The week before this year’s Comic-Con, amidst the flurry of mapping out our hectic but insanely fun San Diego schedule, I decided to take a quick jaunt up to Portland. If it had been anything else, I probably would have said no and kept my nose to the grindstone, but an opportunity to visit Laika and The Boxtrolls set was impossible to resist.
As far as stop-motion animation goes, Laika is king. As the studio’s lead animator and CEO Travis Knight put it, “This is really a band of navel-gazing mole people who formed a small, independent animation house 950 miles away from Hollywood, specializing in an art form declared dead a generation ago.” Stop-motion animation, which dates back to 1897, has been used in cinematic classics like King Kong, Star Wars, and of course, Henry Selick and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. In the mid-2000s, Selick joined Laika and began work on their first feature film, Coraline. Laika followed the success of the Neil Gaiman-inspired story with ParaNorman, a spectacularly spooky journey that was one of the best films of 2012. And now, in 2014, Laika has revolutionized the process yet again and has produced their third feature, The Boxtrolls, just two years after ParaNorman. After watching the film and learning what goes into the process, you’ll be flabbergasted they pulled it off so quickly.
Set visits are, in my opinion, always wonderful, but this one had a palpable sense of wonder attached to it. Stop-motion animation is not just a meticulous and impressive art form, it’s a labor of love. Imagine how proud you have to be of your work and ideas to spend day in and day out painstakingly crafting props smaller than your fingernail? One of the first trailers for The Boxtrolls featured the hands of many of Laika’s artists building the world of Cheesebridge and these misunderstood little trolls, and the attention to detail is staggering. When I arrived in Portland, I couldn’t wait to get to the studio to see how it all comes together.
We were treated to some advance footage of the film prefaced by an introduction from Knight, who spoke passionately about the craft of stop-motion. “It’s old school movie magic blending art, craft, science and technology in this big steaming gumbo,” he said. He went on to describe The Boxtrolls as an “absurdist Dickensian coming of age tale. It’ a story of fantastic creatures, rousing heroics, and good for nothing reprobates. At its core, like all Laika films, it’s a moving and human story with big ideas and an even bigger heart.”
The footage showed us the origins of Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), an orphaned little boy who is adopted and taken underground to the whirling, whizzing world of the Boxtrolls. The bug-eating, box-wearing, gibberish-speaking, misunderstood trolls hopped and bopped around the narrow streets of Cheesebridge, scrounging for snacks and boxes in the dark. Unfortunately, a nasty, oversized exterminator (voiced by the incomparable Sir Ben Kingsley) starts snatching up Eggs’ family, determined to bring an end to Cheesebridge’s “Boxtrolls infestation.” Eggs then has to venture to the surface, befriend a seemingly stuffy, upperclass little girl named Winnie (Elle Fanning), and find a way to save his family. Knight mentioned that Laika aspires “to make films that are bold and distinctive and enduring, films that are visually stunning, that have a betina of beauty, but more importantly, have a reservoir of meaning. Films that are thought provoking, emotionally resonate, progressive, and just a wee bit subversive.” The Boxtrolls, unsurprisingly, accomplishes that and much, much more.
We were then taken on a tour of Laika, given a chance to look at the different departments, including costumes, puppets, art department, animation, and the stages. We looked at the hand-carved puppets of The Boxtrolls immense cast of characters, poured over the Victorian-style dresses, top hats, and suits for each maquette, and explored some of the inspirations (Bill the Butcher, Shirley Temple) for the residents of Cheesebridge. We walked through the animation department and ogled pieces of fifty nearly-identical expressions for a character, all used for one moment. We saw a ballroom scene move from puppet construction (complete with hoop dresses and individually wired ruffles) to animation to the extravagant, gilded stage. And lastly, we saw a slice of the teetering, off-kilter town of Cheesebridge, the stage of the marketplace. Complete with tiny little meats, cheeses, market stands, and cheese puns, the marketplace was one of the most detailed, gorgeous things I’ve ever seen.
After the set visit, I had a chance to sit down with Game of Thrones‘ Isaac Hempstead-Wright, who voices the character of Eggs in the film. Still riding an artsy high from my set visit, I asked him about his own introduction to LAIKA, what it was like recording with Sir Ben Kingsley, and what made him fall in love with stop-motion animation.
Craving more Boxtrolls goodness? Check out Dan Casey’s interview with Isaac Hempstead-Wright at this year’s Comic-Con, get a taste of the trolls’ insect cuisine with CM Punk at The Boxtrolls‘ bug truck, and make sure you go see The Boxtrolls this weekend, so they can keep creating the wonderful work they do!
The Boxtrolls stars the voice talents of Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Sir Ben Kingsley, Elle Fanning, Jared Harris, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Toni Colette, Richard Ayoade, and Tracy Morgan, and rolls into theaters today, September 26, 2014.