"The Boxtrolls" Interview With Directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable
Anthony Stacchi joined LAIKA in 2007 from Sony Pictures Animation after co-directing the CG hit Open Season. Before Sony, he worked as Head of Story, Storyboard Artist and Animator at PDI/DreamWorks, Industrial Light and Magic and Skellington Productions on projects including Antz, Spirit, James and the Giant Peach, Frankenstein and Curious George.
Graham Annable makes his directorial debut (directing with Anthony Stacchi) on LAIKA’s third film, The Boxtrolls. Classically trained as an animator at Toronto’s Sheridan College, after graduation Annable worked at LucasArts for 10 years, ultimately becoming a Lead Animator. He worked as a storyboard artist on LAIKA’s first two films Coraline and ParaNorman, both of which were nominated for the Academy Award®, BAFTA®, and the Producers Guild of America Award®, among other honors.
During a set visit to Laika Studios, Toonzone News was able to sit down with them for a roundtable interview session with several other members of the press.
Q: It’s nice that you guys are working in tandem. How is that relationship working out for you guys?
GRAHAM ANNABLE: No, this is the first time we have worked together.
ANTHONY STACCHI: This is my first project here. Graham’s been here for all three.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: I’ve worked in the storyboard department on Coraline and ParaNorman. Started out as head of story on this, I ended up in the role with Tony.
ANTHONY STACCHI: There’s certain parts of the process that you do together. The storyboarding, putting the story reels up. At that point you’re mostly dealing with the story department and occasionally the art department, so we were able to do a lot of things together, but within that, we split it up. I’m going to work on this sequence a little bit or I’m going to work on that sequence, but we were always together in editorial. Once you put the reels together where a lot of things are established, then it’s a little bit easier to split up. By the time you get to this point here, you really have to divide it up because the floor rules.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: It’s all about the efficiency out there, maximizing that time. When we get it down to the wire, we try to spend as much time working together because we’ve gotten into a rhythm of bouncing stuff off each other all the time. We always start the day together, figuring out the shots that are going up for the day, and the end of the day, and as much as we can through the day. You keep moving.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Can’t keep us away, but really, there’s three hundred people out there working really hard to make us look good, and a lot of times, it’s better to get out of those people’s way and let them do their jobs. We have an Animation Supervisor Brad Schiff, and an editor. Honestly there’s a couple of coordinators that are our core group of people, always together in editorial. It happens all the time at a job like this: “Who has the best idea?” Something’s not working here, and you have a very limited time to figure it out, so I always want to have Graham around. There was a shot yesterday were Eggs lands in the foreground, and he’s hiding in the factory, and he’s trying to free Fish who has been caught by the bad guys, and Snatcher and his henchmen are in the corner and they have some business that they are doing and we have concept for it, and we record for it. An animator did a block of what it could do, roughly, with the animation, and he had to be back animating, and it wasn’t very interesting. We looked at it, and we came up with an idea and said we should just check with Brad, and he came up with a much better idea. He just walked in, looked at it, and said “Oh, they should do this” and it was just a better idea. That happens all the time, and they are all here to make us look good, and sometimes you just have to keep everybody together, and the best idea wins. Usually.
Q: So with this evolutionary process you’re going through to make this film, is it dramatically different from the initial concept or are you staying within the boundaries of the original idea?
ANTHONY STACCHI: We started with the book. Coraline had an original book, ParaNorman was an original idea. Certain parts of it stayed the same. For me, I read the book, and the core story for me was always the relationship between the hero boy, Eggs, he’s called Arthur in the book, and the Box Trolls. There’s tons of other characters and other threads, and tonally, it’s a little different. It’s a huge, complicated book, and we had to choose that. That core emotional story about a little boy finding his place in the world being raised underground with these Box Trolls and Cabbage Heads, that has never changed, but the way to tell that story, we went through many different iterations.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Many different iterations. That was one of the biggest challenges on this was adapting that story the story from that book, and Alan Snow’s book was thick. Every page had a new idea and concept and new character, and that was part of the of the charm of that book when you read it, but as an animated feature, it wasn’t going to be feasible to keep up with that pace of introducing new things and new characters. It was a long battle to refine this movie down to what was the cast of characters that were going to tell that core relationship best.
ANTHONY STACCHI: And you have that little core story, that little flickering light that you follow as you sort of drag your story canoe behind you and hack your way through the jungle, and if you lose that, you’re really lost. A lot of times, early on in the process, people are like “I think the story is about the Cabbage Heads and the Cabbage Head Queen and that’s a really interesting thread and we should emphasize that more”, then you get lost. That’s when the story goes off the rails. Sometimes stories have beginning teams, who have taken it in one direction and that just reveals that the story should be a different story and then you either go along with it or get a new director or something. When I read the book I was influenced by Alan’s illustrations, but also there was an inspirational artist named Nicolas De Crecy, a French graphic novelist, and he was always the guy I thought that could establish the look. That never changed. And then Michel Breton who is an artist here and he’s just a guru of all things style. What’s his title?
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Concept designer.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Yeah. Concept designer. Michel worked here on Coraline, and we saw his art there and said he’s the perfect guy.
Q: I was wondering if he worked on that, I could see some of that in the illustrations.
ANTHONY STACCHI: He could interpret Nicolas De Crecy’s design and bring his own touch to it, and it never really wavered from the look of those two guys. People were brought on to augment that look, and then Curt was able to figure out a way to get the whole art department to find that quality that Michel has in his drawings in every piece of furniture and every building. We even designed the characters in that way. You usually start out by designing characters because that’s what you know best, and then you build the world according to the style of the characters. We went in a slightly different direction because we always knew what the world looked like, and then we did our first pass at the characters and had to re-address them so they’d fit in the world better.
Q: I haven’t read the book, but is the book based around a steampunk kind of era?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Yeah, some of it is anachronistic like steampunk, but some of the stuff is because Alan loves history, so he would go, “Well in fact, cardboard was invented in the 1830’s.” Like Graham said, it’s full of all these weird curves in the book and it’s also chock full of strange creatures. We focused on The Box Trolls because I think they were the most ingenious invention in the book. There are these other characters — Cabbage Heads and Sea Cows and Rabbit Women, and Rat Pirates and stuff — who fell away little by little as we developed the story, because they were too much for our story.
Q: The film is amazing from what we’ve seen. This is specifically different from what we’ve seen from Laika.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Alan has a history of stop motion animation. I think he wrote the book with stop motion in mind. The book has these great characters, the two villains that are actually kind of evil. It’s a very gritty world with bizarre machines and stuff, and in a way it pointed to stop motion as being the perfect medium for it. It also pointed us in that direction to have really authentic, real looking, visceral looking effects instead of doing it in camera or making it out of cotton or something like that. To treat it like a live action action movie and make sure the effects felt like real rain, real fire, real storms, which really plays up to the realism quality of the stop motion footage. I think it has a unique feel.
Q: This film feels more live action than any of the others, in a really interesting way. It’s live action but it isn’t.
ANTHONY STACCHI: So many films have done that well. Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, where the naivete of stop motion stuff, the smoke made out of cotton, the gel tears and all that kinds of stuff. It has a charm that’s been done really well. Sometimes the naivete of it can throw you out of the picture a little bit, and in this one, we never throw you out of it. The rain should feel wet, the fire’s hot.
Q: So is this all visual effects?
ANTHONY STACCHI: The look is always consistent, the look always comes first, and the VFX gets laid by the art department. They do a whole bunch of research using fabrics so the clouds have the same line quality, but they may be generated digitally and they may move more realistically than if we actually made them out of fabric. And it’s whichever department does the look best.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: We keep describing the film as a real hybrid. There are still a lot of in-camera effects. That ripple on that wire with the toe of Fish on one of the shots. We had Fish dropping down into the sewer, and he just about touches the water and bounces back up, and if you look at the block of that shot, we kind of jokingly said it’d be kind of cool if he just touched the water with his toe. The water is all practical, ripple glass with light coming through. Two layers of ripple glass that perfectly emulates water.
Q: But you didn’t use water?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Nope. No.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: We joked about having him touch the water and then everybody kind of went “Uh-oh”. It takes a lot just to get that effect in place, the illusion of what it was, and then the next round, the next iteration of the shot, we looked at it, loved it, great, and then lo and behold, Shoe’s toe touches the water and these perfect circular concentric circles ripple out. We’re like how did that just happen? One of the guys, Ollie Jones, had came up with a fishing line.
ANTHONY STACCHI: A little gizmo.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Yeah, that sort of just push the line out in a perfect circle it was under the first layer of glass.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Perfect circle under the glass, these little ripples. It’s a tiny little thing that we jokingly asked for at the last minute, and he came up with it overnight. That kind of stuff happens a lot around here, and it looks great.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: You get totally interactive light with stop motion, so we always treated it shot by shot whether it was going to be VFX or in the camera effect and which option better fit the style of the film. We just never really took a hard fast rule everything’s in camera or everything’s VFX.
ANTHONY STACCHI: All the things that were done practically on that shot look as real as we need them to look. We could’ve done them in CG, but it would be really hard because the puppet’s in the shot, and he’s moving and the water’s rippling light on him as he’s moving. Difficult to do in CG. Not impossible, just a little time consuming. Now it’s just done on the set while it’s being animated, which just totally made sense from a practical point of view.
Q: Was there ever any concern about how dark tonally the film skewed?
ANTHONY STACCHI: The book has its dark parts. Alan loves Dickens, he loves Dickensian stories, but I think in a lot of ways, it’s the lightest of the Laika films so far. I mean, it has its dark, harrowing action moments and stuff. It doesn’t really have a supernatural quality to it. It doesn’t have any ghosts or anything scary like that.
Q: Eyes being ripped out and replaced by buttons?
ANTHONY STACCHI: No, there’s none of that. There is Ben Kingsley voicing the villain which is scary in its own unique way, although we tried to come up with a villain who you understand why he is driven the way he’s driven and you have some sympathy for him and you understand. He kind of has a parallel path to the hero Eggs. They’re both trying to find or make a place for themselves in the world. Snatcher is trying to do it by force, and Eggs is trying to who he is and where he came from. So yeah, it has its action film moments.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Action definitely, I feel it’s a bit sweeter, warmer. It still fits within what Laika has established itself for in terms of tone, but it does have a lot more sweeter moments. Just the other day, one of the animators Malcolm Lamont has done all these amazing shots with the two year old little baby Eggs, and they’re just the cutest shots in the film. Every time that baby is on screen, everybody just Oohs and Aahs and it’s great. Just the other day we just finished a shot of the Box Trolls and it was another sweet moment. No one was the sweet animator on Coraline and ParaNorman. He’s been on all the way through and he’s like, “There’s never been sweet shots before.” It was never called for.
Q: How was the voice records with the actors? Did you get them all in the same room?
ANTHONY STACCHI: No, you could’ve never got that crew. We had a recording with Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, and they were great together playing off each other. I never quite knew…they seemed to have met each other, they know each other, but they never really know each other that well, and they played off each other great. They got the characters great, and in a lot of ways, the characters always had a certain amount of sympathy to them. When those two guys started talking, these guys weren’t bad guys in any way anymore, so it made us really influence the way we went with their characters from that point on. Isaac and Elle recorded once together in LA. Elle Fanning recorded with Jared Harris once together.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: I was going to say Nick Frost and Simon Pegg didn’t even realize they were working on the same film. We had Sir Ben and Isaac together, though.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Yes, one time outside of London they were together, which was great because it was the tiniest little recording studio near where Sir Ben lives and it was like his biggest closet and they were both crammed in there yelling at each other fighting as the villain and the hero. I’ve worked at a couple of different studios, and when we started, we talked to Travis about it being prominently English actors and stuff. He had no problem with it. It was great, he was totally behind it. It would’ve been more of an issue at some of the other studios.
Q: At the end of production, if you could take any one of the characters home with you, which one would it be and why?
ANTHONY STACCHI: That’s interesting because I forgot to put that in my contract, and we never get to take one of those puppets home. The duo of Fish and Shoe, those two together, I like those. From the very beginning, there’s a Fish and a Shoe character in the book, and these guys’ personalities have all evolved to be slightly different, but those were the two that we started to sketch in story first. The pairing of the little squat guy and the tall, thin guy. I’d take those two, I think. Snatcher’s a great one.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: I was going to say, if there aren’t doubles of Fish and Shoes, I’d probably take Snatcher. Just for the combination of what Kingsley’s voice did in terms of transforming that character, and I just think he’s such an interesting villain. And then for what RP did with the faces, these expressions we’ve gotten out of the puppets still kind of blow my mind.
ANTHONY STACCHI: He’s fun because intentionally we wanted you to understand the villains’ motivations and everything else and be able to, if not sympathize, empathize a little bit with him, but because of Sir Ben’s performance and because of what we’ve been able to get out of the puppet, we’ve been joking that you could’ve just re-named the movie Snatcher’s Very Very Very Bad Day. Just realized that this poor guy, he’s a bad man, but he goes through Hell. It’s the whole day. Essentially, the movie takes place over ten years and one day and the bulk of the movie is that one day, and all of Snatcher’s plans for ten years come together in this one day, and everything goes wrong, and he’s humiliated in every possible way you can imagine. It’s pretty great.
Q: Everyone always says that story drives everything, and that no one goes into this with a limitation in mind based on technology. Is there an opposite thing where you understand that technology has improved so much that you can do things to the story that you might not have otherwise thought of?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Yeah, I mean, when you have a mixture of the two departments here, I think there are logistical limitations, just in space and stuff like that. David knows what those are, and he keeps them away from us. They don’t seem to impinge on us creatively, but they’re there.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: If we were to build the entire Portly-Rind house, we’d have to raise the roof of our building. It’s just too big. Physically. I was talking about other productions that I’ve worked on. In any other case, if I read the script and it said, “And then there’s a gigantic ball where they’re all dancing,” I’d say, “OK, we gotta get rid of this scene.” Gone.
ANTHONY STACCHI: No, there’s nothing. I’ve worked in stop motion before, I’ve been a story artist in other stop motion projects before, but I’ve never been a director and a lot of times, I’d be asking Travis [Knight] if we can do this, and he didn’t even want me considering those things because he expects them to figure out a way to do it in some form. So the dancing stuff, when we pitched it to him — there’s going to be a scene in the ballroom and Snatcher and Eggs are in it — he was like, “Great, great, that sounds great, we’ll get music in and choreographers and figure it all out,” but then I heard later that day he met all the departments together and said “Did you hear about the dance sequence?” and it would horrify them all, but he never really let me know. A lot of people like to say that animation is not a genre blah blah blah, and I think you really feel a project is perfectly made for stop motion when you read it. That’s why I say that Alan’s book had this gritty authentic feel in a way that’s set in Victorian London. You think of stop motion and the reality and real textures and real light landing on these cobblestone streets instead of CG and it’s a dirty, dusty coal-covered world and you say, “That’s perfect for stop motion.” It’s a world where Box Trolls collect stuff out of the garbage at night and they build these strange machines and you can’t imagine a guy who works in stop motion who doesn’t want to do that. Just build real machines out of parts that he’s found, so I think you look for something that’s appropriate for stop motion, not in any way limited by stop motion.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Having worked in the story department for Coraline and ParaNorman, and this film, I can definitely tell you that the story department has never been given parameters at the beginning of the project. We just try to make the best story we can possibly make and then once that starts to settle then the reality of certain sequences and things come into play, and we tailor that to help fit.
Q: Is there an opposite thing where you realize that technology can do more than you imagined or has that never happened?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Yeah, it’s funny because there used to be things you only thought animation can do. Digital effects, just forget it. It used to be that we owned talking animals, and now they can be done photo-realistically very well and there’s other stuff in a way. The crazy anarchy you used to be able to get from only animation doesn’t have it anymore, so animation has to spread out.
I think things have gotten subtler. Travis was even talking about how there’s twisted human motivations in our story. Honestly, this is a little bit too intellectual for me, but it’s really true. The motivation for the hierarchical city is there’s aristocrats at the top, and there’s poor people and Box Trolls at the bottom, and the greed and prejudices that drive the city have caused the world to become twisted and the buildings themselves have are twisted. That kind of thing. That kind of freedom where you get to create everything from the very beginning. Every single thing is made. The whole world is created. That’s the kind of freedom you only get in animation. They’re beginning another movie here that we can’t talk about, and the scale is going even bigger. They’re going to find out the limits of what can be done.
Q: Do you consider it a compliment or an insult when the lay people mistake it for CG?
ANTHONY STACCHI: I don’t mind that because I remember being in the theatre when The Iron Giant came out, and I thought that was going to be a great movie, and I really liked it. But I remember when it was advertised, there were a couple of CG movies, and that was what the kids wanted to see. It was the new thing, and it was CG and it was modern, and The Iron Giant was not like that stuff. I think sometimes stop motion historically could feel like it didn’t have that sophisticated look, maybe. When all people thought about it was what they saw on TV. I think definitely Laika’s image quality is up there. It’s unique in its own way. I don’t think that’s bad.
Q: I thought the second trailer, the hands that made Coraline and ParaNorman is reminding people.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: I wouldn’t take that as an insult at all the level of sophistication in CG films. It’s just like you said, stop motion is viewed at the same level.
Q: But you watch it and there are things in that film you could not do with a CG character. I’m thinking of some of the hands and the way they are so malleable.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Texture is everything with stop motion for sure. As good as CG has gotten it still can’t truly emulate the level of detail physical objects have. I remember working on Coraline early on and they said it was going a 3D movie and at the time, I thought we were jumping on the bandwagon with everyone else, but when we saw the first shots that came through in the theatre with the 3D glasses? Wow. For stop motion, for this medium, 3D is the best thing ever, because it brings all the tactile textures right up in front of your face. It feels like those View Master reels used to feel. You’re right in there, you’re very immersed in it, and it’s a fantastic thing for stop motion.
ANTHONY STACCHI: As great as some of the advancements are, there’s no motion blur, and that thing that gives you that tactile feeling that sticks with stop motion. You don’t want to lose all that. I mean, Fantastic Mr. Fox went as far back in stop motion history as you could leaving every fingerprint on there and the fur running around. It was that level. You remember King Kong and that feeling as a kid. Every kid remembers playing with dolls or model train sets, and I think you still get that, even subconsciously, when you look at some of the images in stop motion. Brad said, or Travis was saying, that he can really tell in another animated film that your puppets are really working is when the stop motion animators just want to grab them. Like a little kid with a toy or something. Something about them, they like them and they want to start moving them around.
Q: The scale at which these puppets are built is pretty standard, but the buildings have to be huge. For a city street where they are running around, what animator animates that whole scene on a set with ten, fifteen characters? How are they dealing with getting up on the table?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Well, there’s multiple passes. It’s funny how much I learned too, because animator access is something you don’t have to worry about in any other animation. It’s like, here’s a set where you’re looking all the way down the street, and there’s these guys in the distance climbing to steal something and guys about here and there, they are each shot separately. Essentially, you cut a hole through the set and he animates each of those in the simplest ways. They’ll shoot it multiple passes and comp it all together so it’s all stop motion, but it’s been done several times.
Q: How does that affect your pop through?
ANTHONY STACCHI: If possible, they’ll do a rough rehearsal where they’re doing them all, so you can figure out how it works together, and then they’ll tear it and do the finals separately according to the timings in the rehearsals.
Q: Like motion control on a live action set?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Yes, exactly, you have to repeat the same camera movements exactly every time. But something I didn’t know is that the scale of the show is determined by the smallest character in the show. How small can he be built and still be completely animate-able? And then, what’s his relationship to the biggest character?
Q: Would that be Oilcan?
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Actually, that’s a good question. Did we have Oilcan at the time we were thinking? Or were we sure it would be Eggs?
ANTHONY STACCHI: I think we were dealing with the small Box Trolls. It was either Oilcan or…
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Bucket?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Bucket. So they had to be animated.
Q: And your biggest is probably–?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Snatcher. Snatcher’s the biggest. Is Trout taller?
GRAHAM ANNABLE: They might be about the same. Trout’s certainly got more width.
Q: And the biggest Box Troll is?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Fragile.
Q: Did you guys build a lot of backstory for the characters as you were going along?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Well, we had the book for that, so a lot of that stayed. We needed a representative for the above ground aristocratic family, so the Portly-Rinds — Elle Fanning’s character and her parents Jared Harris and Toni Collette — were kind of composite characters we invented. So yeah, we made up some little stories for them. Mostly for the secondary Box Trolls.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Certainly from the onset, we had Box Trolls backstories and then as we board, we start to discover nuances and find ways to justify why that is and that role and behavior in another shot, and that kind of evolves.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Yeah, with the Box Troll Sparky, we worked with some voice talent. Steve Blum and Dee Bradley Baker. Guys really good at doing voices. They came up with the voices and the gurgle language for Fish and Shoe. And early on, we sort of played with them saying Sparky, he’s a Box Troll, kind of stoic, he wears these welding goggles, and if he were an actor, he’d be Clint Eastwood. And Sweets, he wears a box of sweets and has found some human dentures to wear, he’s Walter Brennan when he loses his teeth. When you could describe it to the voice actors, “This is Walter Brennan as a Box Troll,” they immediately get that it’s all you had to give them. He’s a shy guy, who hides in his box and talks like Walter Brennan. That was enough back story for the Box Trolls.
Q: Did you put any characters in that weren’t in the book?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Winnie and the Portly-Rinds aren’t in the book. They’re kind of representative of a whole class of people that’s in the book, but they’re not specifically in the book. Because of just a change in the story, in the book the boy’s name is Arthur because he knew a little bit more about himself. Our Eggs was raised completely by Box Trolls, so he ended up getting a Box Troll name by the logo on his box, so that name was changed, but he very much has the same character journey as Arthur in the book. Snatcher, Trout, and Pickles are all kind of right out of the book. Gristle.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Yeah, Gristle is the Tracy Morgan character. He’s kind of crazy looking. Alan Snow is a genius for names, and they almost always involve food.
Q: Did Tracy Morgan do a British accent?
ANTHONY STACCHI: He was just visiting last week with his new baby daughter and we showed him a clip of a lot of his scenes, and a couple of his writers were with him, and he’s yelling through all these scenes, and he’s just Tracy Morgan. Which is what we wanted.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Yeah, we wanted him to be a completely left field kind of character.
ANTHONY STACCHI: And he spent a lot of time on that accent. No, we joked with him, in his first recording session, he was doing it with an English accent.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: The book is very Python-esque, you know, absurd, so this idea of bringing in this out of left field character fit in there perfectly. But he does like the idea that he’s in a movie with Ben Kingsley.
Q: So you had all the dialogue recorded before the animation started?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Yeah, you have to. So the tracks can be read and the faces figured out.
Q: So the animators are listening to that as they animate?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Yeah. They help create the faces, the replacement faces. They go in, they had been listening to it before they started animating, and come up with the performance on the face. And a lot of that is also driven by the storyboard too. The storyboard artist would occasionally get to listen to the recordings, but usually, we don’t record until they are done.
Q: First the storyboard artist, then the recording?
ANTHONY STACCHI: We record a temp track which is just us in-house people reading the dialogue.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Dragged into the editing suite doing some lines, test out the dialogue.
Q: So you have a script to start with first?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Yes, quite a few. Script, board, and they influence each other and go back and forth until you have a story reel, and that becomes the script. Which gives you your timing so we don’t shoot anything extra. We only shoot exactly what we need.
Q: So you only shoot your animatic as best you can?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Yeah, hopefully. Hopefully it’s a good blueprint because everything is planned around it. Most studios are run by footage: how much film gets done a day and how much an animator can get done. They can get it down to literally down to how many frames an animator can take a day. They can figure it out, and they’ll say the shot is going to take three days, a day to do the rehearsal and three days to do the shot. They stick to it pretty rigorously over there.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: It works about 99% of the time.
ANTHONY STACCHI: You saw the big board when you walked around.
Q: But with a shot, is one animator typically working on a shot with all the characters in the shot? So doesn’t that drastically affect how much footage an animator can produce if they work on five or six different characters?
ANTHONY STACCHI: They schedule it out. The worst part about this experience was when we were boarding is early on when David said, “How do we start doing these breakdown meetings?” That means sequence 13 has to be broken down in two weeks. We come in here, and we sit with every head of every department. We go through it shot by shot, and they say well that’s going to be done in three passes. It’s got two characters in each pass, it’s going to take an animator… they schedule according to all those things. Brad along with the other heads of the department figures out how long that’s going to take, and the schedule is made to that. So it’s not like every animator has to get five feet of footage. It’s just he’s got a certain shot and it’s got to be done in this amount of time and the movie has to be over by the end of February, and somehow that all has to fit together.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: And a pass is like a rehearsal.
ANTHONY STACCHI: That’s another way stop motion is really different.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: We mentioned this a few times, but yeah. Working in the story department, I probably should’ve known a little more. Neither of us having worked in this role on a stop motion film, we have certainly learned a lot in this process.
ANTHONY STACCHI: I like to say stop motion combines all the worst attributes of animation and live action and none of the benefits of either one. Because in animation usually you can labor over a scene. You may have a short amount of time, but you do a set of drawings and line test them. Oh, take that one out, put that one for two frames. Put that one on for three. You can play with the time and do a rough drawing, and you slowly amass the scene by the end of your week where you get to go over and over. And in CG animation, you can break it down, play it, put a few in-betweens in there, play it, play it, you slowly build it. In stop motion, it’s much more like a live action performance, except you don’t get multiple takes. You get a block which is to pop the character through. He’s going to be here, here, here, and that’s basically to figure out does the rigging work and can we get from here to here in the amount of time we allotted for that shot? You only get one rehearsal, and then you shoot it, and that’s it. There’s no live action actor who would put up with that, and these guys do it. As an animator, I think it would be incredibly stressful.
Q: So how full is the animation in the rehearsal?
ANTHONY STACCHI: What would you say on average? It’s probably on fours?
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Fours, twos.
ANTHONY STACCHI: When we started out, everything was on twos in the rehearsals. We moved them up to fours. Does everyone understand what we mean by twos and threes?
GRAHAM ANNABLE: The number of frames you take for each pose. In the end, they’re on ones. That’s what the studio goes for that kind of quality.
ANTHONY STACCHI: You can still pick and choose with the rhythm of your time, sometimes something on twos just looks better. Sometimes a motion, the increments that they are moving are so small, twos are all right sometimes.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: It’s pretty rare.
ANTHONY STACCHI: But as soon the camera’s moving, it’s all got to be on ones.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Yeah, but Nick Park, Aardman does everything on twos.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Aardman they do everything on twos. And since the whole movie is on twos, as soon as you get into it, you get into that rhythm.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: You sort of establish that language of it.
ANTHONY STACCHI: But it will never be as realistic looking, say, as ones.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Just to answer your question because it got slightly skated over, “pass” is actually is an old holdover term from film animation where you would literally run the film through the camera to shoot something and then back it up, and then run it again, shooting something else, and each one of those is referred to as a pass. But what we’re really doing when we say it’s a pass is like if we have a shot that’s like three or four seconds long, we’ll shoot it with those two characters, and then we’ll shoot it again with some other characters, and then we’ll shoot it again with the characters in the foreground and call that three passes. We go through it three times, and then we comp together the different sections all in that one, same three second bit of time.
ANTHONY STACCHI: And that’s called at the breakdown meeting, and that influences our schedule. There’s a couple shots. There’s a first shot where we really meet Fish and Shoe. Graham worked with Dan Ramsay, an animator, and we liked it when we boarded it. It was a long bit of business, and we made it all one long shot. Dan Ramsay was shooting that shot for weeks. At the end of those weeks, there is nothing but the puppet in the last position and a lot of those holes in the floor and it only exists on the film. It’s very difficult, they were moving so subtly that you couldn’t really say I like it up to frame 285, let’s go in there and do it over again because you can’t get the puppet back in there and put it in exactly the same position to pick up from there, so it’s just like a performance, but it’s a performance in slow motion. It only happens once. Occasionally, when there’s big movements, like characters are flying through the air, you can make it tweak. Go back in the middle and redo something.
Q: What about the dance sequence in the ballroom? How many characters are in there and is it one animator and an assistant?
ANTHONY STACCHI: One animator.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: One animator, yeah.
ANTHONY STACCHI: It seems like a lot of the animators here prefer it that way. They can work with another animator on the thing, but I think they work at different speeds, so they end up stepping on each other’s toes. So there’s always one animator.
Q: So you have how many characters?
ANTHONY STACCHI: I think one shot had eight characters was the biggest. There was three pairs of dancing couples. ::counts:: Nine, there was nine in that shot we just did recently.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: We’re dealing with the fabric, and the movement.
ANTHONY STACCHI: And that one is a chase as Eggs is hiding under skirts while the characters are still dancing. We sometimes can put in other background dancers that are CG, but he’s interacting with all those characters. He’s touching them, so that would be very difficult to do it any other way but real puppets. As soon as they have to touch each other, it has to all be real.
Q: Did you have many CG characters in the film?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Sometimes there’s automated crowds and stuff like that.
Q: You’re doing all the Post in house?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Yep.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: How many people in the VFX department? About forty. Because they have to do CG, compositing, all that stuff.
ANTHONY STACCHI: There’s always twenty people in there, fifteen people just painting out scenes and things like that. I think there’s been one shot we shot on stage that hasn’t been touched by the VFX department.
Q: Didn’t have any characters in it?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Just Winnie’s hands unlocking the door. And you don’t get the door open, so there’s no atmosphere.
Q: 200 or 300 employees?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Right now, there’s about 270. We got as many as 300, 335. And that’s actually just members of the crew. That’s not counting all the people in accounting and other system-wide services at Laika.
Q: So is most of the visual effects the painting out the scenes?
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Depends how you measure it. Obviously there’s more of that than any other single other activity, but certainly much more time is spent doing other things, and more people’s time is spent doing the other things.
Q: Are most of the visual effects a natural phenomenon?
GRAHAM ANNABLE: I think there’s a lot of that stuff, like adding atmosphere and rain. There’s a lot of that in this film. More than we’ve ever done before, but there’s a huge amount of it is in compositing.
Q: That fits under visual effects?
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Yeah, but then there’s also a lot of 3D stuff that we add to things. Set extensions is a big one.
ANTHONY STACCHI: There’s a test that they did early on. We talk about there not being any limitations. As we built a couple of buildings and established the look, the VFX department did a 360 degree turn around where they took some of our buildings and dropped them in a few different places and then put the rest of the city around it. You could see that they could get the style that had been established by the real buildings, reproduce it in CG, and light it so the whole world came together. You couldn’t tell the difference between the different types of buildings. That was great, and when we saw that pretty early on, we didn’t hesitate to do sequences riding down rooftops and stuff like that. We knew they would get the style.
CG: There’s green screen set up, did you guys use front light/back light at all?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Yeah, they do that. Different types of matting. Sometimes they get really tight in the sets, and it may just be for atmosphere, but there’s an alcove in there. We’re shooting into the alcove, but we need to get some atmosphere behind the character so they do that in matting too and front light/back light there. They get every trick in the book. There’s old motion control cameras out there that have made the journey from ILM to Skellington to up here. There are some ancient ones out there.
Q: I saw one of the motion control rigs, and it’s from the 1980’s or something.
ANTHONY STACCHI: That’s another thing, we really lucked out here is that these are the first time that there has ever been a crew that a lot of the principal people and a lot of the other people have been together for three movies, so that’s been able to progress so much because they’re here and they’ve stayed together for three big movies. We also benefitted from that because there’s not really a lot of any other big stop motion movies being made anywhere now, so there is that international community of stop motion people that gravitate from job to job and quite a few of them are here now because of that. They weren’t on something else.
Q: Is the production time for this film shorter or the same as Coraline and ParaNorman?
GRAHAM ANNABLE: About the same.
ANTHONY STACCHI: It’s in the same neighborhood. Even then, how many animators do we have now? 30? When I was at Sony and Dreamworks, sometimes they would throw 65 animators and stuff. They have quite a few good CG animators, and they could get more when they need them on projects. There aren’t that many really good stop motion animators because there aren’t that many jobs. Although there are more schools pumping them out because we have three assistant animators? One has been bumped up. Those guys have done great. Fantastic.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Even if we had 30 more animators, we don’t have the space. We’d run out of puppets. We have a lot of problems just keeping enough puppets out there with 30 because originally we were going to have 27.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Another thing I didn’t understand was that in CG, if somebody needs a Snatcher, they’d just download it. Here, there’s actually a limited number of Snatchers.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: And it’s not simple to build more, it takes months.
Q: Who’s Director of Animation on this project?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Brad Schiff. Animation Supervisor. There’s no actual Director of Animation title.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Yeah, Brad had the same job on ParaNorman. It’s always a hard transition for stop motion animators who are used to being the finishers. It’s their shot and they’re done. Instead they’re the middle section of doing the whole CG.
ANTHONY STACCHI: A few of the guys work in the CG department for a little while, but then they get back on the floor to animate.
Q: You guys have guys that bounce around?
GRAHAM ANNABLE: A few.
ANTHONY STACCHI: As you can tell with the stop motion community, there’s two degrees of separation. Now we have these great Bulgarian animators. Dragging us out? That was great.
Toonzone would like to thank Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi for taking the time to talk with us, as well as the folks at Laika and Fumi Kitahara of the PR Kitchen who supported our set visit. The Boxtrolls opens on September 26, 2014. Check out more about The Boxtrolls via their official social media outlets: