motion film studio.

The Boxtrolls are a community of quirky, mischievous creatures. Credit: LAIKA, Inc.

Set for a September 26 release, The Boxtrolls is Laika’s latest feature, a period piece set in Edwardian-Victorian times. Described as a fusion of Monty Python and Charles Dickens, the film is based on Alan Snow’s book Here Be Monsters! and takes place in a quaint pan-European town called Cheesebridge. The story centers around Eggs, a young boy who was taken underground and raised by monsters called Boxtrolls, so named because like hermit crabs, they wear cardboard boxes.

Directors Anthony Stacchi (director of Open Season) and Graham Annable (storyboard artist on Coraline and ParaNorman) have teamed up with Laika CEO - lead animator Travis Knight and producer David Ichioka to lead a crew of over 300 artists on the studio’s third film.

After making Coraline (2009), a stark modern fairy tale, then ParaNorman (2012), a supernatural comedic action thriller, two different stories with different aesthetics, Laika felt it was important to move in a different direction to avoid the perception they had a house style. They wanted to tell a different type of story in a different way. “For our third film, I felt it important to do something dramatically different,” notes Knight.  “We had a number of things in development, but this story in particular was unlike anything we’d done. A period piece, set in this fantastical world. The tone is different. Aesthetically and visually, I thought we could do something really interesting with it.”

According to Stacchi, Laika is unique in the world of animated filmmaking. “Laika is one of the last bastions of tool-using animators all crammed into one place. There are computers, but there are also woodshops and metalshops manned by artists who love the idea of creating sets and props that could only be fabricated by materials Boxtrolls could get their hands on.”

David Pugh works on the extensive Market scene. Credit: Eric Adkins / LAIKA, Inc.

As you walk through Laika’s massive studio and soak in the immenseness of the physical sets, practical workshops and component staging areas, it’s hard to describe the sheer magnitude of the studio’s artistic vibe. It’s also hard to describe the complexity of the production pipeline. From costume, prop and puppet fabrication shops, to rooms of cacophonous 3D printers to what seems like acres of huge, elaborate stop-motion sets, Laika’s studio feels like a cross between a lumber yard, a toy store and NASA. In reality, it’s the most sophisticated, state of the art stop-motion production facility in the world, with The Boxtrolls pushing the studio’s hybrid filmmaking process to even greater achievements.

Ichioka puts the studio’s philosophy into perspective. “At the beginning of all stop-motion projects, the first thing you do is make compromises…unless you’re at Laika…and I worked on Gumby. This is the only place I’ve ever worked where we look at those compromises that everyone takes and say, ‘We’re not going to take those.’ We make these films in the best possible way they can be done. We do that using a variety of tools and systems.”

Laika has devoted considerable effort to figuring out how to advance the modern process of stop-motion feature film production. When they began work on Coraline, they’d never made a film before. Some of their new techniques and technologies were created, in part, because they didn’t know any better. But ultimately, they built a production pipeline based on what the story demanded. As you walk through the studio, you’ll see a century’s worth of filmmaking technologies and processes, including techniques that predate cinema to new high-tech items like laser cutters and 3D printers. As Knight puts it, “It’s that fusion, the gumbo of craft and technology that makes this group so unique.”

An animator’s hands working on the delicate process of the puppet’s movement. Credit: LAIKA, Inc.

You won’t find any clouds made out of cotton on a Laika film, unless of course, they provide the desired look. In fact, clouds on The Boxtrolls were designed using a particular fabric and threads stitched to give a specific look. However, CG was then used to generate the clouds once the look was designed. The directors are not purists in the sense they feel they must adhere to any “in camera” stop-motion rules. They go for whatever technique produces the look they’re trying to capture. As Stacchi describes, “We wanted fog that was cold and rain that was wet. It’s kind of ironic that we had to use digital effects to keep up with the integrity of the realism of our stop-motion movie. Treat the stop-motion as if it was live-action footage and you were adding a hurricane. You wouldn’t make it look like cotton. No matter how charming that is.”

The film also incorporates intricate visual effects animation, used much as it’s used in other types of live-action films. The film uses more spacious sets and bigger environments, larger crowds, things that are often compromised on stop-motion films, which tend to give them their “small set” table-top feel. The Boxtrolls is Laika’s biggest film. The action never feels like it has reached the edge of a set.

As Knight explains, stop-motion is not like other animation techniques. It’s truly progressive in that you start in one place and you end in another. In each step along the way, you move through the shot. It’s like performance art, just at glacial speeds. In hand drawn and CG animation, it’s more iterative. You set your key positions, you go back through and refine your drawings. You can’t do that in stop-motion. You work all the way through a shot moving straight ahead. Each frame takes from five minutes to one hour depending upon the complexity of the shot. You keep moving along until you finish the shot. Pretty much every shot ends up in the film. It’s made one frame at a time. You don’t make any extra frames.

In discussing his technique, Knight shares how stop-motion is so difficult because so many things can get in the way. “I have these great big sausage fingers. I’m trying to get tiny little subtle movements out of these really small puppets. Sometimes they don’t cooperate. Pieces of sets, lights, cameras, all sorts of things get in the way. We’re contorting our bodies in all sorts of positions to get access to the characters. It’s a physically demanding medium. But it’s also mentally taxing. People don’t often realize that. You have to keep all this information in your head. You have the movement of all these body parts. You have to hit all these marks and make the characters seem to be alive, not mechanical robots.”

A Laika animator at work. Credit: Jason Ptaszek / LAIKA, Inc.

As Knight walks through a set, he mentions, “One of the ways we’re trying to reinvigorate the medium is to bring technology into the mix. We can have it be more cinematic. Pretty much every shot we have has some version of motion-control. That’s a computer-controlled rig that allows us to get motion into the camera. Historically, a lot of stop-motion filmmaking has been hampered by technology. Things tend to look like they were shot on a tabletop because they pretty much are. Motion-control has been around for a long time. But the way we’re using the camera is really innovative. We’re bringing more modern, hand-held camera moves to the film. You’ll see that in the footage. We’ve really liberated the camera.”

Though each animator’s process is different, they all work from storyboards. They get a brief from the directors, who give them the emotional beats of the scene. Then they do a block, or rehearsal, doing a rough shoot to get the staging right. Then they go through and shoot for real. They end up going through each shot at least twice. Everything is scheduled down to the hour according to the film’s detailed storyboards. Each animator is responsible for producing four seconds, or 96 frames of animation, per week. They might take one day to block, two days to do a quick rehearsal and then a week and a half to shoot one shot. On good days, they’ll do four seconds. On other days, well, let’s just say they won’t do four seconds.

You can’t make too many mistakes because reshooting a shot is incredibly difficult. It just takes too much time. According to Knight, “That’s why everyone in this building is so wired up. It’s because everything has to be perfect. It puts tremendous strain on everyone, including the animators. There’s a lot of pressure on the animators because they have to perform every single day at a very high level. But we have the most exceptional animators on the planet. That’s why you see the performances at the level they are in our films.”

Ichioka puts it bluntly. At 87 minutes, the film has “125,280 opportunities to make a mistake.”  

When the studio started on Coraline, animation talent was hard to find. They literally scoured the globe to find 20-25 top stop-motion animators. Now on their third film, Laika has grown a larger artistic community, a combination of international and home-grown talent. Each animator at Laika has things they excel at and things they struggle with. Just like actors, the studio casts their animators. Certain animators are very good at action, so they will be cast on action sequences. Certain animators are great at subtle emotional actions, so they will be put on those parts of the film.  Animators tend to “own” sequences, which helps get them more intimate with their part of the story and how it plays with the whole narrative. As Knight describes, “Some productions put a warm body wherever there’s a spot open. We don’t do it that way. We have animators who own chunks of the film. Because of that, they have really keen understanding of their characters and their sequences.”

(L to R) Directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable. Credit: Jason Ptaszek / LAIKA, Inc.

Stacchi waxes poetic when describing the Laika team. “Andy from Toy Story, the kid who’s nice to his toys, gets along with his mother, he went off to CalArts and then went to work at Pixar. Sid, the kids across the street who tore his toys apart and built creepy things out of them, probably had all the good albums, he grew up, moved to Portland, learned how to make absinthe with his punk rock girlfriend and came to work at Laika. It’s like off season at Burning Man here. Everyone is a welder.”

First time director Annable started the film as head of story, eventually assuming co-director duties alongside Stacchi. They split the film’s workload fairly evenly, each performing the same types of tasks in different areas of the film. They both meet each morning along with key artists to review which shots will be worked on that day. According to Stacchi, as long as you’re together dealing with the story reels, then divvying up the work is not that big a deal. “The reel becomes the bible. You direct the animation from it.”

One of their biggest challenges is just staying ahead of the production crew to make sure they’re fully prepared and enabled to animate. Stacchi continues, “You have to feed the floor out in that studio. Those camera crews and animators, you always have to be ready to keep them working. Once the production floodgates open, that rules everything. So we have to divide up the work.”

As Annable describes, everything on the film was a challenge. “For me, every day was like, ‘What’s today’s crisis going to be?’ It’s constant problem solving.”

Michael Hollenbeck works on one of the Red Hat puppets. Credit: John Leonhardt / LAIKA, Inc.

Additionally, many little decisions, about the look, the character designs, the sets, the color of a railing on a staircase, must be finalized much earlier on a stop-motion film than on a CG film. As Stacchi points out, “When you’re building things on a computer, you have a lot more opportunity later on in production to revisit them and make changes. Here, everything has to be built. So you have to make decisions and move on.”

A big CG studio can bring significant creative resources onto a film to make substantial story changes late in the production. For Laika and the stop-motion process, that’s not an option. According to Stacchi, “There are a lot of studios that can throw on an army of storyboard artists and animators to make a huge change at the last minute. They can put 65 good CG animators on to get it done. There aren’t 65 good stop-motion animators in the world. And we have less than 30 of the best of the best because we lucked out and they were available.” Adds Annable, “Even if we had 60 or 70 animators, we wouldn’t have the space. There are only so many stages you can have. On a 2D or CG film, you can always add an animator to the mix. Not with stop-motion. You can’t just download another Eggs character puppet to work with.”

As you would imagine, the puppet design and fabrication process is no less sophisticated than any other area of the film’s production. For example, as the lead character, there were 28 Eggs puppets used in the movie, while there were 15-20 for each of the main Boxtrolls. In all, there were 190 puppets, the most of any Laika film.

For Georgina Hayns, creative supervisor of puppet fabrication, every decision, from facial color to the stitching on a hat, requires exacting attention to detail. According to Hayns, her team goes to such lengths in the detail of their creations because in stop-motion, the audience sees it all. “When you see these puppets on the big screen, details such as laser cut fabrics just add to the beauty of the film.”

(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. Credit: LAIKA, Inc.

To get the desired look on many of the costumes, Hayns and her team used lasers not only to cut fabrics and duplicate pattern pieces, but to etch into fabrics as well. “We wanted to create our own Devore velvet, which has an etched pattern,” she explains. “We were able to use the laser cutter to etch into velvet, just burning away the top surface to create our own scaled designed pattern needed for the time period and our movie.”

The team pushed their state-of-the-art puppet making tools and technologies on the film, including areas such as costuming, facial painting as well the mechanical fabrications. Hayns says, “Once the characters were fully designed, including color, the puppet team looked to European figurative expressionist painter techniques as far as flesh tones, colored line edges, and graphic style that was keeping in line with the film’s production designer’s graphic style. We gave our puppets’ faces a very colorful, theatrical look. A lot of the aristocracy costuming came from turn of the century Russian Ballets Russes. They had lots of big, bold colors.”

For a puppet like Fish, there were different versions that each provided for different types of mobility. She continues, “We made an all-around action version where we tried to allow for as much movement as possible. Several of the 28 are designated as stunt Eggs. For example on a particular shot, we need an Egg that has a double neck joint.”

From design, to sculpting the maquette to the first finished puppet, fabrication takes four to five months. That’s with 20-25 people in Hayns’ department and another 20-25 working in rapid prototyping, managed by director of rapid prototyping Brian McLean.

A painter adds some green paint to carrot stocks. Credit: John Leonhardt / LAIKA, Inc.

McLean’s team is comprised of 50 craftsmen and artists. 25 people work on CG asset creation, designing and engineering not only the facial components for animation but all the internals used inside the puppet heads. Their systems aren’t just used to build the replacement facial components but everything underneath, such as the skull, the eyeballs and eyelids. Another 25 people are involved in providing quality control, handling and delivering the thousands of parts used on the film.

According to McLean, “On Coraline, we were the first company to take replacement animation and combine it with 21st century technology, which was 3D printing. We call ourselves the rapid prototyping department because it describes the use of machines that can quickly take a computer model and spit out a useable 3D model.” On Coraline, they had to hand paint everything. Every freckle on every face. On ParaNorman, new 3D color printing technology was introduced into the production, spitting out full color faces. It was a revolutionary step for stop-motion.” He continues, “The first two films involved exploring and developing the use of rapid prototyping technologies. On Boxtrolls, we’re focusing on getting much better performance and production efficiency.”

Initially, McLean’s production team thought that characters mostly hidden within cardboard boxes would be easy to fabricate. “We thought this was going to be really simple. We figured we won’t have to worry about bodies. They just have a box. What easier puppet could you create? But boy were we wrong,” says McLean. It ended up the puppets were incredibly complex. Arms and legs had to pop in and out. Their faces had to drop completely inside the box. He adds, “That may seem easy to do, but when you consider we had to replace their faces, sometimes 12-24 times per second, we had to figure out how we were going to get that face off when it was hiding inside a box.” It ended up they had to swap out a full head for half head characters.

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

The directors wanted glowing eyes. The Boxtrolls rummage and scurry around at night and the directors didn’t want to add that as a post effect. So additionally, they had to find ways to put LEDs and wires inside the characters’ heads.

The rapid prototyping process starts with a physical model, or maquette, which is then scanned into the computer. The model is re-sculpted in the computer to sharpen up the surfaces. A prototype is printed, the sculpture then refined as needed. As an added challenge, the printers sometimes don’t print the exact same object with each reproduction. Little inconsistencies creep in for a number of reasons. Printer maintenance is a constant priority. McLean states, “If you ask the machine’s manufacturer, they’ll tell you of course it’s consistent from print to print. But we know it isn’t.”

An incredible amount of engineering goes into the design of the intricate machined components inside the head. The ultimate aim is to give the animator total control of the eyeballs and eyelids as they are working onset, to allow for really subtle eyeball movements, squints and blinks.

Using Maya, the team creates CG rigs for all the puppet faces. Animators animate each line of dialogue. Once the right performance has been achieved, the animation is broken down into poses, from which facial kits are created. So, for example, there is a kit of faces for Eggs saying a line of dialogue with a smile. Or a frown. Or a sneer. Photoshop is used as well for facial texture painting. McLean’s team has literally created a library of thousands of kits, all downloaded to the 3D printers ready for use. More than 50,000 faces. As McLean puts it, “We pre-determine every expression every character is going to use on the show. Then a team works with the animators to determine which expressions from the library are needed for a given scene of the film. We are constantly recycling expressions from the library.”

Matias Liebrecht works on Eggs in the sewer scene. Credit: Jason Ptaszek / LAIKA, Inc.

From cobblestone lined street scenes to grand ballrooms, the film sets seem to get more and more elaborate. Standing beside a rig consisting of two large circular sheets of backlit glass, each rotating in opposite direction to the other, cinematographer John Ashlee explains the intricate engineering behind a practical water effect from a gritty sewer scene. “It took several months to work out the timing, the materials and to put this all together. It’s based on Moiré patterns that use concentric cycles and opposing shapes to create all the light effects. LEDs are used to light all the little effects. Motion-control cameras are programmed to give us repeatable movements.”

Some of the most significant advances made on The Boxtrolls have come in lighting. Specifically, the use of pinpoint LED lights. Incandescent lights, especially used for props like little street lamps or car headlights, get incredibly hot and can melt materials. With LED technology, there’s no heat involved. But there is a lot of color and brightness that Ashlee’s team can program using DMX. The savings in heat generation as well as the need for power have been substantial. DMX lighting gives them control they haven’t had on previous productions.

Stacchi sums up why Laika’s little corner of the animation world is so unique. “The infrastructure needed to make this film represents a huge commitment. Fully CG animated features have a track record of making a lot of money. Historically, stop-motion films haven’t had those same degrees of success. I was working in the Bay Area when Toy Story and Nightmare Before Christmas came out. In my generation, before those films, making animated features felt like making kid’s movies and musicals. Those two films made people think, ‘Wow, those are really great. I could work on those.’ Back then, it was more fun to work on rock videos and TV commercials honestly than to work on animated features. CG films of course really took off. But it’s because of folks like Henry Selick, Tim Burton and Nick Park that stop-motion has continued. And it’s taken Laika and Travis to put together an unprecedented place where the same crew has stayed together for three pictures in a row. Usually, a movie is made and then the crew disbands. Laika has been able to stay together developing movies. It’s a huge commitment.”

Annable describes it philosophically. “All animation is an incredibly meticulous process, but stop-motion has its own odd place. I keep describing it as sort of the worst of live-action and animation combined. With none of the benefits of either. We’re all about contradiction. Stop-motion is one of those great things where even the term is a contradiction. You’re creating a film where you make things move by making them stop. It’s the art of posing things one frame at a time. You have to stop and capture the motion in such a way that you make it appear things are moving when you project it. You end up with the last frame of every performance. You can’t fix it, you can’t tweak it. But unlike any other animated form, in stop-motion, you can feel that everything really exists.”

And this September 26, the entire world will be able to finally see just how wonderful the existence of the Boxtrolls really is.

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.