On Set With “The Boxtrolls” - A Tour Through Laika Animation
It’s amazing how many animated movies come out these days. With all the various competing production companies, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish one studio from another. This is not a problem for Laika Studios, the stop motion animation company behind Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012). I had the pleasure of visiting them in Hillsboro, Oregon (a mere 950 miles from Hollywood) and seeing just how much work is going into their next feature, The Boxtrolls, which is set to hit theaters on September 26th. While stop motion technology may have existed for over a century, Laika Studios proves that there are new techniques to invent as they create a look and feel of their films no other studio can replicate.
The second teaser trailer of The Boxtrolls itself gives a glimpse into the inner works of the studio. Laika, which boasts the idea that they are made up of Luddites and Futurists, is a place where art and technology meet. The Luddites know all about the history of stop motion and are still using methods that have proven themselves since Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902). At the same time, the Futurists are constantly improving technology to go further with what they can do. There’s a clear progression in quality in each Laika film. Today, stop motion may be a specialized art where animators drift from project to project, but Laika keeps its animators around, building on the skills they’ve learned from previous movies.
The Boxtrolls, based on the book Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow, presents Laika with a new challenge by giving them a period piece to tackle. Coraline and ParaNorman were both set in the present, but The Boxtrolls has a Victorian England feel. This works out to Laika’s benefit, as they don’t want to have a house style and believe that every film should have its own look. Producer David Ichioka explained that the book was acquired five years ago, and that it has taken them about three years from Pre-Production to Delivery. The crew is made up of over 200 people. Roughly 30 animators work to produce around 20 frames a day and are expected to produce 4 seconds of animation a week. That adds up to 74 weeks of production to deliver an 87-minute long film.
Although the film is based on a book, additional research went into creating the art during the production design phase. According to Art Director Curt Enderle, German Expressionism’s use of light and shadow influenced how the town of Cheesebridge was designed. The ramshackle buildings look as though they’re an aged, worn man leaning over for support. One of the themes in the movie is that bigotry and corruption has rooted itself in Cheesebridge and physically warped and distorted the city itself. All props were drawn individually, and the final product was to become a literal translation of the artwork, including line work and color. Production Graphics does labels and signs and Assembly and Finishing creates props and intricately designed vehicles that are carefully rigged with moving parts. There is even a Greens Department for plant life, where 24 different weeds were made with wire, paper, and some organic material.
The Costume Designing Department is filled with gigantic boards pinned with pictures for reference. Deborah Cook, Director of Costume Design, explained that there are 200 costumes for the film and showed some examples of how they’re made. They looked at clothes from 1937, particularly military and gang clothing, to understand how they were customized and designed their clothing based on that. Costume illustration was transitioned into actual fabrics, even going so far as to incorporate some wiggly lines into the seams of the clothes. Through the use of laser-etching, different types of fabrics were made to look as though they were knitted, and clothes were hand-dyed for color. The costumes had to be fitted onto the puppets by hand, and once that’s done, puppets never change clothes. Entirely new puppets had to be created for every outfit the character wears. There are over a dozen different puppets for the main character Eggs, and nine of those puppets are him in his standard outfit. This way, an animator can have his own Eggs puppet for one scene while a different animator has an Eggs puppet for a different scene, and they can work simultaneously.
60-70 artists work in the Puppet Fabrication Department. There, they model the costumes and do hair and makeup. Working from a drawn image, they sculpt maquettes of the characters that have their own skeletons, complete with ball and swivel joints. The skeleton is able to hold up its own weight, and the puppet is made of soft, silicon skin. This is used as a reference to how characters can move. Gone With the Wind was used as a visual reference to the ballroom scene in the film. Aristocratic characters are dressed in flowing ball gowns that are actually metal hoops that twist. The troll characters wear boxes, and the puppets are built to be able to retract into those boxes. It takes about 4-6 months to complete a single puppet, according to Creative Supervisor of Puppet Fabrication, Georgina Hayns.
Brian McLean, Director of Rapid Prototype, showed us how the 50 artists and technicians in his department work to create a puppet’s facial expressions. What began with plastic printing and removable mouths with Coraline has now become an elaborate system where a character’s entire face can be controlled in The Boxtrolls. 25 individuals work in modeling and rigging, scanning the maquettes into 3D images. Once in the computer, the face can be exaggerated, manipulated, and examined. They then print prototypes of the faces which they paint and sand and then print again until it looks right. Everything the artists generate in the computer becomes a practical piece, as they go from digital to physical. Rapid Prototyping proves how useful computer models are. A group of animators listen to lines of recorded dialog and define performances based on that. A 2D version is created for the poses, and then the faces are built with hard pieces. Body movement in the 2D version informs the face. Faces take an hour to paint while poses, from 2D to 3D, can take months. The 3D model is flattened and the computer is used to color it. Using crosshatching and layering techniques, Laika came up with many different color palettes and combinations, making them the forefront of color printing in the world. They managed to create more colors than even the manufacturers of the computers thought possible.
Even though there are only 5 visible pieces of a head, the face, ears, and eyes, the heads actually contain 60-80 individual pieces including nuts and bolts. The troll puppets contain LED lights to make their eyes glow. There are two ways to make facial expressions. The main characters’ faces are replaced with separately printed mouths and brows, creating a wide range of expressions through combinations. The resulting seam line on the face is removed digitally. Other characters have mechanical faces controlled through armatures. Main characters have what’s called a kit, a number of faces kept in a library. 20,000 faces were used for Coraline, 33,000 for ParaNorman, and 52,000 for The Boxtrolls. Faces are tracked through kit numbers and individual serial numbers.
Laika owns five 3D printers and has been using this decade-old technology since Coraline. 3D printing works by taking a model and slicing it down to individual pieces. Resin and support material is sprayed onto a tray that moves down ever so slightly to create a three dimensional object. They can print and hand paint or they can spray down colored glue on gypsum powder. Including drying time, this process takes about two hours, and objects are printed in batches
Animators are kept on their own sequences, and huge production schedule boards line the walls of Laika. Despite having hundreds of workers, Laika manages to be a quiet facility. Each set feels like its own world. Visual effects supervisor Steve Emerson and Director of Photography John Ashlee Prat showed us a street scene that takes place in front of a house. The house can be pulled apart for animator access and puppet placement. Behind it is a giant green screen. Background and foreground is separated through use of a big mechanical arm with a green screen, and is composited later. LEDs are used for light so heat isn’t an issue. Their artificial sun is made from 8 circuits of LEDs. Big environments aren’t used because everything has to be built physically. They can extend the scenery through CG, however. Everything from effects and elements are first done in practicals, and the computer adds the rest.
The Box Trolls’ underground cavern and transporter tube system is composed of seven vacuum cleaner bags, all which are inflatable and moveable by the animators. In one scene, Eggs swings from a rope. The puppet faces the camera, and one frame is taken at a time to move his face. The background is blurred to simulate movement. A sewer scene was filmed on another set. Plates of spinning glass were used for the still water while the running water was made from plastic. No effects in the scene were done in VFX, with the exception of the light that shines down from above.
We met up with Laika President and CEO Travis Knight working on a crucial scene of the movie. He demonstrated how he swaps out faces in a very intricately blocked set. The scene also contains a flickering fire, which is created through miniature LED lights.
What’s really amazing about stop motion is that while it is technically animation, it has a lot in common with live action film making. Props and sets are all physical objects, and complex rigging is used to move characters and vehicles while some scenes require a meticulous amount of face replacements. The animation comes in when still frames are taken and put together to make the whole thing move. The animators themselves are actors, in a way. Some admit to being good at action scenes while others are better at showing character emotion. Laika is the master of its craft, and The Boxtrolls promises to raise the bar when it comes to what stop motion animation is capable of.
Toonzone would like to thank Laika Animation Studios hosting The Boxtrolls set visit, and Fumi Kitahara of the PR Kitchen for making the arrangements for us to attend. The Boxtrolls opens on September 26, 2014. Check out more about The Boxtrolls via their official social media outlets:
CORRECTION (July 15, 2014): An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Laika was 95 miles away from Hollywood; it is actually 950 miles away.