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Immersed in Movies: Talking Ballroom Dancing with ‘Boxtrolls’ Directors Stacchi and Annable

Immersed in Movies: Talking Ballroom Dancing with 'Boxtrolls' Directors Stacchi and Annable

Without a doubt, the exquisite ballroom dance sequence from The Boxtrolls (a romantic interlude combined with a frantic chase and culminating with public humiliation) was the most difficult to pull off, particularly in stop-motion. It required special planning, some creative experimentation, and extra effort from all the departments. And the sequence is enhanced by Dario Marianelli’s pretty waltz (watch the exclusive “Let’s Dance” making of featurette above, with the David Bowie cover composed by McKenzie Stubbert).

“From a story perspective, you’re thinking ballroom dancing is not on the same scale as Snatcher riding the Mecha-Drill and destroying the market square,” recounts co-director Graham Annable. “Logistically, moving so many puppets and keeping the feel of the dance alive was much harder to do than anything in the film. It originated as a tea party where Eggs is having a great fish-out-of-water moment with Winnie’s parents. But with the way the rest of the movie evolved, it had to be on a bigger scale and Eggs’ humiliation needed to be more public.”

“Even as we boarded, we knew there had to be a romantic moment between Eggs and Winnie,” adds co-director Anthony Stacchi. “For the first time, they take a look at each other and seize the situation they’re in. At first, it wasn’t Snatcher pursuing Eggs during the dance [as Madame Frou Frou]. It got more complex with each iteration.”

However, the directors were met with utter silence when they entered the first breakdown meeting with the rest of the crew. “It had been a long journey of complexity working it out. Looking at the physical space, we realized how much more problematic this whole sequence was going to be on that level,” Annable continues.

But they were helped enormously by first shooting live-action reference footage with the Portland Ballet, which choreographed the dance. Mark Stewart shot the actual dances from every angle that were in the storyboard as reference. Then they did some previs as well. Integrating a musical sequence for Laika was completely new, let alone doing it as stop-motion. Luckily, the studio had an expert at musicals and period pieces.in Marianelli.

“Dario created the source music that we needed to create the beats for the animators but he also seamlessly created all the emotional padding that needed to be in that waltz music,” Stacchi explains. “That allows us to switch from the romantic moment between Winnie and Eggs and slip right into suspense and danger with Snatcher as Frou Frou, and it all stays as source music and stays within the waltz parameters, which became an amazing piece of music.”

They used real puppets for anyone touching and dancing but there were CG extras for people in the background twirling around or in the foreground between the hero characters and the camera. But the most difficult shot in terms of animator access and integrating stop-motion with CG occurs when Eggs hides under the skirts to elude Frou Frou.

In fact, they were initially planning on doing it CG with VFX characters composited in. But there was no way to get the articulation in the dresses to make it read clearly that Eggs had gone under them and then scrambles out.. But with extra time, it was blocked by animator Jan Maas with real puppets. He got the right amount of movement in the dresses to make it read clearly.

“Jan figured out a great up and down motion without the use of mocap,” Stacchi recalls. “He also came up with an aristocratic snootiness in the way they danced where they were stoned faced and ignored each other. The skirts also had a slinky, accordion-like effect.

“Half the time the floor was cut in half and there was never walls or you shot against green screen, so you had to think about the elements that go into it, which would be the original stop-motion characters on top of the parquet floor. Then the secondary characters, the swirling walls, the stairway and the doorway were all shot as separate elements with the camera, and then composited later by the VFX department.

“We carefully avoid seeing their feet on the floor and lucked out by doing some wider shots on the boarding as we shot the reference and did the low-res previs of it. They put marks on the green screen and reproduced the camera movements so you’d get a feeling for how the camera was moving as the characters were twirling. But a lot of times that stuff is fudged. Mark would shoot tests on the swirling background and we would do rough comps on the Avid or have them do it in VFX just to see if the speed was right.”

As the directors point out, the ballroom sequence is a first for stop-motion, and just one of many remarkable advancements for Laika in The Boxtrolls.

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