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.
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.”
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.”
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.”