Monday, January 05, 2015

"Animation is amazing in all its forms, but nothing competes with the physical object and how magical that is." - An interview with Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable

With their three features to date, Laika has established itself as one of the most interesting and adventurous studios in American filmmaking. Following their dark, witty and beautifully animated stop-motion films Coraline and ParaNorman, Laika has now produced The Boxtrolls, an adaptation of the fantasy novel Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow. Boasting witty and detailed animation, an ambitious and thematically rich story, and tremendous vocal performances, The Boxtrolls is easily one of 2014’s best animations. I met co-directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable when they visited London before Christmas, and as the interview began they were busy assembling the puppets that travel with them everywhere.

Your backgrounds cover a wide variety of animation styles, including CGI movies and video games. Was the opportunity to have a more hands-on approach your motivation for joining Laika?

Anthony Stacchi Yes, definitely. I kept having these run-ins with stop-motion films, working on James and the Giant Peach a little bit and other studios that used stop-motion for TV commercials and stuff, but it never seemed to come together for a feature. So when I went to visit Laika and met Travis [Laika CEO Travis Knight] and had the opportunity to work on this, it was definitely something to jump at.

Graham Annable For me honestly, I was always aware of stop-motion but wasn't an obsessive fan of it or anything. I'd worked in hand-drawn and CG animation. I was excited because Henry [Coraline director Henry Selick] gave me the opportunity to get back into storyboarding, because I'd been an animator for a lot longer than I had anticipated. Earlier in my career I had done some storyboarding for Chuck Jones, in the early '90s when they were trying to revitalise theatre shorts. I got to board out a whole seven-minute theatre short, I got to work with Chuck Jones for a week, and I came out of it thinking 'Man, I really want to be a storyboarder, that's exactly what I'm going to do'. Then I spent 15 years animating in video games [laughs]. So I really wanted to get back to it and Henry had seen a bunch of independent comics I'd been doing on the side when he was gathering a story crew, and he asked me to come up and work on Coraline. When I went up there I was just excited to storyboard a feature film, and it wasn't until the first days when the sets and puppets were all up and I got a chance to sneak down and look at the stages. I was just like [makes an awestruck face], because I mean, animation is amazing in all its forms, but nothing competes with the physical object and how magical that is, to see everything built and minituarised in front of you.

All animation is time-consuming and labour-intensive, but that seems to be especially true of stop-motion. Do you need a particular kind of personality to work in this field?

AS The animators say it's not so much patience as focus. There's a lot of stuff going on around you on the sets and you're working with the lighting crew and the camera crew, so you really have to focus your mind on the puppet, remember what you just did and what you intend to do. So that's why animators talk about focus, but they love being out there posing the puppets with their headphones on, that's when they're really happy.

GA I think other forms of animation tend to feel more private. You can squirrel away in the corner and work on your drawings for a week and nobody will bother you, but with stop-motion, while you are alone on the stage a lot, you always have the camera crews and lighting crews coming in, and it's a very public spectacle animating in front of everyone. It does have to be a weird combination of personality to get into stop-motion, yeah.

And as directors, you really have to marshal a whole army of people to get something like this made.

AS I mean, they all exist in every form of animation, but it feels more like a live-action shoot. A slow-motion live-action shoot, anyway. The crew is there and the set is being built, and people are coming out to repair the puppets and their costumes. If you're working in CG animation you're in a dark room staring at a glowing screen, and if any problems happen another department downloads the problem somewhere else and takes care of it. It is true that the tactile quality of these things, the fact that these things are handmade and really exist, I think the audience – consciously or subconsciously – can feel that these are different to CG films. CG films have a look that we've gotten really used to now, but I can remember when Toy Story came out what was amazing was that they had this 3D dimensionality. You could put really complex textures on them, and they may look like a 2D drawn character but you could do things that you could never do in hand-drawn films because you couldn't track those shapes, and the audience could tell something was different. Maybe it's like Graham says, we're so old-fashioned we're kind of new again. People can look at it and say there's something different about it even if they have no comprehension of what stop-motion is.

It is an old-fashioned style and you mentioned working on James and the Giant Peach, which was almost 20 years ago. Has the technique changed a lot in that time or is it essentially the same approach at heart?

AS In a fundamental way it has changed for the people who do it. The Nightmare Before Christmas, which I worked a little bit on, had replacement heads and that's not dissimilar to what we do with these printed faces. [Anthony removes the face from one of his puppets] These are printed by the thousands so we can replace them with minute changes to the expression and mouth shape, and then animate it. Nightmare had replacement heads for Jack Skellington and those characters, but James and the Giant Peach had mostly mechanical heads with some replacement faces, and they were silicone and rubber and underneath had little paddles that moved. So those were two pretty old-fashioned forms of animation. What Travis has done at Laika is pull in these high-tech elements. We have a state-of-the-art VFX department that could work at any animation studio, CGI or special effects, and we have this technology here that they started on Coraline. So that has really changed the quality of the performance and the level of expression that we can get is so much greater nowadays. The animation has a quality that it has never had before.

One thing that always fascinates me about animation, and particularly stop-motion, is the art of timing. So many of your sequences depend on perfect timing; for example missing a comic beat by just a tiny amount can be the difference between a gag working or not. How do you manage that when you're putting sequences together in this slow, incremental way?

AS One of the days when we were recording Sir Ben Kingsley in Oxford, he was listening to one of the sequences involving himself that we had animated. He couldn't understand how we could record Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost and him months apart from each other and cut it together so we have him having a conversation with Richard Ayoade, and Nick Frost is making a small comment, and it's all about the timing. It was funny to get those questions from somebody who had been in films so much and understood editing and all those things, but in animation you make the film before you make the film. A lot of people think storyboarding is where you draw the scenes and figure out where you're going to place the camera, but in animation storyboarding is about the performance of the character. So you're drawing all these poses and figuring out that if Mr Pickles and Mr Trout are talking, they're posed like this and then they're posed like that, and then we cut. Then we do temp voices, so we had a guy from the lighting department playing Trout and a guy from the puppet fabrication department playing Pickles, and we cut their dialogue before we get Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost to record it. If we can record them together then you get the benefit of them doing the timing ourselves, or we just sit with Edie our editor to cut their dialogue to the story reel to get that timing. Both of us are in the editing room with Edie and then we play it for the whole crew a few times, so we get to hone that timing. All that stuff gets figured out first while we're still just dealing with drawings. When we launch the animation they have to preserve that timing.

GA We have an exposure sheet that delineates exactly what frame the punchline is going to hit so they can work to that.

AS The weird part of it is that you direct the performance three times. When you talk to the storyboard artist you direct them to draw it, then that defines how you're going to direct the voice artist when they're recording it, and the last part is the animator who actually does the performance. A live-action director would be on set and talk to his actor once and then get as many takes as he wants to get it, whereas we do it three times and months apart.

GA You get an incredible amount of time to overthink your jokes [laughs].

I guess that's the real challenge. Through all this preparation and thinking time, you still need to maintain a feeling of spontaneity. It can't feel too fussed-over.

GA That is one of the hardest things. This my first time I've been in this role directing, and man, you spend so many years planning these situations and putting everything in place, it's so hard to let go of it when three years down the road as you're at the moment of launching the shot, suddenly a better idea floats up. You've got to be open and flexible enough to say, that is a better idea, and I know three years in a row we've planned this but actually that would be a little bit better. It's so hard to stay open to that.

AS It's true. There are other times when you have to say, 'Look, you've heard this joke for two years. It's funny, it's still funny, the audience hasn't heard it so leave this one alone'. Sometimes the animators will do what they call a 'lab' where they will shoot themselves on a phone or camera setup acting out their bit, and then they'll bring that to us. There's one scene in the movie where Pickles and Trout are trying to figure out if they're the good guys or bad guys, and when Winnie says they are evil henchman Pickles turns and points and says 'I knew...I knew that's what people thought of us.' That little hesitation in his arm movement was never boarded and it wasn't in Richard Ayoade's performance, but the animator came up with that little bit, and while it doesn't seem like a lot, it's such a great Pickles moment, he's such a nice guy he can't even poke Trout without hesitating. That just came up at the last minute but he needed extra frames, we needed to add it into the animation and open it up, so that was one of those moments where you had to be ready and just trust the animator and add it. That's sometimes why animated movies can sometimes feel over-plotted and full of coincidences and too perfect.

GA They've had all the life wrung out of it.

AS They don't have those little expressive moments of inspiration.

So when you go out and record the actors, does their performance ever change your conception of the character that you have been working on for so long?

GA Yeah, it's just another component of getting along the road to the final result.

AS Pickles and Trout were always big roles, but they got much bigger when we recorded Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade because they were so much fun, they kept pushing themselves into the movie more. When we met Sir Ben Kingsley we had a lot of conversations and he'd read the script, but he definitely had his own concept of Snatcher when he came in.

GA He contributed a part of the character that added up to a new villain that none of us would have predicted, a combination of all these factors.

AS When you first go into record these guys you're totally over-prepared and you want to tell Nick Frost exactly how to play Trout and give him line readings, instead of allowing the recording session to be free-flowing and see what you come up with. We got Nick Frost because of his voice, but when he was looking at the character he said 'I've got a broken nose and I'm a big softie but I look like a thug', and he came up with that voice and of course we were shocked!

GA For six months we had imagined this voice! Why are you making a new voice? [laughs]

AS Also, when Richard Ayoade came in we had no idea if Richard Ayoade really talked like the characters he played. We were afraid he'd come in and say [very deep voice] 'Hello, how are you doing?' But that persona is very much him, and that was great because we didn't have to have the awkward thing of asking an actor to do something he's done before.

I did love those two characters. Just the idea of having a couple of characters in a kids' movie walking around discussing the duality of good and evil made me laugh.

AS We liked it and it was there in a nutshell, and the storyboard artists said we should play it up more. Then the writers – you know, it's a very writerly joke – they loved the idea of breaking the fourth wall and stuff. One of the writers we worked with Adam Pava loved it, and occasionally when we would do roundtables with storyboard artists and writers to get some new ideas we got tons of Pickles and Trout stuff. We'd tell them we need more Boxtrolls jokes, but everyone just gravitated to those characters. The thing about it is that you don't want to write two characters that the adults get but the kids don't, so there was always this balancing act with them having the discussion about good and evil but Pickles ending the discussion with 'We are the good guys', so you're not losing the kids. It was always a bit of a balancing act.

That balancing act is really interesting in terms of how much darkness you put into a family movie. There's a real element of the grotesque about the film and these are quite unappealing characters.

GA Oh thanks! [laughs]

I didn't mean to insult the characters you've spent years of your life on! But with the broken noses and teeth and later the swollen body parts, there is an ugliness and darkness that's quite notable in a film like this. Is there any hesitation about putting these elements into a film aimed at children?

AS There was no hesitation, certainly none coming from Travis. I think that he wouldn't articulate it as a company style or anything like that, but he has a desire to go places that no other studio would go. We're not part of a huge conglomerate, we're really independent filmmakers and that's kind of the brand of Laika, the willingness to go to these slightly darker places. But really, the kernel of everything is in Alan Snow's book. It's very Dickensian and when you read Dickens that's what you remember; you remember Bill Sykes and you remember Fagin. There's a lot of really good people in those stories too, he loves to show every strata of society, but it's the grotesques that you remember, and Alan loves that.

GA It tied into the tone too. We always pitched the project as very Monty Python-esque, Terry Gilliam, it had that kind of sensibility to it, Jeunet and Caro. They are totally willing to go to those places too.

AS We told Travis that Coraline was an art film for kids, ParaNorman was a horror film for kids, and this was a Dickensian period drama for kids.

Snatcher is a great Dickensian villain but he's also a tragic figure because the one thing he desires will ultimately destroy him.

AS Alan Snow's book is really complicated and has so many characters, so when we honed in on the idea of a surrogate family of Boxtrolls that all felt great, but what it was missing was these dynamic duos of Eggs and Snatcher and Eggs and Winnie. There's this little boy trying to figure out where he belongs in the world, and this adult man destroying himself to try and force himself into some place that doesn't want him. People always gravitate towards a great villain and I think a lot of us who worked on the film found we could relate to him.

GA Yeah, I much prefer when you can find empathy for the villain and understand his motivations rather than just have a one-dimensional bad guy.

AS Travis definitely didn't want that. Even if nothing else was working, we were happy with Snatcher, he was never just this moustache-twirling villain who wanted world domination.

You mentioned having to cut down Alan Snow's very complicated book, so what was your process for adapting it? Did it take a long time to discover the film in there?

[Both in unison] A long time!

Because there are so many creatures in it, and I guess on one level that must be such a tantalising prospect for a animators and you'd want to include them all.

AS That's why people love the book. When I first when to visit Laika they gave me the book and said 'Here, take a look and see what you think. We haven't been able to crack the story but we love the tone of it'. I was so glad when they said they loved the tone, because a lot of studios would just look at a book like that and say, 'Oh, what a great bunch of crazy characters! Cabbageheads, Trotting Badgers, Sea Cows and all these other characters – that makes it appropriate for animation'. First of all, you're not going to be able to afford to build all these characters, but secondly, that doesn't give you a story. It just makes it feel like Alice in Wonderland, which is notoriously difficult to adapt. So it took us a long time to whittle it down, and for so many people their favourite characters were the Cabbageheads or the Rat Pirates.

GA Yeah, there's so much packed into the book it felt like everybody at the studio had a different part of it that they loved. It was tricky to find the unanimous piece of it that worked for everybody and made sense as a film. One of the things that's so appealing about the book is that Alan creates new characters on every page to get the old characters out of their situation [laughs]. That really works as a book and it's really fun, but it's at a frenetic pace all the way through the book and we knew that we couldn't do that as a film. The problem we faced is that when you started to remove one or two groups or specific characters it really started to unravel because you needed to provide context for the remaining ones. Alan never needed to or bothered to do that in the book; he never needed to explain why the Rat Pirates spoke English and ran a Laundromat in the middle of the city, because the pace allowed him to keep introducing new things. We couldn't do that.

AS We tried. It's not like we knew that from day one, but when I pitched it to the story department I'd get to like page 35 and say '...and then we meet these Rat Pirates' and you'd see them just go 'Oh God!' [laughs] They were trying to wrap their heads around this world, but then the world starts to not have a clear set of laws and that's a disaster. You know, you've got about 10 or 15 minutes to loosely figure out the rules of this world, and if you keep breaking them deeper and deeper into the movie I think people get tired, no matter how gorgeous your world might be.

GA There's a disconnect that happens after a while, because nothing is working within parameters that they can figure out.

I just want to finish by asking a more general question about Laika and what it's like to be part of that company. You've both worked at other animation studios, and I wonder if you feel a major difference having a CEO who is also an animator himself?

AS Everybody who has worked at a big studio – and I've worked at a lot – you can feel like you're part of a big machine. A lot of the times the executives that you deal with are en route to somewhere else, you know, they're punching their card in animation but they have dreams of live-action, or they have dreams of three films coming out of this one book, and it's definitely not coming from a deep love or total understanding of animation. For me it was just like having one of your animation pals suddenly running the company, somebody who loves animation as much as you and goes to see every animated film, talks about them endlessly and has grown up with them. So having that as your CEO and the one executive you have to interact with, and no focus groups, I've just never been in a situation like that before. That and the culture that Travis has built at the company allows for the films to have the tone that they have, because ultimately it's the director's decision but it's inside Travis's vision for the whole company too.

And while the three films all have distinct personalities I feel that you can see them all emerging from the same philosophy of storytelling and the same passion.

AS He definitely has that passion, but it can be a double-edged sword because he's a really good animator. He really understands it and consequently he has really strong opinions on the style of animation too. I've had quite a few CEOs who have said 'They don't care about the style'.

GA In some ways that can be difficult for the animation department because the bar is set so high in terms of quality, and that's the one department that doesn't get any easy rides. Travis has a laser focus on what he wants out of a movie. Sometimes in the back of your head you're saying 'Well, if you're so smart why don't you do it?' but he literally could do it better than you! [laughs]

The Boxtrolls will be released on DVD + Blu-ray on January 26th