One of my favorite stops on our tour of LAIKA Studios to see the sets for “The Boxtrolls” was our visit with Georgina Hayns, Creative Supervisor for Puppet Fabrication. Is that the coolest job title ever or what?
She described the world of the film as “fantasy Dickensian.” They began with silhouettes of the era, then a maquette (model) style guide, then animation. The characters all have skeleton armatures inside, with ball and socket, hinge, and swivel joints, just like a human. And other parts are in motion as well. “[The villain] Snatch has a big belly and it has to move.” All the characters have to be able to shift shape and weight as they walk, dance, or reach.
For faces, they begin with clay and the characters with limited emotions can be done mechanically (with animators using their fingers to adjust the mouths, cheeks, and eyes). But for the main characters and those showing a range of expressions they have a “library” of replacement faces numbering from hundreds to thousands.
She said that when she first saw the images of the Box Troll characters, she was initially excited to think about all of the mechanics they could hide inside those spacious boxes. But then it turns out that their heads, legs, and arms retract, “so all our space is gone” and they had to find some other way to build in all of the functionality they needed. “Every aspect of the figures has to be lockdown or animatable.”
To create the look of the costumes, they took inspiration from the gorgeously imaginative Ballet Russe. The Red Hats are the bad guys. For the embroidery, they used a sewing machine set to the tiny 1/5 scale. “In a close-up, you have to see the detail,” she told us. “We’re all about cheating the eye.”
For the ballroom sequence, they were inspired by “Gone With the Wind.” They said, “Let’s do hoops!” To create the effect they needed, “the frill is wired.”
The magnificent coiffures in the ballroom scene were made from hemp. “We go to town on our basket-weaving for the hair.”
An army of specialists work on the puppets, including engineers, seamstresses, jewelers, miniature hair people, and armature experts. Some of them have surprising backgrounds. “We have a ceramicist doing hair and a philosophy major doing armatures.” There are 185 puppets, with the most for the two main characters: 12-65 Snatches and 25 Eggs. It took about six months to make the first one for each of them. “And they break a lot, so we have puppet ER.”