They earned an Oscar nomination in 2010 for their first stop-motion animated film “Coraline” and another for their second film, “ParaNorman,” in 2013. Now, Laika Studios has officially gone a perfect three for three by earning their third Best Animated Film Oscar nomination this year for “The Boxtrolls.” The film is adapted from author Alan Snow’s book “Here Be Monsters!” featuring series of bizarre creatures, including the 17th century title characters who live under the streets of the fictional town of Cheesebridge and only ascend to the surface to collect trash so they can invent things underground.
During an interview with “The Boxtrolls” directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, we talked about how they were able to decide what from Snow’s 500-page book they wanted to include in the film and how actual cardboard boxes helped with the animation process. They also explained why “The Boxtrolls” is not as dark as Laika’s last two projects.
“The Boxtrolls” was recently released on DVD/Blu-ray this past Tuesday, Jan. 20.
The Boxtrolls are peculiar little creatures. What drew you to this project initially?
Anthony Stacchi: Well, in Alan Snow’s book “Here Be Monsters!” there are a whole bunch of characters that live underneath the city. There are boxtrolls and cabbageheads and Trotting Badgers and Rabbit Women. But we felt from the very beginning that the most original characters were the boxtrolls – so timid, but very mischievous little inventors who live underground and will only come above ground so they can collect junk to build their machines. Their relationship with the little boy in the story (Eggs) had a lot of heart and told a great story about family.
When it came down to deciding what creative liberties you would take from Alan Snow’s original story, what kinds of conversations did you have about what should be included or left out or changed?
Graham Annable: Well, Alan’s book was over 500 pages, so it gave us a cast of thousands. Even during a few early attempts to incorporate everything in the book, we realized we were going to have to narrow the story down a bit and carve it into something that would work for a 90-minute feature. We thought the boxtrolls were the most compelling creatures. The emotional story of these trolls raising this little boy, Eggs, became the thing we centered on. If you look at a character like Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), he is very similar in the movie to what he is in the book. If something didn’t contribute to the story of a little boy being raised by boxtrolls, then we just had to cut it out.
With 500 pages at your fingertips, that sounds like a kid-in-a-candy-store type of situation for a pair of animated film directors.
GA: Exactly. Alan is a fantastic writer. He really loves Charles Dickens, so [“Here Be Monsters!”] is a very Dickensian story. The world he built worked really well for an adventure film. The story lent itself to make a movie of this scale. Previously, the movies Laika made had been a bit smaller, but this was a much bigger movie. We were very lucky that we were the third film out of Laika and that they had a state of the art digital arts department and that everyone in the stop-motion department was ready to do a film like this.
Was there anything you really wanted to keep in the film that the script or budget didn’t allow?
GA: Most of the stuff we really, really loved, we were able to hold on throughout the entire process. There is a great performance by Madame Frou Frou in the middle of the film. At certain times, it dropped out of the movie, but we kept striving to put it back in. We got the pick of the pack.
AS: In a few versions of the script, there was a giant armored War Rat, but it reduced the number of characters and the things we needed to focus on, so it ultimately went away. It’s originally what Snatcher was going to ride on into the town. But the character wasn’t fitting into the context of the world we created. So, the War Rat became the “Mecha-Drill” instead.
When animators make movies that feature characters that are, say, lions, they usually study real lions for inspiration. For robots, animators probably look at gears and other mechanical devices. Was Alan Snow’s boxtrolls the starting point for your version of the creatures? How did you decide how they would move and speak and do everything else?
AS: Well, we had a lot of animators running around wearing boxes for a while.
GA: Trying to figure out the movements and the attitudes of the boxtrolls, the animators did gravitate to looking at a lot of animal references. There was a lot of monkey-type behavior in the boxtrolls early on. We were trying to find something a little more animalistic, but early tests of the boxtrolls moving really strangely became just too weird.
AS: Yeah, we thought since they are already strange in the way they wear their boxes and hide in their boxes and put things in their boxes, they didn’t need any additional strange movements.
Were both of you able to get into a pair of boxes yourself?
AS: (Laughs) Yeah, before we asked the animators to do it, we had to wear them first.
Weren’t cardboard boxes the best thing to play with as a kid?
GA: Yeah, we’re hoping we spark the most inexpensive Halloween costume for years to come. It’s pretty easy to make a costume if all you need to make it is a cardboard box.
Laika’s first two films – “Coraline” and “ParaNorman” – had some scarier themes than most animated films. Do you think “The Boxtrolls” follows in that trend? If so, why do you think the company is attracted to these types of stories?
GA: I think there is less scary stuff [in “The Boxtrolls”]. There is no supernatural element. There’s no Other Mother in another world. There are no zombies. We knew when we read Alan’s book that this was going to be a brighter story and that it wasn’t as dark as the first two films. Travis Knight, the CEO of the company, doesn’t go looking for particularly dark films. Laika just wants films that have a really full range of emotion for kids. The sadder moments are usually sadder than your average animated film. Hopefully because of that, the emotional depth of the movie is deeper and the brighter and happier moments are that much brighter.
What were your thoughts when Oscar-winning composer Dario Marianelli (“Atonement”) came on board for this film, making it the first animated movie of his career? I’m sure you guys had some big ideas for him.
GA: Yeah, we were really lucky. There were a couple of instances when we were really excited to get some of the voice talent we got on the film from Sir Ben Kingsley to Nick Frost to Richard Ayoade. We had our wish list of people who we really wanted to do it. You don’t always get who you want, but we lucked out. Most of the people we asked were into the idea. The same thing was true when we reached out to Dario Marianelli. We loved his work. He does big, serious period films like “Atonement” and “Anna Karenina,” so it was a high hope that he would do it. We lucked out because when we showed up to meet him in London to discuss it, he was as excited about it as we were. He has three young daughters and had been hoping to do an animated film that they could go see for a long time. We sort of got him at exactly the right moment.
Whenever you hear about the animated film industry, you sometimes hear terms like “Disney Universe” or “Pixar Universe” to describe the style and look of the films and how each of them sort of fit in with the others from that particular studio’s canon. Do you feel like you are there with Laika yet? Is that something you even want to do – create a “Laika Universe?”
AS: I think when people hear that it’s a Laika film, they know it’s going to be challenging and unlike anything they’ve ever seen before because of the marriage of this age-old art of stop-motion animation and the latest special effects and rapid prototype printing. I think they have an idea of the quality and the craftsmanship they will see, but I don’t think Laika creates a universe where all the films feel like they can take place together. Laika has a very distinctive look and style that is very unique to itself.
Anthony, what did you help render as a young visual effects manager in “Back to the Future” back in 1985?
AS: (Laughs) You know, back then I was at Industrial Light & Magic a few year before they transitioned completely into digital effects. So, at that point, they were still doing optical effects. So, a lot of it was hand-drawn, hand-animated elements like when the car transitions back into time or when you see lighting or electricity. That was all hand-drawn. So, that’s what I was doing. I was just a young animator at that point working in ILM’s effects animation department. I was there up until they did “Jurassic Park.” Then they got rid of all us guy with pencils.
What about “Ghost?” Please tell me you helped create the shadow demons.
AS: Oh, no, someone else did the shadow demons. I did a lot of the transitions whenever the characters would pass through walls or their hands would pass through things. They needed a hand-drawn element to do that. “Ghost” was the first job I worked on at ILM.