LAIKA, the company behind “Coraline” and “Paranorman,” has a clear purpose in the way they avoid the standard pitfalls of modern family entertainment. They don’t talk down to kids. They don’t worry about scaring their young viewers. They spark imaginations. And they’re about to do it again this week with their loose adaptation of Alan Snow’s “Here Be Monsters,” now called “The Boxtrolls.” In their gorgeously detailed stop-motion style, directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi bring to life a world of non-verbal Boxtrolls, who can communicate with only one human, a boy named Eggs. When Eggs realizes that the people above the land of the Boxtrolls want them dead, he gets caught in a war of class, pride and cheese. With great voice work by Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Elle Fanning and more, “The Boxtrolls” continues the track record of LAIKA to offer something that’s more than the loud noises and bright colors that seem to be the operating aesthetic for most family films. Annable and Stacchi sat down with us last month to talk about their latest creative effort, and revealed the kind of influences you don’t usually see in 3D entertainment from Terry Gilliam to Russian animation to Jean-Pierre Jeunet to Merchant/Ivory.
When I look at “Coraline,” “Paranorman” and this film, there’s a certain visual continuity. You can tell they’re all from the same company and yet they’re also distinct. How much of that is purposeful, or just by virtue of who you’re working with, and how do you make a film that stands alone at the same time?
ANTHONY STACCHI (AS): Well, they’re distinct in part just by having a different director each time. Travis is overseeing them all and the studio is overseeing them all. Every studio has a culture. In that line, in that evolution, you can see…Henry made certain choices on “Coraline”—the austereness, the theatrical feeling sets, the straight lines, the symmetry. Those choices take it in a certain direction. Chris and Sam had a very distinct look where they wanted a lot of curves and the characters’ faces are very asymmetrical. Big eyes. Chunky. Very 2-D animation inspired. All of that stuff adds to it. And then, technologically, we now have more ability. The crew just knowing better what they’re doing has allowed the faces to get so much more complex. Crawling. Colors that you couldn’t do on “Coraline” that had to be hand-painted. “Paranorman” got better.
GRAHAM ANNABLE (GA): At this stage, the third film out, we have tried to be distinct artistically and filmically, but we have kept what we refer to as The Band—this incredible core of really talented people—together for three stop-motion films. That’s never really happened before. Usually, a studio makes a stop-motion movie and then everyone disbands. That chemistry has to be recreated in a different manner somewhere else. We’ve done three films in a row with the same core of people and that can’t help but create a through line.
AS: [Producer] Travis [Knight] pushes us. And they know there’s going to be another 18 months of pre-production and production and they don’t want to do it the same way. People are trying to figure out a new and better way to do it. In this film, part of the story was this aristocratic society and then the boxtrolls who feed off that society. So there was going to be this feeling of excess—all these costumes and textures. So everybody grabbed on to that and ran with it and each tried to out-do each other.
The background detail is remarkable. Talk a little bit about the importance of having a more complete setting for this one with rooms and costumes and production design that’s as detailed as what’s in the foreground.
AS: The story sort of demanded it. You have a hierarchical world. You wanted Snatcher’s world at the bottom of the city to sort of feel like it belonged there. To also feel empty. Sort of a Victorian mancave. You can’t look at Alan’s illustration style in the book and say it totally inspired the movie but you can sort of look at the grittiness of the lines—the dirty, sooty, Victorian London setting of the story—and see it definitely inspired us. You know, we loved “Oliver Twist,” “The Third Man”…I used to pitch it as like “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”—you know, the period detail that Terry Gilliam loves in his movies.
And a little Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
GA: Yeah, yeah. When I came on board, I kept telling Tony, “This is great! We’re gonna make 'Delicatessen' for kids! This is amazing!”
You literally DO at one point with the musical saw.
GA: (Laughs). Yeah, yeah. I couldn’t help but bring that kind of stuff into the world. To me, it was so exciting to get to make to a film that looked this lush and this rich. We were allowed to put us much detail as we could into the frame because the setting demanded it; required it. And yet, it also presented a heck of a challenge. Compositionally, we were always like, “This all looks amazing, but we kind of need to know where to look.”
AS: Can we direct the eye? It’s a tribute to the whole camera crew, and using the 3D to direct the eye. People go “Oh, you guys make horror movies for kids,” and we go, “No, we make Merchant/Ivory movies for kids.” We make “Barry Lyndon with Monsters.”
How do the visuals change or do they when the film is cast? Is it mere coincidence that Jared Harris’ character looks like Jared Harris?
AS: It’s funny because Portley-Rind was designed before we got Jared Harris but we did sort of go through a redesign phase. And we were listening to Jared’s voice in that phase but we never look at artwork as trying to do a portrait of him.
But do the visuals change when you have voices behind them?
AS: We had all the silhouettes of the characters, so it kind of guides who you go looking for. It fuels it. Trout’s a big man, and so’s Nick Frost. You do want to feel like the voice resonates in the body of the actor the same way it would in the character. It’s funny that it sometimes happens that you have a character…Tracy Morgan looks nothing like his character but they go together. Richard Ayoade? Looks a little like Pickles. It works both ways.
Snatcher doesn’t really look like Ben Kingsley but it fits.
AS: No. He uses his voice like an instrument. When he showed up for the recording session, he had read the script and seen the character designs, and he talked a lot about Snatcher’s belly. He felt that he was a man who really enjoyed life—he had eaten a lot of cheese, drunk a lot of wine. He was comfortable with his awkward physique, and so he wanted to record reclining in a chair. He felt like his voice would be coming out of his diaphragm in the right way. First day, he needed a chair. I had never heard of anybody asking for that before. Most people want to stand. And you ask for them to stand because, if they’re sitting down, they feel differently. But I wasn’t going to tell Don Logan he couldn’t record leaning back in a chair.
Do you ever worry that some of Snatcher’s plans and devices are going too far for their target audience? Do you have conservations about how scary is too scary?
AS: Travis’ philosophy is that films need to have a dynamic range.
GA: The only way to have the light is to have the darkness, to really feel that full range. To have a full experience with how we connect with a movie. Right from the start, we wanted to make something that was honestly a little bigger and a little brighter than what we had done before. Stop-motion: Everyone does tend to think of “A Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “The Corpse Bride.” It gears to darker material. We wanted, as a studio, to challenge ourselves and make a comedy-adventure, and see where we can take it with this medium. Because of what us as artists are interested, there are dark moments in this film, but having the bright, joyous moments to contrast with it is what we feel is worthwhile. You want to feel those big highs and low lows. We’re not Pixar, we’re not Dreamworks, we don’t have the mega-budgets of those studios; that frees us up to go into territory that some of the bigger studios don’t like to get into because they’re terrified of marginalizing or alienating. We get to tell the stories we want to tell.
OK, then how would this film have been different with a mega-budget? How would it look as a Pixar production?
AS: It was considered to be done at Dreamworks. They looked at the book. But things had changed by the time we ended up doing it. They thought it was too dark. It’s funny, their favorite characters were The Cabbageheads, these great characters in the book who were in our draft for a long time but fell out of the movie when we focused on Eggs and the Boxtrolls. It was too many underworld communities.
There are other communities in the book?
GA: Oh yes. The book is endlessly inventive.
AS: It’s Dickensian. You can’t turn around without bumping into a new character, a new plot, a new setting. It’s really….we’re inspired by it and it’s an adaptation of it but it’s really different. Winnie and the Portly-Rinds aren’t in the book. We needed to have an above-ground world in all its prejudices and obsessions, so we created a family and one character in Winnie that Eggs could meet.
Back to a beat earlier. If you have twice the budget, how is this different and did having a low budget help you to find new creative ways to get it done?
AS: I never felt stymied like it wasn’t enough. Stop-motion requires what it requires. We had 30 animators and we had all the great ones we could. We were lucky that we were the only stop-motion movie filming at the time. We couldn’t have hired more with more money. It wouldn’t have helped us there. And we kind of got to do everything we wanted to do. You make the story work. You find how to do it with the means you have. We benefit from the studio having done two previous films. Their CG and stop-motion departments are melded together.
What would this film have been like 10 years ago? Could it have existed?
GA: Not on this scale. Alan had realized this crazy, huge world. We knew we could create a stop-motion film that felt a lot bigger than stop-motion usually does. While it’s part of its inherent charm, you kind of feel trapped on a small set in a lot of stop-motion. They ARE small sets.
AS: You can feel like you’re on a tabletop. We didn’t want that. We wanted at every opportunity to be able to see to the horizon. To treat the stop-motion footage like live-action footage. Rather than have the naïve conceit of “smoke is made of cotton” and “rain is made of gelatin,” we wanted realistic effects. You never get thrown out of the movie. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is great but it pushed that to a degree where you always knew you were looking at a little doll.
A diorama. But that was intentional.
AS: Oh, yeah, yeah. And it was great. It’s been done great. I think “Coraline” does it a bit too. It was part of their appeal. They embraced the limitations of it, but we really wanted to blow it open.
What art or filmmakers inspired this other than Jeunet?
AS: From the very beginning, I loved the little boy in “Kes.” There’s something about the quality of that boy and that simple human story. He inspired Eggs’ design. David Lean’s “Oliver Twist.” I love the films of this Russian animator named Yuriy Norshteyn; he made this film called “Tale of Tales.” There’s a lot of Russian in there. There are a lot of characters acting in pantomime. I loved the idea of having these boxtrolls who you can’t understand and so their performance comes through their expressions.
GA: That’s what gravitated me to the project. At a certain point during the “Paranorman” schedule, I got a chance to do some work on this project, and he handed me a sequence with no dialogue—just the boxtrolls finding a little baby in the trash. I got to storyboard a whole sequence where nobody said anything. I guess the sensibility I brought to that was what triggered it for Tony and Travis as this is the kind of movie we want to make here.