'The Boxtrolls' brings stop-motion animation back into the light
While the bulk of modern cinematic animation lives inside computers, with Pixar-style CG characters dominating the box-office, Laika has carved out its own creative space, with advanced stop-motion animated films like Coraline and ParaNorman that are breathtaking to behold. With The Boxtrolls, the old-school technology is as pristine and delightful as ever, and author Alan Snow’s literary characters spring to vivid life. Game of Thrones‘ Isaac Hempstead Wright voices Eggs, an orphan human child who is raised by a band of trash-collecting underground creatures, and Ben Kingsley gives the proper snarl to Archibald Snatcher, who wants to exterminate the boxtrolls once and for all from the town of Cheesebridge.
In addition to a new Boxtrolls featurette, co-directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi spoke to EW about the new film, which premieres Sunday at the Venice Film Festival and opens in theaters on Sept. 26, the joys of stop-motion, and the collaborative culture at Laika, where the CEO, Travis Knight, is also one of the chief animators. “We like to think that everbody who works at Laika is essentially a boxtroll,” says Stacchi, “because everybody who works there pretty much lives their lives in darkness and only comes up into the sunlight to collect more mechanical pieces to build their weird machines.”
EW: For people who aren’t familiar with Alan Snow’s books, what is The Boxtrolls all about?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Boxtrolls are sort of these naive but mischievous trolls that live beneath the streets of Cheesebridge. They’re called boxtrolls because they wear cardboard boxes kind of like the way a turtle wears its shell. And they only come up at night to collect mechanical junk and stuff from the trash; it’s the stuff they need to build these weird machines underground in these cities that they live in. And they’re just one amongst many of the great creations of Alan Snow in his Here Be Monsters! books, but they are the most unique ones
GRAHAM ANNABLE: The real core of the story for us, and it took us awhile to get there when we were working on the script because Alan’s book is 550 pages. It’s just massive, and every page of it has a new character, a new setting. We figured out at a certain point that the real heart of the story that we wanted to tell is that these timid, sweet boxtroll creatures adopt this orphan boy and bring him up as one of their own beneath the streets.
Why is this world and its characters ideal for stop-motion animation?
STACCHI: Early on, when we first read the book, we really only concerned ourselves with the story, and didn’t worry too much about putting it into what particular medium or style of animation. But when we did get around to it, what appealed to me about it as a stop-motion film was the a scale of the film. This project seemed like it was going to be bigger than any stop-motion you’d seen before. A lot of times, stop-motion films feel like you’re trapped on a little, tiny model train set for 90 minutes. But the amount of characters, the two worlds, the sizes of the action-adventure sequences, to me, promised a fantastic stop-motion experience.
ANNABLE: The book certainly suggested a big world, bigger than anything we’d ever built or made for Coraline or ParaNorman, and the fact that we kind of kept this same core group of people together at the studio for three films really allowed us to make a stop-motion on a scale that we’ve never attempted before.
I can only imagine the thrill of coming to the set each day and finding this amazing miniature world literally laid out at your feet.
STACCHI: Early on in my career, I worked at places like ILM, where they still had model shops and they built a lot of stuff. So for me, this was kind of like going home. I never thought I’d have that experience again. I had been in L..A working on CG features, so I was just going into dark rooms every day with the glow of computer screens. So when I first showed up at Laika, it was like walking on to the backlot of Warner Bros studio in the 1940s—people sawing wood, and metal being worked, and costumes being made. When you read Alan’s book, it had this real sort of visceral sooty quality, this sort of Victorian industrial-evolution London with steam-punk machines. So the idea of actually building those things and seeing them in front of you, that was part of the appeal.
Were there certain cinematic references and touchstones that you discussed with each other and hoped to capture, either artistically or spiritually?
STACCHI: We were really inspired by the tone of the story Alan made by his illustrations, and when I first read the book, I immediately thought of David Lean’s Oliver Twist and any film with Terry Gilliam doing the costumes, like Baron Munchausen.
ANNABLE: When I came on, I felt like we were channeling a lot of Jeunet and Caro, Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children. It just had a real richness to the look of it all.
This is Laika’s third big stop-motion feature. What has the company learned since Coraline and how has the technology advanced?
STACCHI: Like Graham mentioned earlier, just the scale of this film alone—literally how big some of the sets are, how complex some of the effects are, how big the crowds are, and sequences that would’ve been impossible previously, such as the dance sequence or the big chase sequence at the end, the battle in the market square. The studio has just become more capable of that type of imagery. The other area is the technique of using the rapid prototyping 3-D printers to do the faces. With leaps and bounces on each film, it has become much more able to produce more intricate faces with finer details, especially in the way that it renders color. You can look at the early faces that were done on Coraline, and those were quite simple with shapes and they had to be hand-painted so the painting job on them had to be very simple so that it didn’t jerk around with each successive paint job. Our faces, we went to great lengths to have them look and fit in with the background, which is this old European city with stained walls. The faces look like a Lucien Freud portrait in that they have blotches of color and lines on them and that’s all to the rapid prototyping department’s credit.
ANNABLE: And even the quantity of faces has really jumped. Coraline, I think, had about 207,000 possible expressions she could emote, and for The Boxtrolls, our hero Eggs had upwards of around 1.4 million expressions he could possible combine together.
You have a pretty eclectic cast, with Ben Kingsley and Tracy Morgan, Simon Pegg and Elle Fanning. Did they come in with a certain familiarity of these books?
ANNABLE: I think a lot of the draw for the cast that we ended up with were the previous movies we’d done at Laika. The actors knew what kind of movies we tend to make and were very interested in being part of the project. Sir Ben Kingsley was at the top of our wish list, in terms of having him for our villain, but both Tony and I weren’t too sure he was going to sign up. He just hadn’t had a history of doing animated features, really. And we figured a guy of his stature must’ve been offered a few animated parts before. So it was exciting to get him on board. And then Tracy Morgan was just a complete left-field thing that we threw in there, because we thought he’d make this perfect surprise mix with the rest of the cast’s chemistry that we already had, and he certainly provided that.
Is the marriage of character and voice-actor in stop-motion identical to the process for other forms of animation? I was recently speaking to the animator who worked with Robin Williams on Aladdin, and I’m curious if what you did was similar.
STACCHI: Early on, when we sent Sir Ben the script, we sent him a couple of images to look at of the character. We sometimes test the animation—in our case, we just had Snatcher walking up and down a stairwell in a certain way, so we could figure out how he moved and how the puppet controls would work, as far the bounce in his belly and everything. We showed some of those tests eventually to Sir Ben, but before he really had seen any of that stuff, he came to a recording session with this preconceived idea of what Snatcher would be. At first, when we heard it, it was nothing like what we had imagined Snatcher speaking like. He wanted to be recorded, reclining backwards in a chair—which is something you would never do because it causes so many changes to somebody’s voice. But he had this concept that Snatcher would speak sort of out of his belly, with his diaphragm. He came up with that, and in that first session, he started elongating certain words to sound almost more aristocratic. And then he started elongating every vowel in every word. By the time I left that first recording session, I though I was going to get fired when I showed up at Laika with that record. But instead, when I played it for Graham and Travis, they really loved it.
ANNABLE: Yeah, the animators on this crew immediately began to fight each other for who was going to get a chance to do a Snatcher shot in the film because the voice-work was just so bizarre and compelling for them. You felt like, okay, this is why Sir Ben Kingsley is who he is, because he just brought so much to the role just by his voice performance alone.