The Portland, Ore.-based animation studio Laika has been making stop-motion feature films for about a decade, with the new “The Boxtrolls” the third in a line that started with two movies nominated for the animated-feature Oscar, 2009’s “Coraline” and 2012’s “ParaNorman.”
Set in a ramshackle, hilly village run by a group of white-hatted snobs more devoted to cheese-tasting than serving the community, “The Boxtrolls” is a 3D romp about the collision between the village and the subterranean-dwelling Boxtrolls, who scavenge for trash but have been targeted for extermination by a nefarious baddie named Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley). Isaac Hempstead-Wright plays a human boy named Eggs by the Boxtrolls who’ve raised him, and Elle Fanning is a young girl who befriends Eggs when he ventures aboveground.
“The Boxtrolls” opens on Friday under Laika’s deal with Focus Features, which has helped push both of its previous features into the Oscar race. Laika is owned by Nike co-founder Phil Knight and run by his son Travis, who is both the CEO and an animator on its films.
Travis Knight joined “Boxtrolls” directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable to talk to TheWrap about the film’s long and tangled development.
TheWrap: This film has been in the works for many years, hasn’t it?
Travis Knight: Laika started almost 10 years ago. We started with two projects. The first was “Coraline.” And the second project we took on was “Here Be Monsters!,” written by Alan Snow. So it’s been slow cooking in a corner of the studio for nearly 10 years. A lot of that time it’s just been a small group of people trying to crack the story, which I think is the case anytime you do an adaptation.
What was the trickiest part of this particular adaptation?
Knight: “Here Be Monsters!,” the book, is a 550-page tome filled with environments and characters and all that, and we had to distill all that down to a film. Ruthless economy is involved. You’ve got to strip away the stuff that’s extraneous to the core story, and sometimes it takes a while to figure that out.
In early versions of the script, we tried to stay very faithful to the book. We had all kinds of characters and fun stuff happening, and it was really fun and entertaining, but it was frenetic. And in the end, it was hollow. There was nothing holding it all together. And it wasn’t until we really stopped, paused and tried to get to that core emotional thing that resonated with all of us that we were able to say, yes, this is a story that we want to tell.
What was the core story that resonated?
Anthony Stacchi: It was the idea of an orphan boy and his surrogate family. That was in the book, and in our first version of the story, but you couldn’t see it for all the rest of the stuff. In the book, the underworld is inhabited by a number of different creatures, all of them very charming, Cabbage heads, trotting badgers, rabbit women, who are just these women who knit rabbit suits that they wear. [laughs] Alan Snow’s a strange dude.
But when you had to establish the cabbage heads and the cabbage head queen and a lot of other stuff, there wasn’t the time. We needed to trim it all out so we had the moments to have the emotional connection between the characters. And honestly, while the story of the boy being raised underground and finding his place in the world was always there, we needed to have a mirror story of a little girl with her own family issues from aboveground, who’s full of the prejudices of people from aboveground. They need to bump up against each other to move the story along and generate emotion, and that was missing in that other iteration.
Knight: I lured Tony to Portland from the sun-soaked splendor of Southern California, and I think part of that experience helped filter into the story. Tony had an unsparing commute: His wife and his newborn son were down in L.A., and he was commuting to Portland and leaving them behind for long periods of time. As any parent knows, that starts to rip you apart. And that idea started to filter into the story. That’s when we thought, yes, we have something here that anyone can understand – the idea of families and parents.
Do you miss anything from that other version?
Stacchi: I loved that other iteration, and we had a whole version of the script which read really nice on the page. But when we storyboarded the whole thing, and we felt like, we don’t know what’s important here. It was clear when we put it up on reels that it wasn’t good enough.
Tony, you’d never directed a stop-motion film. And Graham, you’d never directed any kind of feature. How steep was the learning curve?
Graham Annable: Huge. Harrowing.
Stacchi: Steep isn’t the word for it. You know that guy who pushes a rock up a hill? It was that guy.
Annable: Sisyphus. Up a sheer cliff.
Knight: But the funny thing about that is that I think the sort of challenges that both Tony and Graham were up against was something that gets to the core of what we try to do at the studio. I don’t feel like we’re ever doing the right thing unless I’m afraid, unless I feel like I’m out of my league and out of my depth and don’t know I’m gonna survive it. That goes to the culture. Drowning, throwing yourself in the deep end and then trying to figure a way out.
[photo: L to R, Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable and Travis Knight at a “Boxtrolls” screening.]
What was the hardest sequence to figure out?
Stacchi: We knew we needed a scene where Eggs is in a really uncomfortable situation, so we did a scene where he’s at a tea party with Winnie and her parents, and it was great. Everybody at the studio thought it was really great, because you feel Eggs’ pain at being a fish out of water. But because that scene wasn’t big enough, we added a waltz scene and made it part of that.
Anybody steeped in stop-motion would have said, “Do you really want to do that?” But the fact that we didn’t know what we were doing benefitted us, and Travis didn’t tell us. So we boarded it and kept forging ahead, and Travis was going to the heads of the departments and saying, “Do you know about the waltzing scene?” And finally somebody said to us, “When are you going to show us this scene?”
Annable: We do breakdown meetings for each of the sequences, and typically there’s a lot of energy in those meetings. All the heads of the departments are there buzzing over who’s gonna do what, and everybody divvies up the workload. But when Tony and I started that breakdown meeting, the room was dead quiet. No one was talking, and everyone was leafing through the packets looking at each other like, there’s no way. And we knew right then, we may have overstepped here a little.
Stacchi: Giant mecha-drills stomping around the market square destroying everything? No problem. A little waltzing scene? Nightmare.
Scenes like that seem to be a real blend of techniques. It’s not all stop motion, there are times when CG comes in. Was it more of…
Annable: A hybrid. That was one of the singular things about this show.
Knight: It is and it isn’t. It’s been part of our core process since “Coraline,” where we’ve had this big swirling gumbo of techniques. There are things that go back 100 years, and things that we’re inventing. So CG technology, hand-crafted stuff, hand-drawn animation, it’s all been part of our tool-kit from the start. And because of the things that this story needed, it just challenged us on all fronts.
As the CEO, how much time did you have to actually work on the movie?
Knight: Umm… a lot.
Annable: He does the most footage out of all the animators. First on, last off.
Knight: It’s a pain in the ass, obviously. Any kind of animation is hard, and particularly stop-motion. But I do think it’s important for me personally to be involved in the creating of the art – not just telling people what to do, but also being a member of the crew. And I also think that it goes to the philosophical core of the company: We are a community of artists. We are all filmmakers, and we all contribute as much as we can whenever we can, from the PA to the CEO.
Stacchi: The real question is, how much footage did Jeffrey Katzenberg and John Lasseter get done last week? [laughs] Actually, John could do it if he wanted to – he used to be an animator. But I don’t think Jeffrey’s going to touch a puppet or a computer anytime soon.
As directors, could you guys overrule Travis?
Stacchi: In the morning, when he came in in his animator cape, there was a little overruling. But in the afternoon, when we were showing him where the project was going, it got a little harder to overrule.
Annable: Yeah, the dynamic changes at that point. But everybody in the company puts on their different hats, switches gears and makes it work.
Stacchi: Honestly, there are 350 people there with odd, strange skills. And if you can calm down and let them do what they do, they’re just gonna make you look better most of the time.