All I should really have to say is that the new animated film THE BOXTROLLS was made by Laika, the same stop-frame (or stop-motion) production company that made CORALINE and PARANORMAN. End of introduction. Okay, maybe not. But seriously, with just three films under their belt (in addition to a large handful of music videos, commercials and shorts), Laika has been taking the stuff of nightmares and making them kid friendly—not an easy feat but the results have been extraordinary, and THE BOXTROLLS is no exception.
Based on Alan Snow's fantasy novel “Here Be Monsters!,” THE BOXTROLLS was directed by Graham Annable (a story artist on PARANORMAN and veteran video game animator) and Anthony Stacchi, who has worked on the special effects of everything from GHOST and HOOK to JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, and was a co-director on OPEN SEASON.
THE BOXTROLLS is about an orphaned boy named Eggs (voiced by “Game of Thrones’” Isaac Hempstead Wright) raised by underground cave-dwelling trash collectors tries to save his friends from an evil exterminator. The unbelievable cast includes Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Richard Ayoade and a very funny turn by Tracy Morgan; there’s even an original song by Eric Idle. I had a chance to sit down with Annable and Stachhi recently to discuss everything from the character designs and technical challenges to the very British-ness of the movie. There are few people I enjoy talking to more than animators, so my enthusiasm after seeing this wonderful film knew no bounds. Please enjoy…
Capone: When I saw BOXTROLLS the first time, I noticed strange colors in the faces. I have never seen that done in anything animated before, and I thought I had imagined it. So I watched it again last night and was like, “Yep, there it is.” Sometimes it’s just a little red in the cheek, but some of them have really distinct lines of color that you don’t usually find in the face—blue, yellow—but it reminded me of sketches or paintings.
Graham Annable: Exactly. The line quality in drawings and paintings, the fact that you would put some color here and some green here, and then you’d balance it off with some blue over here. When you look at it and you study it, you go, “That’s really an odd choice.” But if you look at people’s faces, it actually happens that they have a lot of different colors in there. The technology in the face-printing stuff was reaching the point where we could do it, and in some ways Travis [Knight, Laika president and CEO] was really pushing us to do it. It was in the background styling from the original concept drawings that we came up with. You could see splotches of color here.
It totally made sense, and it looked really good when Deborah Cook, our costume designer, would take the face-- She does these little—they’re almost like design projects in Photoshop, and she puts all these fabrics on the character, and she’s figuring out the textures, and it’s actually pretty loose, but you look at it against one of our backgrounds, and you see that they go together. She was pushing that in the faces too. I was pretty afraid of it, and I thought it would crawl and boil.
Anthony Stacchi: Yeah. Stylistically, it made sense. We have, as you’ve seen, very caricatured faces in it, but it felt like another level of stylization to bring to it. But yeah, everyone, well other than Travis, we were all a little nervous that getting that specific and that much nuance into the faces was going to start to cause incredible nightmares for the 3-D printer to be able to really, truly replicate it and keep it from boiling and bouncing around. But they pulled it off.
GA: There is this battle in stop motion too where you’re trying to fight everything looking like a miniature. You don’t want it to look like a miniature, and that a lot of times comes down to texture. CG films spec and bump. You don’t want it to look like a plastic toy, so you get a little bit of bump on it, so it has a little shadows and texture on it.
So in one of our sets in the foyer of Lord Portley-Rind’s house, that set was all built and done. You have the elaborate fabric on the walls, and all the guild stuff looked melted, so it kept the line quality and the chandeliers, and it all looked really great, and then it was all perfect. We were looking at it and it looked great. I thought it looked great. And then Nelson Lowery, who is the guy who was supervising art director of the company, he came in and said, “Now take gold paint and splatter it everywhere—really fine bits of splattered paint. That’ll give it a texture, and it will reflect the light here where the walls stop looking chalky and small.” You could just tell there’s a little bit of a texture there, and it makes the whole place feel bigger. There are a bunch of little techniques there.
Every time the cobblestone streets would meet the sidewalk and go up, for some reason that little joined corner there, it could look like a little toy dollhouse or a little model train set, so they took little fine pieces of wire, and they wove it along there, and it just looks like the dirt and gunk that blows into little corners. If you look at it on the set, you go, “That’s going to look really weird.” But when it’s that far away, it makes it look big, that little dirt that you know exists everywhere, but you don’t notice. They’ve got a million little techniques like that.
Capone: Did you actually shoot this in 3-D?
GA: Yeah, always.
Capone: Someone from Aardman told me that on the PIRATES film, they actually adjusted the space between the lenses to be more like it would be if you were that small. Did you do the same thing?
GA: Yeah, yeah. They’re constantly readjusting that space, which reproduces the space between your eyes. John Ashley, who was our DP, he’s been on all the films. They call it “shooting it natively,” like literally shooting the film in 3-D, rather than some post process. So we come up with a 3-D script for every movie, which is just from the beginning of the film to the end. Sometimes there’s a conceit, like in CORALINE, where there are two worlds. So you say, “3-D is going to be like this in one world; in the mundane, real world, it’s compressed, and she feels confined, and then it opens up in the other world, and so does the color.” So they just use it as an art direction tool. There are some that lend themselves to that, but our film is a little subtler. We had talked about, “Oh, Eggs in the underground world, he can feel constricted, that’s why he needs to go above ground.” We did some tests, and we didn’t really like the way that looked, because you wanted the underground world to be a warm, inviting place, that his life down there wasn’t bad.
Capone: I was going to say, if anything it would be the other way around for him. In his head, at least, he’d feel more out of place above ground.
AS: Exactly. Oh, this is where is where the film was. Yeah.
GA: Then we come up with that script, because shots that are right next to each other can be shot months and months apart. And it can hurt your eyes to be bumping around in 3-D space from one cut to another, so John has to figure it out all the way through the film. We were lucky, because they had done two previous films.
Capone: Each face is a different 3-D print? So you don’t have the same face twice ever.
GA: Well, you can re-use them. There’s not a imprinted face for every frame of film, but there is a whole library of faces that you can use for any number of performance moments.
Capone: Okay, but you can’t physically adjust a print.
AS: No. Each print is an individual, specific thing.
GA: Oh yeah. It’s like a little tray of porcelain faces.
Capone: Aside from that, were there any technological advances in this, or things that you guys did that have never been done before in this production in terms of the animation?
AS: Each of the projects are very specific in terms of its style and the problems that it presents, and actually water was one of them. There’s a shot where Eggs is about to make his journey up into the above world, and he’s in that beautiful sewer setting, and early on, we presumed that the water would probably be handled by our effects CG department, because it makes sense. Water is really difficult to do in a practical way, but Ollie Jones, the head of our rigging department, who is like the MacGyver in the studio amongst a million other MacGyvers—he was the head MacGyver. He wanted to see if he could pull off water in that shot, so he took a stab at it, and he created this crazy contraption of like two pieces of rippled shower glass with a bunch of masking tape and some wire--
GA: LED lights and stuff projecting up through the rippled glasses, which are moving against each other.
AS: Yeah. And it created unbelievably beautiful caustic lighting on the walls and everything, but also the water looked truly like water just traveling though the sewer. And the CG guys were like, “Okay. That’s yours. You got it. You won.”
GA: Literally, the most straight-forward approach—and the thing that they just got accepted for an Academy Award nomination—is the materials they’re using, the ability for detail, and the printing on the faces, that’s wholly a new technology. The materials going into the printing machines. But the other ones are cultural, studio cultural wise, philosophy wise. It’s very rare that a stop-motion studio stays together for more than one project. So you have all that history of some of the best people in the world at stop motion staying together for three projects. So they took on a movie of this scope, it was a really a big scope and scale of the crowds, so many set extensions, etc. So that was different. And then in the culture of the company, we wanted to make this hybrid, so there are people there who are very rigorously wanted to do it all practically stop motion. There’s this nice tension.
Capone: I was going to ask you, do you feel like you’re giving up a little if you have to say, “Okay, maybe the CG guys should take care of the rest of the scene.”
GA: It’s a tension between the two, and it’s driven by the look of the film, whoever can deliver the look. And thereare other issues, too. It’s like that correction, that handling of the sewer allowed the caustic light to play over the puppets who were being animated, and that was great, because if you had to take that reflective light and add it by CG later over moving puppets? Hard. Not impossible, but hard to do.
AS: It would have been hard, and it wouldn’t have looked the way it did.
GA: Yeah, it probably wouldn’t have looked as good, but way preferable to do it practically. The other way is just chasing the look. For Laika, this is also the first time that we used a lot of pre-vis, so the camera is much freer in action sequences. The chase over the rooftops, the final snatcher in the market square, and the company in the past had not had much of a pre-vis layout department, so we couldn’t really fly the camera around as much. John Ashley said that in stop motion, it’s a shame that you do all this preparation, and you build the set, and then you get up there and you have to preform triage. It’s like, “Well we wanted this camera movement, but now that we’ve actually built the set, it’s not here.”
The information can go directly from this low-res pre-vis to this is how much set you should build, and in some ways you can even take the movement camera instructions from the pre-vis and put it in the motion control cameras and reproduce the move out there as a starting point. So as a company, it being the third film is all their tools now, all the arrows in their quiver have gotten more sophisticated. But the rapid prototype, that’s the one that’s just amazing.
And the other area, and I’m not as well versed in it, Deb Cook used laser cutters to cut the fabric to make the costumes, which nobody in the world has to do that at the level that we do that. She was cutting into some of the fabrics, and some of the fabrics it would burn them slightly. Portley-Rind has this slight sepia tone to some of his fabrics. Winnie he has yards and yards and yards of this fabric to make her dress that had to be cut really finely. Her dress there, all the little pink things, each one of them has a medal pedal in it so those can be animated by hands.When we did the armatures, we thought, “This isn’t going to be too bad. I’ve got the box for all the unique armatures for the Boxtrolls to hide in. I have a box to hide it.”
Then when he saw what we wanted the Boxtrolls to do and how small the boxes were. Inside those boxes when you open them up it’s amazing. The armatures that are hidden in there. Just for a Boxtroll to hide in his box takes tons of little pieces, because his arms can start in, but then there needs to be replacement-length arms for disappearing into the box, and the same thing with the head. And then the boxes are capable of squashing and stretching and bending like this. That stuff is really uniquely the medal shop, the carpentry shop.
Capone: Laika has become this producer of kids horror films.
GA: Yeah. Art films. We like to say art films for kids. [laughs]
Capone: But they’re all supposed to be moderately scary. It’s like this little kids’ Hammer Films studio that you’ve built, and there might be some people that think that’s a horrible idea because you can’t risk alienating even one child from a film like this. Talk about just the philosophy behind those choices of making slightly spooky stories for kids.
GA: Yeah. It’s really true, though. The fact that we have an animator who loves animation, grew up watching animation, grew up watching those classic Disney ones. He runs the studio. He animates on them. So a lot of it comes from what he loves, and what he wants to make. There’s also the idea that we do keep our budgets down compared to those bigger studios, so we can run the risk of not having to appeal to every possible segment of society, which I think their films do have to do that. So they have to thread that needle of not possibly loosing anybody. Hopefully we can build up an audience for films for adults and kids with the smaller budgets that we have that they’ll come back. Then ultimately it is true. [Pixar’s] Andrew Stanton said it: since NIGHTMARE [BEFORE CHRISTMAS], since TOY STORY, we make movies that we want to see, too. So we don’t want to just make kiddie movies.
AS: That's a big part of it. Like Tony said, from Travis’ point of view, he wants Laika to hopefully harken back to those early days of Disney features, where you really had your dark, dark moments contrasting with your really joyous, light moments, to really have that big dynamic in it, like DUMBO, PINOCCHIO, those Disney films went to a lot darker places, and I think you felt the joy that much more. I think you have a fuller experience with the film when you can create that level, and in this day in age when budgets are so huge and markets are so broad, a lot of the animation studios really do shy away from getting a little too harsh.
GA: I think he knows too—and I know from having worked with other studios that weren’t able to do it—you need to differentiate yourself from the other people. You can’t just say your reason for existing is “We want to make successful films.” It doesn’t work. They don’t have to look the same, they don’t need a studio style, but I think you need people to go, “Oh, a Laika film. I’ve seen those, I know what they’ll be, what they’re willing to do.”
I have an eight-year-old kid, and I’m amazed that his friends, they all go see all the HARRY POTTER movies and they go see THE LORD OF THE RINGS, so in a way the animation world of the big companies has stayed in a certain place, but the film world—Hammer films and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Peter Jackson is nothing without the Hammer Films. Kids love those movies and the HARRY POTTER movies. I think it’s also savvy business wise, or hopefully it will be, is to be somewhere in between those two. There are darker films that are made that lots of people go see now. They are a little bit more protected because they come from incredibly successful books.
Capone: More than your other two films even, there are jokes and things going on here that kids are just not not going to get, but adults will eat up. All the existential discussions of the two henchmen, no kid is going to laugh at that, but that's fascinating stuff.
GA: Yeah, I’m glad you said that.
AS: But it does combine a lot of levels. For this project, I’ve got two boys, ages six and three, and for my six-year-old, he’s grown up with this film, which he currently still calls “Papa’s Movie” and he loves Trout and Pickles. Those are his two favorite characters in the film. He just calls them “the silly guys,” because he loves the way they interact. The specifics of their conversation I’m sure are going over his head, but it’s the way they’re animated, and it’s the way that Richard Ayoade’s voice and Nick Frost played together. He totally connects with “the silly guys” in the movie. He loves it.
GA: I used to love when I was a kid and I was watching a movie, and you could tell there was something going on there. Or if your parents enjoyed it too, that brought something unique to the experience.
Capone: I can imagine the kids sitting next to their parent, and the parent laughing, and the kid is like, “Why is that funny?”
GA: “What are you laughing at?”
AS: “I’ve gotta figure this out.”
Capone: Hopefully that makes them curious. Can you talk about some of the visual references, both in the characters and the settings? Are there particular movies that you looked at or just loved, and wanted to capture an atmosphere?
GA: When I first read the book, of course, David Lean’s OLIVER TWIST and the Polanski OLIVER TWIST. I love those movies and those two directors. THE THIRD MAN is one of my top-five films. I always watch it once a year, and at the beginning, the movie had a lot more sewer.
GA: We watched KANAL, that Polish movie. Some people would say, “You’re making a movie for kids?” All those movies were an influence. There’s a Russian animator named Yuriy Norshteyn, who makes these cut out things. Just the amount of rendering and textures and beauty in these cut out films. He makes little Russian fables, but he’s been working for years on this Russian film called THE OVERCOAT. I’ve seen glimpses of that. So those are the films that I love and that I thought of when I was reading this book that they could look like that. So those are the film references.
Also BARON MUNCHAUSEN. We always pitched it as it’s OLIVER TWIST as if Terry Gilliam directed the Pythons in it. That’s the tone of the movie. The Pythons would have been willing to show up, put on a King Author costume, and do it, but Gilliam wanted to dump mud all over them, make it foggy and wet and miserable like the Middle Ages. He wanted it to have a bit of visual authenticity. That’s what we hoped too, that it would have this really lush period look.
AS: And I feel like we inadvertently landed in a world akin to Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s DELICATESSEN and THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN. It has that richness and density of texture, every frame of it, and I couldn't be more pleased that it ended up looking the way it did.
GA: Yeah and we were like, “Use a BARRY LYNDON light in this one.” It’s just movie dorks everywhere in Portland [where Laika has its headquarters]. There’s nothing else to do but watch movies for eight months a year.
Capone: That’s true. You have done this wonderful thing in that you’ve isolated yourself from the rest of the movie-making world. It feels like this style of stop-motion animation is thriving right now, despite the labor intensity of it. Do schools even teach the puppeteering aspect of it, and the filming aspect of it?
AS: I don’t know how much formal training for it is out there these days.
GA: Do you remember like we saw [independent animator and NYU teacher] John Canemaker in New York and did a little Q&A with him. He said there’s one teacher who specifically doing stop-motion there.
Capone: One in the whole country?
GA: Yeah, I know. I don’t think at CalArts has a specific one. I think NYU always had one.
Capone: So how do you find animators?
GA: A lot of the guys do both. They are CG animators and stop motion. They would have to to feed their families, the women and men who do it, but a lot of them prefer stop motion. Occasionally you hear about a stop-motion guy who gets lost to the CG world, but usually they prefer to stay.
AS: They prefer to come back to it if they get the opportunity.
GA: There are a lot of English ones. There’s a school in Bulgaria. These three fantastic animators came out of nowhere to work. I think they started on FRANKENWEENIE. People heard that there was a school over there.
AS: We had Bulgarians; we had Canadians.
GA: Belgians, French.
AS: We had a Brazilian guy. It was like the United Nations.
GA: They have to fall in love with it and find their way to it. But we also had three assistant animators who were just starting out who came out of different programs.There’s almost always a CalArts person. If you go to Cal Arts, there are all these character animators who want to work at Disney, and most of them are CG animators and want to go work at Pixar, and then there’s one guy who’s in the film graphics department, who’s down there with a Mitchell camera and still wants to do stop motion.
There’s enough to feed the machine, but we lucked out because nine times out of ten, when you start one of these films, there’s another stop-motion film going on, and you’re fighting over that small pool of highly skilled animators. But there wasn’t one during this film, so we got all of the best. Travis would say there’s less than 30 top-notch stop-motion animators in the world. Pixar and DreamWorks, they have two movies going on at the same time, and when they reach their crisis point, they’ll throw 60-70 animators out. There are lots of CG animators. There aren’t a lot that do stop motion.
Capone: So this is your first film together. Do you see this being a partnership that could continue?
AS: [laughs] Might be still too soon to say, but yeah. The thought of jumping back into any project, whether was with Tony or not, is overwhelming.
Capone: This is your vacation, right?
GA: That’s right. It is.
AS: But no, I think we would do it. We’ve already been chatting about the stuff we would consider doing.
GA: It would be his decision, because whenever you do it for the first time with a partner, you go, “I’m going to do the next one alone.” Everybody wants to think that way. I never thought that way. [laughs] Because it really becomes an animation if you’re honest, because you have hundreds of people trying to make you look good, and if you let them make you look good, it’ll be great. The best idea wins, and it always helps to have another voice there. If you don’t get along, then it’s awful, but if you do get along, it makes everything better and easier.
Capone: Gentlemen, thank you so much. It was really great to meet you. Best of luck with this.