SDCC2014: “The Boxtrolls” Roundtable Interview with Travis Knight, Anthony Stacchi, and Graham Annable
Travis Knight is LAIKA’s President and CEO, and has been involved in all principal creative and business decisions at LAIKA since the studio’s founding in 2003. He was Lead Animator and Producer on LAIKA’s second feature, the 2012 Academy Award® nominated animated feature, ParaNorman. He was Lead Animator and Producer as well on the company’s first feature, Coraline, which was also nominated for an Academy Award® for Best Animated Feature.
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 the 2014 San Diego Comic Con, Toonzone News was able to sit down with them for a roundtable interview session with several other members of the press.
Q: You said some really interesting things on the panel that you can make a movie yourself. Anything else for readers that you can advise them how to do one?
TRAVIS KNIGHT: Oh god, the thing about it is technology can be a very democratizing thing. My story for animators of my generation is very similar. There were virtually no resources for trying to figure out how to do stop motion. There weren’t books about it, you couldn’t take classes at the college.
ANTHONY STACCHI: No Internet.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: There’s no Internet as a resource. You had to watch these things you loved and try to somehow figure out how it was done. So there’s a lot of trial and error in the basement or garage trying to bring these things to life. The thing about technology is all that information exists and we’re actually a part of putting that stuff out. We fill everything we do in terms of marketing materials and stuff on the DVD. We want to show the world this is how this magic is made. It’s old school movie magic, and we think the process of making it is in some ways as inspiring as the films themselves, and so all these things exist for aspiring animators. You can go on the Internet and find out how these things are done. You can use a webcam or a digital camera. You can download a piece of software from the Internet and figure out how to do it. If that stuff was around when we were kids, I don’t know. There’d probably still be 40 guys. ::laughter::
ANTHONY STACCHI: But the stuff you see on YouTube and Vimeo would be winning film festivals when I was growing up. Beautiful stuff the kids are doing in their houses now, and they have at their feet, the history of animation. You can find this stuff on the Internet, it’s great, and it’ll always come down to one super important teacher or some experience they had that really pulls them into the medium and wanting to do that.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: And beyond that, it’s just a person’s passion and drive to do it because it has to be its own reward. You can not expect that you’re going to get wealth and fame and a happy life just by being a stop motion animator. I’m sorry to inform people that’s not going to happen. So you have to love doing it, and all of us do, and that’s why we push so hard to make the things that we make.
Q: What was that piece of software that you mentioned?
TRAVIS KNIGHT: Dragon. A guy that we worked with on Coraline, Jamie Caliri and his brother were the guys that developed the software, and so we used a proprietary piece of software on Coraline, and then these guys had been developing this software as an extraordinary tool, and we had been working on it with them since then on making it suitable for our needs, and it’s just an incredible piece of technology.
Q: And the Nikon?
TRAVIS KNIGHT: We use Canon 5Ds to shot.
ANTHONY STACCHI: SLR’s. It’s just a little digital camera. Somebody’s probably got one in here.
Q: Tell me a little bit more about how you created that incredible water effect.
ANTHONY STACCHI: In the sewer?
Q: Yeah with the ripples.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: The film is largely a hybrid. We really used a lot of VFX and a lot of practical throughout, and it was always dictated by what fit the style of the film best. And in that particular instance, it made sense to use practical effects, and those guys came up with two huge pieces of glass.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Ripple glass.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Ripple glass that moved opposite to each other, and it created this perfect effect of caustic lighting across all those bricks and everything, and we couldn’t have achieved the same feel or effect in VFX.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: You can certainly do water in CG, but somebody in our rigging department came up with the brilliant idea of how you can do water in this practical environment using very simple tools. Ripple glass, plastic, and light, and all that together made this beautiful running water. It looks exactly like water. Or stylized water in our world. It’s one of the things I love about the studio. It’s a gumbo of different production techniques that go back a hundred years. There’s stuff that we’ve taken from the theatre, the stage, there’s stuff we’ve taken from 2D animation from stop motion, and then new and invented technology in CG and other things. So we take all those things together and whatever makes the most sense to bring the world to life in the best way, that’s what we do. That was an instance where someone had the brilliant idea how we could’ve done it practically. In another part of the film, it might have been a digital effect that worked better. But it’s all those things living and working together that make these films look like what they do.
Q: When you cast Isaac in this role, did you have any idea how big Game of Thrones was going to be?
ANTHONY STACCHI: When we cast Isaac? It was getting pretty big.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: I think the first season had started.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Graham had worked at the studio from the beginning, Travis was there from the beginning, I was the new guy there and I knew I could get a lot of cred with the crew if I could get Bran Stark the dreamy wolf boy in the project and everyone would like me. No, we loved his voice. His voice was great, and we played it against Elle’s voice, which we always hoped would do the project, and they just had a great dynamic relationship.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: The actors, because they’re just supplying their voice, you end up listening to these things like you would a band or an orchestra. They each have their own instrument that should occupy their own oral space and so you end up just listening to voices through interviews and through different roles they’ve done in TV and film and just hearing does it have its own distinctive quality, will it occupy its own space within the film, and then you look at that voice disconnected from anything they’ve done physically right next to a character design and see does that feel like that’s that character and you do a lot of that. When we heard Isaac’s voice, it was perfect. It was exactly what we wanted, and he was a very natural actor, which is hard to find in a young actor. He did not feel like he was putting something on, like he was inhabiting his role. He was perfect. He was the only guy we went to for the role, and we were so fortunate with the actors in the film. It was almost to a person the person that we wanted right off the bat was the person that we got.
Q: Can you say a little bit about the character designs?
ANTHONY STACCHI: It’s the same traditional way as they’ve done animation from the beginning. We started out with drawings. In this case, when I first read Alan Snow’s book, I immediately knew the way I wanted the world to look. We agreed right from the beginning, it’s a great French graphic novelist named Nicolas De Crecy whose graphic novels were really inspiring. We looked at those, and he did some drawings for us of different worlds. Internally, we had a great production designer, a great art director Michel Breton who had worked on Coraline and we loved the look of his drawings, so very early on we had the look that we wanted of the world. We knew exactly, which is a little bit backwards because you usually start with the characters and then you world after the characters. So then we basically knew what Snatcher’s shape would be like because we knew his personality, we knew Trout, but getting them stylistically to fit into the world took a long time. So in the same way that Michel Breton had designed the city, we started with silhouettes, and then he started putting lines on them, which inspired even the highlights in the water effect was all defined by the look. We loved the line quality it had so in the same way our character designer Mike Smith started to do silhouettes of the characters. Just the black silhouette and little by little he’d draw over them until you could lay a drawing of Snatcher and the factory where he lived.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: They fit together.
ANTHONY STACCHI: The great thing about stop motion…maybe the great thing about Laika…is every step along the way, it just gets better. So when Deborah Cook took the costumes, she was inspired by the artwork, and she came up with all these influences. The paintings by Delacroix, and all that stuff and she took it and she said okay it has line quality in the buildings and the characters and the colors in the characters’ faces, how does that impact the costumes? And then from there, the lighting design is in every step of the way and the set builders incorporated it into the whole thing. There’s a whole booklet, the style guide on the film saying that every shape in the film should have torque to it, should be going somewhere, should have motion and then as much as possible, retain Michel Breton’s line quality. Whether it is iron work on the windows, wrought iron stairways, or lines drawn on the building where cracks are. So it’s all been thought out. It’s a little bible that every little step of the way, the people that made the grass between the cracks in the cobblestones had to have a certain flow to the wiring that held up.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: Every single stupid thing. Every fork, every spoon.
ANTHONY STACCHI: It really makes no sense. Nobody knows about it but us, but we’re obsessed.
Q: Are you this obsessive in your personal lives?
ANTHONY STACCHI: What personal lives?
TRAVIS KNIGHT: One of the things in the film that we explore is family and the meaning of family. The connection between parents and their children, and finding that balance of doing meaningful work and family, and it’s a struggle that us as fathers go through all the time. So there is something that was very personal inside the story that resonated with us and helped to inform the character arcs of the characters in the film.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Winnie’s father is very much an absentee father. Consequently she has these day dreams. She’s obsessed with the gory details of what Boxtrolls do to children they kidnap. She imagines the Boxtrolls doing that to her parents because she doesn’t get enough attention.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: She asks her father a question very early on that we resolve by the end about what he would do for her. She’s someone who has been lavished with gifts but starved of affection. In a lot of ways, Isaac’s character Eggs is the exact opposite of that.
ANTHONY STACCHI: He has a great family.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: He has a great family, but he has nothing else, and so it’s about that hole inside us when our families are incomplete, but through the course of them interacting and going on this adventure together, they find out what that means and how a family isn’t necessarily what it’s culturally defined as.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Eggs makes the world safe for his surrogate family. Families come in all shapes and sizes. So he makes the world safe for his family and Winnie regains her family when they see that she’s in jeopardy and what could’ve happened. They want to pay a lot more attention to her.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: He’s still kind of an ass.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Jared Harris, he was fearless in being the worst father. And there’s moments where people are saying, “Winnie’s father is worse than Snatcher”, and I told Jared Harris that and he just laughed.
Q: Were you surprised when Sir Ben made the unusual request to record lying down?
ANTHONY STACCHI: I had never heard that before, and the booth is so small where he was recording, I didn’t even think it was possible. But it was great, the people who know him there just went off and they came back with a reclining chair. It was like they were expecting anything. They were ready for whatever Sir Ben might’ve been feeling and they didn’t bat an eye.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: So that was unexpected, but also equally unexpected was the actual performance that he gave. When he showed up in the studio, in his head, he completely knew who that character was. And it was shocking to us because it wasn’t necessarily what we had expected, and yet as soon as we heard it, we knew it was perfect. And again, that highlights what an extraordinary actor he is.
ANTHONY STACCHI: It’s an extraordinary puppet. It’s amazing technology that went into creating his faces and stuff, and then what he brought to it…I mean, he is a bad villain. But you have so much empathy and so much understanding for why he is bad that it makes him a great foil for Eggs. Eggs is a boy who is trying to find his place in the world, and Snatcher is a man who is trying by force to make his place in the world. So in a way, they mirror each other and that nice dynamic that you want. That dynamic duo of protagonist and antagonist is great, so with Sir Ben’s voice coming out of it and the animation of it, he really seems like to me he’s as great a character as the Childsnatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or the Wicked Witch of the West. Some of those things where you never get them out of your dreams.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: It’s an important thing for us in each film that we’ve done that our antagonist are not two dimensional villains. They are not mustache-twirling baddies. They have depth, they have dimension, and so with Snatcher, and what it does is it highlights the shared humanity amongst us all, even if those people can’t be redeemed. With Ben Kingsley’s approach and the character itself, Snatcher is an awful man. He’s a horrible man. And yet, we empathize with him and to a degree, we sympathize with him. We understand where he’s coming from. He’s got layers, he’s got depth, he’s got vulnerability, even though he’s truly, truly awful. There still is a spark of humanity in there and ultimately we try to figure out can that be redeemed, can he be saved?
GRAHAM ANNABLE: I think ugly’s in the eye of the beholder.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: I find them quite fetching.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: I find them quite cute. Oilcan, especially, our tiniest little Boxtroll. Some of those sequences with him.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Yeah, he is really cute, but it is true, the story has to be credible. If you are doing a story where there are humans who have prejudices against these creatures because they think they’re monsters, your humans can be as grotesque as your monsters. I think it confuses your audience, there has to be a touchstone. So with the Boxtrolls, we wanted them to have these wonky-toothed faces that only a mother could love but by the end of the movie you do love them once you get to know them.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: It’s their personalities that makes them endearing rather than their features. They are pretty hideous to look at.
ANTHONY STACCHI: They are, they are, and actually, there was points when we were designing them and I was showing the designs to Travis, they were much more like pandas. They had markings on their faces, they were cuter, they were adorable, and Travis was like, “Yeah, we haven’t found that awkward, ugly place.”
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Part of the story is that the town believes them to be these horrible child-stealing monsters, so they needed to be in that range where you can believe the credibility of that story that Snatcher is selling the town on.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Otherwise it would all fall apart storywise.
Q: Where do the bugs fit into it and how do they feature in the film?
ANTHONY STACCHI: That part of the story, actually, went a long ways too. We discussed are they monster-y enough, are they “other” enough, are they different enough and coming up with the language that they speak. We had written a language for them and they started to sound like Klingons or Jawas and suddenly that got too wide.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: It got too specific. We wanted something a little more emotive and less specific for wording.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: Part of that was rooted in the book. In the book there were a lot of different monsters, if you will. In the end we had to distill it down to its essence which, for us, the most interesting thing was the Boxtrolls. So they have this elaborate setup where they have this irrigation system with pipes and rotten umbrellas and a teeter-totter to make this thing run to make this incredible cabbage garden where they grow these vegetables, and the thing about them is they have this incredible garden and all they are using it for is to lift it up to get the bugs that live underneath. That’s their diet.
ANTHONY STACCHI: For a moment our thinking was oh, a subterranean garden, that would be beautiful. Now in the book there are actually these cabbagehead characters, so there was always a garden in the story, and the Boxtrolls always had the pipework to make it run. The cabbageheads themselves fell out of the story but this stayed. This is what story is like. The cabbageheads fell out of the story but the garden remained. And then they were like, they’re vegetarians, yeah! Is that really monster-y? No, they eat bugs, so that story development might’ve taken months. They don’t seem like big ideas, but sometimes…
TRAVIS KNIGHT: They ripple throughout the entire show.
ANTHONY STACCHI: There’s reasons behind them that sometimes you’re unaware of the moment you make them, but later when we saw those wonky-tooth guys eating bugs, we said yeah, they are just monster-y enough.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: And it has to be one of those things where a lot of times those decisions are hard and someone comes up with this brilliant idea and is like, all right, that’s the best idea, and it ends up having a lot of ripple effects, but it’s worth it because it’s the right thing to do.
ANTHONY STACCHI: There was a great draft 6 with cabbageheads that I liked.
Q: If you could have any of the objects from the set, what would you pick?
ANTHONY STACCHI: There’s a little record player in the music machine Fish and Eggs make together and the little record they play is a song by that was written by Dario Marianelli and it’s sung by the Quatro Sabatinos which is the song entirely sung in Italian and it’s the names of Italian cheeses. And Dario wrote it and it’s a fantastic song, and it was named after my son, Sabatino, the Quatro Sabatinos. Dario was like “No, you have to call it the Quatro Sabitini” because in Italian that’s appropriate, but I won that one. A little album which is this big for the Quatro Sabatinos.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: For me one of the most extraordinary pieces of engineering and art is the exterminator truck. It’s this incredible thing that, again, a lot of these guys are inventors, Snatcher and his gang, but their stuff is not elegant, it’s not put together in a lovely way. It’s horrible with pig iron and that kind of stuff. The thing is, the prop itself is about fifty pounds, and I had to animate it careening down this hill. It almost killed me. It almost collapsed on top of me as I was precariously balancing, so I kind of hate it, but it’s such a beautiful thing. In real life, it would be awful. Those guys barely have control over those things, but it’s such a beautiful thing, I would love to see a real life version of that.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: That thing’ll kill you, Graham.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: I’d have it in the backyard. Support it. It stands about five feet tall, it’s the big vehicle at the end that Snatcher drives. Travis described the truck, the Mecha Drill has the same inherent qualities where it’s this massive, moving machine that feels like it can come toppling down on you at any moment. It’s got a very dangerous feel. You can see all the cogs all the way through it moving. But yeah, it’s such a magnificent piece of art.
Q: Do you have any of those great Laika statistics?
ANTHONY STACCHI: I have one. 3,000 donuts. We counted them. ::laughter:: There’s 200 puppets we made. It could be multiples of a single puppet.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: There were 28 Eggs puppets, so they’re not all individual characters, it was the most puppets we ever made for any of our films.
ANTHONY STACCHI: 200 of those. There were over 53,000 separate faces printed.
Q: How many different expressions?
GRAHAM ANNABLE: I remember talking with Brian McLean, our head of RP, rapid prototyping, and he was describing to me, that on Coraline, I think Coraline had an option of about 207,000 possible facial expressions. Eggs, our hero, has about 1.4 million expressions available to him. Just to give you a sense of how much things keep progressing at Laika.
Q: How many donuts was that?
ANTHONY STACCHI: 3,000. 20,000 discrete objects were built. 79 sets, 26 different locations.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: How do you have this committed to memory?
ANTHONY STACCHI: It’s the only thing I can remember.
Q: 20,000 discrete objects, what does that mean?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Like props or things that had to be built. Separate buildings. 79 sets, it might be multiples of a single location. 26 different locations.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: I think one that highlights the pain of doing stop motion animation and the amount of time involved is we’ve got an incredibly elaborate dance sequence in the film. The outfits have never been attempted before in this medium, and it took 18 months of our production schedule, the entire production schedule, to make, probably, less than two minutes of actual screen time.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Final screentime.
TOONZONE NEWS: You had was it about 28-30 animators?
TRAVIS KNIGHT: Yes, that’s at its peak. I mean, generally, it was about 20 for most of the show. At the peak, for a handful of months, we had up to 30, but usually try to have anywhere from 20-25 animators at any given time.
TOONZONE NEWS: How do you manage all that?
ANTHONY STACCHI: Which is quite small compared to other animated films. Most animated studios have upwards of 60 by the end of the project to finish it.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: Even up to a hundred.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Yeah, and there’s just not that many stop motion animators in the world.
Q: When you said 53,000 separate faces, is that within a software program?
ANTHONY STACCHI: No, physical things. There’s a whole library of them that are printed out.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: These plastic kits the guys bring out. The guys being Travis and the rest of the crew.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: But to further answer your question, one of the different production methodologies we brought to our films is that on a lot of animated films, you pretty much just throw warm bodies on shots and they just crank out the footage. If you can imagine 60-100 animators on a CG film, how much actual footage could they be producing? It’s not a lot. On our film, we have half to a quarter of that. Each animator does more. We do more with less, and one of the things we brought to it is animators own entire chunks of the film, they own these sequences, and by that, the animators kind of know the thing back and forwards. They know the arc of the emotion of the scene, they know the characters really well, they know when to play up certain beats, as opposed to just going in there and making something move, they know what needs to happen at every moment.
ANTHONY STACCHI: Yeah, they own their own sequences.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: So we do a lot more with less, but the animators also know a lot more about the characters in their sequences, which is why I think you get the performances that you get.
Q: What drew you to animation? Did you have a favorite movie that made you decide that animation is what you want to do?
ANTHONY STACCHI: When I was younger, I always loved the Disney films you could see Sunday afternoons when they’d play them. Pinocchio, Dumbo, I always loved those. I liked to draw, but what really did it for me me was I didn’t live far from Boston and in Harvard Square in the Orson Welles theater you could see the animation celebrations. Those traveling shows where they’d show all the shorts, and then I saw those at a relatively young age in high school, and I got exposed to all these animators like Yuriy Norshteyn the Russian, Frederic Back, and even a little bit later, the Brothers Quay. It’s things I loved about drawing and that kind of stuff and then film, it all kind of came together.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: The same thing for me. I loved the classic Disney films, Pinocchio, Snow White, they had what a lot of animated films don’t have anymore, which is that perfect balance of darkness and light and intensity and warmth. It’s the kind of themes and tones that we try to evoke in our films are rooted in those early brilliant films by Walt Disney. Later, I fell in love with the work of Ray Harryhausen, so it was Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. That was something that happened later, but I fell deeply in love with that medium, and that’s what began this whole thing for me.
GRAHAM ANNABLE: I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in Canada, but NFB. There was one short in particular Richard Condie’s “The Big Snit” came out. When I saw that, I felt like that’s what I want to do. It was incredibly funny and yet so poignant, said so much, that’s always in the back of my head of what I aspire to whenever I tell a story.
Toonzone News would like to thank Travis Knight, Anthony Stacchi, and Graham Annable for taking the time to talk with us, and to Laika and Fumi Kitahara for setting up the press roundtable sessions. The Boxtrolls opens on September 26, 2014; make sure to check out our Laika Studios visit reports, including our earlier roundtable interview with Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable!