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Immersed in Movies: The Long and Winding Road for ‘The Boxtrolls’

Immersed in Movies: The Long and Winding Road for 'The Boxtrolls'

When Laika first began nine years ago, its first two acquisitions were Coraline and Here Be Monsters!. However, because of the tremendous scope and free-flowing narrative of Alan Snow’s 550-page steampunk opus, it’s taken a lot longer for The Boxtrolls to come together. And while it’s received Laika’s most mixed reviews, it’s surely the riskiest and, arguably, the most brilliant of Laika’s trio of films, which I discuss with CEO/producer/lead artist Travis Knight (view exclusive video below).

“It’s an act of ruthless economy,” proclaims Knight in touting his first period piece. “What is the core? What personally resonates with us as filmmakers. Once we did that, then we could start building it back up and layering it with the big ideas and everything about society. But getting to that core was the critical thing and then it was a matter of executing it to the level of the aesthetics and the visual stylization that we were after.”

Indeed, The Boxtrolls embraces a wacky British wit and a wild look that encompasses Victoriana and Impressionism, requiring Laika to up its 3D color printing for face replacement and devise more complex mechanics for its eponymous non-humans. Plus the imposing Mecha-Drill is the biggest character ever conceived at the studio. It was made at full scale and with the use of motion-control devices to capture it in camera and from a unified perspective.

“At its core, it’s an intimate story about families and connectivity but it also has something dramatic to say and in a big way,” Knight concedes. “It’s the most expansive thing we’ve ever done, using all the tools at our disposal and every department from the hand-crafted group to the most cutting edge technology group. I couldn’t have imagined making this five years ago. It’s a big gumbo of technology and hand-drawn animation and CG and stop-motion. All of these animation techniques co-exist and advance the medium.”

But Knight is not a purist. He’s after a certain polish that doesn’t call undue attention to the artifice and take us into the uncanny valley of stop-motion. He wants us to connect with these characters emotionally and not think of them as dolls made of silicon and steel. As busy as he is running the company, though, Knight still tries to hone his craft nearly every day.

On Boxtrolls, Knight focused on two main scenes: When Winnie (Elle Fanning) meets Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) for the first time at night and they connect as kindred spirits, which established how all the main characters moved. And when Eggs is in the cage after being snatched by Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) and meets his long-forgotten father (Simon Pegg) for the first time.

“It’s not easy with retractable characters in boxes or an Impressionistic design style with imposing, theatrical colors up against each other. Or Eggs, your hero into the film, who has to be the most expressive character. We didn’t make him a bobble head like Coraline or ParaNorman. His head is the smallest and most naturalistic we’ve had to work with.”

Laika’s next movie has already started production and will be announced soon, but moving forward Knight wants to continue pushing on the edge of the medium and try new stories and styles with humanistic messages while still making edgy family films. At the same time, he still hopes to eventually make one movie a year, which would be a first for any stop-motion studio.
“The exciting thing for me is that we’ve just scratched the surface of what you can do with this medium. Because we keep the band together, we learn on each film. All that innovation doesn’t get lost.”
But what are the stop-motion Holy Grails? “What I will tell you is that there are stories that I want to tell that I don’t yet know how to do using this medium. And, as with all things, that excites me and terrifies me. But we’re on the right path when I’m scared.”

That’s the Laika ethos.

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