Friends in Low Places

LAIKA pushes stop-mo­tion to the cut­ting edge as it sculpts two con­trast­ing worlds to ex­plore no­tions of fam­ily and iden­tity in The Boxtrolls. By Mercedes Mil­li­gan.

Animation Magazine - - Features -

Since its 2005 trans­for­ma­tion from the pi­o­neer­ing Will Vin­ton Stu­dios into LAIKA, the Port­land, Ore.-based stu­dio has con­tin­ued and im­proved upon stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion tra­di­tions. De­spite hav­ing only two fea­ture ti­tles un­der its belt, the en­ter­pris­ing stu­dio has made a global name for it­self with ac­claimed films Co­ra­line (2009) and ParaNor­man (2012), both of which com­bined hand-crafted artistry with un­usual, of­ten darkly tinged sto­ry­lines.

Its third fea­ture, The Boxtrolls, builds on LAIKA’s am­bi­tions to in­no­vate while cel­e­brat­ing the tac­tile ap­peal of the tech­nique. Di­rected by An­thony Stac­chi ( Open Sea­son) and car­toon­ist Gra­ham Annable, the neo-Vic­to­rian ad­ven­ture fol­lows an or­phaned boy named Eggs ( Game of Thrones’ Isaac Hemp­stead-Wright), who is raised by the in­dus­tri­ous, mis­un­der­stood and greatly feared Boxtrolls.

Eggs grows up with the crea­tures in a mech­a­nized un­der­ground cav­ern, emerg­ing at night to gather use­ful trin­kets from the streets of Cheese­bridge. Mean­while, the so­cial-climb­ing ex­ter­mi­na­tor Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kings­ley) does ev­ery­thing he can to con­vince the towns­folk of the threat posed by the Boxtrolls, and strikes a bar­gain to rid the city of them and earn a place among the cheese-loving elite. Eggs must con­front his own fears and the up­per worlders’ bi­ases to save his adop­tive fam­ily — and the town — from Snatcher’s plans.

Along the way, Eggs is helped by Win­nie (Elle Fan­ning), daugh­ter of the obliv­i­ous and haughty Lord Port­ley Rind (Jared Har­ris). Snatcher’s Red Hat ac­com­plices are voiced by com­edy tal­ents Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost and Tracy Mor­gan; Toni Co­lette and Si­mon Pegg also lend star power to the cast.

From Print to Screen

One of the big­gest hur­dles of pro­duc­tion was dis­till­ing a solid, sin­gle-film story from the source ma­te­rial: Alan Snow’s 2005 fan­tasy novel Here Be Monsters! Stu­dio CEO and an­i­ma­tion lead Travis Knight orig­i­nally op­tioned the book be­cause of its ex­pan­sive sto­ries in­volv­ing strange crea­tures. But the direc­tors and screen­writ­ers re­al­ized early on that it would be im­pos­si­ble to adapt whole-hat, rat pi­rates and cab­bage­heads and all.

“There was such a rich world built around (Eggs) by Alan Snow … We worked for a cou­ple years on the script,” says Stac­chi. After a go-around with sto­ry­boards try­ing to in­tro­duce the dis­parate el­e­ments of the story, the film­mak­ers re­al­ized they had to nar­row it down. “I love the book for this qual­ity, but it couldn’t all be in the movie!”

It was ac­tu­ally the quirk of mak­ing a key el­e­ment of the film — the Boxtrolls them­selves — com­mu­ni­cate with­out much di­a­log that brought Annable on board. The ParaNor­man sto­ry­board artist started out with a cru­cial scene in which ‘trolls Shoe and Fish find young Eggs be­fore get­ting bumped up. “No di­a­log, no com­mu­ni­ca­tions; it was a dream job, stuff I re­ally like to do,” he says. “When I boarded out the se­quence, it be­came ap­par­ent to Tony and Travis that my abil­i­ties sync up with what they wanted for the film.”

Stu­dio head Knight says that from the be­gin­ning, they wanted to bust down stop-mo­tion walls with The Boxtrolls. “It re­flects the great ben­e­fit we have of keep­ing our band to­gether for three films,” he says, not­ing the time-in­ten­sive genre has tra­di­tion­ally been an oc­ca­sional gig. “Boxtrolls is the cul­mi­na­tion of a lot of ideas from Co­ra­line that have come to fruition. The style of an­i­ma­tion, the pup­pets, the way we lib­er­ated the cam­era and cin­e­matog­ra­phy — it was re­ally im­por­tant to feel an evo­lu­tion there, not just feel like this was shot

on a ta­ble top.”

Iden­tity Crises

Key to the un­furl­ing story is the con­cept of iden­tity. Our hero, Eggs, must con­front the fact that though he was raised by Boxtrolls he is fun­da­men­tally a “nor­mal boy,” adapt­ing his man­ners and move­ment to fit in enough in the above-ground world to find a way to help his adop­tive fam­ily. Like­wise, the film’s vil­lain is caught up in the de­sire to be some­thing he was never meant to be — des­per­ate to gain en­try to the town’s elite, even though he’s al­ler­gic to its culi­nary sta­tus sym­bol.

The baddy, Snatcher, ar­guably steals the show. Not only does his character phys­i­cally un­dergo a num­ber of chal­leng­ing trans­for­ma­tions, but him­self strives to rein­vent his per­son­al­ity to de­ceive the peo­ple of Cheese­bridge. “An an­i­mated per­for­mance is a col­lab­o­ra­tion that spans time and dis­tance … a lot of choices the an­i­ma­tor makes are rooted in what the ac­tor does in the record­ing stu­dio,” says Knight.

“When Sir Ben (Kings­ley) showed up to record, he had his own fully-formed idea, and from the first ut­ter­ances out of his mouth it was ab­so­lutely per­fect. He knew who Snatcher was. He’s funny, he’s scary, he wins de­grees of our em­pa­thy and our sym­pa­thy be­cause of how he’s mis­treated by the aris­to­crats of the town.”

Adding to the con­vo­lu­tion are Snatcher’s Red Hats; the trio of lads who be­lieve they’re help­ing him rid the streets of a men­ace only to get wise to his self­ish aims in the end. “In ev­ery it­er­a­tion of the script, Trout and Pick­les were more in the back­ground,” says Annable. “It be­came ap­par­ent in the first record­ing of Nick (Frost) and Richard (Ayoade) that there’s in­cred­i­ble comedic en­ergy there. We needed to bring them more to the fore­front.”

In ad­di­tion to open­ing up wel­comed mo­ments of hu­mor in the tense tale ( Boxtrolls makes an ef­fort at real dan­ger among feel­good times and sly comedic winks), bring­ing in the for­mer back­ground char­ac­ters of­fered another an­gle on the theme of iden­tity and self-doubt that per­me­ates the story. “In a mov- ie where the hero and vil­lain didn’t re­ally know where they fit in, it made sense to have hench­men that didn’t re­al­ize they’re fork­ing for the bad guy,” Stac­chi says.

The Found­ing of Cheese­bridge

Boxtrolls is LAIKA’s most am­bi­tious project yet. In ad­di­tion to bring­ing in more hands-on artistry with an Im­pres­sion­ist-in­spired de­sign theme — do take a mo­ment to note the con­trast­ing col­ored em­pha­sis lines and en­chant­ing wob­bly-ness of the sets — ev­ery depart­ment of the stu­dio went all-out to push the en­ve­lope on this out­ing. In the pup­pet depart­ment, tiny hand-stitched sweaters, cus­tom skirt swirling, belly jostling and box-scrunch­ing rigs and laser-cut fab­rics col­luded to make a seam­less an­i­mated pre­sen­ta­tion.

This out­ing also saw am­bi­tious cin­e­matog­ra­phy; an un­heard of chal­lenge for stop-mo­tion artists. Di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy John Ash­ley com­bined his 3D shoot­ing and award-win­ning an­i­ma­tion ex­pe­ri­ence into play, work­ing closely with sto­ry­board­ers to cre­ate an im­mer­sive,

ac­tion-packed ex­pe­ri­ence. LAIKA also put more faith be­hind CG pre-vi­su­al­iza­tion pro­grams and dig­i­tal set ex­ten­sions.

“On both ends of the spec­trum, stop mo­tion strug­gles a bit; big ac­tion se­quences and re­ally small, sub­tle, re­fined per­for­mances where you make a character re­ally feel like it’s alive,” says Knight. Ma­jor prac­ti­cal chal­lenges in­clude a swarm­ing ball­room party se­quence, which re­quired spe­cial rig­ging and fab­ric con­struc­tion, as well as an un­prece­dented num­ber of rapid pro­to­typ­ing for sec­ondary character faces; and Snatcher’s ne­far­i­ous Mecha Drill ma­chine. After toy­ing with the idea of go­ing CG for the mas­sive pup­pet / prop / set, Knight says the team de­cided that treat­ing it like a nor­mal pup­pet (al­beit with a mo­tion-con­trol rig) and ben­e­fit­ting from the same stage light­ing as the rest of the scene el­e­ments out­weighed con­cerns about craft­ing the nearly 5-foot-high beast.

Knight him­self was tasked with a cou­ple of very emo­tional se­quences, ad­dress­ing the sub­tle end of the spec­trum. He per­son­ally tack­led Win­nie meet­ing Eggs — and later Snatcher — early on in the pro­duc­tion, es­tab­lish­ing their char­ac­ter­i­za­tion.

Although the tech­ni­cal ad­vances made by LAIKA for its third fea­ture are as­tound­ing, what re­ally sticks upon view­ing The Boxtrolls is how flu­idly, ex­pertly the char­ac­ters come to life. Snatcher, es­pe­cially, should go down in an­i­ma­tion his­tory as one of the most in­trigu­ing car­i­ca­tures in film­dom, with his con­stant waf­fling be­tween iden­ti­ties and how ex­pertly and minutely this is at­tained with such a back-break­ing tech­nique. The Ore­gon-based crew has once again de­liv­ered an ab­sorb­ing, artis­tic and unique vari­a­tion on the typ­i­cal State­side an­i­mated fare. Fo­cus Fea­tures re­leases U.S. the­aters Sept. 26.

Bill Plymp­ton’s most re­cent fea­ture is ti­tled Cheatin’, but the ex­pe­ri­ence be­hind the story of a re­la­tion­ship gone wrong was earned hon­estly.

“It came from a re­la­tion­ship I had about 15 years ago,” says the iconic in­die an­i­ma­tor. “I was madly in love and we moved in to­gether and after three weeks we were ready to stran­gle each other — but I still wanted to have sex with her.”

The re­sult is an af­fect­ing, di­a­log-less story of true love gone hor­ri­bly wrong — and then ul­ti­mately very right. Cheatin’ fol­lows gor­geous Emma, who falls hard at an amuse­ment park for heroic me­chanic Jake. It’s love at first sight, un­til a jeal­ous woman con­vinces Jake that Ella is cheat­ing on him. He re­tal­i­ates, hav­ing mul­ti­ple af­fairs with ev­ery woman who drives through his ser­vice sta­tion. When Ella learns the truth, she uses an un­usual ma­chine pro­vided by a lo­cal ma­gi­cian that lets her be­come the women Jake is sleep­ing with.

For Plymp­ton, it was a tale too big for a short. “There’s a lot to talk about,” he says. “It’s a ro­mance that turns from love to hate back to love. There’s a lot of is­sues to cover!”

Any­one who knows Plymp­ton’s work knows he’s a hard-core tra­di­tional an­i­ma­tor. He still writes, draws and an­i­mates with pen­cil and pa­per, de­vi­at­ing lit­tle from the graphic, per­sonal style that has made him the most fiercely in­de­pen­dent voice in an­i­ma­tion of the past quar­ter cen­tury. Plymp­ton per­son­ally drew ev­ery frame in the film — the tally of which eludes him, but he says it ex­ceeds the 30,000 he drew for his pre­vi­ous fea­ture, Idiots and An­gels, re­leased in 2008.

Get­ting it on pa­per

Plymp­ton’s process re­mains sim­ple and yet daunt­ing at the same time. He starts with a writ­ten out­line and when he has three pages he likes he goes to sto­ry­boards — Plymp­ton’s boards look more like a comic-book ver­sion of the story than tra­di­tional boards — mov­ing around scenes and ideas un­til he’s happy with them. “The sto­ry­board is the most im­por­tant part of the process be­cause so many ques­tions are re­solved in the sto­ry­boards,” he says.

An early riser, Plymp­ton says each draw­ing takes about 10 to 15 min­utes, mean­ing he can get be­tween 80 and 100 done in a day. That adds up to about a minute of an­i­ma­tion a week, which works out to a fea­ture ev­ery cou­ple of years.

The story’s stormy pas­sion is re­flected in its sound­track, which ranges from Ravel’s Bolero to orig­i­nal mu­sic com­posed and per­formed by Ni­cole Re­naud. “I re­ally had the feel­ing it was an opera, and that’s why I chose the mu­sic I did,” says Plymp­ton.

While there’s plenty to lis­ten to, the film lacks di­a­log — Plymp­ton recorded ac­tors do­ing moans, grunts and other ex­pres­sive sounds after the an­i­ma­tion was com­pleted.

against an­i­ma­tion for adults.

An­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor Yoni Good­man says The Congress was a much more com­plex film than Waltz with Bashir. “We had a very limited bud­get, we couldn’t do stuff over­seas and we had to in­vent this tech­nique we could work with,” says Good­man of Bashir. “We did this cutout tech­nique, which was good for the film, but it’s a bit lim­it­ing. There’s only so much you can do with it. We wanted to do some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent this time.”

A se­ries of tests in­tended to de­velop a more evolved ver­sion of the Bashir look did not turn out well, Good­man says. “We did like 15 min­utes of an­i­ma­tion,” says Good­man. “We scrapped it com­pletely be­cause it turned out too sim­i­lar to Bashir.”

A sec­ond test proved too re­al­is­tic to an­i­mate, forc­ing the film­mak­ers back to the

draw­ing board, where they found in­spi­ra­tion from Max Fleis­cher’s Su­per­man shorts.

“In Fleis­cher cartoons, and es­pe­cially in Su­per­man, you have this mix be­tween stuff that’s fairly re­al­is­tic and things that are very car­toony,” says Good­man. “This is ac­tu­ally one of the only places where it re­ally merges, be­cause usu­ally it’s more su­per car­toony or su­per re­al­is­tic.”

Com­ing up with the right look for Wright was a real chal­lenge. “She has such clas­sic fea­tures, she’s so beau­ti­ful and when we did re­al­is­tic (de­signs) she looked like her­self but you couldn’t move it,” Good­man says. “It was very hard to find her fea­tures be­cause ev­ery time we’d an­i­mate, some­thing would move and once you move it a bit, it’s not her any­more.”

Good­man says the crew was in­spired by the sim­ple de­signs Fleis­cher used in its Su­per­man cartoons for Lois Lane. “We started very sim­ply and built up­wards, try­ing to find the mid­dle ground,” he says.

In ad­di­tion to Wright, the film’s cast in­cludes Har­vey Kei­tel, Danny Hus­ton and Paul Gia­matti in live-ac­tion and an­i­mated form. Join­ing the cast in the an­i­mated seg­ments only is

Jon Hamm, play­ing an­i­ma­tor Dy­lan Tru­liner.

Record­ing on stage

Un­like most an­i­mated fea­tures, where ac­tors’ voices are recorded solo in a iso­lated booth, Fol­man would take the ac­tors to a sound stage and set it up like a re­hearsal shot. If Wright and Hamm were talk­ing in a restau­rant, there would be a ta­ble, kitchen­ware, wine glasses and a waiter pass­ing by, Good­man says.

In ad­di­tion to record­ing the voices with the ac­tors play­ing the scene off each other in per­son, the scenes were shot with mul­ti­ple cam­eras, Good­man says. This al­lowed Fol­man to edit to­gether a rough ver­sion of the scenes be­fore they were an­i­mated, and also pro­vided ex­cel­lent ref­er­ence for the an­i­ma­tors.

“We got very, very good ref­er­ence — es­pe­cially for Robin, which was very im­por­tant — of how she moves, the small nu­ances, stuff like that,” says Good­man.

Good­man would then sit with Fol­man and the rough cut and do sto­ry­boards for the an­i­ma­tion, which were turned into an­i­mat­ics be­fore be­ing fully an­i­mated.

“The an­i­matic is a lit­tle more elab­o­rate be- cause ba­si­cally what I do with the sto­ry­board is I draw it on the com­puter and then the an­i­ma­tors move it, so it’s a bit more like a rough an­i­ma­tion than a sto­ry­board of images,” he says. “That helps when you have to ex­plain to peo­ple you’ve never worked with thou­sands of miles away.”

Out­sourc­ing dif­fi­cul­ties

While Bashir was an­i­mated in-house with a small team of no more than 10 an­i­ma­tors, The Congress was a much more com­pli­cated propo­si­tion. Most of the work was out­sourced, with many of the deals struck to sat­isfy fund­ing re­quire­ments, i.e., funds granted by Ger­many had to be spent in Ger­many, Good­man says.

With Good­man’s Is­rael stu­dio serv­ing as the head­quar­ters for the pro­duc­tion, he found him­self su­per­vis­ing work from all over the world. “There was a stu­dio in Lux­em­bourg do­ing line tests, and a stu­dio in Poland do­ing cleanup and paint,” he says. When work fell be­hind sched­ule, another stu­dio was added in Berlin, another in Ham­burg and the work as­signed to the Pol­ish stu­dio had to be re-as­signed to one in the Philip­pines.

“It was all over the place; very, very dif­fi­cult,” says Good­man. “I had seven stu­dios to han­dle, and that’s too much.”

Qual­ity con­trol be­came a ma­jor is­sue for Good­man, who says the flex­i­bil­ity of work­ing in Toon Boom’s Har­mony soft­ware made it pos­si­ble for the Is­raeli crew to make fixes them­selves in­stead of send­ing them back out for re­vi­sions. But keep­ing up with the work be­came a prob­lem.

“It kept pil­ing up, and we’re talk­ing about 10 sec­ond shots, like 300 keys,” says Good­man. “The stu­dio in Is­rael turned into a re­sponse team. I saw the shots, I saw what didn’t work, I gave it to one of my an­i­ma­tors and they fixed it. This was my life un­til, I think, a week be­fore the wrap of the pro­duc­tion.”

De­spite the dif­fi­cul­ties, Good­man is happy with the fi­nal film and is up­beat about the fu­ture of 2D an­i­ma­tion.

“I re­ally be­lieve in tra­di­tional, in 2D — there is some­thing lim­it­less about it,” he says. “I like 3D movies, too, but the magic is with 2D an­i­ma­tion.”

Boxtrolls slide down un­der the streets to their se­cret lair, con­cept art for which can be seen at be­low right. Op­po­site: Eggs, Shoe and Fish creep into the up­per world in search of sal­vage. Be­low left, an an­i­ma­tor works on the pup­pet for vil­lain­ous Snat

Ari Fol­man

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