Ink & Pixel: The Boxtrolls

Ink & Pixel is a source of pride and joy for me as a writer and as such, I'm always striving to take this column further for those who read and enjoy it. In an effort to widen the reach of our continuously growing fanbase, Ink & Pixel has broadened its horizons with the inclusion of films from the Horror, Sci-Fi, Action-Adventure, and Fantasy genres. Additionally, if you yourself, or anyone you know, helped to make any of the amazing feature films found within this column, I would love to talk to you to further my knowledge. Please contact me at [email protected] so we can discuss it further.

As a child, I believed in all manner of things. When I was 9-years-old, I convinced myself that there was a monster living in the un-finished part of my basement. My over-active imagination compelled me to believe it was down there, and painted me a clear picture of what it looked like. It was primarily lycanthrope, only its key features were far more horrific than anything you've ever seen on film. For all I know it's still down in that basement, haunting the children that occupied the house after me and my family had moved.

Hello, and welcome to another edition of Ink & Pixel! This week I … what? Oh, you want to know what that bit at the start was all about it? Well, this week's article is all about things that go bump in the night, so I thought I'd share a little something spooky with you all to set the mood. Oh, it's all true! That thing is totally down there, and those kids are probably nothing more than puppy chow by now.  But who wants to think about that when we're poised to take a look back at the 3D stop-motion animated fantasy film, THE BOXTROLLS!

From Laika, Focus Features and directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, comes a story about a young human boy named Eggs and his trash-collecting troll family. In the fictional Victorian town of Cheesebridge, some say that there are creatures who dwell in the blackest pitch of the sewers and shadows. It's said that by the cloak of night, these cardboard box-wearing critters have begun abducting and murdering the town's children. Of course none of that is true, but that's not going to stop a high-minded exterminator by the name of Archibald Snatcher from manipulating the townsfolk of Cheesebridge into giving him exactly what he wants before he'll see to it personally that every last Boxtroll is eradicated

The film stars the voices of actors Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Sir Ben Kingsley, Elle Fanning, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade and Tracy Morgan. Leading the charge as the film's producer and chief animator is Travis Knight, a talent who's been with Laika from day one and has contributed to all of the studio's films, including CORALINE and PARANORMAN. Assisting Travis on the production side of things is David Ichioka. THE BOXTROLLS was shot entirely within the walls of Laika's then Portland-based location. The company has since re-located to Hillsboro, Oregon.

Let's begin with a bit of background, shall we? Laika's THE BOXTROLLS is based upon a novel entitled Here Be Monsters! that was written and illustrated by Alan Snow.  The content of the book is considerably different than that of the Boxtrolls film-adaptation, however. In the novel, a young man by the name of Arthur lives with his adoptive Grandfather, William, in the underground network of sewers belonging to the town of Ratbridge. No longer welcome in their own municipality of Ratbridge, seeing as William has been accused of attempted murder by the townsfolk, the pair are left with no choice but to hunt for food and other discarded comforts during the late-night hours.

It's during one of these outings that Arthur witnesses the illegal-dealings of a cheese hunt. Shortly thereafter, the young man is then discovered by the diabolical leader of the Cheese Guild, Archibald Snatcher. However, before Snatcher can rid himself of their vagabond witness, Arthur is rescued by a cardboard box-wearing creature known to the people of Ratbridge as a boxtroll. In the wake of this event, a unlikely partnership is forged between Arthur and the boxtrolls to clear William's tarnished name and to one day live above-ground without the fear of wrongful prosecution from the rigid populace of Ratbridge.

With regard to adapting the book into a stop-motion animated film, director Anothony Stacchi was more than prepared to bring a few fresh ideas to the table. In contributing to the book The Art of the Boxtrolls by Philip Brotherton, Stacchi had this to say about the design of the film's world and characters. “I loved the Alan Snow book illustrations that inspired the early designs (of Laika's artists). But just as the story evolved, so did the requirements of the character designs. We needed to find a grittier realism to suit the darker themes that were being emphasized. The story's tone required, and Travis insisted, that we push the boundaries of what had been done in stop-motion animation before.

Pleased with his design efforts for the film CORALINE, Laika asked that veteran concept-illustrator Michel Breton be brought back to help create the world of THE BOXTROLLS. Excited to work on the project, Breton found confidence in looking to the art movement of German Expressionism when designing the winding streets and skewed architecture of Cheesebridge. With respect to the character design, Knight asked his team to dig deep, and find an art style that could compliment the original artwork while still highlighting the newly crafted expressionistic town aesthetic. 

Re-designing the characters proved to be quite the task for Team Laika, and in the face of this lofty request, the creative crew called for some of their best and brightest to join the effort. The idea was to take the existing constructs and “re-work” them into being a bit more synonymous with Laika's signature “pronounced line quality” style. Asked to join the creative fray were supervising production designer Nelson Lowry, puppet fabrication creative supervisor Georgina Hayns and production designer Paul Lasaine. Together, Nelson, Georgina and the rest of Laika's team returned to their studio-wide backlog of character ideas. After much searching and contemplation, the crew settled on a bit of art submitted by designer Mike Smith.

Smith's illustrations were much like photographic negatives, wherein the bulk of the art was represented in bold black ink - like the darkest of shadows – and the accents in pure white. The complete lack of color allowed the team to visualize and create whichever palette they desired for each character. Seeing that the team's creative juices re-invigorated with the aide of Smith's art, Mike and his creativity became integral in completing the overall look of THE BOXTROLLS.

It's no mystery that filming for a stop-motion animated feature is grueling work. It's an arduous process that requires a seemingly endless amount of patience, in addition to a deep and abiding respect for one's body. How's that, you ask? Well, imagine being cooped up in a tiny sound stage, hunched, and fussing over the slightest movements of fragile puppets. Up and down, in front of and behind the camera, judging, measuring, and second-guessing your every effort. It's enough to drive any man or woman to the brink of insanity, expertly trained or not.

While working on the set of THE BOXTROLLS - and not being a stranger to this laborious form of film-making - director of photography, John Ashlee, figured that it was about time for someone to devise a more efficient way of getting things done. So, Ashlee set to work on creating what is essentially a catalog of scripted camera movements most commonly used in films outside of stop-motion. With names like “bumpy road vibration” and “reality-show handheld”, John, together with members of Laika's camera crew, created a series of revolutionary methods of filming for stop-motion animated pictures. Essentially, rather than pause production on the film for each and every frame shot, animators could now program the camera to move in more dynamic ways – thereby capturing every effort made in a multitude of ways.

Honestly, I could definitely pen at least 3 or 4 more Ink & Pixel articles about THE BOXTROLLS. The creative process, tech, and heart of this film is not something that can be fully captured in just one installment. Perhaps I'll one day convince the powers that be to let me write about it again, but for now, I want to share with you the origin of the Mechadrill – that huge, steam-spewing machine that Snatcher uses to make one last attempt at capturing Eggs and his boxtroll friends at the end of the film.

Originally, the Mechadrill was set to be represented by way of a humongous mechanical rat that Archibald would operate and ride throughout the town of Cheesebridge during the film's finale. However, plans for the giant rat were scrapped when Stacchi realized that this idea simply did not work for the film in terms of of mechanized rodent shooting well against the town's architecture. Instead, a deadly robot dubbed the Mechadrill took its place.

In terms of size, the Mechadrill was by far the largest of all the puppets used in the making of THE BOXTROLLS. As an example, the character Eggs stood at nine-inches tall, while the model for Archibald Snatcher rose to a height of 14-inches from toe to top hat. The Mechadrill, assembled with all of its deadly parts, enters the film at a staggering height of 5-feet-tall! Take it from me, as I've seen this marvelous monstrosity in person when I visited Laika Studios back in January of 2014, that this is one of the most impressive models ever assembled for use in an animated feature. The number of tiny parts fashioned for its construction bordered on seemingly infinite! The design team even inserted an ipod into the thing's chest – a looping clip of a roaring furnace displayed on the sizable LED screen. If a giant rat was to be too difficult to shoot, I can only imagine what Laika must have gone through to capture this thing on camera.

At the close of its box office run, THE BOXTROLLS earned a world-wide total of $109,285,033. With a reported budget of $60 million, the film managed to recoup its expenditures and even take home a cool $49 million or so to add to its next animated endeavor. In fact, featured in our latest 2016 Animation Preview is Laika's next film project - KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS! Here, I'll even save you a bit of clicking around and link you to the incredibly cool-looking trailer.

I must admit that I'm a bit biased when it comes to my opinion of THE BOXTROLLS. My trip out to Portland to visit the set of this film is still the highlight of my career here at Joblo. For me, getting to tour that studio was like the equivalent of being given a golden ticket to Wonka's factory. PARANORMAN still stands firm as my favorite of Laika's films, but I've got a lot of love to give for Eggs and the rest of his boxtroll family. The technological advancements made in the animation industry by way of this movie were nothing short of revolutionary, and the town of Cheesebridge, if it were real, is a place I'd love to vacation in if it were ever possible. If you have yet to experience THE BOXTROLLS, I suggest that you get yourself a nice bottle of port, a tasty wedge of cheese, and enjoy!

Extra Tidbit: For an up-close and personal look at the making of The Boxtrolls, check out our 3-part set-visit articles!
Source: joblo.com



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