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'The Boxtrolls' NYC Advance Screening

Laika has done it again - 'The Boxtrolls' takes its audience on a dizzying trip that is at once terrifying and hilarious.

An other-dimensional mirror world where a young girl must outsmart its demonic ruler…a boy destined to protect his town from vengeful Halloween spirits…and now, misunderstood and scapegoated trolls who live beneath the crooked streets of a status (and cheese)-obsessed society.

Laika has done it again. The Boxtrolls, the Oregon stop-motion studio’s third film takes its audience on a dizzying trip that is at once terrifying and hilarious. It’s filled with lush, detailed settings (the town’s shadowy, cobblestoned streets and dingy back alleys recall The City of Lost Children) that are a treat to behold even if nothing is happening in them—which is never the case.

The Boxtrolls is amazingly kinetic: its heroes are constantly in motion, dodging enemies or leaping into space and hurtling downward over hillside rooftops. Coraline and ParaNorman both received Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature (and both lost to Pixar titles); The Boxtrolls will earn the studio its third nomination—and more than likely, its first Oscar.

On a recent Tuesday evening, some five weeks before its September 26 premiere Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, The Boxtrolls’ directors, and its producer (and Laika president) Travis Knight were in New York, screening the film and fielding questions from an invited audience.

Ten years ago, while Laika was first developing Coraline, the kids’ novel “Here be Monsters!” was already in the works. “It had whispers of the greatest children’s literature,” said Knight, name-dropping Roald Dahl “…and more than a bit of Monty Python.” The original novel was 500 pages long - quite a challenge to boil down to a feature length film. “We tried to keep as much as we could [of the novel] in the first five or six drafts of the script,” almost all of which was eventually tossed aside, because “we had to distill the book down to its core story.”

Winnie, a female counterpoint to Eggs, the film’s adolescent hero, was created for the movie. While Eggs is the only human among the boxtrolls, Winnie is the overlooked daughter of the town’s most snobbish family; it’s all but inevitable the two will pair up to expose the machinations that have painted the boxtrolls as a menace to society.

“I’ve worked in all sorts of animation,” said Stacchi, with credits in CGI (Antz) and in 2D (MTV’s AEon Flux). “Laika took me back to my roots, creating tangible things.” On the other hand, however… “it’s the most insane way to make a movie, but I was caught. [Stop-motion] has the worst attributes of filmmaking, with none of the benefits. It’s like staging a Broadway play without rehearsing - and it’s opening night for eight months.”

Annable compared directing a stop-motion feature to “being at the controls of a 747,” far different from working as a story artist and handing a story reel over to the animators.

“Traditional stop-motion has been looked at as quaint, or twee, doll-like,” said Knight. “We add nuance and gesture to make the characters feel more alive, to help the audience forge an emotional connection with them.

“Yes, it would be easier to make the film in CGI,” he added. “But creating art isn’t supposed to be easy.” His take on stop-motion is more expansive: “We all love stop-motion—but we’re embracing new technology, taking the best aspects of computers and integrating with our craft. Are we purists? No, we’re not. We try to do as much in camera as we can, then let the technology take over.”

Knight enumerated the new technology that has set Laika films apart, beginning with characters created via 3D printing (“The computer took over the job of sculptor.”) “Replacement animation” is the not-so-secret heart of Laika’s technique: each character has dozens of faces (and sometimes many more) that can be attached to the puppet like a mask and replaced with every frame. Top and bottom clip on separately with the dividing line digitally erased in post-production. The result: leading man Eggs is capable of 1,400,000 distinct expressions.

“There are advances is every department, innovations that take place over the course of production and then get applied to the next film.” Knight extolled a motion control refinement created by John Ashlee Prat, the film’s director of photography that allows pre-programmed camera moves to be adjusted during animation, so that “the camera follows the characters’ motion, not vice versa.”

For all its commitment to state of the art stop-motion however, he admitted there’s a hand-drawn, 2D animated film in Laika’s future: “We have a jones for resuscitating dead art forms.”

Knight described Laika’s hometown Portland as “a strange place, filled with weirdoes with ironic hair riding unicycles—it’s like Burning Man off-season.

“It’s the only place Laika could be.”

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Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.