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Venice Film Festival – Day 6

September came in like a lion in Venice with a late Summer (or was it early Fall?) storm lashing the Lido and sending hapless patrons in tuxes and evening gowns scrambling for cover outside the Palazzo del Cinema. Some of the soaked festivalgoers had come from the screening of Boxtrolls which Focus Features is due to release on September 26 and which is the sole animated entry at this year’s festival.
Based on Alan Snow’s novel Here Be Monsters, it’s defined by Anthony Stacchi, (the film’s co-director with Graham Annable), as a “cross between Oliver Twist and Monty Python” – which perhaps explains why the producers got an assist by ex-Python Eric Idle who penned a song for the film (music credits go to an excellent Dario Marianelli). The story of the impish monsters that live below Cheesebridge and the nefarious plan to exterminate them, plays in a benign horror vein that recalls The Nightmare before Christmas and a similar message of inclusion and benefits from a British-accented voice cast that includes Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Ton Collette, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Tracy Morgan. Boxtrolls is the third feature release by Laika Studios, the stop-motion studio behind the successful Coraline and Paranorman which, with Britain’s Aardman Animations, is the world’s pre-eminent stop-motion specialist. That incredibly labor-intensive technique is as old as film itself, first employed by the likes of fantasy pioneer Georges Méliès and made famous by King Kong in 1933. It was used by effects legend Ray Harryhausen to create fantastic creatures in innumerable sci-fi and mythological epics. In modern times it was largely abandoned safe for occasional artistic shorts, before being revived by Tim Burton and Henry Selick, the creative minds behind Nightmare. Burton returned to the technique for Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie while Selick did James and the Giant Peach and later Coraline at Laika which was established when Oregon-based stop-motion animator Will Vinton (The PJ’s) was bought out by local shoe mogul Phil Knight, founder of Nike. The studio is now run by his son Travis Knight, who is also a hands-on aficionado of the art and head animator on Boxtrolls.
As production on Boxtrolls was winding down earlier this year a group of HFPA journalists visited the studios which are housed in an industrial warehouse in a business park on the outskirts of Portland. Inside that nondescript exterior however is a wondrous fanatsyscape of astonishingly detailed miniature sets handcrafted by a small army of artists, craftspeople and assorted makers with backgrounds in fields as diverse as engineering, watch making and jewelry design, driven by a common passion for painstaking creation. That process culminates in the actual animation of the foot-tall puppets that as the name suggests have to be moved ever so slightly and photographed frame by frame, 24 times for each second of the feature-length film sometimes in scenes with dozens of characters and hundreds of tiny moving parts. The technique has been refined by Laika with the aid of computer visual effects and interchangeable faces that are 3D printed on site, but the bulk of the work is proudly manual. And like Travis Knight told us at the Lido reception for the film, the stop-motioners wouldn’t have it any other way.
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Luca Celada [gallery:3415]