The stop-motion animation house Laika is well on its way to becoming one of the strongest, most consistent studios in in the movie industry. Founded by Travis Knight, the son of Nike founder and chairman Phil Knight, the company has only made two features thus far - Coraline and ParaNorman - but both earned incredible critical praise and even Academy Award nominations. The future is bright for Laika, particularly because their next film, The Boxtrolls, looks to continue the studio tradition of mixing beautiful animation with powerful storytelling.
Directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi and based on the novel "Here Be Monsters" by Alan Snow, The Boxtrolls is set in a "Charles Dickens meets Monty Python" type world where a young orphan boy named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) lives underground with his family – who happen to be a bunch of trolls who live in and wear cardboard boxes. While things are all fine and good, trouble begins to brew when Eggs begins to question where he actually came from, and must deal with the rise of Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), a disgusting, awful exterminator who believes that getting rid of the Boxtrolls is his ticket to the upper class.
We’ve been excited to see more from The Boxtrolls for months, but late last year we got a very special behind the scenes look at the movie. Along with a small group of other journalists, I took a quick flight up to Laika headquarters in Oregon where we got to tour the facility and various departments, talk to the team of animators building the movie, and watch some filming in action. Over the course of the day, I learned some fascinating things about the upcoming movie, and I’m beyond excited to share the experience.
How A Mistake On ParaNorman Led To Better Animation In The BoxtrollsEven if you’ve only read a limited amount about the animation process, you’re still probably familiar with the phrase "squash and stretch." Basically, when things move around, their shape changes as a result, and it’s within the single frames of an animated work that those varied shapes are revealed. By its nature, stop-motion is at a disadvantage in this regard, because it’s much more of a challenge in a medium that requires physical sculptures. With the help of 3D printers and a fortunate mistake on ParaNorman, however, Laika is quickly leaping over that hurdle.
While Laika is famous for using 3D printers to create entire archives of replaceable faces for all of their characters (each face having a slightly different emotion, mouth shape, etc.), it was a bad print job on the company’s last movie that helped make the artists think about their work in a completely new way.
Talking about the special effects used on the witch character Aggie on ParaNorman, Travis Knight told us, "We took it really far and it was actually a kind of a mistake. We sent two files to the printer at the same time and the printing overlapped on each other. It just looked like a smear. We started to kind of explore that idea and we were able to get really great cartoony expressions and a lot of squash and stretch out of that character."
Of course, that idea has only been developed further since, and it made a sizable difference in the way the studio and the animators thought about The Boxtrolls’ aesthetic.
"Leaping off that, we've been able to incorporate it into the expressions of our characters, making them that much more alive, which is really exciting to see," Knight said.
Simon Pegg And Nick Frost Came To The Boxtrolls Separately, Not TogetherGiven how often they work together, it’s not hard to forget that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost aren’t a package deal. The two British stars were not only featured together as leads in Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) and in the UK television series Spaced, but were also paired for Greg Mottola’s Paul and Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin. Later this year we’ll be able to add The Boxtrolls to the list Pegg and Frost’s shared credits – but what’s unique about this one is that the two actors were actually approached completely separately.
"Half way through the production they discovered they were both on it," co-director Anthony Stacci told us during an hour-long sit down at lunch.
A big part of the reason why Pegg and Frost were approached separately for The Boxtrolls is because their roles in the movie appear to be very different in size. For his part, Frost will be providing the voice for Trout, one of the henchmen of the film’s lead villain, Archibald Snatcher. This casting actually pairs him up largely with fellow henchman Pickles, who is voiced by The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade.
"They ended up recording, really, only once together, but it was great," co-director Graham Annable said. "They really played together really well and they made up a lot of stuff. We had taken Trout and Pickles a certain way, down a certain path, where they’re the minions of Snatcher, but they’re likable. But they brought a level of innocence and naivety to the characters that we kind of changed their arcs a little bit - because of that recording session."
The filmmakers wouldn’t reveal the precise role being played by Simon Pegg – Stacci referring to it as "more of a guest appearance" – but they were delighted having him come in and work on the project.
"He really enjoyed it genuinely - you could tell," said Annable. "He had decided to be a nice guy that day. He came ready to do a lot, and he was fun."
I’m still crossing my fingers that their characters get to interact at least once in the film.
There Are No Plans For Laika To Make Films Specifically Targeted At AdultsWhile Coraline and ParaNorman are largely aimed at younger audiences, part of what makes them so special is how entirely accessible they are to grown-ups. The writing doesn’t speak down to the audience, and the movies have even included a few scares that can put a fright in the average adult. Given this track record at Laika, a natural question that pops up is whether or not they would ever consider making a movie just for the mature audiences, cutting the kids out of the equation. Interesting as that may sound, you can completely cut it out as a potential idea, as that’s simply not what Laika is about.
The question was brought up to Travis Knight while on one of the studio’s many, many different stages, and in his response he was resolute and firm: "No. That's just not what we do. We make films that are targeted at families."
That may sound oddly black and white, but it’s actually the gray areas of that mission statement that Knight has fun exploring. Doing his part to change the definition of "family audience," the executive/animator likes to play around with ideas that may not be appropriate for the youngest of audiences, but also help expanding the thinking and content for those mature enough to grasp it. Really digging into this is something that Knight believes sets Laika apart from the rest of Hollywood, which he believes suffers from a very specific type of laziness.
"It's fun to play in that space, to try and find ways to tell stories that are appealing for adults and for young kids," he said. "It's hard and I think that's why a lot of people typically don't do that. They go in one direction or the other and really dumb it down…. We've all seen those things. It sucks your soul. But those things make money and they're serving their purpose to the corporate parent and all that. But it's not what we do."
Take note: if an R-rated stop-motion animated feature comes down the pike in the next few years, you can be sure that it won’t be a Laika production.
Laika Movies Are Packed With Artist Easter EggsBecause the process of their work involves creating something out of nothing, animators are well known for having fun splicing little Easter Eggs into their movies. Nowadays it’s Pixar that leads the medium in this area, constantly throwing references to A113 and the Pizza Planet truck into all of their titles, but really artists have been doing this for decades. This goes for hand-drawn animation and 3D CGI, but also for stop-motion – as Laika has been doing with their films.
Talking with us while working on animating a scene in the villain’s lair, Travis Knight revealed that there are fun little bonuses in Laika movies, provided that you know where to look. For example, The Boxtrolls includes a location called The Bennett Iron Works – a reference to the fact that the company’s headquarters are on Bennett St. in Hillsboro, Oregon. If you’re a real eagle-eye you’ll also be able to spot one of the fabricators’ names etched into the side of the building.
"If you go through and freeze-frame it, there's all kinds of little nods," Knight said.
Of course, as the president and CEO of Laika, a producer and a lead animator, Knight’s name makes its way into the movies as well – and I’m not just talking about the end credits. While he didn’t reveal to us where we could find mention of him in Coraline, he did tell us where to find it in ParaNorman.
"They put my name on some guy's underwear on the last one. Which is nice. I don't know what that says about what they think about me!" he said, laughing.
Ben Kingsley Had A Very Special Way Of Getting Into Character For The BoxtrollsArchibald Snatcher, the lead villain of The Boxtrolls, is quite the odd duck. Rather ugly and paunchy, he hangs on to the lowest rung of society, but he has serious aspirations to climb the social ladder and eat fancy cheese alongside the aristocratic class. An utterly odd character such as this required an utterly odd voice performance from actor Ben Kingsley – and exactly how he went about it is a rather strange story.
Rather than simply standing at a microphone like an average actor would simply think to do, Kingsley’s time in the recording studio was spent employing poise and position into his role, making sure to get the exact right voice for the character in the process.
"It was pretty unique experience with recording actors, because he really came with a whole concept of the character and idiosyncratic way of speaking," co-director Graham Annable explained. "He wanted to be recorded reclining in a chair with the microphone [right at his chest], because he’s a gluttonous character. He looked at the puppet with its large belly and said the voice should come from down here. So, we had to find a reclining chair for him in this tiny little studio."
While this approach delighted the directors, at the time they weren’t sure that Laika CEO Travis Knight would feel the same way given his dislike of overly cartoony voices. Fortunately the story had a happy ending, with not only Knight enjoying the performance but the rest of the crew as well.
"It was so idiosyncratic and strange that I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be when we got back, and it turned out the animators loved it because it gave them something really unique to grab onto," Annable said.
The Most Important Message Of Boxtrolls: Families Come In All Shapes And SizesWhile both Coraline and ParaNorman were both beautiful, thoughtful movies with important core messages, a part of what made them exceptional was the emotional presentation and the complete lack of tactless preaching. It’s a wonderful thing to see in family films geared towards audiences of all ages, and is expected to be a staple of Laika’s work for many years to come. In terms of larger themes, The Boxtrolls is no different than its two predecessors. This timem the focus is on the fact that there are really many different kinds of families, from those with a mom and dad, to those with two dads, to those where the parents are Boxtrolls.
"We don’t come up with morals or anything like that," co-director Anthony Stacci revealed on set. "We don’t teach people lessons, but we investigate themes and then it’s clear: [Eggs, the lead character] is a boy raised underground by monsters who goes above ground searching for who he is and what happened to his family. And there’s a little girl [Winnie] who befriends him, who has trouble in her relationship with her father. So there’s a lot of stuff about families in there."
In case you haven’t already picked up on it, The Boxtrolls has something real to say about marriage and equality laws in the United States, specifically those in regard to homosexual couples. While this won’t be directly on the surface, the film’s directors admit that it’s something that is certainly present on a subtextual level.
"It’s inescapable," Stacci added, discussing how the more political themes factored into the movie. "It’s a coming of age movie about an 11-year-old boy finding his place in the world. Family is a huge part of that and he’s been raised by these monsters who society says are really bad. You’re being judged by where you come from, who your family is… so it’s all in there."
The Boxtrolls will be in theaters September 26th.