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Immersed in Movies: ‘Boxtrolls’ Directors Stacchi and Annable Talk Waltzing and Mecha-Drill

Immersed in Movies: 'Boxtrolls' Directors Stacchi and Annable Talk Waltzing and Mecha-Drill

The Boxtrolls represents Laika’s most elaborate, action-packed stop-motion movie yet. It’s a feast for the eyes — more Hammer than gothic — and the two biggest challenges were the frantic waltz sequence and the Mecha-Drill mayhem. But overall, as director Graham Annable admits, “The growth and maturity of Laika, combined with the Victorian steampunk look, made for such a rich, ornate, detailed setting. It just pushed everybody’s skills to the max.”

For Anthony Stacchi, who’s a newbie to stop-motion, he wanted to treat stop-motion like live-action and all of the VFX are as real or as hot or as cold as they could make them. “It was all driven by the look of the design and how to best obtain that look in stop-motion.”

“It was always the intention to preserve what’s special and desirable about stop-motion to make sure we did not lose that quality, but finding ways to surround it and make the world feel bigger,” adds Annable, who so successfully grasped the essence of the boxtrolls that he was promoted to director.

But the waltz sequence proved the most difficult, in which Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Winnie (Elle Fanning) try to share a romantic moment despite his discomfort and the villainous exploits of Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley). 

“The dance sequence wasn’t in [Alan Snow’s] book [Here Be Monsters!], but we needed a moment when Eggs is really uncomfortable among the aristocrats,” Stacchi explains. “We originally had this tea party where he’s sitting with Winnie’s parents and it’s a really funny sequence and Toni Collette is great. But it didn’t feel big enough.”

They boarded the complex sequence to a generic waltz and sent it to composer Dario Marianelli, who came up with an original, beautiful waltz, and also padded Eggs’ and Winnie’s romantic moment. They hired two choreographers from the Portland Ballet and they brought some students and recreated every moment that was boarded, and Mark Stewart, the lighting/camera guy for the sequence, shot reference.

Then they had the breakdown meeting. Normally these meetings, which involve members of every department, are lively. But this time there was dead silence. They just didn’t believe they could pull it off. 

“How many puppets do you animate at once? How do the skirts work when they’re dancing? How do you do animator access in a ballroom where you’re going to be spinning 360 degrees? The CG department added extras against the wall and had to composite the backgrounds in later. Animator Jan Maas oversaw the waltz sequence. He just needed a green tabletop to animate on,” Stacchi recalls.
The floor of the ballroom was actually a glossy layer of paper over a metal foundation, used for closer shots. Occasionally they put in corners of the room for shots that stayed in the same direction. But it was a logistical nightmare. It took 18 months to create less than two minutes of screen time.
“Sometimes there were four or five couples dancing at once. But animator access in stop-motion is key. Dave Spencer is one of the best at climbing up on sets and then climb down and click a frame. He was willing but others wanted to cut the set in half so they could reach the puppets. It was a crazy collision where Mark Stewart would shoot backgrounds and the speed had to marry up with what Jan was doing without their feet sliding on the floor. We used CG previs a lot more on this because we build the sets to camera. Ashlee was able to loosen up the camera with the previs.”

Meanwhile, the Mecha-Drill, which Snatcher drives and uses to crush the boxtrolls while storming the market square, was a wild, practical creation — the largest in Laika history (five-feet tall and 80 pounds). It’s the ultimate steampunk symbol but was a major challenge. It was built on a motion rig that allowed it to move from side to side, swivel, tilt, and articulate its appendages. And the fire element was created by a video from an iPad inside the Mecha-Drill.

“At first it looked too much like a spider, so Brad Schiff, the animation supervisor, took some passes at it and Dan MacKenzie, who started as an assistant animator before being promoted, became the go-to guy for most of the Mecha-Drill shots,” Annable offers.

“There wasn’t a clear way we wanted it to move,” Stacchi suggests. “The motors move at such high rates and the compression makes it seem like it’s going to tear itself apart before Snatcher gets to do anything and we thought that was interesting. It added another element of danger.”

It has to work and be on style and there were no circular gears inside. They still have to rotate and work with each other. How to animate it was a nightmare. They ended up with thrusting, robotic movements and you can see all the cogs inside it working hard.

Like the waltz, it was a dance. And once again, Laika relied on a hodgepodge of animation techniques to pull it off. “Laika is a Noah’s Ark for all old forms of animation,” Stacchi says. Which is why it’s so cool that The Boxtrolls ends with a charming tip of the hat to the hand-crafted brilliance that is the hallmark of the Portland studio, which is at the top of its game.

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