Within the walls of an unassuming office building just outside of Portland, Oregon, there is a tiny, magical world. This is LAIKA Studios, where some of the most talented, and patient, stop-motion animators in the world lend their talents to bring these worlds to life.
On behalf of GeekMom I was invited along with a group of writers to visit the studio just as the latest production, The Boxtrolls, was winding down. I’ll be posting a series of features from this fascinating set visit, beginning with today’s overview of the film and a chat with the directors.
The title characters in The Boxtrolls are charming, inventive creatures who live underground, wear boxes instead of clothes, and love to tinker. Yet, despite their good nature they are misunderstood and feared by the people who live above them in the town of Cheesebridge. The two worlds are set on a collision course when the boxtrolls discover an abandoned human boy and raise him as one of their own.
As young Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright) begins to question where he belongs, he meets a spirited girl named Winnie (Elle Fanning) and they team up to stop the evil Archibald Snatcher (Sir Ben Kingsley) from eliminating the boxtrolls for good. The stellar voice cast also includes Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Jared Harris, and Toni Collette.
Check out the film’s official trailer:
The story is loosely inspired by the children’s book Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow. Directors Graham Annable and Tony Stacchi talked about the early stages of the film and the difficulties of adapting the intricate source material into a filmable script. Although there are many fantastical creatures in the underground world of the book, the filmmakers made the decision early on to focus on one set of creatures in particular, the boxtrolls.
“Alan Snow’s book is wonderful,” Stacchi says. “It has a great hero character. It’s a sort of child-empowerment story of this boy Arthur. You can’t imagine a more timid sort of hero and he’s the hero of the book. He has a glancing acquaintance with boxtrolls and cabbageheads that’s really sweet, but when we developed the story we wanted to have a much more intimate relationship between the hero and the boxtrolls.”
So Arthur became Eggs and the rabbit women, rat pirates, and freshwater sea cows had to go. That may be a disappointment for fans of the book, but what works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen. The character of Winnie, for instance, had to be created for the film through combing several different characters from the book. She evolved through the story process, the directors explained, to serve a very particular purpose.
“We needed a character who represented the above-ground world in every way,” Stacchi says. “She [is] the character who kind of goes through the biggest moral arc in the movie, who realizes the truth about boxtrolls. So we gave her a special relationship to the story of the boxtrolls. She’s morbidly obsessed with the idea of what boxtrolls do when they kidnap children. She thinks there’s mountains of bones and rivers and blood down there. ‘Did they let you watch them eat your family?’ She would ask questions of Eggs. And it turns out all of these are lies. But Eggs needed a guide above ground, so we created Winnie.”
In casting the role of Winnie, the directors went directly to Elle Fanning, whose sister Dakota provided the lead character’s voice in another LAIKA film, Coraline. The rest of the cast came together through listening to recordings and poring over lists of actors and actresses. Before hiring Hempstead-Wright to play Eggs, the filmmakers listened to bits of his dialogue as Bran Stark in Game of Thrones. But one of the biggest “gets” as far as the directors are concerned, was Kingsley, or “Sir Ben,” as they call him, as the film’s main villain.
Kingsley recorded most of his dialogue in a tiny booth at a recording studio in the quaint English village where he lives. Stacchi admits he was a bit intimidated by the Oscar-winning actor’s intensity and preparation for the role. At one point, Kingsley told Stacchi that if he gave him another line reading he would send him “to the Tower of London!” The director still isn’t entirely sure whether he was kidding.
Annable and Stacchi agree that the real trick of directing is casting, and in this case that’s not only true of the actors. On a stop-motion animated film like The Boxtrolls, the animators are also performers.
“No matter what they tell you about live-action directors or any of this stuff, it’s 90 percent casting,” Stacchi says. “And in our case it’s casting 40 people, as well as the voice cast. Really, because there’s the actor and then there’s the animator or the six animators that animate that character. It’s all about empowering a bunch of department heads, because there’s so much to do. It’s getting the ship all steered in the same direction, is the main thing. And then along the way trying to keep it in that direction while those people do what they’re way better at doing than you are.”
Annabel adds, “It’s an interesting situation on this project because you have never directed a stop-motion production. I’d never directed before. I was working as a story artist and I thought I knew what was going on down on those stages, but I didn’t quite know all the steps involved. And yeah, Tony’s right, I mean we leaned so much on the department heads that are here. In a lot of cases it felt like we just did our best to sort of stay out of the way and let them maximize what they could do within the film.”
“They’ll eventually figure out how to do it without directors,” Stacchi jokes. “Graham has the best definition of what it’s like directing one of these things, though. It’s that every day is like having to take a test you didn’t study for. That’s exactly how it feels.”
I’ll have more later on the amazingly intricate sets and puppets we saw at the studio and how LAIKA has revolutionized the process of stop-motion animation with 3D printing, so be sure to stay tuned!
The Boxtrolls opens in theaters everywhere on September 26.