This week, stop-motion production studio Laika comes out with its third feature, The Boxtrolls. A lot has changed in the world of stop-motion animation since Laika's first feature, Coraline, and in a world filled with CG features, it's amazing what Laika can accomplish.
"I like to think of it this way," said The Boxtrolls co-director Anthony Stacchi. "You've seen Toy Story, right? Andy, the guy who's nice to his toys and gets along with his mother and everything? He went off the CalArts; his mother drove him to CalArts and he went to work at Pixar. Sid, the kid across the street who tore his toys apart to build creepy toys out of them, probably had all the good albums? He grew up and moved to Portland and learned how to make absinthe with his punk-rock girlfriend and works at Laika."
Top image: An animator's hands working on the delicate process of the puppet's movement. Credit: Laika.
From the outside, Laika looks unassuming, sitting amidst a collection of office parks in Hillsboro, Oregon. Inside, though, it's a delightfully cluttered toy box, with concept art and inspirations pinned to the walls and warped dollhouse fixtures littering the surfaces. You might accidental brush your elbow against Angry Aggie's storm clouds from ParaNorman or see Coraline's head deconstructed in a shadowbox.
Along with other members of the press, we were invited to Laika to learn about the design and technology behind their latest feature, The Boxtrolls. Yesterday, we told you about the world-building that went into the film. Today, we share a bit about how it was put together.
One hundred and ninety puppets were crafted for The Boxtrolls, although not each one is unique. For example, the puppet fabrication department made 28 puppets for the main character Eggs and 15-20 for each of the lead Boxtrolls. In large part, this is because the characters are needed on different sets at the same time, although some of the puppets serve different functions—the Eggs puppets required for action scenes have more articulation than their doppelgängers.
And translating those characters from concept design to fully realized puppet is no small feat. It can take four to five months for puppet fabrication to turn a sculpted maquette to something camera-ready—not to mention the work of 20-25 people in puppet fabrication and another 20 people in rapid prototyping.
The puppet body parts you see in The Boxtrolls aren't actually sculpted by hand. They're printed using 3D printers. And while 3D printers have been a wonderful technology for creating relatively consistent products, they do have their quirks. Brian McLean, director of the rapid prototype department, likened the printing process to the rendering process in CG—sometimes you input code and something you didn't quite expect comes out.
Laika's rapid prototyping department has found that, when they instruct their printer to print a 3D shape, the print version tends to have softer edges than the digital version. The fabricators will have to play with each new object, adjusting the edges and printing over and over again until the printer's output looks like the intended design. And the printers aren't necessarily consistent from print to print. Laika keeps such detailed logs of the printers' maintenance, humidity, time of day—anything that could affect the print—that the manufacturers of the printers have started calling them for troubleshooting advice.
A variety of the facial pieces used to create one of Shoe's many facial expressions. Credit: Laika.
The coloring on the puppets' faces is printed directly onto the face, which means there are similar issues for color. The face paint is designed digitally, with the team's color scientist drawing on a tablet. But the color on the screen doesn't match the color on the printer, so the digital painter created a chart of printed color chips, which she has matched to their digital equivalents. And since the printer offers only a limited range of colors, she has to layer and crosshatch combinations of colors to achieve a wider palette.
But all of this ultimately allows the team to create more faces for the puppets and enable more nuanced puppet performances. In most stop-motion features, each character has a library of faces that the animators must pull from in order to achieve the emotional effect that they want. But for The Boxtrolls, each sequence was animated first in 2D and then in 3D before the sequence was actually shot. That allows the team to figure out exactly what faces they'll need for each shot and to create "specialty faces" that appear only once in the film and are then never used again.
McLean said that, from a technical perfective, there haven't been huge leaps between ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls. Rather, he said, Coraline and ParaNorman gave the fabrication team the opportunity to develop their technological processes and The Boxtrolls has given them the opportunity to refine them. One thing that the rapid prototyping department is particularly focused on is the movement of the eyeballs and eyelids. The team designs and fabricates the tiny mechanics that go inside each puppet's head, giving the animators more and more control over the movements of the eyes.
An exploded view of Norman's head from ParaNorman.
The puppets that ultimately proved the most difficult to design were the Boxtrolls themselves. Initially, the puppet fabrication team was excited by the prospect of the Boxtrolls, because they figured that all of the puppets' mechanics would be easily hidden inside those boxes.
But the Boxtrolls' mechanics are far more complicated than those of an ordinary puppet. The creatures need to be able to retract their heads and limbs inside their boxes. The Boxtrolls have glowing eyes, an effect that the directors wanted to be practical, not digital. So the fabrication and rapid prototyping teams had to figure out how to wire the eyes and retract the limbs. Rapid prototyping created half faces for when the Boxtrolls are peeking out of their boxes. There is actually quite a bit going on inside those faux-cardboard cuboids.
Even with rapid prototyping, much of the Boxtrolls' world is still crafted by people. Laika is packed with wood workers, metal workers, and other craftspeople of all stripes. It takes a human being to make something as delightfully absurd as the mechanical monstrosities that the Boxtrolls build.
The design inspirations behind the costumes are fascinating, but a lot of work also went into achieving those miniature looks. When the costume department wanted to make their own patterned fabrics, they turned to their laser cutter. The laser cutter is used to cut out the fabric appliqués on, for example, the White Hats' outfits, but it's also useful for creating patterns. Instead of cutting through the fabric, the laser cutter can burn off a few layers of the fabric, allowing the costume designers to etch an original pattern into the fabric.
One of the particular challenges that costuming and puppet fabrication were handed was with the women's dresses. In stop-motion films, long skirts are typically bell-shaped, placed over a foam mold. For The Boxtrolls, however, the costumers were told to make dresses that would fall and move naturally. There's a good amount of wire embedded in those lush skirts.
Costume Designer Deborah Cook works on one of Egg's outfits. Credit: Laika.
While the puppets have printed faces and some of the special effects are computer-generated, the animators and production artists still find that the look they want is often best achieved through practical effects. For example, at one point, we were brought to a set for the sewers. A light was shining through a pair of rotating mottled glass plates. The effect looked remarkably like water.
Directors Stacchi and Graham Annable explained to us that, at one point in the film, Eggs dips his toe in the water, causing it to ripple in concentric circles. No one knew quite how to achieve the effect until the day the shot was supposed to be filmed when one crew member came up with idea of using fishing line to create the ripples. Everyone loved the way it looked and decided that practical effect made more visual sense than a CG effect would.
The biggest technological advance for stop-motion animators since ParaNorman? LED lights. The animators gushed over how LEDs have made their lives easier. Incandescent lights get hot over time and can cause set pieces and props to melt. LEDs save on the heat and leave the animators more options. Plus, the animators like being able to program the LEDs.
"There aren't 65 good stop-motion animators in the world," Stacchi told the assembled journalists. For Coraline, he explained, the studio had to "scour the planet" to find 20-25 stop-motion animators.
Fortunately for Laika, while filming The Boxtrolls, it was the only major stop-motion feature in production—plus they've managed to nurture their own animation talent at home. For each film, Laika casts different animators for different shots based on their strengths, weaknesses, and interests. Laika CEO and lead animator Travis Knight, for example, typically does action-heavy shots. Each animator brings their own particular skills to the film.
11-year-old Eggs swings into trouble when he tries to rescue a Boxtroll friend. Credit: Laika.
One of the major visual goals of The Boxtrolls is to create a greater sense of scale, to make the movie "open up" visually where some stop-motion films feel a bit claustrophobic. When we think of stop-motion animation, we typically imagine puppets moving in front of a static camera. But Laika now employs a computer-controlled rig for its cameras, so that the camera will move as well as the puppets. The idea is that this achieves an effect that is more like a hand-held camera. It's another example of the studio utilizing technology in the hopes of creating a more natural look.
Full disclosure: the studio paid for all travel expenses.