Families come in all shapes and sizes—and 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.
The boxtrolls adopt Eggs and raise him as their own and the boy 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 the family was no easy feat for Laika, the animation house behind the Oscar-nominated Coraline and Paranorman, which used advanced 3-D printing technology to design each character’s detail and nuanced expression. Here’s a peek at how they did it.
As with human actors, the puppets tend to sweat under hot studio lights. ”They each out an oil because [the silicone] is oil-based,” says creative designer Georgina Hayns. ”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 allows animators to swap various eyebrow and mouth shapes onto thousands of faces. ”Each film just keeps getting more intricate,” says co-director Graham Annable.
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 co-director Anthony Stacchi, ”but they can’t reproduce what it’s like to have real sun striking the red velvet costume on a character.”
Each second of footage took roughly four days to create, and it took 18 months to film an elaborate, two-minute ballroom sequences featuring Eggs, Winnie, and the dozens of dancing couples seen here. ”This was like The Age of Innocence with puppets,” says Annable. No wonder the crew consumed 3,0000 doughnuts during the shoot.
”Isaac had a really charming voice and an incredibly cute lisp,” says Stacchi of the Game of Thrones actor. ”He also had the anxiety that Eggs needed as a boy who had never been above ground in the sunlight but at the same time he had gravitas later as he started to go through these stages of [growth].”
Before Sir Ben Kingsley stepped into the recording studio to voice the deep, ominous voice of the villainous Snatcher, Sir Ben had an unusual request. ”He said he wanted a reclining chair,” recalls Stacchi. ”And I never heard of anyone reclining before and I was about to explain, ‘Well, you can’t really do that because it will change the tone of your voice,’ and he said, ‘That’s why I want it.”’ The end result? A low, deep voice that’s reminiscent of the voice Sir Ben used for the character of Don Logan in the 2000 film Sexy Beast.
Elle Fanning—whose older sister Dakota voiced Laika’s 2009 film Coraline—was an early favorite for the role of Winnie. There was just one issue: The 15-year-old didn’t have the English accent required. ”But luckily Elle had just finished doing a film called Gina and Rosa where she had developed a great English accent,” says Stacchi. ”So we kept her voice teacher at all the recording sessions.”
Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade voice Mr. Trout (left) and Mr. Pickles (center), while comedian Tracy Morgan took on his very first animated voice role as Mr. Gristle (right). ”He’s like a Victorian, Terminator-type robot,” says Stacchi, laughing. The character—whose signature catchphrase is ”very nice, very nice”—was originally envisioned with a British accent. But that ”didn’t make sense because when you get Tracy Morgan, you want [to hear] Tracy Morgan,” Stacchi explains.
It’s no mistake that Cheesebridge aristocrat Lord Portley-Rind—with his red hair and slightly squinty eyes—bears resemblance to actor Jared Harris (Mad Men). ”We never considered anyone else for the part,” Stacchi says. ”It was always going to be Jared Harris.”