There's a very cool Easter egg at the end of The Boxtrolls, the new stop-motion film that opens today. As the credits begin to roll, we hear the riffing voices of Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, who play the dimwitted henchmen Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles. As they spout existential babble about free will and whether they really control their fates, we see the sped up movements of a stop-motion animator flitting about a miniature set, manipulating them both.
That moment exemplifies what separates the art and craft of stop-motion animation from the computer generated kind. In short: With stop-motion, a technique that goes back at least until 1898, what's filmed is real, not pixels.
"It's just a little peek behind the curtain," says Graham Annable, who co-directed The Boxtrolls with Anthony Stacchi. As viewers watch any cartoon, they get lost in the film and forget about the process and artistry behind it. "When you get that little reveal at the end, it really brings it back in your mind. 'Wow, there's been fingertips involved at every stage of this thing, bringing it to life.'" (The guy working on that shot at the end? Travis Knight, master animator and president of LAIKA, the Portland, Oregon-based studio behind The Boxtrolls, as well as Coraline and ParaNorman.)
For stop-motion, the process is analog, slow, and painstaking — the equivalent of kids playing with action figures and plastic dinosaurs, except to breathe life into them, they can only move them a smidgen at a time. The result is that jerky, quirky, imperfect hand-made animation that hearkens back to the work of legendary stop-motion animators Willis Harold O'Brien, the stop-motion animator behind the giant gorilla in the original King Kong (1933), and Ray Harryhausen, whose animated skeletons from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) creeped out and entranced a generation of kids, including me. The uncanny magic and life of these wizards came from frame-at-a-time movements.
What would a similar behind-the-scenes Easter egg reveal at the end of the latest Pixar or Disney animated blockbuster look like? "If you did it for CG, it would be a pear-shaped man in a Hawaiian shirt sitting behind a computer," jokes Annable, who grew up on Terry Gilliam's movies like Brazil and Time Bandits. "And that would be it."
To be fair, computer animation is also serious art. But CG does lack that palpability and physicality that attracts animators to LAIKA to keep alive the traditions begun by O'Brien and Harryhausen, improved upon by George Pal (maker of the "Puppetoons" short films), popularized for TV by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass (in holiday specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer), and brought into modernity with U.K.'s Aardman Animations (Wallace & Grommit), the Brothers Quay (Street of Crocodiles) and Tim Burton (The Nightmare Before Christmas).
"Fundamental to what people like about the image of stop-motion films is, you can tell that there's a tangible object there," says co-director Anthony Stacchi, who worked "a tiny bit" on Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, as well as at effects house Industrial Light and Magic, when it was still a shop that did what he calls "tangible," or "practical" effects. "We live in a world where so much of the imagery is ephemeral. It's just pixels, and it doesn't really exist anywhere."
That little clip at the end of The Boxtrolls, Stacchi explains, is a reminder that the sets for its crooked little town of Cheesebridge are actually built as nine foot tall buildings. The puppets are 12 inch tall dolls that "really exist in the real world, that you can grab and touch. Anybody who's played with dolls or a model train set or built a model can relate to that relationship that's from a god's point of view." Artists also created some 20,000 props by hand — carrots, carts, fake wheels of Brie, and even manhole covers the boxtrolls use to access the upper world, each emblazoned with a cheese emblem.
Based partly on Alan Snow's fantasy adventure book Here Be Monsters, The Boxtrolls is a quasi-Dickensian story about two societies — an above-ground city of humans, rules by an aristocracy of cheese-eaters, and below Cheesebridge, an underground warren inhabited by trolls and a kid, Eggs (the voice of Isaac Hempstead Wright) who is raised by them. The troll-boy's ally is Winnie (Elle Fanning), and Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) is the baddie who wants to imprison and slaughter the boxtrolls.
Like the film itself, Cheesebridge is essentially a technological throwback to another era: a sort of medieval/Victorian fusion, with plenty of steampunk-like gadgets and gears. Which is ironic, considering that the basic tools and materials to make stop-motion work – rubber or silicone puppets with metal armatures — haven't changed much in a century. "The bodies of the puppets are no different than the bodies that are inside of King Kong, or inside the skeleton in Sinbad," says Stacchi. "The faces is where the technology has really changed."
Stop-motion purists (like me) be warned: There's really no way to make puppet-based cartoon anymore without using some digital technologies. You might say The Boxtrolls is a stop-motion-CG hybrid movie. It uses new tools like 3-D printers to make puppet parts and execute the occasional digital effect. Even 2D and hand-drawn animation come into play to create blueprint "model sheets" during character design. (The end credit sequence is also traditional 2D cartooning.)
For Annable, LAIKA is "this crazy combination of old school technique combined with the latest and greatest technologies that are available." He recounts how Travis Knight joked that the studio was a "combination of luddites and futurists together, trying to figure out the best way to make films."
You might argue that what has always held stop-motion back is the genre's inability to adapt to the digital word. To make a pure stop-motion film is to make concessions. If you can't translate an idea into a puppet or environment, or make it work as a tangible effect, artistic vision can be stymied, says Steve Emerson, visual effects supervisor, and a big fan of the Harryhausen Sinbad movies. ("The Cyclops in particular changed my life.") Still, Emerson says that in the rare case when his team creates something that's entirely computer generated, "We're always starting with practical materials and practical references we're getting from the stages." The goal is not to make an effect, like fire or water or fog, or a long shot of a cityscape, look hyper-realistic, but rather to match the handmade, storybook look-and-feel established by The Boxtrolls' brick and mortar world.
One of new, computer-aided processes that has been developed since Coraline, and with each film has gotten more and more expensive, is LAIKA's Rapid Prototyping department. In the old days, animators began by designing puppets with heads and faces could be mechanically manipulated to create different facial expressions or lip movement for speech. Then came the technique of replacing an entire hand-carved face for each frame of film, which increased the number of emotions a character could convey. "But when you're hand carving them, you can only do so many," says Annable. You'd have maybe a hundred faces at most for a character. LAIKA now models each facial expressions in the computer, colors each face digitally, then prints out the faces using a 3D printer. Those faces, about twice as big as a half dollar, still get attached by magnets onto the puppets, and filmed, manually, frame by frame. Later, in digital post-production, artists can smooth out a seam between facial parts, and clean up what they call "chatter" and other imperfections.
"When we started to use 3D printing in Coraline, there was some pushback from the stop-motion fan base because this was using the computer to help out with this handmade art form," says Brian McLean, Director of Rapid Prototyping, who as a kid was "really into the California Raisins and Claymation" and once worked for M5 Industries, the special effects workshop owned by Jamie Hyneman of MythBusters. (As a traditionally trained fine arts sculptor who gradated just as Pixar's Toy Story revolutionized the animation industry, he was also "completely against learning anything to do with the computer.") But now McLean is a digital convert, and believes that Rapid Prototyping "has broken [the medium] free and allowed stop-motion to tell stories with characters that are emoting, and have an emotional range, and acting ability that was never before possible."
In Coraline, the animators could choose from about 207,000 possible combinations of facials expressions when animating the character of Coraline. In The Boxtrolls, Eggs has about 1.4 million expressions. How does this work when actually shooting? The animator already knows the combinations of faces needed to film a particular sequence, and has what looks like "pizza boxes full of hundreds of faces on the set," says Annable. "The amount of emotions and detail we can put into the characters has jumped exponentially with each film."
By comparison, the lip-synch of the Jack Skellington character in The Nightmare Before Christmas, Stacchi says, now seems "very crude."
That said, the directors don't want their films to be too perfect. For it's the human imperfections that give stop-motion its realism, and its groundedness in reality. "You can see the hair on the characters, or the fabric of the characters' clothing, jittering from where the animator was touching it," says Stacchi. In King Kong, his fur "boils all over the place" because the animators had to touch the puppet to manipulate it. Stacchi says LAIKA calls this "stop-motion charm"; it's also impossible to remove. "We try to control it as much as possible so that it's not distracting, but we don't want to get rid of it because it adds to that dreamy quality."
In the end, the trick is to wow people, to show people in the theater something that they haven't seen before. But this gets harder and harder with each passing year of cinematic history.
"You look at films today like the superhero movies or Pacific Rim," says co-director Anthony Stacchi. "They have effects in them that, 10 years ago, would have blown people's minds. They are amazing. And now people just go, 'Meh.'" The solution for The Boxtrolls? "Go small, and make an epic in miniature." Come up with a look, Stacchi says, that you've never seen before and then figure out the best way to do it. "I think stop-motion will always be part of it because in this world where we're surrounded by so much ephemera, so much stuff that you can't grab onto, having that at the core of the film, real stuff that's made by craftsmen, in a place, by hand, is the core of the look."
What is admirable about LAIKA is that it's taking an almost century-old technique, a medium that many of us all grew up on that seemed to be dying, and fusing it with 21st century technology to resurrect it. "I find it kind of ironic that," adds co-director Graham Annable by us doing such an old art form, we're sort of becoming something new for audiences."
And what that art form always has done is affect us on a visceral level. The twitchy, DIY, homegrown look made us feel, as Brian McLean says,
"like my toys had suddenly jumped to life or were performing for me." For isn't that our dream, to have our playthings begin to tell their own toy stories?
Here is a nifty trailer for Boxtrolls that displays the wondrous, tedious world of claymation.