Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi separately have histories all over Hollywood. Annable is an independent cartoonist and comics artist who spent a decade working on videogames for LucasArts before moving to TellTale Games, where he directed Bone: Out From Boneville and Bone: The Great Cow Race, and worked on the Sam And Max series. Stacchi is a former commercial director and effects artist who was an animator on the Aeon Flux television show, and did visual effects for films including The Rocketeer, Hook, and Back To The Future. He co-directed Sony’s Open Season, and has done jobs for DreamWorks and Industrial Light And Magic. Both have been employed as storyboard artists and animators in a variety of capacities, which is how they both ended up at Laika, the studio behind the stop-motion features Coraline and ParaNorman. Annable and Anthony Stacchi recently sat down with The Dissolve in Chicago to talk about directing Laika’s third film, The Boxtrolls, working with the scary Ben Kingsley, and what it’s like to throw out character design—and a key scene—at a late stage in pre-production.
The Dissolve: Laika’s had the rights to Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters! for nearly 10 years. How did the film adaptation finally come together, and how did you get involved?
Graham Annable: Well, I’ve been at Laika since Coraline. Unbeknownst to me, while I was storyboarding on Coraline, Tony arrived about a year after I did, maybe 2007.
Anthony Stacchi: They had acquired the book very early on. Even when they were working on Coraline, they already had the rights to Here Be Monsters! I knew a bunch of people from the Bay Area who were up there working, so I went up to visit them. I was looking for another project, and when I got there, [Laika CEO Travis Knight] gave me Here Be Monsters! to read. They had already contracted with a writer—Irena Brignull, a really great English writer, she’s working on The Little Prince now—and she had already begun to work on a treatment, so we just started to correspond on the phone. I still lived in L.A.—I would commute up to make pitches at Laika, but we went back and forth with Travis and Irena as we tried to rein in and corral Alan Snow’s massive tome into a book that could fit into a 90-minute movie.
So it went on like that for quite a while. We did quite a few drafts, basically pitching a whole movie, with cards and a little artwork on the wall. Travis knew the book intimately. We discussed why we didn’t think we could keep the talking rat pirates who ran a laundry in the middle of Ratbridge, in the city. Even though it’s incredibly charming in the book, it didn’t really make sense that people thought boxtrolls were weird when they brought their laundry to talking rat pirates. There’s an old adage in screenwriting, “The trimmer the vessel, the more it can carry.” We kept trimming it down. So now the core story is about an 11-year-old boy who’s been raised underground and comes above ground for the first time to find his place in the world. We quickly identified that as the core story we loved. And we thought the boxtrolls were the most unique creation in the book, so it would involve them. But for quite a long time, there were also cabbageheads, and trotting badgers—
Annable: Rabbit women—
Stacchi: —and rabbit women, and arguments about 18th-century patent law, which Alan Snow is really interested in, and all these other characters, so the process of—
Stacchi and Annable: —ruthless economy.
Stacchi: That’s what Travis called it.
Annable: Years of ruthless economy. [Laughs.] And yeah, during that time, I finished storyboarding on Coraline, and then I was storyboarding on ParaNorman. And that’s when I started to hear about this guy Tony Stacchi, who was developing Here Be Monsters! During a little lull in the production schedule for the story team, I got a chance to do storyboards for Tony, and I immediately loved what I saw. Tony handed me a sequence that was these boxtrolls finding a baby in the trash, and the whole sequence really depended on the gestures and expressions the boxtrolls could do, and there was no dialogue to be found. They just made little gurgles and weird little emotive sounds. So for me, it totally synched to my sensibilities as a visual artist, and what I was really interested in doing. That sequence became a rallying point—
Stacchi: —a touchstone, as the first thing that really worked for everybody. “This is what’s unique about the movie, what’s really lovable about these characters.”
Annable: And ironically enough—
Stacchi: [Laughs.] It got cut from the movie.
Annable: That sequence, we were like, “Okay, this is what we wanna make,” so we threw out everything before it and after it, and built up from the sequence. Once things got built up, the structure was sound, it became apparent that that specific sequence didn’t really need to exist the way it was, and we dropped it out.
Stacchi: We say animated films are “made on the wall,” meaning storyboarding. You storyboard them, you take all those little drawings and put ’em on the wall, and you pitch them to everybody in the story department, the director, and the producers. When that comes alive for people, that’s when a lot of the final writing really takes place. We still work with writers, and we still do drafts of the script and stuff, but animated films are made on the wall like that.
The Dissolve: Once you go into production, the soundtrack is already recorded and the storyboards are done. So did this film evolve at all during shooting?
Stacchi: That’s funny, that’s the unique opportunity that you have in stop-motion, because the hard thing—it sounds very structured, the way you go about making an animated film. You lose improvisational moments, things just happening on the spot. What’s unique to stop-motion animation is that, unlike other forms of animation, where the animation is also produced in a very methodical way, you do a rough pass at the animation, then slowly hone that performance. The animator does one rehearsal, on 2s or 4s, meaning half or a quarter as many frames as the full version, and then they do the full sequence. It’s like a performance, so you don’t get exactly what you thought you were gonna get, because every performance is different.
So there is an opportunity, right up until the last minute—sometimes even when they’re in the middle of animating it, we go into the set and see what they’ve animated so far, so little bits can be added, timing changed, the nuance and such. And we never stop trying to make it better. It took 18 months of animation time in production—you can be eight months into that and still working on other sequences in the movie. So we had a clear conception of what Trout and Pickles were, but we didn’t have a clear conception of what Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade were gonna do with those characters. Everybody just fell in love with those two interacting. We knew they didn’t know they were bad guys, but we didn’t know what would happen in the end until we started to work with them, and then it really changed who they were. We definitely had a clear idea of who Snatcher was, but Sir Ben [Kingsley, who voices the villain] had another one. And then when they came together, it produced a character who was definitely different than what was in our heads.
Annable: I mean, you had a lot of conversations with Sir Ben—
Stacchi: Oh yeah, we got launched, we all started off in the same direction, but—
The Dissolve: What was the break between your original conception and his?
Stacchi: In some ways, it was very similar, but he came to the first recording session with a way of doing his voice. Like, he recorded everything reclining in his chair, because he wanted the voice to come out of his belly. He had in mind somebody he knew, and he would never tell us who he was. But he said he’s a man [Adopts deep, rolling Ben Kingsley voice.] who’s enjoyed life, he’s eaten a lot of cheese, he’s drunk a lot of wine and stuff, and he speaks from his diaphragm, because he’s comfortable with himself. [End voice.] And he said he had to record, in this tiny little booth, in this reclining chair to get that voice.
And then there was a little gag we put in there, that Snatcher likes to—he’s very theatrical, and he occasionally elongates words because he thinks it sounds more aristocratic. Well he cottoned onto that in one of the first written sequences we sent him, and he came with that voice you heard, where every vowel sound is elongated in a really strange way. When he first recorded it—he’s a really intimidating presence, he’s much more like that guy in Sexy Beast than he is like Gandhi, just when he’s standing there. So he’s doing this, and I’m listening to it in the recording session, and I was like, “I don’t know. Does this work or not?” It was the first recording session, so I wasn’t going to stop him, I didn’t want to start second-guessing everything so early. So we went through that first recording session, and at the end I was like [Exasperated.] “Thanks! That was great!”
But then it was really great when I played it back. Graham was listening in on Skype, because one of the benefits of having a directing team is, while I was off recording, he was making sure the job was moving forward. And then we played it for Travis, and Travis just fell in love with it.
Annable: Yeah, neither of us were sure which way Travis was gonna go on it.
Stacchi: Because we don’t do cartoony voices.
Annable: And Ben had done this—
Stacchi: —so mannered and so strange—
Annable: —that it felt at its essence like the character we had all agreed upon, but it was in a new territory that none of us had anticipated. And the minute Travis listened to the voice, his eyes were getting bigger, and he got so excited, because as an animator, he was like, “Ahh…”
Stacchi: “There’s so much to grab onto!” The first sequence animated with Snatcher, Travis was the lead animator on that sequence. So much of his character came out of that moment.
Annable: He brought a lot more depth to lines that maybe suggested depth, but Sir Ben solidified that depth into the character. It was amazing.
Stacchi: In interviews, he says, “At the foundation of every good villain, there’s a wound. Every good villain in a Shakespeare play has a wound in him, and Snatcher has a wound.” After he did an interview like that at Comic-Con, I asked him, “What’s Snatcher’s wound?” He goes, “I don’t know.” [Laughs.] “But he’s got a wound!”
The Dissolve: Travis Knight has emphasized that Laika doesn’t want a house visual style. But it is developing a voice in terms of quality and richness and multi-generational appeal, like Pixar. It’s a distinct identity, even if the visual style changes.
Stacchi: Yeah, Travis would love it if he heard you say that, because that’s exactly what he intended. That you can feel what makes a Laika film, but it’s not that the films are all alike, or that they look the same.
The Dissolve: Given that, what kind of involvement does the studio have? How much of that voice comes out of the studio shaping the film?
Stacchi: Well, that whole process of story development—I mean, Travis chose the book before I even got there, so there was something in it that made him think, “This is a Laika movie.” All the way through it, we were pretty free as the directors to work and develop it any way we wanted. But Travis was intimately involved.
Annable: Yeah, we connected with Travis weekly, constantly looking at the big picture. He had a huge hand in it.
Stacchi: He wanted dynamic stories with—he thinks that like the old great Disney films, you need dark lows to get corresponding high highs. So he’s not specifically saying, “This is what it needs to be,” but it needs to run the gamut tonally. When Herbert is visible in the window and he’s being hit—we did that multiple different ways in storyboarding, and Travis was like, “It’s not visceral enough. This has to be traumatic, this has to be horrible for Eggs. This is his lowest point, when he’s learning these things.” We didn’t want it to be too violent, because we don’t want to frighten kids, but it has to be clear what happened, and what Eggs has to think. So the studio involvement is very different from what you get at other studios, like, “Do we need to have this scene in here at all?” No, Travis is definitely fighting for those depths, highs and lows.
Annable: Yeah, as an artist, I can’t think of a better animation studio to be at. Creatively, we really do have a lot more freedom than you typically get when you’re making an animated feature, especially in this day and age, where you have mega-budgets, and a lot of the other studios restricting creatively what you can do.
Stacchi: You can’t risk alienating—
Annable: —marginalizing or alienating any groups—
Stacchi: Travis keeps our budgets lower, so it’s okay to be a little riskier story-wise.
Annable: Which is creatively where you want to be as an artist.
The Dissolve: Between the two of you, you have a lot of big-studio experience. How is production at Laika different from working at Sony, or DreamWorks, or LucasArts?
Annable: It feels—I’d describe our studio as “manly.” It’s like the most manly animation studio I’ve ever been to. Not that there’s men so much—there’s women and men. But they’re all welding, and sawing things, and building stuff.
Stacchi: You know what it’s like? It’s like where everybody who goes to Burning Man goes off-season. You know, after Burning Man is over, with all the nudity and drugs and sun, and all the fun is over, they all go work in a warehouse in Portland and make stop-motion animated movies. All the boys wear beanies and play with dolls all day, and all the women are welders and run huge sets and stuff. It’s definitely artisanal filmmaking, very much like Portland, very hands-on and stuff.
Annable: Yeah, just that alone feels unlike anything—
Stacchi: Just having spent 20 years in dark rooms with just the glow of computer screens, going into a place where you can just— [Makes construction noises.] That just felt great. Because my early career, I worked at ILM and places that still had model shops. And I love the CG stuff, too, but this, it’s just more fun.
Annable: We do have a really robust VFX/CG department, and for this particular film, we really knew early on that it was gonna be much more of a hybrid than Laika’s other films had been.
Stacchi: Because of the scope of it. Bigger crowds, bigger vistas—
Annable: Yeah, bigger, brighter. And there’s a very fun push-and-pull tension between, as Travis calls them, the Futurists and the Luddites at Laika, each group trying to solve similar problems.
Stacchi: We have these breakdown meetings, and it’s like underbidding on Name That Tune. It’s like, “I can do that scene in three weeks.” “I can do it in two.”
Annable: “Give us some plates, a glass, and a light, and we can solve your problem here!”
Stacchi: “It’s done! You don’t need those computers!”
Annable: “You don’t need particle systems!” But it’s good, it’s a great family, and both departments certainly respect each other, but it’s a fun sort of thing.
Stacchi: Then there’s breakdown meetings like the waltz sequence, when nobody opened their mouth. Nobody wanted to claim anything. “Come on, how are we gonna do this?”
Annable: Yeah, we didn’t really realize—this was the first time Tony had animated a stop-motion movie, and the first time I was in the director role. I previously just worked in the story department. So neither of us knew what we were asking when we proposed a ballroom-dance sequence. And the whole room for the breakdown meeting went totally dead silent. People were looking through the packets—
Stacchi: We thought, [Mouths to Graham.] “No one thinks it’s funny!”] It wasn’t that, it was just that they realized they couldn’t fall back on anything they’d done before.
Annable: The technical requirements for the sequence were beyond anything they had ever done before.
Stacchi: It took 18 months to do that sequence.
Annable: Yeah, 18 months for probably a little less than two minutes of screen time.
Stacchi: Emanuela Cozzi, one of our great storyboarders, she loves those dance sequences. She boarded it, doing these really elaborate drawings of all the swirling dancers. Then we had to find choreographers from the Portland Ballet to take the boards, and they and their students came up to actually dance the sequence. And lighting cameraman Mark Stewart [Hughes] filmed it from every angle up on cranes, for reference. Then Deborah Cook, our costume person, had to come up with the costumes and the dresses, and especially the skirts, while our rigging department had to come up with a way for the skirts to be animated up and down, because there are no legs underneath there. Inside the armature is like a Slinky, so the character can be pulled up and down, and the skirt can be moved around. And then the CG department had to figure out a way we could film all the dancing couples, but also add in the CG extras who were dancing around them, too. And then we had to find an animator who was dumb enough to agree to spend 16 months animating this mess.
Annable: We originally thought that sequence would probably get split between a number of animators. We try as best we can to give sequences to one specific animator, so there’s a real consistency and flow through the whole thing. But we knew with the dance, “Oh, this is just gonna be too much for one person to deal with.” But early on, this one animator, Jan Maas, was just—he just had a knack. He just knew, he was so steeped in wanting to figure out the dance, and his shots immediately stood out as like, “Wow, he knows how to make the puppets really dance!”
Stacchi: He’s really obsessive about small details.
Annable: Yeah, and he ended up pretty much doing the whole sequence, for all the dance portions.
Stacchi: The other element that came into it very early on was our composer. We were lucky to get Dario Marianelli, who did Atonement and Anna Karenina, a lot of period film. He wrote that waltz. We thought we could use any waltz when we storyboarded, since the timing of waltzes is very similar. But Dario, luckily he was involved early on, and he wrote a waltz for us when we were still in the storyboarding stage. That’s very rare, but we needed the timing of the waltz to figure out the animation. So he wrote that waltz, and then in the midst of it—it’s fantastic. His waltz transforms into the score, and it pads Snatcher hunting for Eggs without ever losing the feeling of a waltz. Suddenly, you have this chase sequence going on, and prior to that, it turns romantic for a minute between Eggs and Winnie. And Dario did that just to storyboard drawings.
Annable: And it’s seamless when you’re watching it. I mean, you feel the right emotions musically that you should, but the waltz is seamlessly playing in the background of the sequence.
The Dissolve: I’ve read that Boxtrolls was unusual because because the world was designed before the characters—
Stacchi: Yeah, that’s backward.
The Dissolve: Why was it done that way? How did that affect the film?
Stacchi: [Loud sigh.] That was my fault, essentially. It was two things—it was my fault, and also Travis’. When I read the book, I immediately knew what I wanted it to look like, which doesn’t always happen. There was a handful of artists—a French graphic novelist named Nicolas De Crécy, Michel Breton became the concept artist, and a character designer named Mike Smith, who were all people I had worked with in the past. There were a bunch of films and artists for reference, but I knew these three people would establish the look, so they did very early on. When you watch the movie, when the credits are scrolling at the end, those drawings behind it, those were the original sketches Michel did for how the world looks. So those inspired everybody who saw those sketches, they inspired everybody of thinking about ways we could deliver that world. We had those quite early on.
Travis really liked that artwork and Nicolas De Crécy’s artwork, so we had that, and then the question became, “What do the characters look like that live in that world?” And the lineup of the characters—Mike worked similar to the way Michel worked, like Michel would work with big dark shapes of the buildings, literally black silhouette shapes, and then he would go over and scribble over them with a white line just to figure out what was linework and what was shapes. He came up with the idea that every building is torqued, kind of leaning on each other, like an old European city.
So Mike did the same thing: Snatcher’s one kind of big shape, and Trout’s a big guy like [gestures an exaggerated, rounded silhouette], and Pickles—we had eight men in red hats, all different sizes. And then we whittled them down to three characters. But their silhouettes stayed behind, so you’d like to be able to look at the silhouette and get the character, like, “That’s the bad guy, that’s the good guy, that’s the innocent little guy.” With the boxtrolls, we started with a square, and we built a whole lineup of characters around that. We finished the designs and had them painted. Then, two things. They didn’t seem to fit into the world enough—when we laid the characters over the world, they didn’t feel like they blended together. And then the other thing, one day Travis said, after he had seen them all for months, he said, “You know, I’m just not afraid of these characters. They don’t frighten me.”
Annable: In terms of the design challenge—
Stacchi: Yeah, he didn’t look at them and go, “I don’t know how we’re gonna do these,” in an intriguing way that made him excited. He looked at them and felt like we went, “Yeah, we can do that,” too soon in the process. So they threw it all up in the air. This was the most frustrating time of the job for me, when we started over. Their silhouettes didn’t change, really: Snatcher was still a big man, and Trout was still his shape, essentially, and Pickles was tall and thin. But their texture, and the shape-language that made them, got pushed much further. Mike Smith went back to the drawing board and redrew all the characters, and then our sculptor, Kent Melton, really loosened up the way he was interpreting the drawings, a lot more like Michel’s drawings. It took a while to pull those two worlds together. Then the technology caught up with the look—the ability to deliver those slightly more realistic faces with subtler expressions, and all the colors. The rapid-prototype face printer technology had to catch up with the design. [Pause.] It’s a little backward. You usually start with the characters.
The Dissolve: So Laika’s still making heavy use of 3-D printers?
Stacchi: Huge. There was over—
Annable: More so than ever before!
Stacchi: There were 53,000 faces printed for the film. Eggs alone had 15,000, and he could have had—
Annable: —1.4 million possible expressions that we could have used—
Stacchi: —combinations of expressions. There are 20,000 discrete little objects made, and the hard part is they had to be made on style. So there are no perfect circles, no straight lines, but they all had to work, and the mechanisms had to work when you wind certain things—
Annable: —the cogs winding together—
Stacchi: —all the cogs and wheels had to fit together and work. So it was an insane art direction to choose.
The Dissolve: Here’s an appropriate question for the end of the interview. Laika’s films have all ended with a little behind-the-scenes sequence. Did Travis Knight specify that The Boxtrolls should have that conversation at the end, where the camera pulls back to show the animator making the puppets converse?
Annable: Oh, yes.
Stacchi: It’s a tradition. That’s actually Travis animating Pickles. He’s the CEO and he’s the lead animator on that scene.
Annable: He jokes that if you freeze-frame it, you can see the days he had big board meetings and business things, because suddenly he has a white-collared shirt on, and then it’s back to a T-shirt in the next frame.
Stacchi: He’s like Batman. He has two outfits.