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The Boxtrolls: Laika outside the box

By Evan Shamoon

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Date Added: 11th July 2014

Best known for its modern approach to stop motion, The Boxtrolls pieces together old and new tech into a beautiful whole. Evan Shamoon visits the Laika set in Portland!


There are likely few jobs more appealing to stop-motion animators than a position at Laika. Located just outside Portland, Oregon in a small, tech-centric suburb called Hillsboro, the studio has strongly embraced stop motion at a time when computer-based 3D animation dominates the animation industry landscape.

Laika now has two extremely well-received feature films under its belt - Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012) - and is closing in on finishing its third, The Boxtrolls, which is slated for release in September.

Boxtrolls Official Trailer

But Laika isn't simply a refuge for Los Angeles-averse luddites, as the studio's approach involves various technical twists and turns. While the animators and designers still create each of its characters and most of its sets from scratch, by hand, an extensive use of 3D printers for rapid prototyping along with computer graphics is essential to the studio's creative process as well.

Creative supervisor of puppet fabrication Georgina Haynes explains the background of one of the puppets to voice actor Isaac Hempstead-Wright, while director of rapid prototype Brian McLean listens in
© LAIKA, Inc.

Touring the 151,140 square foot building, one's mind can't help but reel at the sheer scale of the production. The warehouse space is divided into a number of small sets by towering black curtains, which stretch from floor to ceiling to preserve each lighting environment. Individual animators toil away on their own elaborately staged miniature productions, using rigged Canon 5D Mark III DSLRs and a host of lenses to capture each individual frame in 5K resolution.

Laika's Florian Perinelle maneuvers the Lord Portley-Rind puppet into position on one of The Boxtrolls' elaborate sets
© LAIKA, Inc.

Keeping track of the hundreds of moving parts that must change but still remain structurally consistent from one shot to the next feels like a nearly impossible task on its own, let alone producing the necessary drama carefully constructed into each image.

"The Boxtrolls will be 87-minutes long – which adds up to 5,220 seconds, or 125,280 individual frames of animation"

When it's done, The Boxtrolls will be 87-minutes long – which adds up to 5,220 seconds, or 125,280 individual frames of animation. It's the studio's first period piece (based on Alan Snow's novel Here Be Monsters!), and tells the story of an orphaned boy named Eggs, raised by underground cave-dwelling trash collectors called The Boxtrolls.

The conflict comes when The Boxtrolls are targeted by an evil exterminator named Archibald Snatcher, played by none other than Ben Kingsley in what is (rather remarkably) his first role in an animated feature.

Behold the cutest carrots known to man. A painter puts on some finishing touches, adding a bit of green paint to the stalks to get them ready for their big screen debut
© LAIKA, Inc.

Sets and characters clearly reflect their Victoriana and Edwardian influences, constructed from fabric, wood, foam and steel, much of which has been laser-etched to achieve an incredible level of detail. Characters are elaborate constructions, from the complex metal skeletons full of hinges, joints and sockets that underlie them, to their ornate exteriors, constructed from everything from embroidered knitwear and hemp hair to silicon skin, all of which is custom made on premises.

To convey the emotion required from its characters, Laika has turned to emerging technology. Brian McLean is in charge Laika's 3D printing and rapid prototyping department, which is comprised of 25 CG artists and engineers, along with another 25 doing quality control and post-processing on the thousands and thousands of individual parts the studio generates.

Boxtrolls Behind the Scenes Trailer
With Coraline, the studio was the first to take the age-old process of replacement animation and bring it into the 21st Century; that process has been drastically evolved with The Boxtrolls, both saving precious time and giving the filmmakers more creative control over their work.

On Coraline, artists would sculpt the faces in Maya, and then print them out in a solid white plastic. A paint team would then need to go through and paint each individual face – an extremely time-consuming process, fraught with compromise.

"Coraline has 5 freckles on each side of her face, and we negotiated with [director] Henry Selick for weeks on how many freckles she had,” recalls McLean. "We knew it'd take [time] away from poor painters every time they had to paint another freckle.”

Tweaking a puppet's movement one frame at a time – this is the animation process, Laika-style
© LAIKA, Inc.

The result was still an impressive blend of CG-style animation that could achieve a broader range of facial expressions than older methods, working in unison with the wonderfully tactile feel of stop motion. But as evidenced by the freckle situation, design choices were being limited by the process, and so between the production of Coraline and ParaNorman, the studio started experimenting with color 3D printing, and the results will be on display in The Boxtrolls.

The digital process begins by taking the incredibly detailed physical maquette for a character, and scanning it into the computer using a 3D scanner, at which point it's massaged by modelers into its final aesthetic form.


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