Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a book guy, with eclectic tastes. I’m like an archaeological explorer in a library, and every Sunday I dive into the New York Times Book Section to see what interesting new releases might be coming. When I worked at the Walt Disney Studios, in Feature Animation, I was fortunate enough to be assigned to the film “Fantasia 2000”, in the late 90’s. The building was directly across the street from the Disney Imagineers Library in Glendale, CA.. Twice a week I would be in there on my lunch breaks. The space had four large areas of books, periodicals, and Disneyland and Disney World Theme Park original art archives. My Disney ID allowed me access to boxes of original Marc Davis concept drawings for The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Carribean attractions, among countless others. I explored every box, some more than once, as anyone with access would. It was amazing just to be able to hold these drawings in my hands and study them. The book collection in this library was equally impressive. This library contained Walt’s original reference library from the time the Disney Studio opened, with tons of out of print selections. I was reading and checking out the same books as the artists of Snow White, Pinocchio, and Dumbo. During this time, I was very interested in character design, animatronics, and puppet making, so that’s what most of my research entailed.
Shockingly, after months of using the library on a regular basis, I was turned away by the librarians. For some reason, they made a new policy that only Imagineers could use this library, I was in the Animation Department. You would think the company would not be this divided, but it was. It didn’t make sense to me, for this library originally belonged to the Animation Department and was donated to the Imagineering Department as a gift. Well, the producers of Fantasia got involved. We were a close knit group of artists working on the shorts for this film back then, and it was known that I have an enthusiasm for learning, and I was a good worker. A few phone calls were made on my behalf, and I was allowed back in the Imagineering Library. I was forever grateful, and continued to take advantage of my new library pass. I think I got a few dirty looks from the librarians for making a stink, but I never let it bother me.
Since then, nothing’s changed. I continue to teach myself through books. I’m actually a sucker for Mythology stories. As for art books, I can’t have enough. My personal library particularly has a growing collection of “Art Of” concept books. I learned from a digital animator, years ago, to always keep a good concept art book open next to my computer for inspiration while I’m working. They ooze inspiration. I’m often flipping through it while my computer program is “thinking”, and there are even a few coffee stains in a few, I’m ashamed to admit (by accident). There seems to be a new concept book for every animated film made these days. Some are good and some regurgitate a sameness to them, but overall they each have their own strong points. Today I’m going to discuss one of the better ones, the 2014 concept art book: “The Art of The Boxtrolls” by Philip Brotherton. (I do not claim any copyrights of this book. All Images below are copyright 2014 Boxtrolls, LLC.)
Since this is my first review, it would be good to know what I look for. I judge a concept art book on three criteria.
First, I want to see drawings! I need to see the evolution of characters, expressions, storyboards, props, and layouts. The amazing drawing I love to witness most is the initial seed for a film. The first concept that gets the project moving to me has to have the most energy. Without that drawing, it would be hard to convince others to get behind the story. It is refreshing to know that most of the animated movie making process is still drawn by hand. Whether a movie is hand-drawn, computer generated 3D, or stop motion, it’s the performance by a character that ultimately matters to me, not necessarily the medium. Getting to that point of a production is the story that this collection of drawings should tell.
Second, I want to see artwork from a multitude of different artists (not just a selected few). Together they create the fun, loose ideas that made the film worth making. It gives the book more of a studio feel that I am familiar with. For me, this was one of the thrills of working in a major studio. All the stuff you see in these books were on the walls of the studio, constantly changing and being added to. It was there to inspire all the artists working on the film. Some of the directors I worked for even welcomed ideas from anyone who worked there (those are the movies people still talk about). Sure the final character designs are wonderful to look at, but the journey an artist and studio takes to get there can reveal much of what was going through the minds of the artists at that time.
Third, I’m interested in color and style. I love the moods of color within backgrounds, character design color choices, and how it is used throughout an entire story by means of a color script. I like reading about the reason certain colors were chosen or rejected. Add this to the stylistic “rules” of the design and you can witness how successful the artists were at solving design challenges and creating a believable world.
“The Art of The Boxtrolls” book meets all my criteria. Being a stop-motion production, this book gains points with me for its puppet making construction photos. Overall, it just hints at some puppet construction (but they are such wonderful hints for any puppeteer with “eyes to see”). Generally, all “Art Of” books just hint at how a film is made (they can’t give away all of their secrets), but the greatest thing to take from them is knowing what the industry sees as a standard for professional artists seeking to work in this field.
The extremely talented sculptor, Kent Melton’s artwork is in almost every concept art book I own, and here again his work is amazing. He has an incredible talent for turning two dimensional artwork into 3D. I’ve been admiring his work since my Disney days when I had his sculpted maquette of Bonzai the Hyena on my desk during the making of “The Lion King” (the good one) when I was a clean-up animator.
When deciding on a style for any film, an art department has to make a choice on what to make the dominant feature. They could choose LINE as in Disney’s “Aladdin” and “Mulan”, they could choose COLOR as was the case for Disney’s “Pocohontas”, or they could choose SHAPE as was the case in Disney’s “Lilo and Stitch”. For “The Boxtrolls”, the LAIKA studio chose SHAPE.
The characters were conceived by their shapes before any details were being considered. This book is dominated by how shape relationships add to the story. The shape relations between troupes of protagonists, antagonists, and family are well defined.
This book has a tremendous amount of “Embellishment”, as well. This is what I call all the details that make a world convincing. This particular film had to make everything in it by hand. Every tiny detail helps make this world come to life, from the doorknobs and clockworks to the plates and silverware. There are numerous pages of artwork showcasing the locations, vehicles and street signs. Even alarm clocks are not forgotten.
The most complex sequence to animate for the filmmakers of this film proved to be the ballroom sequence. There is a nice spread of a section of the storyboard for this sequence. As for a color script, it is lacking in this presentation. However, there are many pages with colored mood concepts for specific scenes. I would say the majority of this book focuses on Character art. There’s even a section with a group of characters, called the Cabbage Heads, that were cut from the film, as they didn’t advance the story. This is the stuff I love.
The LAIKA studio has produced some nice films. “Coraline”, “Paranorman”, “The Boxtrolls”, and “Missing Link” are filled with beautiful stop motion animated performances. The knowledge the LAIKA studio gained from their first two films, allowed their third film to shine. Of all their movies, I find The Boxtrolls to be at the top, but this is not a movie review. The book itself shows a studio’s mastery in building a believable world with the highest standards of detail in every facet of production. It inspires in the disciplines of Character Design, Set Design, Prop Design, Puppet Making, Industry Standards, and Style. More than just “candy for the eyes”.
For these reasons, I recommend this book. It is a source of inspirational artwork for anyone interested in the filmmaking process. Plus it’s the right size. Some concept art books decide on a new book format so they don’t fit with others on the same shelf. This one fits in the Goldilocks Zone (It’s just right). For those who are familiar, it uses the PIXAR studio books as its template. As a companion to this book I recommend watching the one hour making of the film on youtube, which speaks more on the animation process. With the knowledge contained in the book , plus the video, you will have yourself all the inside information you’ll need for a behind the scenes look at a fantastic world created by the LAIKA studio.
If you’re looking for how to animate, there are other sources for that type of instruction, including my online classes at kablooiestudios.com
It’s fair to say we are drawn to any “making of” art book by the feelings we have toward a particular movie. If you can discipline yourself to a criteria and not just say to yourself that you liked a certain movie, you could build yourself a nice inspirational library with timeless selections and save some cash by avoiding spontaneous purchases.
If you liked this post, leave a comment and/or share it with a friend. I plan to look at an inspirational artbook every four weeks. Next week will be a first look into THE NONSENSE FILES.
Vinny – this was fascinating and enlightening. We love the BoxTrolls, Coraline, etc. The stop animation is beautiful. Thank you for sharing – so amazingly talented.