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In Conversation with Laika’s Mark Shapiro – Part 1

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Mark Shapiro is Head of Brand Management for Laika, who we were lucky enough to catch up with after his informative and extensive talk on the making of The Boxtrolls at last year’s Bradford Animation Festival. The Boxtrolls is the third stop motion film to come from Laika, each of their films having advanced stop motion and pushed the boundaries of the medium. Having previously spoken to Mark at the 2012 edition of BAF, Skwigly were honoured to again be shown a glimpse of the magic that happens behind the lens and see how both he and Laika have been since.

Mark Shapiro

Mark Shapiro

Someone asked during your talk “If you have got shaky hands can you be an animator?”

I think people have the idea that we are working with live cameras, but obviously you can move things around quite a bit because it’s in-between the frames (using onion-skinning in DragonFrame). Normally we would have the puppets tied down with screws in the heels of the feet, which also makes them more stable.

Can you tell us more about the puppets, specifically the details in the costumes?

All the costumes are made by hand, specifically for the character, and they have to have that flexibility. Deborah Cook – who is British – designed all the costumes and she has the challenge of creating things to fit this style, but also to be able to manipulate and animate them. This year the department really went to town with the fabrics and laser-etched Edwardian patterns onto some of the costumes. Screen Shot 2014-11-27 at 22.37.04They used an amazing range of fabrics, for example in the white hat for Lord Portley-Rind there were fourteen different fabrics. In the dress Winnie wears there’s wire in each fan of the skirt because they need to be flexible but also hold the position long enough to take the frame; There is also a metal hoop underneath so it can move that way.

The faces are just as detailed as the costumes, could you expand on the production of them and how you keep track of them all?

The face is made of a powder resin material that the 3D printer builds, layer upon layer, taking about an hour per square inch to make. So each face roughly takes an hour. We have approximately six 3D printers, some black and white and some colour. We printed over 50,000 faces and we keep track of these by numbering each of them on the back. They just attach to the puppet by a magnet.

We have a specific facial librarian tracking everything to make sure that they know where everything is and that when they animate, they are delivered a kit of faces that are all there. It’s a fully animatable face underneath, with eyelids that move, and if you notice the hair as well, it’s subtle but firm enough to be animated (this is wire covered in Raffia and a non-shiny, glue-like material to hold it in place).

If you were a Boxtroll which one would you be?

That’s a good question. I love baby Eggs. He’s really sweet, I mean he’s really small. But I think I’d be Sparky, because I’m always shocking myself with something.

Did you get to meet any of the voice actors for The Boxtrolls and were you starstruck by any of them?

We did get to meet quite a few of the voice actors, sometimes they will come back for tours in Portland. They will come to the studio and do pick ups (lines that may need re-recording, or extras that might have been rewritten into the script). It was interesting to see that Isaac grew quite a bit in production, which also happened with Kodi in ParaNorman, they’re younger and then because production takes two and a half years they change.

There’s a sense of reverence on both sides. Obviously we love having the actors visit and they always have a lot of appreciation for what we are doing as well. So, it’s nice that we are both interested in what the other person is doing and we are both excited by it.

With Isaac in Game of Thrones and with Elle Fanning and her work it’s amazing. They are great actors, they are voices but they are acting as well. Kudos to the team for bringing such great voices together.

How are the voice recordings generally set up?

We try to make the recordings as authentic as possible, so there’s a lot of inter-relationship between the actors and whenever possible so that the acting happens and there’s not just a voice being read and the producers (David Bleiman Ichioka & Travis Knight) and often the CEO (Travis Knight) and directors (Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi) will go to voice records, help with setting the scenes, let people understand what they are going to be doing and make sure that they are acting and not just reading lines from the script.

Following on from referencing the voices into the animation, I am interested in the other types of reference and research that went into the film, specifically regarding the vehicles?

It’s interesting, the Edwardian culture and the Steampunk culture we show, a lot of references came out of extensive research that the production and design team underwent. Nelson Lowry and others in the Model Shop built everything from reference. There is a lot of seeing what there is in the world and what is there to research. Living where we live in Portland, Steampunk culture is very much a strong movement, there’s a lot of that happening everyday around us. Portland people also have a ‘mend and make do’ philosophy, so there’s a range of eccentricities from which there’s been some live reference as well. For the vehicles there’s a lot of going back and forth, seeing how the vehicle will look, how it will move, just like in any movie you do, you do extensive research.

What is an average day in Laika like for you?

The average day is the unexpected – there’s always something new happening and there’s always artists working on things, surprising each other. Everyone is really excited by all the creativity, which means there really is no typical day whenever you work with puppet animation and are dealing with real world elements.

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 12.56.30What are the key roles of your job within the company?

Well I think that the key outliers are to let the creatives tell the story of our movies, of our pictures and of our studio. In a way that shows we like to show a little piece of our production in creative ways, so that people are aware of what we do. Then maybe our things find them, contact comes to them and it relates directly to how we are working and there is no disconnect.

Stay tuned to Skwigly for Part Two of our interview with Mark Shapiro!

Mark will be giving his Making of The Boxtrolls talk at Animex if you were unfortunate enough to miss it at the Bradford Animation Festival.

To celebrate the release of the quirky and mischievous family adventure The Boxtrolls on 3D Blu-ray and DVD on 26 January 2015, we’re giving 5 lucky winners the chance to get their hands on a copy of the 3D Blu-ray! Enter the competition here 

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