Comic-Con Interview: The Makers of LAIKA’s The Boxtrolls


In all the hubbub over the next big Pixar Animation film or the next Disney princess film, it’s easy to forget there are still some independent animators out there working on some smaller, more off-the-wall material and in older formats like stop-motion and even (gasp!) 2D cell animation.

One of the most successful of the last few years has been LAIKA, which formed with Henry Selick to adapt Neil Gaiman’s Coraline into an Academy Award-nominated film, then continued on without him to develop their second film, ParaNorman, which was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Film and also received many critical kudos for its heart and craft. The company brought it’s latest offering, The Boxtrolls (due September 26) to Comic-Con in San Diego this year. From the work shown off by directors Anthony Stacchi (Open Season) and Graham Annable, and Lead Animator (and company CEO) Travis Knight, it looks like they’ve got another quality film on their hands.

Before our sit-down, the filmmakers showed off an exciting sequence from the opening of The Boxtrolls, told almost silently with just some effects and dialogue sounds–the Boxtrolls themselves only speak in grunts and gurgles–in a piece of dauntingly pure cinema which shows the level of craft being brought to the film.

Anthony Stacchi: Graham (story)boarded that sequence.

Graham Annable: Yeah, that was early in production and I was able to still board on the film. That went away when production kicked into gear (laughs). But that’s what really attracted me the project, that the Boxtrolls could only communicate in expressive gurgles and really pantomime stuff. Is there a lot of that in the film?

Stacchi: The Boxtrolls are always like that, but Winnie never shuts up so as soon as she shows up that gap is filled.

Annable: Which is part of her charm.

CS: It reminded me of the opening of WALL-E, very cinematic, but daunting.

Knight: It’s a different set of skills, doing that sort of thing. In a traditional script, you’re discovering character through dialogue. When writing the script visually, which is storyboarding, you’re finding out ways to get to emotion, to the story, just visually.

Annable: It’s tricky, but when it works it sort of immerses you in that space more so than dialogue.

Stacchi: That’s when it comes alive in animation, when the character comes alive on the screen and you realize they’re thinking. That’s the moment when you realize the lies you’ve been told about the Boxtrolls, the clock, the relationship between Fish and the others. And we have to do it without dialogue. And in case that didn’t work, we put a cute baby in there!

CS: Right.

Stacchi: But we didn’t have to resort to kittens (laughs).

CS: Did you know that’s what you were going to be doing with Boxtrolls?

Annable: That’s from the book and that’s the core of the story. As soon as we focused in on that dynamic in the book, the boy being found and raised by the boxtrolls.

CS: Do you feel like you have more freedom to do that not being tied to a studio?

Knight: We have virtually no bureaucracy, so we keep our team as lean as we can. We know our stories are unusual so we’ve got to keep our budgets down. We don’t spend so much that we have to appeal to every corner of society, which ultimately shapes what kind of stories you can tell. By not doing that you free yourself up to tell more interesting stories. Of course you want as many people in the world to see your film, so obviously we hope our films perform incredibly financially, but our threshold is lower so we can tell different kinds of stories.

Stacchi: There was a great sequence that Graham boarded more than once of Egg being found in the trash and rescued. It really set the tone for what the movie and what the Boxtrolls were going to be like. It used to have a lot of mystery and it had to carry so much weight. When that landed, it happens often in these movies, when that landed you went ‘that’s the one, that’s the most entertaining take, throw everything else out and build out from there.

CS: And that’s in the movie?

Stacchi: (pained sigh) No! That still ended up getting thrown out, which happens, too. You have a scene where you go “That’s the one, that’s always going to be there, that’s going into production first” — gone.

Annable: But a lot of the essence of that scene was in the scene you saw.

Knight: There’s an elephants graveyard of those kinds of stories. Making a film is about making choices that tell your film in the most powerful way. But when you have those breakthroughs they define the tone of the film as a whole.

CS: Was there one thing like that for you, that you worked on?

Knight: We don’t shoot any coverage at all. The storyboards are the blueprint for the film and that’s our coverage, but once it makes its way out onto the floor, virtually everything that’s shot makes its way into the finished film. So you’ve got to be pretty sure of the things that you love and are working before you shoot anything. There are things I would have loved to have shot and didn’t, for a variety of reasons. It’s heartbreaking, but that’s what you’ve got to do to make these films.

CS: I’m going to put some dissension where none exists — is it strange, having the Lead Animator working under the Directors, but also being the owner of the company?

Knight: (Laughs) In theory it can be weird, and in practice it probably is too, but filmmaking only works when it’s collaborative–it doesn’t work when it’s a dictatorship. So I don’t really view the director-animator relationship as a really Boss/Employee relationship, but as artists collaborating to find the best way to tell the story. Even though in the end the animator has to respect the Director’s vision, ultimately the animators in a way have a more direct connection to the characters than the director’s do. Part of how long this process is, you have a really strong connection to these characters, you know who they are. And as a producer and a person who owns the company I want to honor the vision of the artists. What’s the most powerful way to tell the story? And sometimes we disagree and then… we arm-wrestle. That’s why I hit the gym.

Focus Features will release LAIKA’s The Boxtrolls on September 26.