How Boxtrolls studio revolutionised stop motion animation (Wired UK)

The Boxtrolls – Meet the CharactersWired UK

The Boxtrolls is the latest movie from stop motion
animation studio Laika, previously responsible for the
award-winning Coraline and ParaNorman. Adapted
from the novel Here Be
Monsters!
 
by Alan Snow, it follows an abandoned boy
raised by the eponymous creatures, a timid subterranean race who
are feared by the surface citizens of Cheesebridge.

Wired.co.uk speaks with animator and Laika CEO Travis Knight on
how Laika has used 3D printing and other new technology to
revolutionise stop motion, how the style is perceived by audiences,
and the allure and necessity of darkness in family films.

Wired.co.uk: You had a short lived rap career in the
’90s as “Chilly Tee” — how did that come about, and how did you
then progress into animation?

Travis Knight: Oh god, blast from the past…
It sort of goes back to when I was a kid. I loved art in pretty
much all its forms, always have a sketchbook with me. Some of my
earliest memories are me drawing. If we’d go to a sporting event
with my family, I wouldn’t even be paying attention to the game,
I’d be drawing. Drawing, painting, sculpting, photography, making
films, making music — they were all big parts of my life as a
child. I started doing more stuff with music in my later teens, and
eventually wound up a record contract with MCA Records and working
in music. I’m a kid, 17 years old when I started doing that, and by
the time I’m 19, I’d had enough. It was not for me — it was not
the lifestyle that I wanted. I decided I had to find something
else, I couldn’t spend my life doing that. It was just a very
unpleasant experience for me. So I went to college but I was still
an artist, I still wanted to create things. After I graduated, I
found myself working at Vinton Studios in Portland, doing TV shows,
commercials, that sort of thing. That went on for a while, and here
I am nearly 20 years later.

How was Laika as a studio formed?

Vinton was a small commercial house in the town I grew up in in
Portland. They did a lot of M&Ms commercials, some claymation
specials in the 80s. When the ad recession hit in 2001, after the
terrorist attack — that hit America hardcore. I don’t know how it
was in the UK, but basically all companies started pulling back on
advertising, and Vinton became insolvent. At that time, I pushed my
father and said “I think that there’s something here that we can
salvage.” He invested, and we started this new company, Laika.

What appeals to you about stop motion, over 2D or CG
animation?

It was something I always loved as a kid. I loved animation in
all its forms, like most kids, but I was particularly drawn to stop
motion. I loved the Ray Harryhausen creature features, I loved
Jason and the Argonauts, and The
7th Voyage of Sinbad
. There was just something so magical
about it. It was almost like, you know when you’re a kid and you’re
playing with your dolls or your action figures? You imagine the
life and scenarios these things have. Stop motion was almost like
that somehow, able to crawl inside your brain and capture that
moment. When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I would try to do stop
motion on my own, in my parents garage. Like most kids who try
that, the results were terrible, but eventually you learn things,
you get better.

One of Laika’s big innovations has been 3D printing
every component of your character models. How has that impacted
your creative process?

I think one of the things that makes Laika unique is our
production process. At the core of our film making is stop motion
animation, which is kind of antithetical to technology because it’s
a craft that goes back over a century to the dawn of cinema. In a
lot of ways, it’s unchanged from when Georges
Méliès
was sending rockets to the
moon
. With the rise of the computer in the ’80s and
particularly the ’90s, it basically usurped all other forms of
animated film-making, including hand-drawn and stop motion. A
computer’s an incredible tool, it can do pretty much anything, and
stop motion was really showing its age. It couldn’t compete in that
form.

So when we started Laika, the one thing I thought was “I love
this art form. What if we can take it and expand what it can do by
infusing this craft with technology?” Instead of this thing that’s
tried to put us all out of business, the author of our demise, what
if we embrace it? In that way, is was like a luddite embracing the
loom — a complete community of people who were not really tech
savvy, integrating this other community of futurists who are always
coming up with new ideas and inventing things.

We’re incorporating rapid prototyping, we model things on
computer and then print them out using this new technology so that
they’re things you can physically hold in your hand. In a way, it’s
taking the old idea of replacement animation, which has existed for
generations, and bringing it to a new era. It used to be you’d have
to carve parts in wood or sculpt them in clay to get all the
different replacements. Now we just model it all in the computer
and print them out as we want them.

How many variations or components does that leave you
with per model?

Extraordinary numbers. The great thing about replacement
animation is that you can get nice clear, broad expressions, but at
the cost of subtlety. As a sculptor, you could never get that kind
of fine detail between expressions. What computer modelling has
allowed us to do is get the same great broad expressions, but also
really nice nuance in the changes between them. For instance, the
old school method, like the Jack Skellington model used on The
Nightmare Before Christmas
, I think he had something like 800
different expressions. Coraline had somewhere in the
region of 200,000 different expressions. Then Eggs, on The
Boxtrolls
, he has 1.4million. Which is significantly more than
me — I think I have maybe four! These characters are incredibly
expressive.

Is that not in itself incredibly labour intensive,
cataloguing all these parts for any conceivable shot?

I think there’s a notion that new technology speeds these things
up, but it doesn’t, it just pushes the burden all over into
different areas. In a lot of ways, stop motion is un-speedupable.
It just takes a lot of time and effort, it’s labour intensive, it
sucks a lot of your brain power — that’s just the nature of what
it is. We have trays and trays full of faces that are catalogued
with little codes, and we have facial librarians whose job it is to
keep track of all the faces and make sure they go in the right
spaces. An animator will sit down at a workstation with a CG facial
animator and work through the shot, figuring out what the facial
expressions are going to be. That information gets sent to our
facial librarians, and just like you’d check out a library book,
you check out a kit of faces for your shot.

What’s the scale of the puppets you use at
Laika?

Usually you find the proper scale for your hero, and if they’re
a kid, that sets the bar. There’s a certain point where you can’t
get too small, otherwise you can’t get the performance that you
need out of it, and you can’t get too big because then they’re too
difficult to control. Eggs is about 9.5″ tall, as was Coraline.
That’s about the perfect size for younger hero puppets. It allows
you to go up for the bigger characters and down for the smaller
ones, and still get the performance needed. That size is sort of
the sweet spot, about 1/6th scale. I think Jack Skellington was
much bigger, and the main puppets in Frankenweenie and
The Corpse Bridewere, but there’s something about that
9.5″ size for us where we’ve found it’s the perfect balance between
performance and control.

It’s commonly bandied about that stop motion animators
usually gather about one second of footage per day. Is that still
the case?

On average, animators produce about four-five seconds of footage
a week that you can use. Now in that number, animators are often
doing a rehearsal, or block before that, and when they’re actually
going and shooting usable footage, 4-5 is about as much as they
get. On a good week, when they have nothing to do but animate, you
can get anywhere from 10-15 seconds of footage but that’s pretty
rare.

Do you see Laika sticking with stop-motion, or
experimenting with different animation styles?

I do think that we don’t want to have a house style, in the
sense that we want different aesthetic points of view with each of
our films, and I think we’ve been successful in doing that with
each of them so far. I’m excited by the general processes that we
use, which is using emergent technologies — we use stop motion, we
use hand drawn, we use CG, and other technologies all in this
swirling gumbo. The great thing about it is you can’t really tell.
It doesn’t call attention to itself at all because it has a unified
sensibility. What excites me moving forward is thinking about how
we can vary the different levels of those ingredients. Could
something potentially be more of a classic hand-drawn animation?
Those are things I think we’ll explore, how we can take the medium
to different places by changing up the formula.

The Boxtrolls  seems more family friendly
than your previous films — is that intentional?

I think that’s probably right. Each story calls for its own
thing. Coraline was a dark modern fairy tale, and because
of that it had to honour the source
material
, honour that history. That meant it had to have this
primal fear of losing your parents, that’s a big part of what that
film is about. To flinch in the face of that, or to soft peddle it,
is to do the material a disservice. It was definitely darker or
scarier than most of its contemporary animated films.
Paranormanwas rooted in Amblin films and Hammer Horror,
schlocky 70s and 80s films, and because it drew inspiration from
those sorts of things, it has scares but they’re more sort of
funhouse scares.

The Boxtrolls is a different sort of a story, it was
based off Alan Snow’s book, and it was really more inspired by
Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl, with a really great Monty
Python
-esque sense of humour to it, a sense of absurdity. I
think because of all that, it had to be a different type of film.
It still has intensity, it still has a lot of dynamism and a nice
balance of light and dark, but it probably is our most “friendly”
film, if you will.

Do you think there’s a certain creepiness inherent in
stop motion animation?

I will say you’re never going to see an Aardman film that’s
outright scary or dark, or say that Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr.
Fox
 
is. It’s a Wes Anderson film, so it has all the
things that come with that. If people associate stop motion with
darkness or creepiness, well, there is something inherently weird
about the process but only when things are not done properly. A
real object bathed in real light photographed by a real camera –
if it’s a little herky-jerky moving around then that is unsettling.
That’s why we try to bring greater sophistication to the animation
style, so these things feel more real and alive, so you actually
connect with them as living, breathing characters not just puppets.
In terms of if there’s something inherently scary about the medium?
I don’t think there is. It’s been defined by a handful of really
brilliant creators, including Tim Burton and Henry Selick who tend
to gravitate towards darker material. Our first couple of films
were darker but I don’t think that means we would never do
something that was really light and fun, it just means that those
are the proper kinds of stories to tell at that moment.

In ParaNorman, you had the character Mitch very
non-chalantly mention his boyfriend right at the end. In The
Boxtrolls
, there’s a sort of villainous drag queen, Madame
Frou-Frou. Do you think that might be seen as a more negative
portrayal of LGBT characters?

Not at all. If anything, the character of Snatcher is more
accepted in drag than he is as he wants to be, which is a wannabe
aristocrat. He has talents, skills and a magnetism when he’s being
his true self that he lacks when he tries to be something that he’s
not. The Madame Frou-Frou character is adapted from Alan’s book and
took on a slightly different form in the film. It was a way for
Snatcher to spread his anti-Boxtroll propaganda in a way but oddly,
in this pseudo-Victorian society, he ended up more accepted in that
form.

Do you tend to look for the macabre in the source
material?

Not as such. You have to have a lot of ups and downs in your
story, so when you come to the end of the journey you have a sense
of joy and elation. I don’t think you can occupy a middling zone,
you need to have light, you need to have dark, have intensity,
warmth, humour, heart — but you also need to have scares to
balance the whole thing out, so you can feel that ride. Because of
that, our films tend to be a little “darker”, a little more intense
than most animated films, but I also think that a lot of films
geared towards families tend to speak down to the audience. They
don’t respect their intelligence.

I have three kids, the directors both have kids, and we know
kids are sophisticated, that they can pick up on things, that
they’re able to handle these kinds of stories. We make films that
are geared for the whole family. We don’t want the parent to be
bored or see the film as a visual babysitter, we want to have
engaging material from the kids all the way through to the adults.
That means exploring different ideas, things that are a little more
thematically challenging or thought-provoking.

Are film studios and television networks scared of
embracing kids’ sophistication?

Yes, definitely. It’s tricky. When you look at family
entertainment over the years, how it’s evolved, I loved the Disney
Classics, Snow White, Pinocchio; they couldn’t
make those movies now. They’re too dark, too intense. The early,
great Spielberg and Amblin films, The Goonies and
E.T.– again, they’d never get made now, just because
there’d be people going “won’t someone PLEASE think of the
children?!”

I think we’ve seen a tendency over the last 10-15 years to shave
off rough edges, worrying about offending anyone or having anything
remotely provocative about the material. I think we’re doing our
children a disservice by not being able to show them different
kinds of material, that opens them up to different ideas. I
remember when I was a kid and I saw E.T. for the first
time in the cinema, about eight years old. Tears are streaming down
my face and I’m wondering what the hell is wrong with me, I’m so
emotionally connecting with this rubber creature. But what it does,
entertainment in its best form — film, TV, literature — they open
your mind to new things, get you to ask questions, think about
things in a different way, feel things. That’s ideally what the
medium should be used for, because it’s a powerful way to reach
people. That’s what the finest works of art do, they find our
common humanity, and I think watering it all down so it can be safe
is terrible.

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8 September 2014 | 5:13 pm – Source: wired.co.uk

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