DIY Cinema: Behind the Scenes at Cardboard Box Office

At Cardboard Box Office, an imaginative and resourceful family of three — Lilly, Leon, and toddler Orson — brings iconic scenes from films to life: think Star Wars and The Matrix, and Pulp Fiction and Dumb and Dumber.

Here, we chat with Lilly about their whimsical, Webby Award-nominated “production company” and get a closer look at their movie recreations.

How did this project come to life?

We were new parents in a new country and our family, who lived overseas, always asked for photos of us with Orson. On yet another Saturday night at home, we did something different and took a family photo in the style of The Life Aquatic. We called it The Life Domestic:

Image by Cardboard Box Office

We’re not sure why we decided to do this, but it gave us something to do. It was only ever meant to be a one-off, but people loved it and wanted to see more movie remakes. We had fun doing it, and because we had no social lives, we decided to do more.

To date, we’ve done over seventy film recreations.

In your Beetlejuice episode, you brainstorm on a chalkboard. Can you talk about your pre-production process?

This is a pilot episode that was originally pitched to The Scene, an online channel.

Our true creative process isn’t quite as organized as what’s shown in this scene. In fact, very rarely is the scene drawn out at all.

We start by thinking of a movie, which isn’t as easy as you’d think. A lot of movies do not tick all the boxes needed for a successful recreation. The most important thing is that the film on which the photo is based has to contain an iconic and recognizable visual element — be it a vehicle, set-piece, costume, or monster. Subtle visuals do not translate well to cardboard and sheets. This is why we never do many rom-coms.

Image via Cardboard Box Office
Image by Cardboard Box Office

After selecting a film, we decide on a scene — and then the roles each of us will play. We then walk around the house to see what we can use. Leon normally has the scene constructed in his head, and it goes from there. Sometimes a trip to charity stores is required for costumes.

Our biggest purchase for costuming was for our recreation of Game of Thrones. I think every item we wore in that photo was bought from a thrift store. Joffrey’s outfit for Orson was made from a couch cushion cover with holes cut in it for his arms and legs. He was laughing and running around the house in this cardboard crown and cushion cover. It was funny!

What’s the most challenging aspect of production? Lighting? Lack of space? A squirming baby?

The most challenging part is keeping everything together — literally. A lot of our sets are held together by nothing more than tape and string. The bigger they become, the less likely they are to stay upright. Leon is constantly running around re-taping and balancing boxes. Oftentimes, we will be ready to take the photo and a cardboard wall or building will collapse. A very challenging set was the bowling alley in our recreation of The Big Lebowski. That thing didn’t want to stay up.

The other big challenge is lighting. Normal house lighting is very even, but isn’t effective when you’re trying to create drama or a certain mood. All the lighting in our photos is created from six to ten house lamps of various sizes. We use these to highlight something or to remove shadows. Finding enough wall sockets is always an issue, too.

Which scene recreation has been the most demanding thus far?

The most demanding recreation would have to be The Dark Knight. The tiny creation of Gotham City was by far the most labor-intensive build we’ve done. Each high-rise was made from a box covered in brown paper, with tiny window holes cut into it, and then stuffed with Christmas lights. I can’t remember how many we made — but it was a lot. And they kept falling over. We learned a lot from this photo: primarily to keep things big and simple.

Image by Cardboard Box Office
Image by Cardboard Box Office

Have you run into any unexpected hurdles, mid-shoot, that have required you to completely change the set — or abandon the idea?

All the time! Because our planning is rough, nearly every recreation requires us to change at least one aspect of our idea. We’ll realize that packing tape won’t stick to polystyrene — or that two chairs and a sheet don’t look like a ship at all.

One recreation we completely abandoned was The Life of Pi. Leon tried to build a Bengal tiger out of a pile of clothes, a chair, pegs, and bottle tops. I’m not sure how to describe what it looked like but it certainly wasn’t a tiger. Because we needed the tiger in the photo, we gave up. When you become a parent, you get kind of lazy when it comes to building fake animals. But we’ll definitely have another attempt at that film — visually, it’s too good to pass up.

Leon tried to build a Bengal tiger out of a pile of clothes, a chair, pegs, and bottle tops. I’m not sure how to describe what it looked like but it certainly wasn’t a tiger.

What’s the most unconventional material you’ve used? Your most creative use of material? I must say that blue jelly beans as meth, and legos-hanging-from strings as bullets, are my favorites.

There are times when we will see something around the house and have a “Eureka” moment. Some of our favorite uses of items have been the ladder and umbrella that doubled as the entire tail-section and rotor of a helicopter (M*A*S*H), an old suitcase that looked like the front of the DeLorean (Back to the Future), and a set of mugs that doubled as dragon teeth (The NeverEnding Story).

Image by Cardboard Box Office

How do you decide what scene to recreate next?

As well as following the decision process I mentioned earlier, we try to mix things up. If we do a dark film one week, we try and do a comedy the next. And if the hero of the photo was, say, a monster, the photo’s focus the following week will be a vehicle or one of the characters instead.

Tell us about your photo series for The Honest Company.

Earlier this year, we worked on a series of photos in collaboration with The Honest Company. They asked if we could create lookbook photos to tie in with the designs on their new range of spring diapers. Due to intellectual property reasons, we felt it was best if the photos weren’t related to specific films, so we created fun generic scenes. Conceptually, these scenes meant a different way of working, but we enjoyed the freedom of building whatever we wanted. The Honest Company was fantastic to work with and gave us complete creative control. We’re really pleased with the results!

cardboard box office
Image by Cardboard Box Office

What do you do when you’re not scheming up cinematic sets?

I’m a studio manager for an online software company and Leon is a stay-at-home dad. Before we swapped roles, he was a book designer and had worked for a number of publishing companies. I studied photography at university — and Leon has a huge interest in it — so our blog has been a great way for us to apply this to our life as parents!

How would you like to see Cardboard Box Office evolve?

We don’t know what the future will hold for us. It seems that whenever things calm down, something else is around corner. We have no particular direction for the blog: our current format works for all three of us — and keeps us sane. We’ll just keep on doing what we’re doing and enjoying what we enjoy.

Follow Lilly, Leon, and Orson’s cinematic adventures on at Cardboard Box Office. You’ll also find them on Twitter @our_boxoffice and Facebook at Cardboard Box Office.

November 23, 2015Family, Film, Interviews, Photography