BEVERLY HILLS – Laika's “The Boxtrolls” saw its world premiere over the weekend at the Venice Film Festival, the third in a line of movies from the Portland-based animation studio that have aimed to push the medium at every step. Directed by Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable, the film is, like all Laika product, its own world, a dank, cockney yarn that, as ever, serves as a showcase for the company's craft prowess.
I recently sat down with Stacchi, Annable and Laika CEO Travis Knight to discuss adapting Alan Snow's mammoth book “Here Be Monsters!,” the use of increasingly sophisticated computer tools to aid stop motion animation and the vision for the company going forward. You can read through the back and forth below, and don't forget to check out Catherine Bray's glowing review from the Lido.
“The Boxtrolls” opens in theaters Sept. 26.
HitFix: Anthony, we met briefly at the footage presentation a few weeks back. We talked about sound editing and whatnot.
Anthony Stacchi: That”s right. Yes, yeah.
Which ended up being a very crucial part of the movie.
Stacchi: Huge. Ren Klyce and Tom Myers, they were fantastic to work with. You know, Ren does all of David Fincher”s films and mostly does live action. He has a history in animation but hadn”t done a lot of animated films. So he loved it, you know, starting from scratch and early, early on we talked about, like the Boxtroll cavern having its own soundscape and the mega-drill being this stuff. And they were great. They went off and did a bunch of work and sent it to us early on so we could start cutting it in the reels and stuff. It was really great. My favorite part, though, is remember we sent the references for the cavern, you know “The Man in the White Suit,” that old comedy, the sound of the machine [MAKES AWESOME SOUND]?
Stacchi: We sent that and we said we want, you know, there”s machines in the cavern that you don”t know what they”re doing but they have these funny little noises. We sent that reference from that film, and at Logan Airport at Boston they have these weird machines that make noises. They”re sculptures that come alive. They sort of swing and stuff but they”re always [MAKES ANOTHER AWESOME SOUND]. You walk into the airport and you get this strange sound and you can”t tell where it”s coming from. So we sent them a bunch of reference and they did a great job.
Is there a balance between, OK, we want it to feel real even though there”s obviously an extreme kind of depiction in the animation and obviously the story, and making something feel like a real environment? Like the balancing act between realism and fantasy boiled down to even something like the soundtrack.
Graham Annable: I mean, it”s a tonal question that we always try to balance very carefully through the visuals or through the sound work. And early on we knew with this movie we were gonna try for a bigger scale experience. And so the movie became a real hybrid visually of stop motion mixed with CG to really create something new, something that preserved the charm of stop motion animation but gave the sense of a big comedy adventure movie. And it was always a balance of like, you know, never doing anything that was gonna take you out of the film, whether it was a sound or whether it was a visual cue. Because stop motion can do a lot of things in camera where you have, like, cotton ball clouds and things and they”re charming and stuff but for our particular film it didn”t make sense to have anything that might stylistically kick you out of the experience. And so we wanted to make sure that you felt like things were really happening. It was a realistic kind of portrayal of fog and rain. And so the sounds had to accompany that as well.
Stacchi: And there”s always the temptation when you”re in there to go into, like, Carl Stalling/Warner Brothers sound effects.
Right. It”s so well established.
Stacchi: And I personally love them, but there does seem to be – people have a threshold of whereby [MAKES ANOTHER AWESOME SOUND THAT YOU'VE HEARD IN CARTOONS BY I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO ILLUSTRATE IT IN PRINT], that kind of stuff in the middle of a feature, it sort of throws them out of it. It”s not a seven minute short anymore. It”s sort of a little over the top, a little too cartoony. So there is a balance between those. And Ren and Tom would always go, “How about this,” and then we”d hear it and then there would always be a little bit like, “Ah, that one”s a little too much.” We said the vehicles were a great opportunity because all the grinding of gears and the squeaking – enough for it to have a personality, too, just like the boxtroll cavern and the mega-drill and stuff. So yeah, we gave them quite a bit of license to figure out those location specific sounds but don”t go too cartoony.
That old school stuff can be fun if it”s kind of dropped in. One of my favorite sound effects is in “Jurassic Park,” when he slams the door and then he slides down the hill?
Right when he slips there's like a banana peel sound.
Stacchi: Yeah, that's funny.
What can you tell me about the increasing use of CGI to support stop motion animation and what that relationship does for you now? You guys took a big step on that with “ParaNorman” and certainly it's utilized in “The Boxtrolls.” I recently watched “The Nightmare Before Christmas” again, which made use of optical effects in its day. So it's always sort of been a tool in the modern era.
Stacchi: What”s cool about some of the things in “Nightmare” is the guys who worked on it, when they put out the candle and there's a little smoke? That”s hand animated, smudged on paper, you know, just gray graphite. So it retains this handcrafted quality to it and the shapes are actually defined by the shape language of the film. So we try to do all those things but one of the brushes we use is CG. I mean the one thing that it changed is, you know, Jack Skellington had replacement faces too that clicked onto his head and he had a very simple face. Those were handmade and you could sculpt them and look at them and then sand them and then look at them and test them in front of the camera and say. “Are they not boiling around too much? Is it distracting?” He”s supposed to be talking but there”s such a difference between the individually made heads that it”s a little bit distracting. Now a lot of stop motion people would say that distraction is part of the charm and it”s part of the appeal. And I think that can be true and stuff.
But on this film and with this technology, you know, we hand draw the faces to figure out style, and then that reference is used by the computer animators who animate the face inside the computer. And then that information is used to print it out on the rapid prototype printers. So that really hasn”t changed at all. There is some crawl in the faces. There”s some clicking. It”s much subtler than what you”d see, like, on Jack Skellington stuff. But it”s still there and the texture”s not always the same. So I think you still have that handcrafted feeling, that these things are really alive, that they”re really being shot on a miniature set. You have all that charm, but it never knocks you out of the picture, you know? Like “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” he wanted it to always look like a doll and the fur to boil as part of the conceit, and it”s done really, really well. It”s great. This film went in the opposite direction. We wanted it to have that stop motion charm that people, you know, can tell something”s different about this. It”s not all done on computer but at the same time not too much of that stop motion charm.
Graham, you came up in Laika as a storyboard artist. How did you come to the company in the first place?
Annable: I got into that position because of a lot of comic book stuff I”d been doing independently. Because at the time I was actually an animator in videogames but I”d always done a few stints in storyboarding and knew I wanted to get back to it. I had done these critical comics and Henry Selick saw them and said, “Hey, this guy would make a good storyboard artist up here.” And so I found myself storyboarding “Coraline,” then “ParaNorman.” And honestly I was expecting to storyboard on “The Boxtrolls.” I got a little time in the midst of the “ParaNorman” schedule to do a sequence for Tony when he was still developing the story, and the sequence that he handed to me was kind of like a dream come true in terms of it was like this sequence with two Boxtrolls, Fish and Shoe, and a baby. There was like no dialogue in it. And for me and my sensibilities and the kind of stuff I wanted to work with, it was kind of a perfect fit. And that sequence kind of became the thing that, for Travis, or for Tony and Travis, kind of became everybody”s point: “Wait a minute – that”s the tone we want to make.” And so I went from expecting to do boards to suddenly sitting beside this guy every day helping to co-direct it.
Was that daunting?
Annable: Yes, extremely to me.
Stacchi: Immiserating, I think, is the word.
Annable: Easily the most exciting and terrifying thing I”ve ever had to do in my career. I mean I joke about this is kind of like being a guy that was really good at flying paper airplanes and then suddenly finding yourself in front of the controls of a 747. I mean, yeah, it was a huge undertaking suddenly.
Travis Knight: And you know, I don”t know that anybody in any job at Laika would be comfortable if they weren”t terrified of some if it.
Annable: True. Travis makes it that way.
Knight: It”s not an environment of fear, it”s an environment of challenge, you know, just kind of trying to take the medium in places where it hasn”t been before, which doesn”t happen on its own. It”s like you have to challenge our preconceived notions of what we can do in this medium. And so when you look at where stop motion was in 2008 before “Coraline” came out and where it”s gone in the five years since, it”s dramatic, and that only happens by people really trying to figure out new ways to do these things in this medium that”s been around for a century.
Stacchi: Yeah, I mean, it takes all of your brain and all of your time working on it if you did it the same way it was done last time. And it”s gonna take time, so you might as well try to move it forward with each story. And it”s really pretty joyful, too, when you see somebody that comes out of the rigging department who clearly has come up with some way to make water in the sewer out of two pieces of shower glass sliding together. He”s come up with that and he”s incredibly proud of it and you walked in there and he”s solved the problem for the whole show in a way that, you know, nobody”s thought of before. And it happens so consistently there. I mean it”s demanded of it because the shows get more complex and the stories get bigger and little things. A couple of departments had to completely change their game just to be able to deliver it for this show.
Graham, when you worked on that storyboard that made everything click, what was inspiring you? What were you putting onto the page that made everything snap into place as far as a vision for everyone, I guess?
Annable: Well, for me I guess just comics and animated shorts that I”ve done in the past. I have a whole bunch of animated shorts on YouTube that I”ve done over the years and, you know, I don”t hire voice actors. I do everything without dialogue. And so my strengths in the storyboard department were always kind of down to the expressions I could get and the gestures I could sort of use to communicate ideas. And that”s what I loved about “The Boxtrolls.” I mean, they didn”t have any discernible language. It really came down to the expressions and there”s just something about, you know, representing those ideas, communicating those things visually, I think, for an audience that just strengthens it. There”s no language to kind of get in the way. I mean it”s kind of universal immediately for everybody.
And I guess if it became all about the expression and what not, you”re pumping a lot of personality into the characters, which helps inform so much. They start to come alive for the crew.
Stacchi: We always knew the core story would be about a boy being raised by boxtrolls. And we knew that there would be a sort of – for me it was the odd couple. There”s a Felix Unger boxtroll and an Oscar Madison. But the personality and their relationship and how they made a good trio to raise the boy kind of stayed the same. We kept talking about it and kept talking about it but it wasn”t until that moment when you saw them looking at each other and deciding, “What are we gonna do with this baby,” that you felt yeah, this is a relationship worthy of a feature and it”s entertaining enough and it”s engrossing and emotional enough.
Why take this particular story from the book instead of anything else?
Knight: You know, I think some of that stuff happens organically. I think any time that you are adapting a book to a film it”s an exercise in ruthless economy. A book can do a lot of things that a film can never do. And vice versa. But you have a 550 some odd page book and you have a 90 minute film. You can”t tell that story in that film. You”ve got to find a version of that story, a distillation of that story. So a lot of it, the early iterations, were very, very faithful to the book, which has all kinds of fantastic characters and different plot points and it goes all over the place. It”s one of the joys of the book but it”s also what would make a direct adaptation of the book impossible to work as a film. So at some point we had to take a step back because it just wasn”t working and say it was fun, it was entertaining but it was frenetic and ultimately hollow. There was nothing underpinning at all.
We had to take a step back and say, “What the hell is this story about? What are we trying to say here? What is kind of our personal connection to it and what are the broader ideas that kind of expand out from that?” And it wasn”t until we happened upon that really clear personal story of this boy and his surrogate family and then from the other side of the kind of the socioeconomic spectrum, this girl and her family and coming together and their place in the world, that we felt like, “Yes, now we have something clear that we can hang this on.” And then you start layering in all the, you know, the metaphors and all the ideas of society and all this other stuff. But without that kind of anchor, without that kind of foundation, of that core story, it just wasn”t working.
Stacchi: And you just don”t know it until you get there and you keep doing scripts and you keep doing storyboards and stuff.
Knight: And we”re all fathers of young kids. So working in animation, where you devote so much of your…
Stacchi: Absentee fathers, yes.
Knight: Absentee fathers was something that resonated with us.
This is maybe an interesting question with the CEO sitting here, Anthony, but having worked at Disney – it was a different Disney then – but having worked at Disney and ILM and DreamWorks, now working at Laika, what can you say about the different animation environments.
Stacchi: The only place that I feel is similar to working at Laika was a little commercial studio I worked at called Colossal Pictures, which was run by two guys who also directed TV commercials. So in a very intimate way you had two guys who ran the company, Drew Takahashi and Gary Gutierrez, who were directing movies. Sometimes we would pitch different ideas for commercials and Drew would be pitching for them, too. And you would get it but he ran the company and he would help you on your thing. It was a company run by artists and stuff. It eventually, you know, went on to do other stuff but in those early creative days, everybody was sort of working on everybody else”s project and we did every kind of animation there was. That is the closest relationship I ever had to Laika and it was the first place I worked at. I loved it. It was the most creative place I”d ever worked at. Never made a feature film, never won an Academy Award, but it was by far the most satisfying.
When I went into Laika, that”s what it felt like. There were people, there was a model shop, there were carpenters, there was every form of animation you could think of. That”s why I really liked working there. And the fact that Travis is there on the floor animating and loves animation – every other studio I worked for, wonderful people, really smart executives, but you kind of felt that they were punching their ticket in animation en route to something else. They weren”t dedicated to animation in a fundamental way. And Travis is an animator. This is what he wants to do and that makes a big difference.
Travis, what are you eager to do moving forward as far as content – not necessarily specifically but just like, how are you looking to progress what it is you”re doing there and what kind of emotions your films are going to continue to conjure.
Knight: Yeah, in my head – I haven”t shared it with anyone – I know exactly what our next three films are. Well, I shouldn”t say that. I don”t, really. I have something of a roadmap in my head of what our next three films are going to be like. And they take the studio in different directions, places we haven”t been before. I”m extraordinarily proud of the three films that we”ve done to this point and of the way that we”ve evolved the medium just in those five, six years. It”s seismic to me as a lifelong fan of animation and stop motion in particular to see how we”ve been able to redefine the medium in that period of time by taking all these extraordinary filmmaking elements and putting them into one big swirling gumbo and coming out the other end with something unique. It”s been really inspirational for me to see how everyone comes together and does it. And it”s also been an inspiration to know that we can handle anything. That the challenges you throw to the crew are impossible.
None of us know how we”re gonna do something. It”s like, “I don”t know how we can do this. We can”t physically do this.” And some genius working in some corner of the studio will have this brilliant idea, like Tony was saying. And that, for me, has opened up a lot of avenues for what we can do moving forward. So we don”t have to be hamstrung by, “OK, you can only tell these kinds of stories in these kinds of ways.” It opens it all up. We can do anything and that is both, you know, exhilarating and terrifying because it means that we”re not living up to our potential if we”re just kind of repeating ourselves. We don”t want a house style. We don”t want to kind of, you know, aesthetically, visually keep doing the same kinds of things. We want to have each film be its own unique thing. And we want to explore other ideas, other themes, other kind of, you know, emotional things. And to make thought provoking and challenging films.
But that doesn”t happen on its own. You have to push, you have to, you know, make that happen. And I”ve never been around a group of people that more desperately wants to and has passion to evolve this thing that they love, to really take it places where it”s never been before. Giving them the raw material to, you know, make these incredible movies is something that occupies a lot of my time, to figure out how we can live up to the incredible talents that this group of people has. So looking forward, I”m incredibly excited about where we go from here because I think it”s unlike anything that we”ve done before and that”s a great thing.
We live in an era, as you know, as any fan of film will know, where everything is reboots and remakes and prequels and sequels and everything else. Where old presents are re-wrapped and offered up as new gifts. That could have some short term benefit for, you know, a corporate parent, but I think in the long run it is detrimental to film. I think by not showcasing original voices, original ideas, doing things in new ways, innovating within the medium, I think that”s the only way that you”re going to show audiences this is a viable thing. This is something – this our new mythology. And unless we take advantage of that as an industry I think we run the risk of being kind of pushed aside for something new.
Is there any desire to franchise within the properties you”ve already conjure over there?
Knight: You know, we have stories that we”re developing that kind of, potentially, could have a bigger expansive story within it. I”m generally against sequels just because, you know, any story should be the most pivotal moment of your protagonist”s life. So what”s a sequel? The next most pivotal moment? You immediately start to diminish what you can do. So I think generally I”m opposed to it for us as a studio, but I also think that there are, you know – “Lord of the Rings,” it was a bigger expansive story. “Hunger Games,” you know, that”s a big story. So I”m not opposed to it if it”s something that”s just naturally in the material, but I think if it”s something that has no reason to exist other than to, you know, line the coffers, then we”re not gonna do it.
Well thanks and good luck with the release, gentlemen.
Knight: Yes, thank you.