Directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable Talk THE BOXTROLLS, Adapting Alan Snow’s “Here Be Monsters!”, Casting, and Eccentricities of Stop-Motion

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Though directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable make their stop-motion animation directorial debut on Laika’s The Boxtrolls, the duo was more than up to the task.  Stacchi brings co-directing and writing experience to go along with a career in the animation, art, and visual effects departments.  That paired quite well with Annable’s story work in the art and animation departments on Laika’s Coraline and ParaNorman, as well as his video game directing experience.  It’s no surprise that the two worked so well together cracking the “Here Be Monsters!” adaptation, especially considering just how important collaboration is within the stop-motion studio.

During my set visit to Laika, I got to sit in on a lengthy interview with Stacchi and Annable, which included commentary from producer David Ichioka.  They talked about the arduous story-cracking process, delegating responsibilities among the animators, the insane amount of planning that goes into a stop-motion production, just how creative their artists can be, and using motion-capture and extensive visual effects on this production.  Hit the jump for the extensive interview, and be sure to check out The Boxtrolls when it opens September 26th.

the-boxtrolls-isaac-hempstead-wright-travis-knightAnthony Stacchi: The first thing I thought of when I came here? Travis [Knight] is a really good animator. He’s been an animator for a while and worked on a bunch of features so when he comes in the editing room he’s an animator, and then when he comes in the story room he’s the CEO, and we pitch our ideas to him. Works out pretty well. And it’s pretty great actually, I mean, to have an executive, to have a boss, to have a guy who you pitch everything to have that kind of an intimate knowledge of animation, it’s very rare. John Lasseter was an animator, but no other studio that I ever worked at did anybody in his position have that kind of animation experience.  We’ll have studio heads of different studios who are in animation but they don’t come out of it. Often they’re on their way to something else and they’re punching their ticket in the animation world, hopefully. Didn’t used to be that way. The bright young boys didn’t go into animation, but nowadays they do.

I’m curious about the division of labor, not just between the two of you but also with Travis and the other animators that have their own sequence that they’ve been assigned to.

Graham Annable: Well, I mean, with the animation staff, we certainly leave a lot to Brad Schiff, he’s the head of the department. Brad, early on, makes a lot of the casting calls on who he thinks would work best. It evolves as it goes too. The dance sequence actually was one where we had a number of animators on cast because it was just a huge amount of work with tons of coordination to do it, but pretty early on Jan Maas just clearly had a real eye and passion for it and we gave most of the sequence to him. It evolves as it goes, and you tend to play to the animator’s strengths in terms of who tends to do the humorous situations better and who tends to do the action ones better. Towards the end it turns into sort of a mad dash as we get all the remaining pieces of the puzzle put to rest. We’ve gotten some bizarre cast situations where animators who have done a certain thing for a large portion of the production suddenly find themselves…

Stacchi: The last month of production, to give an animator a sequence, and he’d go, “Well, I’ve never animated Fish before.” Wait, what? “You know, I’ve never touched that character.” To you guys, there’s two philosophies or a couple of philosophies. You can have character leads, or you can have sequence leads, but ever since the pipeline has become so much a part of animation and CG, it’s really had to do character leads because you have to keep people working, and what comes out the pipe to go into production needs people to be put on it. So it’s kind of hard. There are a few people who tend to be really good with characters so they can move around, but we found, and it wasn’t necessarily my philosophy in the beginning but Brad definitely believed in it and I think Travis believed in it,  to have animators doing sequence leads to kind of own a whole sequence. I’m definitely more of a proponent of that now than I realized before, just because they get to keep an eye on the sequence all the way through. Jan did the dance sequence, Travis owned Sequence 2000 we call it; it’s a sequence near the end of the movie where Eggs is in a lot trouble with the villain. He did that whole sequence from beginning to end. the-boxtrolls-anthony-stacchi-graham-annable-david-ichioka-nick-frostOne of the first sequences that went into production, Travis did, too; Sequence 500 we call it. It’s where Eggs and Winnie meet. That was really helpful because it was the first one out of story and into production, and to have one animator sort of dedicated to it, we pitched him the whole sequence, we were really just getting up on our feet as far as using our pre-vis and everything else, so having one animator be lead on it and be thinking about it all the way through really helped.

They do things here they call labs, which is where they shoot little videos of themselves performing. Not every animator likes to get in front of the camera, so other animators will act for them and they’ll sort of direct them. So in all the different iterations, there’s story reels, there’s pre-vis, there’s labs, and then there are blocks and rehearsals, so it’s one person overseeing it. And then when another animator comes in to do a shot in that sequence, they can talk to that animator and figure out what he was thinking in the surrounding shots because they come up arbitrarily. Well, it’s not arbitrary to David [Ichioka] but for us it’s like, “Why do we have to do that one out of order? It’s more important to…” “Can’t. This puppet’s available. This set’s available.” So you do the second half of a movement and you have no idea what the first half is. So it’s great when the animator is looking at that. If it’s two different guys and it could be separated by eight months, that can be tough. But, you know, the animation process has been designed to deal with that as best as possible since the beginning of layout and everything else.

What’s the pre-production process like for you guys? And what’s the biggest challenge of getting something ready to go to the animators?

Annable: On this particular project I’d say story was our biggest wrestle in pre-production. “Here Be Monsters” by Alan Snow, fantastic book. It’s about this thick, and part of its charm is that every page of it has a new character and a new scenario and it just bounces from one crazy random invention to the next. Pretty early on we found out that we weren’t going to be able to keep up with that rate in terms of telling an animated feature in 85 minutes. We just weren’t going to be able to introduce that many characters that consistently. Early stages, I was working as the head of story on it with Tony and it was just a huge wrestle to get it refined down to the script that we all felt confident would work as an 85-minute feature. Yeah, story was a big wrestling match.

Stacchi: It’s always a big wrestling match.

How many iterations did you go through? I know a lot of animation houses put reels up over and over again.

the-boxtrolls-brad-schiff-graham-annableStacchi: And we did that. We did it the old fashion way. We had the book to start off with. When I came here, Irena [Brignull] had already sort of cracked the book and had written a treatment, and then had written the first draft, and you could see by reading that that the treatment was really unwieldy, so then it was like, “Let me move onto a draft, that’ll clear it up!” Then the draft was really long and complicated. So it went through, we easily went through 13 or 14 legitimate drafts, not just little polishes being done. There was more like 18 by the time we had the finished one, but it changed significantly every three drafts where we’d literally start over and throw out like … in the book, there are these characters called Cabbageheads, Ragged Women, and Seacows, in the first few iterations they were all in there, Rat Pirates, a lot of secondary characters, they were all in there. Then little by little, when you reach draft six you’re like, “That’s it. Now we’ve got it figured out,” and then still, we had a lot of cuts.

So then we put up the reels and in each, probably around draft six, we started boarding. So I think we put the movie up completely more than once, I don’t know how many times.

David Ichioka: Three times.

Stacchi: Yeah, three times from start to finish, and then the first act, which is the most problematic with setting up a world like this, we did a number of times before we even put the whole movie up. We put up the first act and then we had a screening and people were just like, “I’m confused,” and we haven’t even introduced the Rat Pirates yet! And we’re 25 minutes into the movie. That happened a lot. So we stopped. And sometimes the danger is that you get stuck in the first act and you run out of time and your third act is made willy-nilly crazy at the end. So we put it up and it fell apart. There were numerous times when Travis came in and went, “Guys, this is fundamentally broken. It’s not working.” And we were like patting each other on the back because a month earlier we were like, “Yeah! We cracked it! This is really workin’!” And then you see the whole thing together and you go, “Wow, that really is hard to stay awake.”

Annable: The one thing that didn’t shift though through all those iterations…

Stacchi: The core story.

Annable: And where we sort of landed finally when we kind of refined it down, was that core story of the boy raised by monsters and raised by the Boxtroll characters. Again, out of all the amazing and inventive things that Alan packed into that book, we always kind of rallied around the Boxtrolls and the concept of those guys just always struck a chord with all of us. Through all of those iterations it became clear that the relationship between that boy and those trolls was the thing to center it all on.

the-boxtrolls-shoe-facesStacchi: And it’s even now still different from the book, definitely a coming-of-age story about a boy raised in this strange town, in this strange world, in relationship with the Boxtrolls. Alan’s really great at world creation and he loves history, picking up weird anecdotes in history and wrapping story around it. It’s steampunk, but Alan also loves to point out anachronistic technology, like, “In fact, cardboard was invented in the mid-1800s,” or something that you didn’t know, but he knew. He loves to read that stuff and slip it into the story. I don’t know if he would actually say it was even steampunk as much as, “Eh I fudged a little bit with electricity and wearing cardboard, but not that much.”

So what makes the Boxtrolls or “Here Be Monsters!” a good fit for Laika Studios and stop-motion animation, versus any other telling of this story?

Stacchi: Well the world has kind of a tough, really textured feeling to it, this industrial revolution Victorian London, in a lot of ways, besides the fact that Alan worked in stop-motion for a lot of years and, I think, wrote it with stop-motion in mind in the intangible ways. Immediately when you read it, it’s this sort of European, urban place, it is based upon a town, Troubridge in London. All of that just felt like it was perfectly set up to be built in a world where you wanted to see real light hitting it and film it in miniature and have a lot of texture in it. It just seemed like the characters and sort of the Python-esque attitude, and then that core story, it all lends itself to being a film for all ages and also for stop-motion. I mean, Boxtrolls? These little guys who live in these magical boxes where their arms come out and then disappear inside? It was a big problem for stop-motion but also something we imagined was solvable and would look great.

Annable: Yeah I do think that the fantastical Victorian era just lends itself so well to stop-motion because I think one of the things that everybody recognizes in stop-motion is the tactile texture. Like Tony was saying, I remember storyboarding on Coraline long ago, just starting on it, and word got around that we were going to make it 3D, and at that time I thought, “Well, I guess we’re just jumping on the old bandwagon with everybody else,” because that was the big push at the time, but then I started to see those first shots come through, and wearing the glasses, I was like, “Wow!” Actually for any medium, 3D makes the most sense for stop-motion because it really played up what the form of animation brings to it. You feel the space, it all truly exists there and you can feel all those textures. Some of the Boxtrolls, we’ve got sort of the steampunky type thing, we’ve got wood, stone, leather, all these great tactile things that really get played up by the end of the film.

The-Boxtrolls-ShoeStacchi: Some of the themes that are in it, too, the hierarchical town, the aristocrats, the fashionable ladies in the book, and the Boxtrolls being at the bottom of the pile, and then this villainous character who wants to climb the hierarchy, a lot of that stuff seems to lend itself to a world that we could really exploit with the artists that we have here. The corrupt morals of the people of the town, the twisted buildings, these cavernous streets that go on this hilly town, all that stuff sort of lends itself to the themes in this story. And then also to, what it really comes down to for me, is the people you want to work with. A lot of this stuff that had been done here on ParaNorman and Coraline had a really lush look but could go quite a bit farther with the stuff you could bring into it in the world we’re talking about. And there’s a couple of artists, there’s Nicolas de Crécy, this French artist of Bandes-dessinée, a graphic novelist in France, I always wanted to work with him. He had the style, so he did a bunch of inspirational sketches to start us off. And then Michel Breton, who had worked here before on Coraline. I saw a bunch of the drawings he had done early on, looser sketches before they cleaned them up for Coraline. We said, “We want to use those, but don’t clean them up. Keep them with that loose organic line they have in there.” And then Curt [Enderle] and some of the people in the art department said that so much of the power of the drawings was in the line, so how do you incorporate the line? In 2D animation it would be easy. Possible to do it in CG, too, but how do you do it when you’re actually building the stuff? So they did a lot of work in trying to keep the organic quality of the line, and it added all this more texture and complexity to the lushness of the world, which kind of lends itself to the decadence of the period film with aristocrats. It just all came together, the look in the book and where it was technologically with everything they had learned on Coraline.

How much direct supervision are you guys doing of the animators? Like a traditional director with his riding crop standing there [laughs] yelling action, or …

Stacchi: Usually we’re sitting out there on those big high directing chairs for two weeks while they animate the scene.

Annable: They have security cams in there so we can just watch.

Stacchi: It’s the strangest. Compared to other animation, it’s so weird. It’s so much more intense because it’s so much more like the performance. A lot of people get into animation because it’s so much more methodical. You couldn’t handle the stress of an actor in front of the camera. But you get to do the drawings and test them, move them around and test them.

Annable: Whittling and whittling.

the-boxtrolls-michael-hollenbeckStacchi: Yeah, whittling it away, and then in CG you animate it through and you keep working on that narration. But in stop-motion you get, really, two shots at it, and three maybe. The first one’s a block where you start to put the puppet around like here on frame 36 and here on frame 72. When the camera move works and it all feels pretty good, and the amount of time we’ve allotted for that shot’s gonna work, that’s a block. You talk to them after that in editorial and we look at it through that. Now they’ve looked at the story reel and they’ve gone over the performance that they want and the faces in the playbook, get the faces all printed. From there, they get one rehearsal, which doesn’t break it down to ones even; they gets fours, sometimes twos. That’s the one chance they get. Then we give them notes there, then they shoot it for a week. So it’s very much like a real performance.

I remember early on going, well, your relationship with the animator and getting them launched correctly, and then finding a way during their rehearsal, that one rehearsal for them to bring their inspiration in and what they want to do, and they can do labs and shoot little films, but that’s it. So it’s never going to turn out exactly as you imagine because there’s not enough moments to hone it or work on it, so that was the thing that’s stressful about it. So Jan’s shot, “Oh, it’s that shot at the dance that we’re having all that trouble with”…

Annable: I know we discussed the hardest stuff but I think he understood all of it.

Stacchi: We went to visit him twice while he was doing it, and looked pretty good. So we all sit in editorial and see it for the first time. And then like CG, it’s not in low-res, it’s not just a line pencil drawing, it’s done. The way it’s going to appear, maybe not in front of a green screen or something, but for all intents and purposes, it’s done. Fully closed, it’s done. That’s really gratifying because you’re getting to see a finished piece of footage very early in the process.

Annable: Yeah it’s a huge leap whereas you would have waited months and months as everything got layered on, but not with stop-motion. It’s terrifying but it’s amazing.

Stacchi: It’s like live-action because you have dailies every day. And the guy who did the shot did it in slow-motion, it took him three weeks to do the shot, you know, the 45-frame shot with six characters. It’s a really strange way to make a movie. This is my first … I’ve worked on stop-motion movies in the story before, but I’ve never directed one. I had no gray hair, I had a full head of hair, I was a healthy, happy person when I started this process.

the-boxtrolls-matias-liebrechtAnnable: Well, it wasn’t exactly like I knew what I was doing either. This is my first time in this role. I’ve already been working in storyboards up to this point on ParaNorman and Coraline, but I thought I kinda knew what was going on on the stages down there, but I learned very quickly that there was a whole lot more that needed to get decided once the boards were done. For me it was like once you finished the animatic, hey, you had your movie. Done.

It seems like you guys have a lot of expertise across all of the departments. Do you find that it’s more of a collaborative effort?

Annable: Definitely.

Stacchi: In a lot of ways. You can’t see everything. You have to make decisions a lot earlier. Like in CG and stuff, in every animated film you have everything in front of the camera is made, whether it’s drawn or made in the computer. With this thing it’s literally hand-made, which takes a lot longer to do, so you have to make decisions much earlier in the process and stick to them, because they need to build the entire city. So Curt heads the departments, all those guys, they have to be invested. What we’re really lucky for, with the exception of Aardman, there has never been a stop-motion studio that has stayed together for so long and made three features at this level, because usually they crew up, they make a Tim Burton movie, they all disperse around the world in different places.

Annable: But it’s always a different assembly. Here, we’ve now made three films with essentially the same core people in terms of heads of the department. We’ve certainly leaned on them a lot in terms of trying to allow them to maximize what they could bring to this film.

Stacchi: And using the extensive native dork population of Portland, too [laughs] where just go downtown, throw a rock and you’ll hit somebody who should be working for stop-motion in one form or another.

Ichioka: The director of photography on this film [John Ashlee Prat] has been working with the studio for the last 25 years.

Stacchi: Yeah, Portland has always had a stop-motion history. Amongst other stuff. I run into people here who I knew years ago from places in LA or the Bay area or other stuff who just end up coming here because they worked in a model shop or they worked in traditional effects at ILM or something like that, so they’ve stayed with it rather than go into the computer world, and they’ve washed up on the shores of Laika. [laughs]

the-boxtrolls-john-ashlee-pratIt’s interesting when you mention the computers, I think this is the first time that Laika is going to feature motion-capture, is that correct?

Stacchi: They’re using some. Big crowds and such.

Yeah, with the ballroom scene. We’ve heard a lot about the advances in the 3D printing with the color technology. Can you talk about the decisions of how far to push the current technology that you have, and also the blending of the visual effects from the computer world rather than being 100% of what you see on stage?

Stacchi: When you initially pick up the job to talk about it, you’re like, “How are you going to do it? Is it appropriate for stop-motion?” The scale of this thing with the crowds and also the world and stuff, it was always going to be a hybrid movie. When I started with Travis with my history before and the fact that their CG department was getting bigger and bigger, and more and more capable, I said I wanted to make it a hybrid movie. We said from the very beginning that Laika has done it and historically in stop-motion there’s been two schools of thought: one is to do everything very rigorously, doing everything in-camera, create everything on the set, cotton for smoke, gelatin for rain, and that has a fantastic charm to it, and it has a certain naiveté that I think really plays to stop-motion’s strength, but it also can tend to force you to make a certain kind of twee, quaint little movie. Those things can also throw you out of the movie a little bit. The reality of the movie starts going and then the smoke is cotton. And it’s fantastic when it’s done in movies like Coraline or Fantastic Mr. Fox and the old [Ladislas] Starevich original films are really cool because of it, but we didn’t want to do that on this one. We thought that the story and the action in it should be treated as if it were a live-action film. And then the effects should be as cold as the rain can be, and as hot, and if that meant realism, do it.  But everything along the way is driven by the aesthetic of the studio for that particular job. There’s not a house style, but we came up with a look with Michel and the building of the props and in the painting and the styling of the puppets, and that was all made traditional stop-motioning, we actually built them. They sort of define the look. Whatever it takes to get that look, we’ll use. We won’t keep it in front of the camera. You’ll see the sewer set where using traditional stop-motion ripple glass moving against each other and the rippling water underneath, we made water at the bottom of the sewer because it just looked appropriate to the look. Could have done it in CG and chased that look in there, but that technology worked fine. At every step of the way it’s just, here’s the look, what’s the best way to get there? So making it a hybrid film was the goal from the beginning. The next film might be totally different.

Annable: To its core, it always stayed stop-motion, even with clouds that were all done in CG, the look of them kind of originated from stop-motion. Curt and everyone had made fabricated cloth clouds that gave the right stylistic impression, but we weren’t going to be able to do what we wanted to do animation-wise with some of the movement, and things in the backgrounds, so the root of it always came from real, tangible objects, and then we’d extrapolate from there depending on, like Tony said, shot to shot, to make the decision of like, “Yeah, the CG guys are the best department to make this shot here,” and the rigging department came up with a great solution for this, so we’re going to keep this in camera, and we just tried to, more than anything, let the style dictate where we made the decisions.

Ichioka: For every sequence we have these big meetings that fill this room up.

the-boxtrolls-georgina-hayns-isaac-hempstead-wright-brian-mcleanStacchi: Yeah, called breakdown meetings. Next to watching the animators, they’re the most terrifying thing.

Annable: A lot of people sit around the table and say, “How are we going to do this? Here’s the thing we need to do. Is it you guys? Is it you guys?” It’s always a great thing in these films because the first six months of the film, when a really difficult thing comes up, it’s always, “I’ll do it. We’ll do it.” The fights are, “No, I think we should do it.” Then after that, the next six months are, “Yeah, you guys should do it.” [laughs]

Stacchi: Yeah, the breakdown meetings, that was another thing. You have them go over sequences and stuff in CG and all that stuff, but this was really like the troops figuring out and everybody representing. Okay, what kind of puppet are we going to use to do that? How many animators? How many passes is it going to take? And that’s Brad and George talking about all that stuff in there. If it involves any effects or there’s a background extension, that kind of stuff, then the other side of the table talks about it.

Ichioka: We use Shotgun for a shot database, and all that information at that point goes into Shotgun because we don’t actually act on it and shoot that shot maybe until six or eight months later in a lot of cases. All this preparation along the way is like, “Well, what happens in this shot? What did we say we were going to do? And how many passes was it going to be?”

Stacchi: And every single thing, I didn’t realize how much we were going to be held to it there. [laughs] I just figured, “Well, this is early days.” And then I realized later, “No, you said it there. Somebody wrote it all down.” But over by the big board, which is not as impressive as it used to be, just that every single week, every day, every square foot of the stage is broken down for the whole process. So this will be shot here on this week and it’ll take three days. And Brad will say, “Two animators, three days,” so that’ll be how it’ll be on the schedule. Everything falls apart when those numbers don’t add up. There’s tons of shifting around and stuff, everybody’s reasonable, but there’s no way to wrestle the thing and know that you’re going to be able to get it done in 72 weeks unless you schedule out that whole thing.

Annable: Unlike other forms of animation again, it plays a little bit more like a live-action production where, well, Knickers’ Boxtroll is being used on this set and this set.

Stacchi: Oh yeah, there’s only two Knickers.

Annable: And this shot’s gone over and there’s only two Knickers, so …

Stacchi: You’ve got to use Sparky. “It doesn’t make any sense for Sparky to be in that scene!” Well, he’s the only guy, you know, and you’ve just got to figure out the horse trade.

the-boxtrolls-florian-perinelleAnnable: You’re limited by the actual physical puppets.

Ichioka: How many Eggs were made? 20?

Annable: I think there were 25 of them.

Stacchi: Yeah, on the computer it just says download another Winnie.

Ichioka: But it wasn’t that simple because it was all these different Eggs in different costumes and you think, “Oh well you just change the costume,” right? No, it’s not a little thing to start changing costumes for these characters. It’s a big deal. So that stuff had to be tracked pretty tightly all the way along the lines.

Stacchi: It’s always fun at the break time when you used to hear when the murmuring starts, because you play the sequence for everybody to see it, and they’ve seen it, or they’ve tried to keep up watching it, but all they’re concerned about is what the problems are, so nobody’s laughing, which is horrible. [laughs] Or getting upset. Or saying it’s a great sequence. They’re all just going like this, and like, “Eggs is taking a bath,” ::grumble, grumble, grumble:: These people suddenly murmuring and writing and, “A bath? How are we going to do that? Soap bubbles, and what shirt is he wearing, is he wearing a shirt while taking a bath?”

Ichioka: These poor guys do nothing but kill their babies for like a year and a half, too. It’s like, “If you get rid of the bath, we’ll give you this chase.” But we want both these things! “Can’t have it.”

Stacchi: That being said, when I began to learn, I would go, “I don’t know…” and Travis would say, that’s our job, that’s their job, we can’t feel restricted by that. That stuff can be figured out.

Annable: And at the same time, I mean, the crew just unbelievably delivers things that you didn’t think were going to happen. I keep telling the story of the sewer set that you’ll see a little bit later with the ripple glass. It’s beautiful. It’s gorgeous. All the caustic lights playing off the walls, it’s fantastic looking. One of the shots it’s used for is where Fish the Boxtroll comes down at the end of a hose, and he can’t quite get the hose to the water, and he just lands just above the surface. And Tony and I are looking at it when they had it all set up.

Stacchi: Just to be jerks.

Annable: Kinda jerkily, but as directors we have to ask for more no matter what. And we’re like, “Man, wouldn’t it be cool if his toe just touched the surface of that water?”

Stacchi: Just some ripples on the water. And they’re like, “It’s glass, it’s not real water.”

the-boxtrolls-EggsAnnable: And everybody just went like really quiet. Like, “Aw…” because they’d already put it all together. [laughs] It’s nice but can’t we put a … And then we realized their reaction and just sort of laughed it off and were like, “Okay, we’ll talk about it later.” And within a day, we came back to do another check on the set, and they’d shot the test of Fish coming down, and we’re watching it, and sure enough Fish reaches his toe, taps the water, and these perfect concentric circles ripple out. And we’re like, “Whoa!” and everyone just starts laughing. I guess Ollie Jones of the rigging department as soon as we said that was like, “I’m going to figure out how to do this.” And to this day, I still don’t know exactly the contraption.

Stacchi: He made some little gizmo with fishing line.

Annable: Fishing line. There are two layers of ripple glass and he sort of inserted in between the two layers and just was able to get the circles to go out. And the impression of it is exactly perfect, it looks like a nice little touch on the water. It’s crazy.

Stacchi: That kind of stuff happens a lot. And it may be just that Ollie has an answer for every question there is, that he’s some sort of weird god among us [laughs] that he just waits for us to ask it and then he throws it out. But it’s more like they just get used to it as part of the culture and stuff here. But it’s true, it gets so busy after a while that you have a breakdown meeting and you talk about something having to be made and three months later you go over to the art department and they show you it made and it’s gone through so many hands before it comes back to be presented to you, and it’s just this beautiful little thing. And it may just be a chair, or a pot, or a weird little thing like that that’s just … I saw Michel’s rough drawing of this when he showed us the design for the foyer or something. And now there it is, it exists right there, this little miniature chair. That constantly happens and it’s really fun. CG movies are great too, but you’re mostly sitting in the theater or working in a dark room with people’s little faces in blue lights and stuff from their monitors, but here you get to see the stuff laid out.

Annable: It’s crazy.

Stacchi: If you’ve ever loved a model train set or played with something, that just, those genes comes out immediately.

Annable: It just feels different from any animation studio I’ve ever worked at because of that. We walk out for our set visits, check-ins and what not, and you can hear all of the machinery in the rigging department where there’s like real men with goggles on, people, real full-on workers doing stuff.

the-boxtrolls-deborah-cookStacchi: Yeah, we have welders. It’s like Burning Man out there. [laughs] Less drugs and they’re not always naked.

Not always.

Ichioka: Summer months get a little hot back there.

What about the voice cast? Can you guys talk about them?

Stacchi: Again, different from other studios. When it was a period movie and it was ostensibly set in Europe, we talked about wanting an English cast and Travis was fine with that. You’d get a lot of push back at a lot of studios. Travis was fine for that. Isaac [Hempstead Wright], we had a list of a bunch of boys of the right age and stuff, and a lot of us had seen him on Game of Thrones. So on like all animated films, we cut their voices with the character designs and cut them with each other. Elle Fanning had been a friend of the studio since her sister had been in Coraline, and she’d been a little girl and come to visit. And luckily we found out she had just done a film in England and her English accent was really good. Then, it was just a “wish for” list. We didn’t think we’d get Simon Pegg and Nick Frost when we started, and we didn’t get them in exactly the form we initially thought about. We were going to get them in sort of a duo, and then on the way, Richard Ayoade, you were a huge fan of his, and I knew him but not as much as you did. We played a bunch of his stuff and we fell in love with the idea of him and Nick Frost together. And then Simon Pegg was a much smaller role, but he was interested in that because it was a smaller role and a little bit of a surprise cameo.

And then, we had a huge list for Snatcher, and nowhere near the top did I put Sir Ben Kingsley, but Travis felt strongly about really wanting to try him, and I didn’t think he’d be interested. And it didn’t quite jibe with my imagination of Snatcher at the time. When we called him, he was interested. We sent him the character and we had a great couple of phone calls. That turned out to be the most interesting casting. He treated it like any role, and he came with a fully conceived version of Snatcher in his head. Luckily it was a lot like ours, but to a degree that we never imagined. I mean, the strangest mannerisms he came up with and the quirky behaviors he had for him … the first time we recorded him, I was kind of freaked out like, “Okay, I’m fired.” [laughs] When I show up with this reading, Travis is going to be like, “What the …?” But it was the opposite. It was so inflected with such a strange mannerism.

Annable: The animators got so excited when you played those voiceovers.

Ichioka: That’s what I was saying before about animation voices. They’re few and far between, but he’s got one of them.

the-boxtrolls-david-pughStacchi: They’re all pretty great, I think we have a great cast, but Richard was a huge find because he’s such an idiosyncratic voice, and then Ben Kingsley, as far as giving you stuff in every reading that the animator can grab onto, and then it immediately paints a little picture in their head of what he should be doing, whether it’s because he’s elongated this word incredibly long and the animator has to figure out a way to deal with that in his action, in a good way. He was great. Toni Collette was great. Her role grew and shrunk, and grew and shrunk, and ended up being smaller than we had hoped because she did a fantastic job. The story just didn’t allow for her to be as big as we wanted.

Annable: Tracy Morgan.

Stacchi: [laughs] Tracy Morgan, yeah. That was our one brilliant stunt cast there. He’s a great character.

Annable: Yeah, he’s turned out really fun.

Stacchi: Really scary little character. Poor Tracy kept going, “Yeah, I’m going to have a little girl. I can’t wait to show her this movie.” I was like, “Well… Might not want to point to this character and say, ‘That’s daddy up there!’” [laughs]

Did you guys have a favorite sequence or character throughout the shoot?

Stacchi: Snatcher, maybe.

Annable: Yeah, the transformation that began, what Tony was describing with what Sir Ben Kingsley brought to that character, we kind of knew what we had on the script pages and we were happy with it, but then when he showed up and added that extra level of depth and just strangeness to it, I love that fact that this movie, at least to me, has landed. There are real moments of empathy for the villain in the film. You kind of understand why he ended up the way he ended up; horrible man, but he has great moments.

Stacchi: We said the subtitle for the movie is, “Snatcher’s Really Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Day.” [laughs] The movie takes place over ten years and one day. Most of the movie is that one day, and he has a really bad day. If you’ve ever desired to be part of a club that doesn’t want you as a member, you’d understand why Snatcher’s frustrated and what he’s trying to do.

With the nature of the stop-motion model of animation, does that leave anything for deleted scenes on eventual Blu-rays? Blooper reels, things like that.

Stacchi: Storyboarded scenes. There could be ones that we boarded, but there’s just little bits of ends. We don’t shoot anything extra.

the-boxtrolls-danail-kraevIt seems like you had a lot that you could have shot and just whittled it down so you didn’t have any wasted footage. Do you guys plan on doing sort of a behind-the-scenes featurette that we’ve seen before, or like we’ve seen in the trailer?

Stacchi: Yeah, they shoot all the way along the process with a lot of time-lapse footage of people sculpting, or animating and stuff. That stuff is shot all the time. I don’t even know how many hours of that we have.

Annable: They’ve been doing it all throughout.

Ichioka: Big database of all that stuff. We have B-roll of all the actors and that sort of thing too. We’re still shooting that stuff.

I remember for ParaNorman, it showed one sequence from the movie and then a time-lapse of the animator buzzing around really quickly.

Stacchi: Yeah. There’s that and there’s also a great little surprise thing that comes in the midst of the credits.

Annable: Shh!

Stacchi: I know.

Ichioka: Not as much of a surprise right now. [laughs]

Stacchi: No, there’s a couple of sequences that stayed in the movie but were not completed, like where Eggs sits down to a really uncomfortable dinner with some aristocrats that we boarded, and reboarded, and reboarded, and then it was cut from the film. It became a different form where he gets involved with the waltz, dancing, which is a similar fish out of water sequence. There’s one where there’s a kidnapping that was once in the story and all these boards were done; they might be nice to show. It would be hard to figure out where they would fit in the movie now, but they give you a sense.

Ichioka: When I started, right after the film was greenlit or right before it, there were these two tentpole sequences that absolutely, positively would never ever get cut, and they’re both gone.[laughs] That’s just the nature of it.

Stacchi: Yeah, Graham did one of them over and over and over again.

the-boxtrolls-carrotsAnnable: That’s how I ended up working with you on this, because I was in the midst of still storyboarding ParaNorman, and you were in the middle of pre-production just trying to get development of the “Here Be Monsters” script. And you finally got access to a couple of story artists to get stuff boarded, and I was just excited because the Boxtrolls element of it was always the pulling thing for me, so I got a chance to board out a sequence to, at that time, the Boxtrolls finding a baby in the trash, the trash of Cheesebridge, and it was a whole sequence that really didn’t have any dialogue to it, it was all just gurgles and sounds of the Boxtrolls. I just had a lot of fun with it. It turned out to be the thing that we were like, “That’s what I want to make.”

Stacchi: When it finally came together after Graham had done it, and that happens a lot in story, when you get that one scene that works, you go, “That’s it. That’s the tone of the movie. That’s what’s entertaining. That’s what takes this material and makes it what the overall movie should be.” You kind of throw everything out and build it from there, and that’s what we used that sequence for … right up until we cut it out of the movie. [laughs]

So where are you guys at now in the production? I know you’re just about wrapped on the actual shooting, so what’s the next big responsibility moving forward?

Annable: Sound design and music is certainly coming to the forefront now. We’ve been lucky though. Well, like I told you, I haven’t done the director thing before, but we’ve had the composer, Dario Marianelli, involved from quite early on. He wanted to be there right when we were still pretty much all storyboards.

Ichioka: Yeah, we met him on the first trip to the UK I think. So a long time ago.

the-boxtrolls-caitlin-pashalekStacchi: Which is great, because we thought we were trying to impress him to come. Now, we’re making a period movie, a costume drama, and so we said, “What better than the guy who did Atonement and Anna Karenina?” And this amazing composer, will he stoop to do stop-motion movies? [laughs] And he was coming, going, “God, I hope they’ll let me do a stop-motion animated film. I’ve always wanted to do one.” So it was this awkward lunch we had at the hotel, and at the end we both were like, “So will you do it?” and “Can I do it?” and he was great. He got involved. There’s the waltz sequence that we needed the song very early on to board to, really, but also to choreograph the dance before we even got close to animation. And then there’s another sequence where Eggs and the Boxtrolls build this machine that has a musical element to it, so we needed that song before we could finish boarding. And then there’s a performance of song in the movie, too, so all those things had to happen pretty early on in the production, and he was available for all those. At first he was like, “This is so great! You can start early with the story!” I don’t know if he’s saying that anymore [laughs] because he’s been working hard all the way through the process.

The songs we’ve heard so far for the trailers, now I don’t know if they’ll be used for the movie, but they’ve had a nice tone to it. Even though we don’t know a whole lot about what goes on in the plot of the film, you get a good warm feeling just from that.

Stacchi: Dario did the music for the teaser. The very first one, he did that music in there, so that will give you, directly, one of the themes, the musical themes. 

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