When The Boxtrolls opens today in theaters, audiences will be witnessing the culmination of a production spanning years and countless hours of work by hundreds of talented people, and most will hardly notice.
It’s easy to get caught up in the story of Egg, a boy raised by the friendly underground-dwelling creatures for whom the film is named, and forget everything that went on behind the scenes to create the fantastical town of Cheesebridge and its various inhabitants. But it’s worth taking a closer look, because the artistry on display in the film is really quite something.
I got a chance to see it firsthand during my visit last spring to LAIKA studios, as filming on The Boxtrolls was nearly complete. (You can check out my previous interview with the film’s directors from the same trip here.) Like the studio’s previous films, Coraline and ParaNorman, it was created in traditional stop-motion style, using mechanical puppets which are manipulated one small gesture at a time and photographed in succession. It’s a trick as old as film itself, but the animators at LAIKA have perfected it to an art form.
To give you an idea of just how complicated and intricate the film really is, here are some amazing statistics provided by our hosts during the visit:
- The animators were expected to produce 4 seconds of film per week. At 40 hours a week, that adds up to around 600 hours of work to create one minute of film. The final average came out to 3.7 seconds per week, or around 90 frames.
- At the height of the production there were as many as 30 animators working all at one time on different sets. Since the film is basically made up of a series of still frames, several different scenes in different locations could be created side by side at the same time.
- There were around 190 puppets created for the film. Some of them were duplicates so they could be used in different scenes at the same time, others were backup puppets made to replace worn-out or broken ones. It took four to six months to complete a single puppet.
- The puppets have removable faces, some in two pieces. The eyes can be switched out to express different emotions, while the mouths are carefully designed to mimic the shapes of human speech and a wide range of expressions. The filmmakers used a revolutionary color 3D printing technique to create each face individually, so the pieces could be designed on a computer first and then printed as needed. This process represented one of the most ambitious changes from LAIKA’s previous films. There were around 52,000 faces created for the production, compared to 20,000 for Coraline and 33,000 for ParaNorman.
- The costume fabricators created more than 200 costumes for the puppets. The smallest was a sweater made for baby Egg measuring 3 1/2 inches from cuff to cuff, and his baby socks, which were just 5/8 inches long.
- There were more than 20,000 props made by hand for the film, including 55 different kinds of cheese and a tiny sewing needle and thread. The sets even included 25 different kinds of weeds.
With so many films these days relying on computer graphics and dazzling special effects, it’s nice to know that there are still people out there creating things with their hands in true maker spirit. When you see The Boxtrolls try and take a moment to step back and appreciate the artistry and charm of that audacious concept. The film opens today.