Creating The Boxtrolls by Hand

The Boxtrolls is a stop-animation fable directed by Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable about the foul monsters who live beneath the cobblestone streets of Cheesebridge. The deal with this Victorian-era hamlet is that it’s obsessed by money and class, a posh place where the air is redolent with the stench of fine cheese. Chesebridgeians love their cheese, so this is exactly what the villainous Boxtrolls prey on—at night, they crawl out from their dank, fetid sewer homes and steal the residents of Cheesebridge’s precious cheese! And also, their children!

Or do they? This is the legend the Cheesebridge residents have long believed, but the truth is the Boxtrolls are merely eccentric, quite lovely little subterranean oddballs. Their fashion involves recycled cardboard boxes, their hobbies include dumpster diving and tinkering, and their diet includes the protein-rich grasshoppers, grubs and worms. They are also caring, evidenced by their having raised an orphaned human boy since he was just a baby. The Boxtroll’s real nemesis turns out to be a pest exterminator who wants to rid Cheesebridge of them for good (he’s desperate to belong to Cheesebridge society and this bit of villainy is his ticket). There’s no better sum up to what the Boxtrolls must do than the one written on animation company Laika’s website: “The kind-hearted tinkerers must turn to their adopted charge and an adventurous rich girl to bridge two worlds amidst the winds of change – and cheese.” There might be no better title for a memoir on the making of The Boxtrolls than "Amdist the Winds of Change — and Cheese."

"You don't get anything for free in stop-motion," co-director Annable says in the making of the Boxtrolls featurette. "We've really got to plan out every single element."  Stop-motion animation is quite simple; you move an object and take a picture. It is, however, extremely difficult to do well. Shooting your film frame-by-frame (there are 24 frames per second in a motion picture) means that the animators must manipulate all the necessary objects in a given scene — characters, sets, props, etc. — with every frame photographed (twice, in The Boxtrolls, as the film was shot with a 3D camera). Then the thousands upon thousands of photographed frames are edited and projected together sequentially, bringing the world to life.

Stop-motion animation is more similar making a live action film than an animated one. You need physical sets that are built and dressed, performers who have wardrobe and makeup, and a stage that his to be lit. The level of painstaking care that went into creating the world of The Boxtrolls included hand painting every brick, flower petal and piece of cheese. There are no fewer than 24 different types of weeds growing in the world of Cheesebridge, all specific and stylized by hand. For fire, they suspended, upside down cheesecloth that they lit up with an orange light.  The filmmakers built the sewer system the Boxtrolls live in out of plastic, glass, wires, mirrors and masking tape.

Where did this bizarre tale come from? The source material belongs to Alan Snow, whose novel “Here Be Monsters!” was adapted into The Boxtrolls. Stacchi and Annable adored the book but wanted to find their own way into the story, their own tone. Annable draws the comic series “Grickle” and brought his own style to the production. The directors drew on French and French-Canadian inspiration to hone their vision. First, it was the work of French graphic novelist Nicolas de Crécy (who once worked with the French Walt Disney Studios for two years) that helped them with their initial take on the material. Their story was further enhanced by French Canadian designer Michel Breton, who along with de Crécy’s added greatly to the overall look and feel of the Boxtrolls incredibly bespoke world. Working in stop-motion animation also meant that art director Curt Enderle got to help the filmmakers create everything, down to the tiniest, blink-and-you'll-miss-it detail.

That world is rendered in exacting detail by the Laika animators, led by Travis Knight. "There's nothing that exists when we start on one of these films," Knight says in a behind-the-scenes featurette. "Every single thing you see has to be designed and built by hand." The beautifully bespoke world of The Boxtrolls opens this Friday, September 26.


Bryan Abrams

Bryan Abrams is the Editor-in-chief of The Credits. He's run the site since its launch in 2012. He lives in New York.