Set Visit: The Boxtrolls – Part One: Welcome to Cheesebridge

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

When the good word came down the wire that I was to visit the set of Laika's newest stop-motion animated feature film, THE BOXTROLLS, it felt as if I had just been given a golden ticket – one that would grant me an afternoon within the walls of the place I've come to refer to as the “Wonka Factory” of animation studios. Excited, I made my way across the United States from New York to Portland, Oregon; where talent, ingenuity, and a unique approach to creating movie magic awaited my arrival.

In my experience researching stop-motion animation as a form of entertainment, I've found that the artistry, methodology, and execution of how these particular films are achieved, often goes overlooked and under-appreciated by its audience. Yes, there are viewers out there who are wholly invested in the details of what it takes to make puppets, scenery, and digital effects all come together to create one hell of a cinematic experience – but for many, the toil, patience, and finer details of bringing these films to the silver screen are all but lost.

I'm here to tell you that nothing should ever be taken for granted when viewing a project the size and scope of something like THE BOXTROLLS. I assure you that every bit of what you see onscreen was executed with precision and passion by a family of filmmakers striving to transport you into another world. So allow me to escort you through the many doors of Laika Studios, as we take an in-depth look at how their latest feature film, THE BOXTROLLS, is coming along.

What It's About

Adapted from the young adult novel Here Be Monsters by author Alan Snow – as part of the first volume in the Ratbridge Chronicles – THE BOXTROLLS film focuses the 529 page novel down to tell the story of a toddler orphan named Eggs, and his adventures living with a group of mischievous, garbage picking creatures called the Boxtrolls. Set within the wealth-obsessed fictional city of Cheesebridge – a place inspired by the swank Victorian and Edwardian eras of the United Kingdom – THE BOXTROLLS is set to become Laika's first “period piece” motion picture. Additionally, the film features an array of new characters. While spending time in Cheesebridge you'll be introduced not just to the self-important upper crust of the cheese-driven metropolis, but also it's odd, yet lovable, cardboard box wearing underground dwellers as well.

The film – shot using the methods of 3D stop-motion animation and CG – is being directed by Anthony Stacchi (co-director of the animated hit OPEN SEASON) and Graham Annable (story artist on CORALINE and PARANORMAN), and produced by David Ichioka and Travis Knight (President and CEO of Laika). THE BOXTROLLS will slink from out of the shadows and into theaters when the film is released worldwide on September 26, 2014.

The film stars Sir Ben Kingsley as the voice of Archibald Snatcher – a villainous wannabe aristocrat with a rather disfiguring allergy to cheese, and a abiding hatred of the Boxtrolls. Also lending their voices to the animated cast are actors Elle Fanning (as the voice of Winnie), Toni Collette, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Jared Harris, Tracy Morgan, with Isaac Hempstead Wright (otherwise known as Bram from HBO's Game of Thrones) voicing Eggs. Unfortunately, none of the actors were visiting the set on the day our tour was arranged. However, that is no matter, because there was still plenty to see and experience. Let's move on, shall we?

What We Saw

As part of our first stop on the tour, the group and I were introduced 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 spacious workshop which serves as Laika's Puppet Department. Within this creative space were several puppeteers, each of them hunched over their brightly lit work spaces. Upon further investigation, I could see that many of them were using magnifying glasses, allowing each of them to view finer details of the puppets they were working on close up. Laid out across each workspace were several individual limbs, heads, and inner workings that – once assembled – would become a fully-animated member of the film's cast.

Through her presentation, Georgina shared with us the elaborate process used in building the puppets featured in the Boxtrolls film. In addition , Georgina emphasized to us that new tools and techniques (such as using a laser cutting tool to craft elements of costume and puppet design that were never thought possible) were used in the manufacturing of the film's characters, and as such, many challenges were presented to the Puppet Department while working on the film. In our time spent inside with Georgina, we also learned about how the character designs were very much inspired by a Paris-born ballet company known as Ballet Russes.

Interestingly enough, Laika began using a laser cutter – traditionally used in the cutting of fabrics and crafting of set pieces – to embroider, layer, and cut into the various materials found on the puppets. Never before had I seen puppets with such intricate markings, which served to create a remarkable display of shape and contour to their clothing and body definitions. It was quite obvious to me that Laika was using this new method in order to reach a new standard of detail in the making of puppets to be used in stop-motion animated film projects.

Next, we were joined by Brian McLean, director of Rapid Prototyping. While visiting this department – a rather quiet room, packed with several high-end computer workstations – Brian explained to us that this is where all of the CG assets of the film are created. Consisting of about 50 craftspeople or artists, at least 25 of them are designing, engineering, and building not only the facial animation, but also all of the inner workings that are found inside of the heads used for the puppets at Laika. The remaining 25 workers in the department are in charge of the organization, production, and delivery of the thousands of replacement parts necessary in both the creation and utilization of every puppet featured in THE BOXTROLLS.

Additionally, Brian also gave us a brief tour of Laika's 3D printing room. Inside of this tiny (and rather noisy) room were two 3D printing machines (each with a different functionality and purpose). While there, each machine was busy printing off parts, later to be assembled and made into a working puppet to be used in the film. Brian was also kind enough to give each member of the tour a 3D printed, working wrench as a souvenir to commemorate our time spent in his department.

Shortly thereafter, we were joined by Deborah Cook, Costume Designer on the set of THE BOXTROLLS. Dressed in a flowered top with her hair arranged in tight, black China doll curls atop her head, Deborah reminded us of how influential the Ballet Russes was in designing the “costume language” of the film. In her research for the film, Deborah shared with us that she looked to the fashions of high society, military outfits, and even street gangs from all around the world and from several time periods, when crafting the overall look of each character you'll meet upon exploring the streets of Cheesebridge.

Next, without going far from Deborah and her display of costumes and poster boards littered with reference materials, we were treated to a brief look at how Laika creates storyboards for their films. Though storyboards go through many incarnations during the production of a film, this particular one was quite elaborate and showcased key scenes in the film from beginning to end. The level of detail given to this particular board was like nothing I've ever seen in all of my time researching animation. Each and every cell of the board featured an image that I'd be happy to frame and hang in my home. Additionally, a little bird told me that Laika intends to collect and share much of this art by way of a behind-the-scenes companion book closer to the film's release.

Following our time with Deborah, we were off to join Travis Knight, President and CEO of Laika, who also serves as the producer and lead animator on THE BOXTROLLS. Enclosed within a cube of thick, black curtains, was a dungeon-like landscape. Amidst the stone walls and atmospheric lighting was the character of Eggs, trapped inside of a misshapen cage, dangling from the cube's ceiling. Travis went on to explain to the group how particular shots are set up, as well as how the puppets are managed and cared for while working on an active set. He also shared with us some details about how Laika chooses which film projects to undertake, as well as how, at Laika, they're always one step ahead in preparing for their next feature-length animation. In fact, Laika plans on starting production for their next film, WILDWOOD, later this ye

Aww yeah! So this is the point in our tour where we were each given a pair of 3D glasses and were once again invited to join Mr. Ichioka inside of Laika's very own screening room. As the lights dimmed, and the presentation began, I was  very excited to see how all of the elements of what we'd experienced that day would come together on screen. The reel lasted about 12 to 15 minutes and was comprised of a multitude of finished scenes in addition to some rough footage. As luck would have it, many of the scenes included in the screening were directly related to all that we had observed on the tour.

Next, it was time to return to the Round Table room for lunch with the film's director, Anthony Stacchi and first time co-director, Graham Annable. While munching on some deli sandwiches and picking from an assortment of pastries, Anthony and Graham discussed with us the details of how each difficult decision was made when adapting Alan Snow's novel, Here Be Monsters, into a 101 minute feature-length film. Additionally, each director spoke of the privilege that it has been to work with the artists, engineers, and staff at Laika, and even shared with us some of the specific challenges that arose and how they were overcome in the making of THE BOXTROLLS.

Moving on, we were introduced to Mr. John Ashlee Prat, Director of Photography on the set of THE BOXTROLLS. Within his enclosed workspace was a remarkable rig that John was using to film an underground sewer scene. It took Ollie Jones, an engineer on the set of THE BOXTROLLS, 3 months to plan, build, and configure the elaborate contraption, which operates on a series on pre-programmed motors that will run one frame at a time. The lighting rig itself was an interesting piece of machinery.

Imagine if you can, a black box, and attached to that box are a series of moving tendrils affixed with tiny white lights at their tips. Now, envision that each of those tendrils are set to move to a pre-programmed series of movements. The motors of this device are built so that the process is easily duplicated, making it possible for the filmmakers to run multiple passes for all of the animation and all of the lighting effects within a scene.

Nearing the end of our tour, we were invited into the Art Department/Model Shop. Working in this large space are the people responsible for making all of the small props that help to dress out the environments used for the filming of THE BOXTROLLS. While here, we could see first hand the way that Laika approaches the ideas of shape and contour within all of the objects and locales seen throughout each of their film projects. Everything from tables and chairs, right down to the last wedge of stinky cheese in Cheesebridge, has been given its own unique shape – with nary a straight line among the lot. It's all a part of Laika's signature style; a look that helps to set them apart from other animation companies – companies who tend toward making each and every object within their world as realistic as possible without venturing too far into the uncanny valley.

To wrap our set tour of THE BOXTROLLS, we were welcomed onto two “hot” sets where technicians were in the process of filming major scenes for the movie. Each separate area played host to a massive locale within the film, upon which several puppets could be seen fixed into varying degrees of motion. As we looked on, we could see the way light was filtering in through an array of filth-covered windows, bathing the whole set in a pale and sickly colored luminescence. As the camera click-clicked away, capturing a shot of every possible angle of the scene, we were all informed that what we were witnessing would indeed be making its way into the final cut of the film. So, in essence, during at least two (if not 3) points in the film, I can – once it hits theaters – point at the screen and shout “I was there when they filmed that!”. Just a little extra something to take away from the whole experience.

Other Cool Stuff

  • In regard to dialogue, an estimated total of 50,000 faces have been sculpted, printed, painted, and are kept within arms reach while the film is in production.
  • 3D printed objects can take anywhere of up to 3 or 4 hours before the process is complete.
  • Every object found in THE BOXTROLLS – though made to look stylishly lopsided – is fully functional and built with its own unique geometry.   
  • “Liberty Leading the People”, which commemorates the July Revolution of 1830, is a painting by French artist Eugene Delacroix, and served as a major inspiration during the creation of the costumes being worm by the “White Hats” characters within the film.

  • Several staff members at Laika were quick to mention that the works of Monty Python, Charles Dickens, and Roald Dahl all served to inspire the overall look and feel of the of the city of Cheesebridge, as well as its bizarre citizens. 
  • An animator typically took 1 week to complete 3.7 seconds worth of footage, which is 90 individual frames.
  • There are 14 different fabrics in Lord Portley-Rind's white hat.
  • The movie's smallest costumes were for Eggs as a baby: the sweater, measuring 3.5" from cuff across the length of both arms and chest, and the baby socks measuring 5/8" long.
  • The stop-motion flames "burning" in the furnace of the Mecha-Drill are courtesy of a working iPad displaying a loop video inside the "mouth" of the device.
  • More than 20,000 props were handmade for the movie.
  • 55 different sculpts of prop cheeses were created for "THE BOXTROLLS".
  • The movie's smallest prop was a tiny sewing thread and needle.

Stay close throughout the week for more from the set of THE BOXTROLLS, including an introduction to Laika from producer David Ichioka, the process of making puppets with Georgina Hayns, printing in 3D with Brian Mclean, filming in 3D with Travis Knight, and an in-depth talk with 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.