Creatures and Class Politics: Travis Knight, Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable on The Boxtrolls
The latest animated feature from Laika, the Portland-based studio that delivered Coraline and ParaNorman, is a surprisingly idiosyncratic blend of children’s adventure and political satire. Based on Alan Snow’s novel, Here Be Monsters, Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable’s The Boxtrolls is set in the steampunk-inspired British town of Cheesebridge, a ruthlessly classist society where, you guessed it, cheese is the unifying luxury good. The boxtrolls — little creatures who live in cardboard boxes — are the literal lower class. (They live underground.) The story kicks into gear as a human boy, Eggs, raised by the boxtrolls ventures above ground, meets a pretty upper class girl, Winnie, and various revolutionary forces are set in motion.
There’s plenty of Alan Moore and Charles Dickens in The Boxtrolls, along with Python-esque singalongs and dabs of Karl Marx and Georg Lukacs. Among Cheesebridge’s divided classes are members of the haute bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat, and plot twists revolve around moments of false consciousness. (Of course, there are also rooftop chases and a few obligatory 3D eye-jabs, although the use of the z-axis isn’t as subtly audacious as it was in Coraline.) That said, despite some formulaic moments, The Boxtrolls doesn’t feel like an industrial product, continuing Laika’s tradition of epic animation with a handcrafted feel.
I spoke with directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable and Laika’s CEO, Travis Knight, about the company’s focus on stop-motion, working with Eric Idle and adapting a 500+-page novel into a single feature film.
Filmmaker: So let me just start by asking about the animation style. In the press notes, it’s referred to as a stop-motion, hand-drawn, CG hybrid. First, could you explain what that it is, and then tell us what may be different about this film from the other Laika titles.
Knight: When you get down to the core of the process, it’s been fundamentally the same from Coraline to ParaNorman to The Boxtrolls. They’ve all been a fusion of hand-drawn animation, CG animation technology, technology and stop-motion animation. I don’t know that we’ve kind of explicitly called that stuff out when we’ve talked about it in the past, but it really is a fusion of all of those things, just a big swirling gumball of production techniques. At the core, it is a stop-motion film. We try to shoot as much stuff in camera as possible because I think that helps to give it a unified sensibility. Any time you’re mixing different mediums together, you run the risk of things looking like they’re standing out. I think we’ve done a great job of integrating those things in a way that feels unified for the viewer. But, part of what helps that is trying to get as much in camera as possible, and that’s what we did here. Even though we probably employed CG to a greater extent than we did on other films, it’s still basically the same process.
Filmmaker: Could you give me a bit more detail about how that blending works?
Stacchi: Yeah, like the rooftop chase sequence: we boarded it roughly to figure out the beats. Like, we’re kind of wide here and we’re going off rooftops, the truck is chasing them in the background. Then, we go to low res previews in a computer, just very simple shapes. We figure out the camera moves with just circles and squares for those guys bouncing along the rooftops. We figure out how the camera’s going to move, how the shots are going to go together, and also, what the set’s going to require, how big it’s going to be. Our director of photography, John Ashlee, can use that information from the previews and say, “Well, it’s going to be this big and stuff.” And then, the [art department] builds everything that the characters touch. Those three guys flying through the air, every roof that they touch is actually going to be built out on a set. So, that’s that core, the stop-motion element. That’s shot against green screen, and the animator animates it. And then, everything else that extends the set, all the other buildings going way into the distance, all the fog between the camera and the characters, the moon in the distance, the crowd, all that is generated by a computer and added to the footage of [the characters] bouncing down the roof. And it’s all done on style for the movie, which has been previously established by the art department. Sometimes they use real materials, so the look blends with the buildings. Maybe the clouds were made out of fabric as a reference for them to make CG clouds. All of that’s put together.
Annable: The rooftop [sequence], in particular was a very conscious effort on our part to try to bring more scale to the film. I think something that’s pretty typical of a lot of stop-motion films, and it’s charming in its own way, is that you tend to feel trapped on a small set. We knew early on with The Boxtrolls, we wanted to try to create a stop-motion experience that felt bigger, larger scale, brighter. Things like the rooftops, we planned very specifically using pre-vis to see what we could build physically, and then what things could be done with VFX to help bring space and size to the experience of it. So I think we ended up creating a film that’s kind of unlike anything we’ve certainly done and I think anything anybody’s done, really.
Knight: It’s a wholly unique process. There’s nobody else that makes films the way we do them. There are other companies that make stop motion, and there are a lot of companies that make CG films. But the specific combination of those different ingredients, the way we make them, is totally unique to Laika.
Filmmaker: What does Laika being an independent company, not part of a studio, mean for you as a producer of animated content? What are its advantages and disadvantages?
Knight: It’s both terrifying and liberating. I mean, on the one hand, we are independent, so there all the great things that come with that, and then, there are the challenges that come with that too. We’re definitely not part of some big, plastic corporation. I think it liberates us from some of the constraints that often happen when you’re on a big-budget animated film, where you essentially have to appeal to everybody on planet Earth in order to kind of make your budget back. Because we’re independent, because our budgets are considerably lower and the threshold for success is lower, we can make more interesting films. We can take more creative risks. We can make films that are more thought provoking, more emotionally resonant. But then, of course, you don’t have the support of a big corporation, which means we’re doing it alone. We’re kind of out in the wilderness. And so, it can be very scary. But we see it as an opportunity to do interesting films. And because we keep our budgets low-ish, because we keep our teams as light as we possibly can, our threshold for success is lower. We don’t have to have a kind of a Pixar or DreamWorks level of success in order to be profitable.
Filmmaker: Talk a little bit about the visual building of the world. Obviously, the book is a reference point. What were the choices you had to make and the research that you did?
Stacchi: The book has got this visceral, sooty, dirty, English, industrial, post-Victorian world. It’s very steampunk. Already, it had this sort of gritty quality to it that I really liked. And when I read it, there was an immediate reference to the worlds of Oliver Twist, The Third Man, some German Expressionist cinema stuff. There’s a French comic book artist named Nicola de Crecy. We went to him first off, and he gave us some inspirational sketches of what the underworld could look like, what the city might look like. Right at the very beginning, you had a gritty quality, a line quality to the drawings that we really loved. And then, in house, at Laika, there was a French Canadian artist named Michel Breton. He worked on movies like The Triplets of Belleville and especially on Coraline. I immediately saw the world in Michel’s brushstrokes. He had a way of torquing and twisting the buildings… So, in a lot of ways, the overall look of the buildings, the look of the world came first and came easiest. It was a little bit harder to [adapt] the look of our characters to that world.
Annable: The usual process is that the character design gets solidified and finalized early on, and then you start to bring the world contextually around it to fit what those characters look like. But Michel so early on realized the look of how we wanted this world to feel, and how it visually was represented, that the world solidified first. It became, actually, a bit of a struggle for us to find the right balance, the proportion of the characters and the design of them to appropriately fit this incredible world we wanted to represent in the sets. So, we kind of worked backwards.
Filmmaker: How did the characters have to change?
Stacchi: Well, early on, the personality of the characters was done the same way Michel started. Like, when Michel started, he would use these big black shapes of what the buildings could look like, what the city could look like. And then, he would start to draw over it in a white line, pulling out individual buildings. That’s how Mike Smith, our character designer, [worked] initially: here’s a silhouette that could be Snatcher, the guy with the large belly, a hunchback — a loose silhouette all in black. And then, he would do the same thing, draw over it. So it’s almost like the same way we found the look in the architecture, we found the look in the characters, too. And, you know, it defines their personalities. You want the silhouette to give you the personality of Snatcher or of Trout or of Pickles. We’d show those to Travis and ask him if they felt right. We’d get an approval on that and then we’d move onto our sculptor, who would do a sculpt from those rough drawings and try to incorporate all the style of the buildings and everything else in his actual sculptures with the characters. You know the end titles? That was drawn by Michel. The scrolling titles at the end, those are the actual inspirational sketches Michel did for the film.
Filmmaker: What was the process of parsing through the book and isolating the elements that became The Boxtrolls?
Knight: So Laika’s been around for almost 10 years, and when we first formed, there were two projects that we took on right away. One of them was Coraline and the other was Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow. At the time I read it, there was something that was just so wonderful about it. It was evocative of those great childhood literatures, thinks like Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl. And it had this Monty Python quality as well. But it was also a big, baggy book, 500 some odd pages. And so, right away, you knew to distill it down to a 90-minute film you were going to have to find a simpler film story within that. You know, I think adaptation is always an exercise in ruthless economy. But still, it’s also one of invention. So, for the better part of that time, when we were developing it, and when Tony came aboard, it was about finding: what is at the core of this story? What is it trying to say? What’s the personal story? And then, how can we branch out to say something deeper about society or whatnot? And have room for bits of business and fun and entertainment because we’re not trying to make an after school special. Tony came aboard about seven years ago.
Stacchi: At first, it was just me and the writer doing drafts and drafts. When I took classes in screenwriting one thing they’d say is that the trimmer the vessel, the more it can carry. The more it can carry means the more character, conflict, and emotion, if you leave space within it. The book is so full of invention: there are boxtrolls and cabbageheads and trotting badgers and rat pirates.
Annable: And sea cows.
Stacchi: And sea cows that inhabit this underground world and this city above. The lines between the real world and the fantasy world are all blurred; it’s a crazy kaleidoscope that’s really fun. But, it was very confusing. The first few drafts I wrote with Irena Brignull, I can remember pitching them to Travis, and we’d be 40 minutes into the pitch, and then I’d be, “And then you meet the rat pirates.” We’d be meeting these rat pirates who live above ground, speak English and are walking around the city amongst people, and nobody comments on it. It was very confusing. The boxtrolls live underground because they’re not allowed above ground. So then why are these rat pirates running around the city and why do they run a laundry? It was crazy stuff. So, we kept whittling it down and it was around draft six or seven where we really said the core of the story is about an 11-year old boy who’s been raised underground and who comes above ground for the first time to figure out who he is and where he comes from. That was the simple trim vessel. The boxtrolls are the [book’s] greatest creation so we wanted to keep the boxtrolls. For a long time, we had cabbageheads, too; they were one of the last things to go. And then, we just focused on that story. The Archibald Snatcher in the book is similar to the one we have in the story, and Sir Ben [Kingsley] took him to a whole other level. And then we took all the above ground people in the book and combined them in this one family… and this one little girl.
Filmmaker: There’s kind of a Marxist view of class. You have the haute bourgeoisie.
Stacchi: In their hats, yeah. You know, that’s our American view of England. [Laughs]
Knight: A lot of that — the social hierarchy — comes from things like Dickens. But it was important for us that Snatcher not be a kind of a two-dimensional mustachioed twirling villain. I mean, even though he’s as awful as you can imagine, there are shreds of humanity and vulnerability still within him. And you know, part of it is to figure out, can that be redeemed? But, you know, these sorts of films do offer you an opportunity to comment on various aspects of society. We tried to layer it in in an artful way, so it’s not just smashing you over the head. But we take advantage of that, absolutely. We want to have something meaningful to say in our films.
Stacchi: It’s a period film, and it’s a fantasy film, but we wanted real contemporary themes in it. When we needed this song written for [the character of] Manafoofoo, we went to one of the Pythons. I met Eric Idle. He was actually very serious, and what appealed to him was that political element — how [the character is] manipulating people’s point of view of this other community. Then, he loved the idea that it’s a man in drag singing it, but it was the political elements that intrigued him the most.
Filmmaker: What advice would you give to someone young coming out of art school, maybe, that wants to go into a career in animation?
Annable: Don’t do it. Rethink your career choices.
Filmmaker: Really, how would somebody figure out their path?
Stacchi: Story. If you want to be an animator or you want to be a production designer or art director, it is difficult but there are ways to do it. But if you want to be a director or a writer, it’s just story.
Knight: Animation, you think of it as kind of an industrial product because they’re mostly manufactured by these big, big corporations. But, if you look back historically, animation can be used to tell very, very personal stories in powerful ways. Oftentimes it’s just a couple of people bringing an animated story to life for a film or even a feature on some level. I think the one thing that animation seems to be lacking in the modern era is real strong personal, individual voices. And it’s something we try to foster at Laika, to really have a unique point of view for each film and each filmmaker. I think for a filmmaker who’s interested in animation, it’s going to be a hard road to be a personal filmmaker using this medium, but, there are opportunities. You can do an animated film kind of on your own without a massive [infrastructure]. And I think we’ve seen that when we look back historically in the medium.
Annable: Yeah, the landscape has changed so much. I mean, the software available and the things that people can do that used to require a lot of access to very special equipment, those barriers are all down now.
Stacchi: Actually, the great case in point is Graham. He has a comic book that he does, Grickle, that is what attracted him to our project and us to him. He has made his own little short films and has a YouTube Channel.
Knight: It’s the democratizing aspect of technology working. These tools are available, the resources are available. People just need to avail themselves of them.