Families come in all shapes and sizes — sometimes even in the shape of trolls dressed in crumpled cardboard boxes. In this stop-motion animated film, based on the 2005 illustrated novel Here Be Monsters!, an infant boy named Eggs (Game of Thrones‘ Isaac Hempstead Wright) is discovered by the boxtrolls, impish creatures who dwell below the winding streets of Cheesebridge. They adopt him and raise him as their own, and Eggs grows up never knowing that he’s human. As he reaches adolescence, though, the boxtrolls are facing a major PR problem: The fromage-fixated villagers believe that they kidnap children and steal cheese by night. The villainous Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) plans to exterminate them, so Eggs turns to haughty heiress Winnie (Elle Fanning) to save his adoptive family.
Creating that family in the first place was no easy feat. Laika, the animation house behind the Oscar-nominated Coraline and ParaNorman, used advanced 3-D printing technology to design each character’s every detail and nuanced expression. Here’s a peek at how they did it.
The filmmakers built more than 200 puppets — Ben Kingsley’s Snatcher stands the tallest at 16 inches — starting with metal skeletons over which they placed foam latex and silicone skin created on 3-D printers. Then they added custom-made outfits. (Even jacket buttons, shoes, and jewelry were handmade.) ”By using fine weaves, we could make these characters more believable,” says creative supervisor Georgina Hayns.
Sweating the Small Stuff
As with human actors, the puppets tend to sweat under hot studio lights. ”They leach out an oil because [the silicone] is oil-based,” Hayns says. ”It’s like live-action filmmaking — you have to be constantly on call to talc the boxes or the hands because they’ll start to get a little shiny.”
The plucky heroine of 2009’s Coraline had more than 200,000 different facial expressions. Five years later, happy-go-lucky Eggs has about 1.4 million — thanks to a mix-and-match system and 3-D printing that allow animators to swap various eyebrow and mouth shapes onto thousands of faces. ”Each film just keeps getting more intricate,” says co-director Graham Annable.
Each second of footage took roughly four days to create, and it took 18 months to film one elaborate two-minute ballroom sequence featuring Eggs, Winnie, and dozens of dancing couples. ”This was like The Age of Innocence with puppets,” says Annable. No wonder the crew consumed 3,000 doughnuts during the shoot.
For a more realistic look, the filmmakers used natural light on the miniature sets they built at a warehouse adjacent to Laika’s Hillsboro, Ore., studios. ”Computer programs can do a lot of things,” notes codirector Anthony Stacchi, ”but they can’t reproduce what it’s like to have real sun striking the red velvet costume on a character.”