Q&A: Boxtrolls directors bring authentic feeling with visual flair

    Laika Studios has been steadily staking a claim in the stop-motion animation world. Since 2009, it has released three feature films: Coraline, Paranorman and The Boxtrolls, which opens nationwide today. Set in a dairy-obsessed fantasy world where gentle, gnomeish animals called Boxtrolls are persecuted, The Boxtrolls is a children’s film with visuals as impressive as the presentation of its sophisticated themes.

    Don’t be dismissive of the film’s PG-rating. Its star-studded cast provides entertainment that’s not just for kids. Ben Kingsley voices Archibald Snatcher, a social-climbing exterminator who terrorizes Boxtrolls through violence and propaganda. Elle Fanning plays Winnie Portley-Rind, an inquisitive tween who befriends Egg, a human boy adopted by the Boxtrolls and voiced by newcomer Isaac Hempstead-Wright. Together, they take a stand against Archibald Snatcher’s cruelty and try to save their Boxtroll friends, bumping into Tracy Morgan, Toni Collette, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg along the way.

    North by Northwestern sat down with the film’s two directors, Graham Annable and Anthony “Tony” Stacchi, in a media roundtable.

    North by Northwestern: Rapid prototyping 3-D printing technology was used to animate faces on The Boxtrolls. Is that something that’s just starting to come out? How does that technology work in animation?

    Graham Annable: Well, it’s based on age-old stop-motion technique. Replacement faces and replacement bodies, it’s been done since the '40s. But never before have we had a 3-D printer inserted into the process.

    Anthony “Tony” Stacchi: The 3-D printer is very modern. It was used on Coraline. I had never heard of it in any form until I saw them using it in Coraline. They were the first people to use it for animation. Literally, you hear the machine make these movements, and then they open it up and there’s a little doll’s face. A lot of hand work still has to be done. They have to powder over [the faces].

    GA: But less than before. In Coraline, they would print out the shape, but all the actual color and nuance had to get painted on after that. It’s just progressively gotten more and more robust. On The Boxtrolls, the printer itself deals with all the color that’s showing up on the faces, and it keeps it very precise.

    NBN: Is 3-D printer technology something Laika hopes to continue and make part of its brand?

    GA: Definitely. We are the only studio that uses 3-D printers in this fashion, and in each film, it’s gotten more and more capable.

    AS: Some of the characters, like Egg’s father Herbert, are still traditional puppets. He has a silicone face, and inside of it, there’s little mechanical paddles where his eyebrows are and his lips are, and you can move them. The reason we had to do him that way was because there was so much hair on his face, it had to be animated. We couldn’t print out all that hair every time, so we made him a traditional character.

    NBN: And Herbert as a character has so many quirks, like his catchphrase, “jelly.”

    GA: Funny enough, that caused a grand divide in our staff. A lot of folks who work at Laika are from Britain. Jelly to them means something different to what it means to Americans. At the end of the film, there’s a jelly box. What that label was going to be and how it was going to be represented was a big deal. We needed to figure out the perfect visual representation that didn’t quite tip the scale one way or the other.

    NBN: Laika’s had a few big actors in their previous films, but with The Boxtrolls, you really pulled out all the stops: Ben Kingsley, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost. How was working with them?

    GA: Each project has been really lucky. We’ve almost always gotten the actors we were hoping to get. With this project, I guess things had gone so well in terms of casting with the other two that we were like, “Let’s shoot for the stars on this one.”

    AS: We can’t pay them what the big studios pay them, so they’re definitely not doing it for the money.

    GA: That’s part of it. With the reputation of the studio, people are beginning to get a grasp of who we are, what we do, and that certainly helps with casting actors.

    NBN: Yes, in the case of Elle Fanning, her sister Dakota was in Coraline.

    AS: We knew we wanted to work with Elle from the beginning. They’re friends of the studio. They’re kind of like family. She used to come visit when she was a little girl, when Dakota was doing Coraline, so she’d been to the studio. Last time we saw her, she was a tiny little girl walking around with her sister. She’d also done Ginger and Rosa, so she had shown that she does a great English accent. And she had a voice coach who came to all her recording sessions.

    And Sir Ben is just a force of nature. We reached out to him and were really thrilled on the phone call. He had just recently done Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist, and we didn’t really want a Bill Sikes, Dickensian character. He immediately on the phone mentioned Don Logan, the character he plays in Sexy Beast. We were like, “Yes!” You never want an actor to repeat a performance, but he brought up the power of the Don Logan character. He also recorded in a really strange way. Most of the time, he wanted to record reclining in a chair, because he wanted his voice to be coming out of his belly. I’d never heard of this before, but it was Sir Ben, so we just let him go for it.

    NBN: Graham, what was sharing the director role like, especially since it was your first time directing?

    GA: It was terrifying. I was really glad to have Tony beside me, because he has the experience to recognize when to panic and when to not panic. I would have just panicked the whole time. For the both of us, for how joined at the hip we’ve been, this project and us in general, we just synced up.

    AS: During the whole storyboarding process, we were walking around, doing it together. That’s the blueprint for the whole movie, so if you can agree on the blueprint, then it’s just about trying to keep each other focused.

    The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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