Set Visit: The Boxtrolls – Part Two: Meet the Stop-Motion Masters

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

CLICK HERE for Part One of our visit: Welcome To Cheesebridge!

My visit to the set of Laika's latest 3D stop-motion animated feature film, THE BOXTROLLS, was unique in that much of the time spent with the film's creators did not consist of being able to directly interviewing each individual, but offered the opportunity to bear witness to a series of presentations packed with information about the film. What you'll find here are excepts from those presentations and much more. Enjoy!

Deep within the foggy recesses of Hillsboro, Oregon, stands an unassuming office complex that is home to the close-knit staff of Laika Studios – creators of such films as CORALINE and PARANORMAN. Upon signing in at the front desk, we – myself and a select few other members of the entertainment press -were escorted into Laika's official Round Table room. Here, we were introduced to the producer of the BOXTROLLS film, David Ichioka. Mr. Ichioka enthusiastically welcomed us all to the studio, and shared with us that, today, Laika would open its doors to us like never before in what David referred to as the “giant one-hundred-penny tour”.

After a brief video – consisting of a montage of Laika staff members informing us about the studio's mission to deliver unique stories and unforgettable cinematic experiences for their growing audiences from all over the world – David wrapped the introductions with a few facts about the film, stating [that],

Introduction to Laika by David Ichioka, Producer

*The following introduction has been transcribed directly from its source.***

“We have a total headcount of 30 animators on the show – so, at maximum headcount – a crew of 300. So figure for every animator we have, there are 10 people standing behind them so they can get their work done, one way or another: making puppets, making sets, maintaining those puppets or sets, and keeping everything running, lighting, setting up, production – all kinds of people. The film is about 87 minutes long. Which in our world is 5,220 seconds, or 125,280 opportunities to make a mistake.

So, for every one of those 125,280 frames is many, many human decisions going into every single one of them.  Those 30 animators are each responsible for doing 4 seconds – 96 frames of animation- per week. So less than a second a day they're actually responsible for doing. On good days they'll do 4 seconds and on not so good days, they won't – on not so good weeks I should say. We will have shot, in two months, for a total of 3 years from the beginning of pre-production to delivery.”

Georgina Hayns, Creative Supervisor, Puppet Fabrication

Next, the group and I were passed on to Georgina Hayns – the UK born creative supervisor in charge of puppet fabrication on the set of THE BOXTROLLS. With much enthusiasm, Georgina led the group down to a rather spacious workshop which serves as Laika's Puppet Department. As we made our way across the room to a large table draped in the blackest of cloth, Georgina informed us that this department, on any given day, houses a total of between 60 to 70 people working on a total of 190 puppets to be used in the filming of THE BOXTROLLS.

On the process of making puppets:

“We can't make a film without making duplicate puppets. So, for Eggs, we made about 28 Eggs, he's our lead character. Then, for our lead Boxtrolls, we made about 15 to 20 of those. So basically, we made about 190 puppets, which is the most we've ever done. It seems to be that every film, we top ourselves. [laughs] But with Boxtrolls we've really sort of pushed the art and technology, yet again, in puppet making. That's always our challenge here at Laika. So we've pushed the technologies and art in costume, in paint, again, with the faces, and then mechanically as well.

It's really a Dickensian, Victorian fantasy world that we're setting. So we were able to go to town on color as well.” At this time, Georgina shared with the group a set of highly detailed character sketches while moving forward with her presentation. “Once we finally brought color into these images , we started to look at European Figurative Expressionist painters work. It's funny, every single time we do one of these shows, we'll start to look throughout history, at sort of painters techniques of flesh tones, and then, since it's an art form, the differences of theatrical genres.

And we've found in painting the faces, that this European Expressionist movement was great, because they often used colored lines to edge the black plains of color.” To simplify this last remark, Georgina is referring to the varying degrees of line work used in drawing the character designs. “So you'll see, on the faces of the puppets, edges of crazy colors just sort of accentuating them” Here, Georgina is speaking to the sharp edges and contours of the puppets facial structuring. “It's a very theatrical look.”

On how the Ballet Russes influenced the costumes worn by the puppets:

“A lot of the aristocracy costumes came from the Ballet Russes influence. At the turn of the century the Russian ballet had these incredible designers linked with Matisse and Chagall working with them, and they created these beautiful, quite graphic costumes with bold colors. So, a lot of our aristocratic ladies have an influence from the Ballet Russes.”

On the new technology being used being used to make the puppets:

“Technology wise, it was a really fun challenge to come up with this Victorian, detailed, sort of elaborate look at costumes. We started to play with the laser cutter that had been brought in from the Art Department to create set pieces. Suddenly, we started to realize that we could use the laser cutter to not only cut fabrics, but we also started to create techniques and fabrics with the laser cutter.”

“Lord Portly Rind (an aristocratic character in the film) is a great example. We wanted to create our own devore velvet (a velvet that has an etched pattern in it), and we were able to use the laser cutter to actually etch into a velvet, and burn away the top surface so we could create our own designed to scale patterns for the time period. We also used the same laser cutter for detailed pieces. So you'll see all of these medals that have got these tiny, dimensional cutaways with fabric backing worn on some of the puppets. This was all cut on the laser, which allows you to produce multiples of each so they're all exactly the same.”

Brian Mclean, Director, Rapid Prototyping

On what goes on inside the Rapid Prototyping department:

"“The Rapid Prototyping department consists of about 50 craftspeople and artists. About 25 people are creating the CG assets. They're designing, engineering, and building not only the facial animation but also all the internals that go on inside a head (referring to the head of each puppet used in the film). Then we have about another 25 people responsible for organizing, quality control, and for delivering the thousands and thousands of replacement parts that this department ultimately creates.”"

On building the inner workings of the faces of the puppets:

“Very quickly we realized that not only could we create the faces (using 3D printers) but we could also be helping the puppet designs by building essentially the skull, the eye balls, and the eye lids, and all these things that are underneath once you replace the face. We've actually taken two revolutionary steps. The first one on CORALINE, being able to use the 3D printers. The second time, on PARANORMAN, by using color 3D printing, because that meant we could really push the performance and the design of the character. Now, fast forward to what we've done here on THE BOXTROLLS.

Originally, when we saw the character designs, that these characters were inside of a cardboard box, we thought, “this is going to be easy.” We thought, “Really simple, we don't have to worry about bodies, they just have a box. What easier puppet could you be asked to create?” Boy were we wrong! Because, these characters had to do all sorts of things. Their arms had to pop in, their faces had to completely drop inside the box, they had to be able to poke out and look around outside the box; and that might seem like an easy thing to do, but when you realize that we're having to replace faces – sometimes 12 to 24 times a second in the film – how are we going to get a face off if that face is inside the box?

So we had to create these half head characters that you'd be able to swap from a full head to a half head, seamlessly. To add more complexity, the directors wanted the eyes to glow and for the Boxtrolls to be able to rummage and scurry around in the streets. We didn't want to do any of that as a post-effect, but as a practical effect. So, we now had to find ways to put LEDs and wires inside these heads. There's a tremendous amount of complexity and engineering that goes on inside these things that the audience never ever sees.”

On printing characters in 3D:

“By now you've probably seen a lot of examples of 3D printing. We're a unique company in the fact that we're taking this really beautiful technology that does all these crazy things, and we're using it and combining it with one of the oldest forms of special effects out there, which is stop-motion. So the way that we achieve this, is we take the original clay sculpts that are done for a character design, and we focus on the neck up.” To clarify, Georgina and her crew from the Puppet Fabrication Department provide the sculpts with which Brian and his time work.”

Following this explanation, Brian introduced us to Ty Johnson, a 3D modeler who works within the Rapid Prototyping Department at Laika.

“Ty will take the head, scan it into the computer, and what you see here is the scan data.” On the screen, we could see a complex series of patterns and algorithms that help to create the digital image onscreen. “It's really dense, extremely complex, and it's sort of this crazy mesh; a bunch of thousands and millions of triangles. If we were to take that exact scan, and print it out of the printer, everything's going to be rounded and softened. The printer is going to be interpolating this data and the way that it prints will often add some side effects of it being a little less crisp. So what Ty has to do, is he has to take that scan data and sharpen everything up. So what Ty then has to do is resculpt it, for printing purposes. Think of our printing in 3D as a form of our rendering process.” 

To wrap on the subject of printing in 3D, Brian pointed out that results of printing in 3D are inconsistent and that many factors come into play when adjusting their machines to get each part printed correctly. In fact, it sometimes takes a matter of several days to troubleshoot the problems presented when working in 3D, and can often result in the loss of many precious hours of work time for he and his crew. 

Travis Knight, President and CEO of Laika, Producer, Lead Animator

On how Laika is reinvigorating the use of their cameras on the film:

“Pretty much every shot we have has some version of motion control. We have rigs controlled by the computer that allow us to get motion into the camera so it's not just a bunch of locked off shots. Historically, the filmmaking in stop-motion has been sort of hampered by technology. Things tend to look like they were shot on a tabletop because they pretty much are. But one of the ways that we're trying to reinvigorate the medium is to bring technology into the mix so that we can have it be more cinematic. You know, motion control has been around for a long time but the way we're using the camera is really innovative. We're trying to break out more modern, handheld type of camera movements to the show, and I think that when you see some of the footage you'll see that we've really liberated the camera.”

On the process of shooting for a stop-motion animated feature:

“Stop-motion is unique, in that it's the only form of animation, really, where you start in one place and end up in another, and in that way you're sort of working your way through the shot. So, in that way, it's very much like performance art at the speed of a glacier, which is really, really slow. In hand drawn and CG animation, it's more interpretive: you get to set your key positions, you get to go back through and refine; we can't do that, we have to work all the way through, straight ahead. So a frame will take anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour, depending on the complexity of what's going on. You've got to just keep working on moving on through until you finish the shot.

It can be a frustrating experience for an animator because a lot of times things will get in the way. Things like set lights and having to contort your body into weird positions to get access to the characters. So it's a really physically demanding medium, but it's also kind of mentally taxing. I think that's something most people don't recognize. It's like a game of chess that you're playing inside of your head, constantly trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B, hit all your marks, but still make the thing feel alive.”

CLICK HERE for Part One of our visit: Welcome To Cheesebridge!

Be sure to stick with us throughout the week when we present Part Three of our Boxtrolls set visit coverage featuring an in-depth interview featuring the film's directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable! 


About the Author

Born and raised in New York, then immigrated to Canada, Steve Seigh has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. He started with Ink & Pixel, a column celebrating the magic and evolution of animation, before launching the companion YouTube series Animation Movies Revisited. He's also the host of the Talking Comics Podcast, a personality-driven audio show focusing on comic books, film, music, and more. You'll rarely catch him without headphones on his head and pancakes on his breath.