How Boxtrolls Created One Of The Richest Worlds Of Any Animated Movie

The Boxtrolls, the latest film from Coraline and ParaNorman studio Laika, opens this week, and your eyes are in for a treat. The world of The Boxtrolls was inspired by everything from Monty Python to Charles Dickens to the Russian ballet, creating a sumptuous visual feast.

Along with other members of the press, we were invited to Laika earlier this year to take a behind-the-scenes peek at The Boxtrolls and learn how the directors, producers, crafters, and designers put the world together.


Top image: Matias Liebrecht works on Eggs. Credit: Jason Ptaszek / LAIKA, Inc.

The Origin of The Boxtrolls

"It's important for us that we don't have a house style," Laika CEO and lead animator Travis Knight told the small group of journalists, "that we tell stories in different ways."

After Coraline and ParaNorman, the folks at Laika were looking to do something a bit different, and Knight found his inspiration in Alan Snow's novel Here Be Monsters! "It had some of the quality that reminded me of the finest childhood literature that I read when I was a kid," Knight said. "It was this fusion of Monty Python and Charles Dickens."

Here Be Monsters! is a rather hefty tome, so the development team got to work teasing out a core story for their film. They settled on the tale of the young boy (Eggs in the film, voiced by Game of Thrones' Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and the subterranean-dwelling Boxtrolls (voiced primarily by the fabulous Dee Bradley Baker and Steven Blum).


The off-kilter industrial Victorian-influenced city from the book is still in The Boxtrolls, but as they settled on the rules of the world, the producers and directors did have to make some heart-wrenching changes. Snow's novel opperates on its own internal logic, and he manages to have Victorian-esque humans coexist with not only Boxtrolls, but also cabbage-headed creatures and rat pirates. However, the film sticks to humans and Boxtrolls. One thing co-directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi were especially excited seeing on the screen was the giant mechanical war rat from the book. But once rat pirates went out the window, so too did a mechanical creature that looks like a rat.

Fortunately, Annable and Stacchi assured us, the expert crafters at Laika have been able to reinvent certain aspects of Snow's book. "[Laika]'s really, in animation—or maybe in any studio—it's really the last bastion of tool-using animals all crammed into one place," said Stacchi. Once set in place the parameters of what the Boxtrolls could do—they're mechanical engineers, but all of their devices are made from what they've salvaged from the trash—the folks in the wood shops and metal shops set to work creating the Boxtrolls' elaborate patchwork machines, including an underground artificial sun and a replacement for that grand war rat.


Director of Photography John Ashlee Prat adjusts a backlight reflection. Credit: Jason Ptaszek / LAIKA, Inc.


The Crooked World of Cheesebridge

One thing that you will immediately notice about The Boxtrolls is how wonky everything looks. There's hardly a straight line in the whole place, from the seemingly haphazard buildings to the fruits and vegetables.


Laika brought on some talented development artists to help create the look of The Boxtrolls, notably Michel Breton, who recently served as a background design on The Triplets of Belleville. The development team admired the shaky lines in Breton's original pen and ink drawings and decided to incorporate it into the overall design of the world. Everything is off-kilter. The handles on the glasses are askew. The serving trays look like they've been dropped on the floor a few times too many. And even though they fit and run together, the gears on the Boxtrolls' mechanical devices are all a bit lopsided.

Much of the design process involved ensuring just the right amount of wobble in the lines, we were told. You don't want the regularity of a sine wave, and you don't want a line so straight it sticks out. Once the design team figured out how to create and vary those wobbly lines, however, individual designers went to town, creating their own designs for the sets and objects within Cheesebridge.


How the Russian Ballet Influenced the Look of Boxtrolls

Once Laika decided to start developing The Boxtrolls, the development team began looking at 19th and early 20th-century artworks for inspiration, hoping to create the sense of an offbeat period film. Director of costume design Deborah Cook told our group that Laika used Eugène Delacroix's 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People as a starting point for the film's color scheme and costume design.


Image via Wikipedia.

The directors and designers cited a number of visual influences for The Boxtrolls: German expressionism inspired them to use pops of color like reds and purples. Fashion designer Alexander McQueen's patterns gave Cook ideas for how to dress the unusually shaped human puppets. Military uniforms and heraldry informed the costumes of the aristocratic White Hats, while the markings on English punk rock clothes influenced the dress of the more villainous Red Hats. (Cook also gave the Red Hats footwear inspired by the long shoes of Mexican dancers, but ultimately had to pull back on the length because the puppets looked like they might trip over their own toes.)


But one influence that Georgina Hayns, creative supervisor of puppet fabrication, was quick to bring up was the Ballets Russes, the traveling ballet company founded by Sergei Diaghilev in 1909. Influential artists like Léon Bakst, Henri Matisse, and Coco Chanel all provided work for the Ballet Russes, and Laika liked the theatrical costumes with their graphic designs and bold colors. And the linework from Breton's original concepts carried over into the coloring on the puppets' faces. Instead of simply mimicking human skin tone, the puppet team often paints (not by hand; the painting is done digitally and then sent to the 3D printer) patches of opposing colors on the faces, highlighting the features by accenting pink with turquoise, for example. The effect is something sumptuous and lush and very different from what we usually see in stop-motion or CG film.

Why this Isn't a Pure CG Movie

Like ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls isn't an exclusively stop-motion movie. "We're not purists," Stacchi admitted, saying that the medium was less important than "whatever delivers the look. The look is the rule." Occasionally, Laika will use CG to complement the stop-motion animation, sometimes even designing something physically and then generating it in CG. The clouds in The Boxtrolls, for example, were originally made in fabric, but for the movie, they were rendered on the computer.


With The Boxtrolls, Laika wanted to create a movie that felt like it was on a larger scale than their previous efforts. "Some stop-motion movies, you feel like you're trapped on a set," Stacchi said. "You can feel the edge of the set all the way through." And while they appreciate the charm in entirely stop-motion films like The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the felt it wasn't right for this particular movie. "Occasionally in movies, that charm can throw you out of the movie," said Stacchi, "out of the reality of the movie."


Florian Perinelle works with the Lord Portley-Rind. Credit: John Leonhardt / LAIKA, Inc.

And, of Course, Lots and Lots of Cheese

It should come as no surprise that a city named Cheesebridge is obsessed with cheese. The aristocratic White Hats' main social activity involves tasting fine and stinky cheeses. And that obsession with cheese is felt all over the set of The Boxtrolls. There were some 55 different sculpts of cheese made for the movie, with the cheeses cast in opaque and translucent resins. It's remarkable that something as simple as fake cheese can look so appealing, especially as it's piled up on a worktable.


And the businesses of Cheesebridge similarly reflect the supremacy of cheese. The graphics department worked especially hard on this movie creating not just anti-Boxtroll fliers pasted all over the sets, but also the business signs which are riddled with cheese puns. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled when you watch the film.

Full disclosure: the studio paid for all travel expenses.


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