Search form

Laika’s ‘The Boxtrolls’: A Modern, Victorian Stop-Motion Adventure

In the seemingly niche market of stop-motion features, one studio stands tall - namely Laika.

Michael Hollenbeck works on one of the Red Hat puppets during the production. Image credit: John Leonhardt / LAIKA, Inc.

In the seemingly niche market of stop-motion features, one studio stands tall - namely Laika. Having formed in 2005 from the remnants of Will Vinton Studios, Laika went on to create the Oscar nominated films Coraline (2009), Paranorman (2012), and the just-released The Boxtrolls, based on the novel “Here Be Monsters!” by Alan Snow.

The Boxtrolls is a vibrant tale set in an amalgamation of European towns, but it essentially feels like London thanks to the British cast and Dickensian overtones. The story takes place in the town of Cheesebridge, a place divided by class. The rich live above ground wafting their airs and graces (and their cheeses) whereas the Boxtrolls live deep below foraging for bugs and mechanical parts. What brings them all together in this movie is the main character, a boy called “Eggs,” who was adopted by the Boxtrolls at an early age and raised as a troll.

Even though the picturesque town of Cheesebridge seems to be vast, it is in fact created on a small set. Stop-motion has deep roots in the history of film starting in the late 1800s with The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1897). Later notable achievements included the plane-swatting King Kong (1933), Ray Harryhausen’s iconic skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and cheese-loving inventors Wallace and Gromit. Fast forward to today and the landscape is shifting. Although the painstaking animation techniques remain the same, Laika has combined them with the 21st century technology of 3D printing. By following the principle of “replacement animation” the crew of over 300 artists model, texture and 3D-print heads and facial components to create a “Mr Potato Head” drawer of expressions. These are then placed onto the puppet and shot traditionally. The biggest difference between Coraline and their current method is that 3D printing has evolved into coloring the texture right on the model itself. The models from Coraline required painting, but technology has advanced enough to reproduce textures with a great deal of consistency. Using this technique means that “Eggs” has an estimated 1.4 million facial expressions and a room full of replacement heads to boot. There are some situations however, that require a more unique performance. To achieve this, the more traditional CG approach of modeling, rigging, animating and texturing is used and rather than rendering out the frames, the animation is 3D printed.

While all of this seems way too much trouble, you can’t argue with the end result. It feels organic, natural and real. Using a computer to animate, one spends the whole time fighting the computer’s desire to operate in 1’s and 0’s; it wants to operate in mathematical perfection. The beauty of the craft of stop-motion is that it is tangible. An animator is looking at the whole set at all times and the characters show deep and very real expressions. It was interesting to note that CG is used quite a lot at Laika. In their presentation at SIGGRAPH 2014, they showed how tertiary characters were fully animated, lit and rendered in CG. They seamlessly blended in with the puppets and helped to fill out scenes that needed more characters without burdening the stop motion animators.

In terms of the film itself, I thoroughly enjoyed it. There is plenty of squalid humour and Ben Kingsley makes a deliciously dark cheese-obsessed villain. It has old school charm coupled with modern cinematography to serve up something offbeat and original -- the directors really wanted you to see something new. It may not be to everyone’s taste (children might find it a little too dark) but having grown up in England, it felt just right.