Directors Anthony Stacchi & Graham Annable Discuss Making ‘The Boxtrolls’ [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. Yesterday, we presented our interview with Laika CEO / lead animator Travis Knight, and today we follow up with our conversation with the film's co-directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable.
ComicsAlliance: You co-directed this film, so how exactly did that work, and how did you divide up the duties? With live action films, there's usually a first and a second unit shooting different things – do you do something similar with stop-motion animation?
Graham Annable: It is pretty common in animation that there are animating teams...
Anthony Stacchi: It's kind of divide and conquer for a lot of the job! But putting up the story reels, working on the script, prepping for record... We do all of that stuff together.
GA: Yeah, a large part of it, we tried to work together for as much as we humanly could. But the middle of the animation production schedule is the time when we do sort of separate – not necessarily into units, but we meet in the morning, we'll review all of the shots that are up for the day, get our heads straight on how exactly we both want to deal with them, and then we split and we both go into our separate edit suites and we have an endless line of animators coming in to brief them for their shots.
AS: Because you can never a moment on the stage where it's lying fallow…
GA: …"Because I couldn't talk to the director, I didn't get any further on the shot, they couldn't finish the set." Once that machine starts going it has to be fed. There are tons of crossover meetings where it's like, "Graham, there's something that's gone wrong with this shot, we need to meet here," or we meet before the day starts, we meet right after lunch and so on.
CA: When I spoke to Travis, he described this project as having been many, many years in the making. At what point did you guys come on to the film's team?
AS: I came on about six or seven years ago. When I first visited Laika they gave me Alan Snow's book to read. For years while they were delivering Coraline and making ParaNorman, those times where there were just a really small group of people – mostly me and a writer, and occasionally Graham working on the script. And then when we could get access to a storyboard artist, we would do a little bit of storyboarding too, but then they'd get called back to ParaNorman and stuff. You are definitely on the second burner for that period – until you hit your eighteen months of production then it goes cranking.
GA: Yeah, I think I spent probably close to three years total. I came on to Laika to work as a story artist on Coraline, and then ParaNorman. And like Tony mentioned, every now and again I would get a little lull in the production time on ParaNorman, and I'd duck over there to help him start to figure out some of the visuals and get some of the sequences rolling. So it was a little bit of a back and forth.
CA: Is there any concern about getting pigeonholed? Are you ever worried that Laika could become "that place that does the dark animation for kids?" From the trailers, you seem to be pushing in some different directions with Boxtrolls, in both the visual styles of character design and world design…
AS: It is very intentionally not as dark as the other films. The original source material wasn't. Alan Snow's book doesn't have any supernatural elements – there is no Other Mother, or ghost or zombies or any of those kinds of elements. It has a scary villain with evil intentions, and it has those intense moments and stuff, but it doesn't have that supernatural scare element. And it was always intended to be artistically brighter-colored, a brighter world...
GA: Yeah, we wanted to stay true to that world that Alan Snow created in Here Be Monsters! It was very intentional, and I think Travis wants to show the world that we can do all sorts of content. I mean, we really want every story we tell to have a very strong emotional core, which is what we gravitated to in The Boxtrolls. It's a story of a young orphan boy who was raised by the Boxtrolls, and the world… We wanted to see what we could do to make it bigger, make it brighter, and see how that felt in the world of stop-motion.
CA: Filmmaking is a collaborative medium in general, but with something like this, where you're working with multiple designers, and you both have design and storyboarding expertise of your own – are there ever moments where you get something back, a sketch or a sequence or whatever, and it changes the whole way that you're thinking about the film?
AS: All the time. Storyboard artists are just writers but they draw instead of writing. So you'll launch them on a sequence, and most of the time the rule is give us what we ask for, and if you have anything else you want to contribute you can do that too. But you have to give us what we ask for first, so that we can move forward.
There are storyboard artists that have taken a different tack on a sequence than what we launched them on, and it's just better. It's a pretty egalitarian atmosphere where, in the editing room or in the storyboarding department, the best idea wins. It has to. Otherwise… I mean, at any given time there are 350 people that are being paid to make me look good. Why would I get in their way? It's stupid. And artistically, forget about it – when it comes to, say, what Michel Breton did in designing the look of the movie, I can't do that.
GA: I think our job is to create the space to allow them to do what they do best. That is our job.
AS: Directing is 90% casting. Not just in actors, in every other step too. And it's really true in animation. So you just surround yourself with really good people, and then get out of the way!