The co-directors discuss happy accidents and creative challenges on Laika’s third animated feature film.
For the most part, animation studios around the world look strikingly similar inside. Darkened work areas cordoned off into functional groups, cubicles stuffed with CPUs, monitors, Wacom tablets, empty coffee cups, scores of grimacing action figures and cute plushy toys. From Singapore to Stuttgart to Los Angeles, artists and facilities look strikingly similar and if given a picture of a group of character designers at work, you’d be hard pressed to guess their studio’s location.
Then there’s Laika. I spent half a day there earlier this year, most of it gawking and pointing my finger at all manner of things like a kid mesmerized in the LEGO aisle at the local Toys R Us. A giant warehouse of a building filled with an eclectic mix of CG artists, doll makers and sheet metal workers (well, maybe the acetylene torches came to me in a dream), Laika’s main production efforts are set against the constant background hum of magical 3D printers churning out thousands of puppet replacement parts somewhere off in the distance. Walk through the studio and you’re not quite sure whether you’re witnessing the production of a feature film or an episode of American Chopper. And it gives you goose bumps. To say a site visit to Laika is something special is like saying an early bird dinner with your elderly parents is exhausting. Both sentiments tie for understatement of the year.
In support of the highly anticipated opening of their latest film, The Boxtrolls, CEO and lead animator Travis Knight as well as directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable have met me twice in the last handful of weeks, providing an intimate glimpse into their unique brand of storytelling and stop-motion production mayhem. In the interview below, Anthony and Graham share their thoughts on the inherent difficulties of story development, wrangling Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters! source material into a film that has action, humor, heart and a great performance by Sir Ben Kingsley.
Dan Sarto: The last time we spoke, you were in the final throes of finishing the film. Now that it’s complete, is The Boxtrolls the film you set out to make? Has the movie turned out as you envisioned way back three years ago?
Graham Annable: I can’t say any of us truly anticipated where we’d land with this film. There are so many hands involved, literally. So many people. We adopted a philosophy early on of “best idea wins,” no matter who proposes it at any step of the process. So the film continued to evolve during the entire production period. I’m incredibly proud of where we landed. Tonally, it’s the film I always hoped we’d make. It’s got an incredible mix of cartoonish, outlandish visual exploits and gags, combined with a real heart and sense of consequence to the actions of our hero and villain. It was a difficult dance to achieve, but I feel we got there.
Anthony Stacchi: The film has finished with a far “vaster” look and feel than I ever expected. From our earliest readings of the book, using Nicolas de Crecy, the French graphic novelist to do some inspirational sketches, the work of our wonderful concept artist Michel Breton, production illustrator Tom McClure and many others, the final look of the film has far exceeded what I expected because of the people at Laika.
The story went through many changes and permutations that I didn’t anticipate. Alan Snow’s book was so vast [Here Be Monsters!] that in the beginning, there was this tonal feeling of Python-esque absurdity and lush setting that I knew we were heading towards. But it took a long time to focus in on the core story of this little boy who was raised by Boxtrolls and finally finds his place in the world. Families come in all shapes and sizes. From the point I started, that vision there changed a lot.
Then some unanticipated stuff happened, like what Sir Ben Kingsley did with the Snatcher character. How great Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade worked out together. Then Winnie’s character and her family, which don’t exist in the book but who are composites of a lot of ideas present in the book, how much they influenced what became a very emotional story of her relationship with Eggs. That evolved throughout the story process. Joe Ranft, the great head of story at Pixar, who worked with Henry Selick, he always had a card hanging up in his room that said, “Trust the Process.” It wasn’t trust the process to deliver the story the way you imagined. It was trust the process that you’ll have a movie at the end of it. It just may not be the movie you start out making.
Everyone gets that in theory. But when you’re living it, it’s really frustrating and terrifying. That definitely happened on this one. The story went through a lot of changes.
DS: Despite intensive planning and everyone’s best efforts, things happen on a production like The Boxtrolls that are completely unanticipated, that come of out left field. Some are happy accidents, some are quite problematic. What were some of the issues that caught you by surprise on this film?
GA: This was my first time in the role of a director. Driving into work every day, in the pit of my stomach, I always felt like I was about to take a test that there was no way to study for. For all the prep and all the planning we put into the film, on a daily basis you still couldn’t anticipate what crisis was going to pop up.
AS: Unexpected stuff. Like when we were writing the story, we knew we needed that fish out of water moment for Eggs. At first we boarded and wrote a tea party scene. “Tea and Cheese” it was called. He was sitting with Winnie, trying to get information about Snatcher out of her father. It was awkward and worked great. Then the story changed and we came up with the ballroom dancing waltz sequence. It was perfect for the story.
GA: We thought it was great.
AS: Yeah. We were really happy with it. But we had no idea how difficult that sequence would ultimately end up being to produce in stop-motion. Just animator access to animating that many puppets dancing around each other. Shooting in such a way to create a swirling room while at the same time ensuring proper animator access to animating five dancing couples, with CG extras on the outskirts of the room, was tremendously difficult. Compared to the big action sequences, that scene didn’t seem like it would be that difficult. But it ended up far and away being the most difficult. We needed choreographers. We had to shoot the dance on a stage from every angle for reference for the animator.
GA: We knew it would be tricky. But we were blindsided by the complexity. With each sequence of the film, we have breakdown meetings where all the heads of department get together and deconstruct each shot to figure out who’s going to do what and how the workload is going to be divvied up. Usually those meetings are abuzz with lots of energy. But when we walked into the room for the breakdown meeting on the dance sequence, immediately there was dead silence. Everyone was nervously leafing through paperwork and looking at each other. We had no idea what we were proposing for these folks to deal with on this scene.
AS: It’s not exactly a happy accident, but we were working with writer Adam Pava on the scene when Snatcher meets Winnie. He’s kind of taunting her. We were laughing. He picks up the white hat but won’t give it back to her. “How did this hat end up aaaaaaaalllll the way out here?” So Adam wrote it by elongating the word, “aaaaaaaaaaalllllllllll.” It’s funny when you see it in the script. When Sir Ben saw that, it put the idea into his head to really elongate his words. When I heard his rendition, I said, “That’s interesting” but in my head I thought, “What the hell is going on here?” [laughs] He asked if we liked his idea of elongating every vowel. It made Snatcher sound very theatrical, as if he was trying to act like an aristocrat. That whole angle just happened. Sir Ben came up with the idea during his first recording, inspired by this one thing in the script. I didn’t want to hinder his creativity while recording so we continued doing things that way.
GA: When Travis [Knight] and I heard the session, we were immediately excited at his unique take on the character. Sir Ben’s performance brought the quality of the villain character to a whole other level.
AS: He also brought a little humanity to the character. You feel a little empathy for him.
DS: How did your creative sensibilities pair up as co-directors?
GA: Our pairing up as directors had a lot to do with the syncing of our sensibilities. From day one, working with Anthony, I felt we were on the same page. That helped guide us both through the craziness of this process, when we got into those big discussions and arguments with the story team, trying to figure out what was going to work for this film.
AS: I’ve had directing experience on other films. Graham has worked in story on a number of films, which gives you perspective on how to be patient. Trust the process. When I worked with Henry Selick, he would say all animation is reductive. You can’t possibly reproduce the real world. You don’t want to. So you need to simplify things down so the beats are clear. So the phrasing is clear. So you can see the expression on a character’s face. That you can see movement to the next expression, so you see the character thinking from one idea to the next.
On this film, because it started from such a colossal book and complex look, you couldn’t lose sight of the fact you were always trying to make things simpler. Plus, even though it’s a complex film, you need to be able to read each frame to understand what’s important to look at. It’s hard to simplify things like that.
With other projects, sometimes you have a thin story with a thin look that you’re always trying to flesh out. Layering in gags to make it more entertaining. For us, it was a process of boiling this enormous whale down to a simple sardine of a story. Our sensibilities meshed well to make that happen.
DS: What is it about stop-motion that connects with audiences?
AS: You want to reach out and touch it. It’s tactile. It’s the dream of injecting everyday objects with life. It goes back to every kid’s memory of playing with dolls, or playing with a model train set.
GA: There is something inherently charming and appealing about it. Being at Laika now for three films, I see the position of stop-motion in the world of cinema is changing. Today’s audiences are so inundated with high-tech CG imagery that looks fantastic. But the films can’t really get any bigger or louder than they already are. All of a sudden, we’re offering the audience a unique experience with this really bizarre and different looking film that isn’t really out there in any other form.
DS: When we spoke earlier this year at the studio, you spoke almost reverentially about the wonderfully eccentric and interesting variety of people working on this film. You referred to the studio as “Burning Man in the off season.” Is there a prototypical stop-motion animation creative type that walks through Laika’s door?
AS: It takes a certain type of person to want to work in film, who loves animation and chooses to live in Portland rather than Los Angeles. It’s also funny how many stop-motion people bring some other great skill to the table that makes them so useful on a stop-motion project. For example, we needed someone to show us how to play a saw as a musical instrument because the character Fish plays a saw in the film. Someone said, “Oh, Brian Elliot in rigging plays the saw.” [laughs] So we had a guy in the crew who played the saw.
GA: He just went out to his car and got his saw and played it for the animators.
DS: That’s so funny. So odd.
AS: There are eccentric people in every animation studio. But for another example, we needed a paper mache mask for Gristle to use during the Madame Frou Frou Show. A miniature paper mache mask. It had to look handmade by the men in red hats. Someone said, “Oh, Matt Brooks does that.”
GA: Yeah. It’s his hobby. Making miniature paper mache masks. An hour later, he brought in a miniature Chihuahua head mask he’d made the other day.
AS: He makes them to relax.
GA: That sort of thing happens all the time.
DS: In the last 18 months or so, the animated feature film landscape has had some unexpected results, both good and not so good. Films have both under and over-achieved. Some of the big tentpole VFX-driven films have stumbled as well. Do you think we’ve reached a point where there are too many animated feature films hitting theatres? Or do you still point the finger at story as the culprit?
GA: Some of it has to do with the economic model of making animated features. The big dollars put into these films means they have to appeal to so many different audiences. Studios can’t risk marginalizing or alienating anyone. That ultimately affects the stories they can tell. Working as an artist at Laika has been great. We’re this bizarre anomaly of an independent film company. Our budgets are smaller, which allows us to do more interesting things creatively.
AS: We’re not part of a big conglomerate, where we need to feed so many different mouths like merchandising, parks and…
DS: You’re not feeding the large vertically integrated machine…
AS: No, we’re not. It all comes down to story. They’re all getting louder and flashier. But also, the stories are feeling kind of similar and very “sequelly.” The fact we operate pretty much free from all that means, hopefully, our stories still resonate in a way that stands out from some of the other films.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.