Producing three films in just five years — Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls — stop-motion studio Laika has become one of the animation world’s superstars. They’re good because Laika, like a modern-day Grimm brother, isn’t afraid to take on darker fairy tales with adult sophistication, while still aiming them at families and children. The storytelling syncs up with design that wonderfully aids the films’ precarious balancing act between being serious (often scary) and incredibly charming.
It’s all the more impressive given that all three films feature monsters — zombies, trolls, giant humanoid spiders — most people would want to run away from. Released last month, The Boxtrolls is a wonderful story about a young boy named Eggs trying to save the creatures who raised him from a troll exterminator. It also provided the perfect opportunity to find out how Laika pulls off its highwire balancing act of tone and design. We sat down with art director Curt Enderle to talk about how he and the studio achieved their latest film’s perfect mix of charm and creepiness. We also collected some tips on how to channel your own inner Laika.
Design with instinct when balancing tones
Finding the right balance between scary and charming is all about instinct, says Enderle. In the case of The Boxtrolls, it was the instincts of Laika’s hands-on CEO, Travis Knight, that proved to be most invaluable. No guiding formula or cheat sheet was needed — just Knight’s savviness. “It helped the designers tread that line between being too scary and still being interesting and sweet at the same time,” Enderle says. “He was very good at looking at sketches and knowing whether something feels right or needs to be pushed one way or another.” For example, the Boxtrolls’ underground home was originally conceptualized as being darker and scarier, but they went with what Enderle calls a “junk version of Coney Island, and a lighter and brighter version of some of the earlier sketches that we had for that environment.” The lesson? Trust your creative instincts to guide your work’s tone.
Embrace creative design opportunities. Like monsters.
While Enderle says that Laika’s movies feature monsters because that’s where their story instincts guide them, he also admits that, for the company’s designers, creatures do have an allure. “I think we’re all drawn to the challenges that monsters represent,” he says. “They can be different shapes and sizes. They can challenge us in terms of puppet making. They can challenge us in terms of pushing the design. They don’t have to look like people you would see on the street. They can push things a little bit the way that stop motion, and good animation in general, can.”
To turn the familiar into the unfamiliar, make it unrelatable
Laika may be talented at making ugly creatures look human and adorable, but The Boxtrolls also demonstrate the reverse: making humans look warped, scary, and, yes, a little monstrous. We see that especially with characters like the villain, Snatcher, and Lord Portley-Rind, the neglectful father of heroine, Winnie. Enderle says they successfully dehumanized the humans by decreasing how relatable they are. They used design techniques like asymmetry, giving characters harsh, angular cheekbones, as well as pasty, discolored complexions drawn from German Expressionist colors (more on that in a second). To see how effective this is, just compare them to the heroes, Winnie and Eggs, who are given noticeably warmer colors in their cheeks. “It’s how you manipulate things within the design scheme that allows the audience to either engage or put characters in another category,” says Enderle.
A little German Expressionism goes a long way
German Expressionism — a style that lasted two decades, starting in 1910, and is most famously exemplified by the silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — played a big role in designing The Boxtrolls. It started early in artist Michel Breton’s tone-setting sketch work for the film, and continued when the crew started doing color explorations of the character designs. The artists working on painting the character sculptures to be used during shooting, even had a range of German Expressionist images posted up that they were referencing as ideas. The line work, warped imagery, and colors, didn’t just make their way into the characters, either: “We tried to incorporate that into the sets and environments as much as possible,” says Enderle. One look at the film’s wonderfully elongated buildings highlights why design can benefit from a bit more of that classic style.
Design for your own inner child
The frequent presence of kids in Laika’s movies isn’t necessarily because they want to adopt the perspective, but because, as Enderle says, “Animation is still sort of viewed as its own genre, as opposed to a means of telling a story. We’re sort of lumped in with things that purely appeal to children.” So, kids? “They’re our demographic,” he explains. But Laika doesn’t let that limit its ambitions. “In terms of designing the world, I think that we’re still looking at it through our own eyes,” Enderle says. “It’s us wanting to do things that we wish had been around when we were children.”
A committed creative philosophy keeps you consistent
Laika so consistently good at making sophisticated family movies because that’s its explicit goal at all times. “The broad philosophy that we’re going for is that we don’t want to pander to the audience, and we don’t want to talk down to the people,” Enderle says. “I think it’s assuming a little bit of intelligence in the audience, as opposed to assuming a broad, lower-level denominator.” That’s why Boxtrolls creates as many laughs as it does scares and serious thought, and it’s also what distinguishes Laika as a studio. “There’s plenty of product aimed at kids that doesn’t necessarily feel like this,” says Enderle. “I think, as a company, we don’t necessarily feel like we need to follow the same path.”
Everybody needs a good team
“It is a really grueling process,” Enderle says, when asked what it was like being a first-time art director at Laika on a project this big. And it was big — Enderle was on the project for 28 months. 72 weeks of that time alone were spent shooting. He credits his team for helping him through that marathon production. Not just his four assistant art directors, but all 70 people in the art department. “I pretty much couldn’t have done it without every single one of them.”