‘Boxtrolls’ Lead Animator Travis Knight On Bringing A Big, Mad, Beautiful World To Life [Interview]
This week, Laika and Focus Features release their stop-motion animated feature The Boxtrolls in theaters nationwide, and it seems poised to stand alongside Laika's previous films Coraline and ParaNorman in the ranks of offbeat, slightly spooky, perennial family favorites.
ComicsAlliance got the chance to speak with some of the film's creative team at this year's San Diego Comic-Con, and today we present our conversation with acclaimed animator and Laika CEO Travis Knight.
ComicsAlliance: This film is based on Alan Snow's book Here Be Monsters. How did you end up with this property, and what changes did you make, aside from the title?
Travis Knight: The Boxtrolls is something that we started developing at basically the same time that the company formed, nearly ten years ago. We had two things that we were developing at the time. We had Here Be Monsters, and we had Coraline. And we were just getting going, so we didn't really have a proper development department. There were only a handful of us, we didn't have a vast army of people, and so we devoted most of our energies to developing Coraline, and Here Be Monsters was kind of on a slow burn.
I loved the book the first time I read it. It had shadings of a lot of great classic children's literature, the stuff that I loved growing up, things like Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl. It had this absurdist perspective on the world, which was kind of consistent with Monty Python, and that sort of thing. It was this big, mad, beautiful book, filled with ideas. And the trick was, how can you distill the essence of this 500-550 page novel down to a ninety minute film, and that's what took so much time.
It was a handful of us working on it over almost a decade, trying to get that story down to a beautiful core film story – and in the end, we found something that we thought was kind of meaningful on a personal level, but also had something to say about the larger society.
CA: What really got me excited about the film was seeing the preview in theaters, and noticing how the kids around me reacted. I love animation, and this was something I was planning to check out anyway, but when I actually saw the preview on a big screen with kids around, that was the moment I was like, "OK, I'm going to need to see this on opening weekend, in a full theater, just to enjoy the crowd's reactions."
TK: Nice! That's good. I mean, that's why we make films. We make films for families. And I think our definition of family, our understanding of family, is maybe a little bit different from other people's. I think there's an unfortunate thing where a lot of content geared towards kids and families is watered down, dumbed down. People kind of underestimate the sophistication of that audience.
I have three kids, and for me one of the things that [inspired] the formation of Laika; I saw when my son was a kid, when my son was very young, the kinds of things he was being exposed to. To me it was kind of loud, brash, frenetic, hollow entertainment. Something that didn't really have anything of lasting worth.
And that was, in large part, the impetus of Laika forming; we wanted to make films that had resonance and didn't speak down to their audience, but celebrated their audience. And I think that perspective has kind of infused every single film and every decision that we've made.
CA: That's an admirable goal, but it's not always easy to achieve that without tripping up or losing your audience. And thankfully, I think something that all of these films have done, that Coraline and ParaNorman did so well, is that they never came off as pandering, or self-important. They have depth, they're interesting, they certainly skew "darker" than a lot of what is generally considered kids entertainment these days. But they never collapse under the weight of their own importance.
TK: Well, it's a very tricky balance. Because if you're trying to make a work of art, you have a point of view, you have your perspective on the world.
Works of art are like a Trojan horse. Under the surface is always some artist's deeply held philosophy on their view of the world. But on the other hand, you do not want to make it feel like medicine. You do not want to make it feel like an afternoon TV special where you're trying to hammer a message into someone's head. You want to tell something that matters, something that has something meaningful to say, but like you said, you don't want it to be overbearing. So you have to find ways to kind of infuse that into the narrative, into the design.
Sometimes the theme of the film is something that comes down to the way you designed the film – that you're saying something about the world. And it's one of the things that I think animation can do, in a way that other forms of filmmaking can't do. Because every single thing you see has got to be designed and created. There's a decision in every single way something looks; someone had to decide why it looked that way. And a lot of times it comes down to, "What are you saying with the work as a whole?"
With Cheesebridge, the town in The Boxtrolls that's above their community, it's a society that's built on a lie. It's a society that's built on corruption, and misplaced priorities, and bigotry. And so we thought, "What if the city reflected that twisted point of view on the world"? So we actually end up designing the architecture so it's torqued, it's twisted, it's askew. Things are sagging onto each other for support, because they can't sustain their own weight. So that's a way that you can visually depict something that you're trying to say thematically.
CA: I've only seen the trailers, but, the world looks to have some of that same weird, decaying, mashed together sensibility of Anton Furst's designs for that first Tim Burton Batman movie. And I really took note of not just the characters in the trailers, but the impressive oppression of the world, and that mix of influences on display.
TK: [laughs] Yeah, we looked to a lot of painters from the impressionist era to kind of draw inspiration from. And we had two extraordinary French illustrators, Nicolas de Crécy, and Michel Breton, who really end up kind of forming what this world ended up being.
In fact, usually what you do is, you find the design of the character, then you find the design of the world, and that's the way we've done it in every film to this point. But this time, we went the other way around. We knew what we wanted the world to look like, and it was informed by the work of these two guys. And then it was like, "OK, now we need to make films that reflect, that have that same DNA." And so, one of our artists, character designer Mike Smith, tried to find the look of the characters in the same way that we found the look of the world, which was through silhouette, through line work. And then we go in and try to figure out the details of how that all came together.
CA: As CEO of the company, but also an animator and storyteller yourself, how much of a hand did you have in the actual day to day of the development and production?
TK: I got my meaty paws over all that stuff. I mean, we are a small community. At the peak of one of our films, we have 300 artists working on it. Which sounds like a lot, but when you break it down, the departments are actually quite small. Our animation department tends to run about 20-25 people. On a big CG film it could be a hundred people.
So we do a lot with less. It's a lot of people, it's a lot to manage, but the departments are small, relative to the kind of stuff that we're doing. When you look at the personality, the point of view, the voice of our films, it comes out of a very small group of people. It's important to me that everything we do has meaning, has a point of view, has a perspective, so you know, I get my stupid paws in everything.
CA: From what I've read, Laika sounds like a very collaborative environment, with a fair amount of interaction between different departments and artists...
TK: I will say that there is virtually no bureaucracy at our company. Every manager is a working manager. Virtually every manager is actually an artist who has risen to the top of their field and is now overseeing more artists. But they're actually in there, still making this up. Including me, I'm still out there animating on the floor virtually everyday.
And I think when you have an environment like that, where everyone is a maker, everyone is creating, everyone is contributing to the art, it's not about a bunch of bureaucrats or executives or marketing mavens who are deciding "this is what the films are going to be" – it's the artists themselves who are figuring out what films we're going to make, and how we make them. And I think that helps give the films their point of view.
CA: And in a world where, due to the constrictions of marketing, and the competition for an audience, everything tends to get boiled down to basics and pull quotes, do you ever have a concern that Laika might get known as "that place that does those dark cartoons"?
TK: Yeah, I mean certainly we saw that to a degree after Coraline and after ParaNorman, which are, while they're both contemporary American stories with a kind of supernatural leaning, I think they're very different from each other. And yet I think do you start getting kind of pigeonholed as, "OK, this is what they do, and they do this one thing."
And I think it's why we decided to make Boxtrolls now. We wanted to do something that was very different. It was kind of a period piece, we've never done creatures before. The themes and the tone of the film were different from what we've done before, the aesthetics and visual stylization of the film wasn't like something we'd done before.
We want to tell unique, individual, discrete stories with a unique and discrete individual point of view. And so, I think that means that you can't rely on a bag of tricks, you can't rely on formula to help get you there, you have to kind of reinvent these things every single time out. Which creates its own challenges, but I also think that's what's inspiring to our group of people.
But the point is, with every single thing that we do, we're always trying to think about how can we bring the medium forward. Which is why I'm excited about Boxtrolls, and why I'm excited about the future, because the films to come are nothing like anything that we've done before!