By Paul Risker.
From the pages of Alan Smith’s Here Be Monsters! (2005) Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi release the Boxtroll creatures from the stillness of the page and set them loose to roam the big (and small) screen. When I spoke with Annable and Stacchi I discovered two humble directors keen to play down their own contributions and acknowledge the team of craftsmen and artists who, in their own words, “spent two years making us look good.”
Nominated for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Oscars, The Boxtrolls is Laika’s third stop-motion animated feature film following from Coraline (2009) and Paranorman (2012), which each saw Laika Entertainment’s work acknowledged with nominations, and sparks into life the old cliché “third time lucky?”
In conversation with Film International, the directing duo, who between them have worked on James and the Giant Peach (1996), Antz (1998), Paranorman and Coraline, took us back to their roots and the inspirational moments that sparked a love of animation and film. While reflecting on their own journeys they shared their thoughts on the evolution of animation, taking us behind the scenes of stop motion animation to describe the unique challenges, the influence of silent cinema on the film itself, respecting the human voice and creating a film that connects us with our childhood memories.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?
Graham Annable (GA): I always feel that career wise my entry into animation was through comics. As a kid I was always making my own little comic books and comic strips. When I was ready to graduate from high school; when I was trying to figure out what to do, I knew I loved film, and in my mind comics plus film equalled animation. So I applied to Sheridan College in Canada and that was kind of my way into the world of film and animation.
Anthony Stacchi (AS): Similarly when I was young I always liked to draw and I loved films – I always wanted to go into films. I had a great art teacher in the local high school I went to who pushed me to figure out where the Disney animators were trained, and I actually grew up in Boston where a lot of the old Disney animators taught. This teacher taught photography, painting and drawing, but we talked a lot about film. So he pushed me, and we found the address for a college in California – The California Institute of the Arts. Prior to that I was pretty directionless about how to approach it. I just loved movies, and so when I reached out to the school they sent me back requirements for the portfolio to get into the film programme. This teacher – I think a lot of people have one teacher in their life that they really connected with – helped me put a portfolio together, and I was accepted into the school. Prior to that I had loved film, but not particularly animation, and so when I arrived there instead of just the Disney films I had grown up with I saw a lot of animation from all over the world – films from the Film Board of Canada, Russian animators like Yuri Norstein. When I saw those films I became excited about the medium of animation.
How do you view the evolution or journey of animation from your position as first spectators and then animators?
GA: Working at Laika we were at a studio that is always in the process of finding new ways to bring a medium like stop-motion animation forward, and to reinvent it. It’s a technique as old as cinema itself in terms of the special effects aspect of it, and Travis Knight the head of the studio is devoted to us finding new ways to represent it. So it was interesting to be at Laika, and I feel we are actively participating in the evolution of animation right now with the rapid prototype space replacement that we used, and that are unique to our movies by using 3D printers that apply a technique that is as old as George Powell and the puppeteers of the forties. It is a strange concoction of new attitudes and techniques that use really old methods.
AS: When I graduated from CalArts around 1986 it was far more interesting at that point to be working in TV commercials and rock videos. Just the quality and the look of the animation was much more interesting than the feature films that were being done that were still sort of in the Disney style. So for me there was a big sea change in the world of animation about the time that A Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Toy Story (1995) came out in the early nineties. Those stories just seemed so much more sophisticated than animation had been – the doldrums that animation had gotten into. I just thought at that time, wow it might be fun to work on some animation features. Since then I have worked on some 2D and CG [Computer Generated] films. But it wasn’t really until Laika did it that I saw that here was a place, an independent animated film company that didn’t have to appeal to every single possible segment of the population, because their films were so expensive or because they were part of a big corporate machine that had parks and merchandising. It was really an independent animated film company. Then Travis Knight whose vision for the company includes telling stories that other studios probably would never tell with the level of darkness to them, and which could consequentially give the lighter moments that much more emotional punch; it wasn’t until then that I really became excited again. I had worked at Sony Pictures and ILM before that, and when I did the first Sony film in their animation department there was a lot of talk there about doing different types of films. But in the end they really just seemed to be making films like every other animation company; trying to become another player. So for me when I went up and met Travis about seven years ago and he gave me the book Here Be Monsters! (2005) to read, clearly this was going to be a different movie than what everyone else was making.
What was the actual genesis of The Boxtrolls and how did you both became involved in the project?
GA: Well I had worked as a story artist on Coraline and Paranorman. I assumed I’d be a story artist on The Boxtrolls. But very early on – about four years ago now – I had an opportunity to board a sequence for Tony while in the midst of the studios, and still trying to figure out exactly what we were going to do with that film. I just had a blast working on it, and the sequence kind of became a tent pole sequence for the movie. It solidified what Travis and Tony wanted to do with the material, and before I knew it I was sitting in a co-director chair with Tony, because our sensibilities just synched up for this particular project.
AS: Early on when I worked in the Bay Area I had worked on some stop motion films with Henry Selick, including some work on James and the Giant Peach. I had worked with Henry trying to develop the next project after that, but the studio lost some funding and we didn’t end up making anything. So I had come really close to working on some more stop motion films and I wanted to in the future. I went off and worked on some CG films, and while I was at Sony I worked on a project there that had in the look of the picture some similar ideas that eventually went into The Boxtrolls. So when that project didn’t go at Sony I went to visit Henry and some other people I knew while they were working on Coraline, and that’s when I met Travis Knight. He gave me Here Be Monsters! to read, and that book was like a collision between David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) and Monty Python. It had all the attributes of that earlier project. It was a period film set in Europe, and so the opportunity was there again to work on the art style that I had wanted to work with on the previous film. I was thrilled and The Boxtrolls had an even better story. So for me it was a return to my past.
Graham and I were talking earlier today, and when you work with a CG company if you blew your eyes a little bit; when you are in a dark room with all these glowing monitors you may as well be working in a bank. Returning to Laika was like returning to my past. When you walked into Laika there would be people sawing wood, building things out of metal and building characters. It was like going onto a big studio backlot in the 1940s where there was a costume department along with everything else. It is so much more tactile and visceral. It’s really appealing in a way after spending so much time in the digital ether out there creating computer images.
The sheer work hours stop motion work consumes is well documented, but could you take us behind the scenes to discuss the challenges and characteristics of stop-motion. Also, I can only imagine that the burden of never knowing how an audience will react must add to the already nerve-wracking and mammoth journey on which you have to lead a team of people.
AS: In the long forms of animation like 2D and CG animation it is a lot of deferred gratification. When you are doing 2D animation you do the drawings and they have to be cleaned up, inked and painted, whilst with CG animation you work in a lower resolution than the final image, and so it takes a long time before you see what the movie is actually going to look like. What’s great about stop motion is you have all the same work at the beginning in the pre-production where you are working on the story, developing the look of the picture, drawing the story reel, and then once you begin production your first shot is so gratifying. It is more like a live action movie, and if the first shot is a couple of Boxtrolls in a shadowy alleyway it is finished. So in that first week of production you get to see what the movie is going to look like, and along the way you become so much more excited seeing these things that are so much more finished.
GA: That’s kind of the positive side of it. The negative aspect of it I found – and this is my first time directing – was I had never anticipated the amount of stress and pressure involved in watching the animators on the shots. Unlike 2D or CG, both those forms of animation are much more iterate, and you get a chance to whittle a performance down, refine it and keep checking in with an animator and pulling drawings. You get to look at the whole shot over and over and keep smoothing all the bumps out. With stop motion it feels much more like theatre I’d presume, because you really only get one real crack at getting that final shot in your film. Animators typically get a block which is a really, really crude version of the shot. It is on twelves or tens and it really just works to sort of lay out the logistics of what is going to happen with the camera and then the lighting. The animator will then have a rehearsal which is shot on twos or fours, and which is kind of a real clunking glimpse of what could potentially be the final performance. And then that’s it; they go for it. It feels to me a lot like that moment of prepping an actor, which is the animator in this case before they step out onto the stage and give you that one time performance that is going to live in the film forever more.
AS: The production cycle is about eighteen months where every day feels like it is opening night; only with no rehearsal. So it has that stress.
You incorporate an element of silent comedy into the film whereby there is no dialogue, only action. This lends a visual humour to The Boxtrolls, but this visual humour could almost be perceived as a slight throwback to silent cinema.
AS: Yeah, that’s good. Part of the appeal of Alan Snow’s book and which we focused in on was these Boxtroll characters. Even in the book Alan does a great job of giving them this gurgly language and describing their movements so you can see it even as you are reading the book. These Boxtroll characters are a lot like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, and the interactions are so much made up of pantomime.
Graham spoke earlier about that sequence he did that became the tent pole sequence, and that’s what really worked within it. We could clearly see that the heart of the movie was going to be the relationship between this Boxtroll fish and this little baby. The journey was going to start there, and his storyboards were all pantomime performances. We had some gurgling noises for the Boxtrolls to say, but all the charm and emotion came out of the expressions of the Boxtrolls and their poses. But that was great and it kind of extended to the rest of the film too as we put together these comic duos of Mr. Pickles and Mr. Trout and others. It turned out that visually they worked together really well, and they were animated really well. Then on top of that we got these great performances too out of Nick Frost [Mr. Trout] and Richard Ayoade [Mr. Pickles].
We always like to add, and while I think it’s true of every animated film, it is particularly true in this case when you think about it. It is always a little hard to pinpoint exactly and explain what’s so great about people on the crew in a CG movie, but boy there are people on our crew like Deborah Cook our costume designer, who helped us so much with those fantastic costumes she designed. The costumes had to help tell the story. We needed to know that Lord Portley-Rind [Jared Harris] and the men in white hats are like a gang of aristocrats that rule over the city, and that Snatcher [Ben Kingsley] and his henchmen are a gang too. We were doing a lot of that stuff through exposition and dialogue, and when Deborah created those costumes it was done for us visually all the way through the film. So Deborah Cook is one of the real unsung heroes here, and it is the old cliché that directing is ninety percent casting. This was definitely true in our world, and luckily for us we have over three hundred really fantastic craftsman and artists that spent two years making us look good.
GA: One of the things you look back on the project now and realise is just how much Tony and I benefited from the fact that this was the third film from Laika. It is pretty unusual in the stop motion world that a crew stays together for three successive films like this. So the studio has just become better and better at what they do. The Boxtrolls project just allowed them to go for it in terms of the skills they had all honed over the previous two films, and a lot of it was just Tony and I letting them make us look good.
Within animation finding the right cast of voices is paramount. What The Boxtrolls does so well is find that perfect group of voices and accents which allows all the emotion to be expressed with vocal perfection.
AS: That is a real tribute to Travis Knight our CEO. There is no other studio that I have ever worked at that would have allowed us to have a cast like the one we had. We really cast for who was appropriate for the character every step of the way, and where most studios would have wanted to insert some bigger named American actors in those positions, Travis never baulked at the idea that it was such an English cast.
Travis is an animator and animators live and breathe their work through the voice performances they get from the actors. This is what launches them and so they have to be inspired by the voice performance. Travis really pushed us to reach out to people like Ben Kingsley and Jared Harris, because he could hear in his head the performance that they would bring to those characters, and he really looked forward to animating them. And then you can never praise enough people like Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade who brought so much to their characters. Pickles and Trout were always a big part of the movie, but their performances in the recording studio were so great that we just started including them more and more.
GA: And then Sir Ben Kingsley brought so much to Snatcher. From the script we had written and from our conversations, we all had a certain perception of who or what Snatcher was going to be. But it was pretty incredible when Sir Ben Kingsley showed up in the recording session and he had taken those conversations and ideas to another level that none of us had anticipated. He added a whole new component to Snatcher; a really bizarre side that really added to the characters and excited the animation department.
AS: You might have read somewhere that at the first recording session we came in and he [Ben Kingsley] expressed a desire to record reclining in a chair. At first we thought he was sick or tired, but he had this concept of a certain place that he wanted the voice to come out, and he thought if he was reclining it could come out of his belly more, and he could use his diaphragm. He really controls his voice like a musical instrument, and normally you would never want an actor to be reclining when they record because it changes their voice. But he came up with the idea and we found a way to get a reclining chair into the studio while still getting the microphone close to his face. So that’s where that voice came from. But it was great to see just how much forethought he had brought to it even in that first recording session.
Watching the film, I found myself asking is stop motion animation pure cinema? People will say as it’s created it is not real, rather it is an alternative version of reality. So looking at the style of The Boxtrolls I asked myself is this a pure version of what cinema is – the reality of the screen, of entertainment as moving image?
GA: Yeah, and I think part of that again is the unique charm that stop motion provides. I think when folks watch it, whether they are aware of the actual process of stop motion of not, the look of the film is different; it is unique.
I find it almost ironic that in this day and age because the world of animation is so inundated with CG imagery, the fact that we are doing something technique wise that is so old, then we end up looking like something new to folks. This is because there is something very specific and unique to the fact of having real physical objects; real physical sets lit by real light. There is just something that can’t be emulated in quite the same way in any other medium.
AS: For me as a kid one of my favourite movies was the original King Kong (1933). There is just a dreamlike quality to the animation of the dinosaur, of Kong and the lizard that crawls down the vine to get to the hero who is hiding in the cliff. And then in Ray Harryhausen’s work there is just something about it – it is perfectly crisp and clear; there is no motion blur. There is something that goes directly into your sub-conscious; into your dream time. I think it is because that deep in everyone’s memory from childhood is when they played with a model train set, with a truck or with a doll, and by moving it around they were sort of imbuing it with life. When they watch that film I think it comes back to them, and they can tell that these objects exist in the real world, and that’s why that sequence in the titles and end credits where you see Travis animating Pickles and Trout seems to have so much impact on people. Luckily for us they’ve become immersed in the movie; they have watched the story play out and on some sub-conscious level it appealed to them. Then when they see that sequence their mind sort of reels back as they realise that was how the whole movie was done.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.